Mark Kingwell is a professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto.
Those of a certain age may recall the first episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, aired on the BBC in October of 1969. It was called “Whither Canada?” Canada doesn’t actually figure in the episode, naturally. That interrogative, seminar-style phrase was also among the finalists for the legendary comedy troupe’s name. Why? Well, you have to imagine that the question was so inherently hilarious that it seemed appropriate for a gang of clever English absurdists in their 20s.
I think that’s funny, but not everyone does. And we’re still whithering on. You go to bed one night thinking that the existence of Canada is a more or less a settled issue, or at least one of those things, like Donald Trump’s hair, that are no longer open questions. And then you wake the next morning to headlines about cross-border beer disputes reaching the Supreme Court, and fuel-pipeline arguments that threaten to overturn the confederation. Hands are suddenly wringing. Canada: nation or notion? Provinces: evil or just standing up for themselves? How many best-selling Québécois authors can you name? How far north have you ventured?
We have been on this cultural merry-go-round so many times before that this semi-hysterical discourse about Canadian identity might in fact be what constitutes Canadian identity. In polite Canadian fashion, I acknowledge that this meta-level argument is not original to me. I also note, reputation aside, that Canadians are often more passive-aggressive than polite.
And so the grab-bag of clichés and stereotypes opens, with everyone taking a hockey slash at everyone else’s list. Poutine, hockey, canoes, toques, Ski-Doos (not snowmobiles), distance in klicks, the Hip, couches (not sofas), garbage (not trash), beer, maple syrup, hating Americans, hating Americans hating us, hockey again, maybe some duck-confit poutine this time, snowshoes, anything winter really, eh, oot-and-aboot (in fact, more like oat-and-aboat) and the Mounties always get their man. He shoots, he scores.
You can now add a couple of other parlour games of identity-insecurity. Famous Canadian who succeeded elsewhere! Bieber, Jepson, Rogen, Mitchell, Young; Trebek, Nielsen, Carrey, Meyers, Sutherland, The Shat and all those people who run New York magazines. For the olds, Hume Cronyn, Raymond Massey and Mary Pickford. Spot fictional Canadian characters – Rex Mottram in Brideshead Revisited, Richard Hannay in The Thirty-Nine Steps, Frances in The Sun Also Rises. Keep a chart!
Next, map your national travel. As a brat of the Air Force and a blessed adult traveller, I’ve been lucky to go from St. John’s to Tofino and lots of places in between. As a teenager, I was a guest of the Bloodvein First Nation in central Manitoba, which felt a lot farther north, at 51 degrees, than Edmonton does at 53, or Lake Waskesiu at just under 54, two other stops I’ve made. Sadly, I was only ever north of 60 in Reykjavik – hipster north. This game is what Glenn Gould called “northmanship,” one of those competitions that you can’t win for losing. I’m pretty sure that my neighbours in Toronto’s Regent Park won’t feel they ever need to play it, for example. The local basketball team, meanwhile, claiming the motto “We the North,” is actually situated farther south than two of its American competitors. Canada, where north is a state of mind.
Nation-states may be defined many ways, from textbook-version ideas such as a distinct land mass defensible at the borders and an identifiable citizenry. Or shared bloodline, ethnicity, history and culture. Or an enforceable monopoly on the legal use of force. Or maybe the set of laws themselves which govern a populace. Or even, at a minimum, a scheme of swapping taxes for services in a more or less reliable way.
As a loose confederation of regions and jurisdictions, assembled over a period of more than 80 years, Canada is an unlikely country, yet not an impossible one. The optimists among us find it impressive that such a place exists at all, let alone with sustaining vitality. Like so many other Western states, it was founded on force, money and colonial bigotry. There are deep wounds in our body politic, but so far they fall short of fatal ones. There is no monoculture here, as we all know, nor even a myth of one when vast differences become obvious, marked in red and blue.
This vaporous quality of the country has led many people to label Canada a postmodern, or postnational, or postpatriotic country. We might debate the possible meaning of those terms forever. I prefer to think that Canada survives as a collective act of suspended disbelief, a feat of constant reinvention. Call it the discursive state, or the nation as conversation – not always polite conversation, indeed, yet civil in the sense of confronting disagreement without violence.
Even the current pipeline dispute is subject to the judgment of the courts, after all, and while a decision there could leave nobody happy, that’s how liberal justice works. Parties to dispute accept the authority of an outcome because that is what a just regime demands. Equalization payments and national pensions enrage some citizens, just as threats of secession have done and may well do again. Even secession could not be achieved by provincial fiat, however. We came together through deal-making and discussion, and so far the deal continues.
A country can’t be all talk, though. What would bolster the national consciousness practically? Well, there should be compulsory national service for young people, as in Austria, Switzerland and other countries. Those not willing to serve in the military can opt for national parks, tree planting or community assistance. Guaranteed basic income is likewise essential, even if flawed. Wealth inequality is a much more divisive force in Canada than provincial haggling will ever be – not that the two aren’t sometimes related.
Although education is a provincial file, college and university tuition should be equalized from coast to coast. Likewise – sorry Alberta – we need a consistent sales tax, not just GST. A civics and history curriculum must be standardized for every high school in the land. National debating and youth-parliament programs, which already exist, should be funded lavishly. Subsidies should be available for all students to visit Ottawa.
The list could go on, and some are dreams destined for failure. But no practical measure will matter unless there is decisive leadership in Ottawa and respect for the rule of law everywhere else.
The current Prime Minister’s father was much criticized for his staunch nationalism. Cranky Westerners can still be coaxed into apoplexy with mention of the National Energy Program, official bilingualism or progressive immigration policies. (Not just Westerners.) What we should remember is that Pierre Trudeau’s vision of the Just Society was a powerful vision of equity without leveling differences or diminishing opportunity. It was an idea to connect the country in a manner more concrete than the airwaves of the CBC ever could – and can still less now.
Justice is long and hard work, never-ending, the work of citizens. In our increasingly networked and decentralized lives, we may only rarely consider citizenship the most important fact about us. Metaphysically speaking, it’s probably not. “Canadian” is not an identity; it’s a relationship.
I have a PhD student, from Whitehorse, who chaffs me for saying I’m proud to be Canadian. I see his point: Despite our habitual complacency, there are depredations and deficits of trust, systemic injustices and cultural bigotry that must be acknowledged. Also poverty and misery everywhere from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside to the streets of Inuvik and the dirt roads of Nova Scotia’s South Shore.
No nation is perfect. Our job is not to make Canada perfect, only better.