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“Pan – Canadian Nationalism: the intellectual Holy Grail,” G. Murray, Ottawa, ON

Pan – Canadian Nationalism: The Intellectual Holy Grail

Ask any American if they are proud of their nation, and most will say yes. A fervent response often is elicited. They have reasons for it, too:

“We are the biggest military power on the planet.”
“We are the richest nation on Earth.”
“George Washington was a flawless general.”

Americans are proud of their country. It is a country where nationalism works, a “normal” country in Lucien Bouchard’s sense of what a country should be. It is a country with a monolithic cultural force and pre-fabricated spheres of identity. We all know who the “all-American guy” is.What a strange person an “All-Canadian guy” would be! Ask a Canadian the same question as above, and you will get the same sentiment, more often than not. Even in Quebec, there is an attachment to Canada resident in over 80% of the population. Canadians feel pride in their country and they feel little hesitation in expressing it. It can fairly be said that the Montreal rally in 1995, while a political backfire in the referendum strategy, was a good example of this sort of expression. But if you ask a Canadian why – really push them – the reasoning is different. Many don’t want to talk about it; they may tell you to go away with your questions. Others find reasons simply inexpressible.

There is much commentary among writers on the subject of Canadian unity, that Canadians are not proud enough. Canadians “need to feel more pride in Canada”, they say.

However, there is a central problem attending the makers of pan-Canadian nationalism, evidenced by the inexpressibility of reasons for Canadian pride. Our achievements are inappropriate stuff for their creations. Nationalists need war, conquest, victory (real or fictional), suppression (real or fictional). The Canada of today has none of that.

What we created is a tolerant society — quiet, peaceful, internationalist. Our achievements are not, for the most part, audacious — grand triumphs broadcast on live television — Good giving Bad a kicking. They are more important than that. They are social achievements. Like no other country on the planet, Canada is a country that looks after its own, and welcomes all; a sensible country that acknowledges the excesses of social engineering while guarding against the tendency of some to abandon the state’s role in protecting its citizens. Unfortunately, these are not the sort of achievements to which that countries build monuments. It does not put fervour in the hearts of the citizenry. There will be no Health Care’s Tomb in Parliament’s Centre Block.

There is none of that here, and that is the problem for the pan-Canadian nationalists. Theirs is a civic nationalism, and while it is less dangerous than nationalism of the ethnic sort, it is still a faulty paradigm.

Take Pierre Trudeau, for example. He spent his youth studying and writing about nationalism. He abhorred it in writing. And when he got to power, what did he use to counter that which he reviled? The same stuff – nationalism. While few proud Canadians can disagree with the sentiment behind what Trudeau tried to do, we must recognize that he used the same “clumsy and rustic tool”, to use his words, as his adversaries. The bilingual Corn Flakes box is the intellectual equivalent of Bill 101 in Quebec.

Sheila Copps’ Operation Fly Flag was another, less successful, attempt at pulling the strings of civic nationalism. It proved two things: that Canadians are not flag wavers, and that the federal government can incinerate $20-million really, really quickly when it wants to.

We mustn’t be too hard on Trudeau or the Heritage Canada endeavour, though – they are following a line of “One Canada” attempts that go right back to John A. Macdonald. And, if Canadians were to choose between the competing fictions, we would almost certainly choose Trudeau’s. But what we must do is say, “enough!” No one can create “One Canada” out of this massive tract of land on which all Canadians live. No one will create a fictional “unity” out of the wonderful synergy that makes up this country. During the Meech Lake debate, Trudeau declared “Say goodbye to the dream of One Canada!” To this we should respond: “Bye bye!”

You can define “nation” as you wish in an effort to reconcile a desire for unity. If you use a legal definition and state Canada is one legal nation, then I’d say so are the Cree. If you use sociological definitions, then they overlap and cascade all over the place. One thing emerges as true – there is no national unity in Canada in any sense. There may be “Canadian unity” while the federation survives in one form or another. But by embracing the intellectual Holy Grail of national unity the citizen is led to dismay, as he retreats to nonsensical (albeit well-meaning) notions like “unity in diversity.”

That’s why philosophers like Charles Taylor or André Burelle are best at commentating on Canada. Or poets or others who look unconventionally at the country. Writers like B.W. Powe in A Canada of Light does a wonderful job. Richard Gwyn describes the challenge as one of The Unbearable Lightness of Being Canadian.

Pierre Trudeau, with his classical mind (a product of 18th-20th century thinking), did not govern in a time when new ways of looking at these problems would have suited. To him, the battle was already joined, the weapons selected, and the combat ready. Today, however, we do live in a time when new ways are useful. We are on the brink of a post-modern world. And Canada has been there already for decades, as the world’s first post-modern country.

Is this a bad thing? Does it spell ruin for the Canadian experiment? Will we eventually start to lose the “daily plebecite in the hearts” of Canadians? I think not, as I talk to Canadians about their sense of country. No need to issue any “laments for the nation” in my estimation. As the ideology of the nation state withers further, along with its handmaidens – protectionism, realism, war – and the new era of international interdependence is ushered in, new ways of looking at countries and the relations between them are developing. Analysts will have to change their perspectives. So will citizens.

Though it feels like a toil to most, Canada is in the lead – the debate we are currently engaging in is a 21st century debate. The old clumsy tools used by Trudeau, Lévesque, and others, no longer have utility, if they ever did.

Of course, nationalists will feel a loss. They will look down at their hands and see all spoiled because they will have no more of their favourite buttons to push. People will no longer follow them and their visions (most often to their peril). But the average Canadian need not worry. We will go on with muddling through a caring, complicated, advanced, affluent society. We will continue, as before, just as proud of our quiet ways.

It is frustrating to embrace the unknown of a country with 30 million citizens and 20 million views of what the country is. But we’ll all have to wake up and do it sooner or later.

Merely touting pride as the glue that will hold Canada together is not enough. The country is too big. Nationalists counter “Well, we need some of it, we need some pride in Canada.” This is quite so, but it is their fixation on the source of the pride that is the problem. Mitchell Sharpe wrote in 1996 that platitudes, of the Montreal rally sort, will not hold the country together. To this we should add, neither will fiction.

Give Canadians a myth on which to base some flag waving, many of us will use it – it’s an instinct after all. Give Canadians a sense of their country, its diversity, its beauty, its success among nations, its destiny, and they’ll put the flag down and start working towards national reconciliation and understanding.

What is needed is less earth-shaking, less tumultuous than fictional nationalistic spin control. We need to get to know Canada better. We need more dialogue of the inter-national sort, and less brinkmanship. We need to stop thinking up new ways to reinvent “Canadian identity,” and simply gain a country-wide sense of Canada. François Mitterand said in his last years that those who think too much about France do not know France. It is those who have a feeling about France that are the true patriots. How true this seems of Canada. The competing nationalisms of the past 30 years have been nothing but a negative force for Canada. And neither vision will prevail – French Canadian nationalism or pan-Canadian nationalism – because they are both flawed regressive philosophies.

And this essay does not even touch on the subject of Quebec nationalism – essentially the same species as pan-Canadian nationalism, with an ethnic essence. Its truth comes to the surface once in a while, as with Jacques Parizeau on referendum night in 1995, and Bernard Landry on more than one occasion since. We know them, and we know their game – the 20th century will be a testament to the futility and utter chaos that attends it.

So, to the mythmakers and kickers-up of pan-Canadian nationalistic dust, I say this: Good Luck, but the tools of your primitive craft here in Canada are the worst kind – boring. The real builders of Canada will be those with long-term vision, not outdated isms – vision to get Canadians talking about Canada, to educate them about this wonderful country, to see its place as perhaps one of the most boring, but truly great countries on the planet.

We are all Canadians after all. And just what does that mean to you ?

G. Murray
Ottawa, ON