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“The Dream of Canada,” John E. Trent, Chelsea, QC

Introduction :
Like many other Canadians, I suspect, I have long been a closet identity freak. There are, of course, two basic questions. Do Canadians have one — an identity, that is? And, if we do have one, is it an over-arching identity that links us together and that all Canadians would recognize? Let me respond from the outset with an unapologetic Yes to both questions. Of course, I am not oblivious to the obvious fact that we have strong regional cultures in Canada, but my aim here is to make the strong case for the existence of a pan-Canadian personality.

But, before going on to try to delineate this common identity or, as I would define it, a common set of values and a common approach to human relationships (the way we treat each other), let me first of all try to explain why so many of us are identity freaks.

Now, it is not because Canadians are a bunch of niggling ninnies. The trusty dictionary tells us that these two words mean, “elaborately petty simpletons” which is a pretty good definition of the way we see ourselves, or we think the world sees us, each time we dare to raise the issue of ‘identity’ . As in the ever-ready responses: Who cares? Stop navel gazing. and, The Chinese know who they are don’t they?

Rather, as we all know, Canadians are a very practical pragmatic people. They understand their milieu quite well, thank you. They know, for instance, (because they are reminded of it every day of their lives), that their only neighbour is a lumbering behemoth whose culture has managed to charm the whole world. And they know that their country is eternally a prey to fragmentation from rivaling regional cultures and economic interests. They also know that their identity lacks the formative historical events to which most national identities refer for inspiration. In other words, Canadians know very well that they have every reason to be worried about whether or not they have an identity that binds them together.

However, Canadians also know in their hearts and their guts that there are three other realities that define their identity. The first is that like the Chinese, and aside from all the academic skirmishing, we all know who we are. Individually we have no doubts, whether we can verbalize it adequately or not. Few of us go around agonizing about our identity each day. Second, we know that when push comes to shove, when we are in a crunch, we usually hang together. And finally, most importantly, we all know that all you have to do is to take us out of the country to make us feel like a Canadian.

With these thoughts in mind I started my intellectual quest more than a decade ago to discover the elusive Canadian identity. My search took me to learned tomes and to insightful essays, to empirical data and thoughtful analysis, to experienced leaders and regular surveys of my own students. After two papers on the subject I finally boiled it down to three pages. I present it as a synthesis of what Canadians know and think about themselves, a synthesis of our aspirations, not necessarily as we are as individuals everyday, but of the ideal we have of our collective self as we want to be. I call it ‘The Dream of Canada’.

Let me introduce it and give you its flavour by quoting from a description of a Group of Seven painting written by John Vanderpant for the Photographic Journal in November 1928. I found it beside J.E.H. MacDonald’s “Clouds Over Lake O’Hara” in the 1995 Group of Seven Exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa.

“One learned to see the impossibility of conveying the spirit of Canada … by employing methods of petty representation… Canada is not beautiful in detail, but by the immensities of its proportions, the tragic untoldment of its forms and contrasts … This rudeness, this immense and tragic untoldment one tries to express in extreme simplicity of composition, strength of form, obvious contrasts in light and shade … designs which belong to Canada and to us and no other country.”

The Dream of Canada
Every country worth its salt has a dream, an ideal to which it aspires. The national dream is a set of ideas, of hopes, of challenges that act as a beacon to citizens in times of darkness.

As a shared vision of what the country should be, and is at its best, the dream helps to develop a collective will, a sort of social glue. Never having had a “founding myth”, Canada’s dream is an act of continuing creation by each generation. Its components are in endless evolution. It is a response to challenges to the existence of our society, a complex set of problems, each one vying for priority with the others, so that our solutions are never complete — hence the perpetual cycle of national struggles and the open-ended nature of our dream.

“Our identity”, it has been claimed, “is a matter of forces in tension.” These five tensions which are never long-absent from the Canadian agenda are: ethnic diversity centred on French-English relationships, the desires of native peoples, and multiculturalism; the overwhelming presence of our American neighbour; the centralizing and decentralizing power struggles of regionalism and federal-provincial relations; the pendulum swings between private and public enterprise and individual and collective rights; and the continuing attempts to define social equity.

To cope with these challenges Canada has, over many generations and with much bickering, defined itself as a prudent, fair-minded, federal, democratic, bilingual and multicultural state. The units of the country can live their diversity within the unity of encompassing federal institutions and the basic rules of electoral participation and social fair play. Provincial equality does not mean uniformity, but rather the freedom to be different. Governments and education systems will serve Canadians in the French or English language and will welcome and support people from differing economic conditions and a rainbow of cultures, starting from the original cultures of our native peoples.
Small potatoes you might think. Yes, except that around the world people are desperate to discover our paths to democratization and peaceful ethnic relations. Our bird in the hand has been hard won and is still being shot at. Only recently have we started to accept that we are an ethnically pluralist society with three founding civilizations, not two; two languages, not one; and multiple contributing cultures, not just two. Our interminable debates such as Meech Lake and Charlottetown are not setbacks but typical Canadian prudence at work on the path toward redefinition and greater inclusiveness.

The dominant notion in Canadian prudence is the demand for balance. Thus even within a free enterprise economy, Canadians expect government to be an active but not an all-powerful player. They believe government is a legitimate instrument for achieving common goals, for protecting human rights and as an arbiter of social order and stability — as in “peace, order and good government”.

The tension between equality and freedom is expressed in our core values. Canadians think that the demands of individual liberty and achievement should be balanced by considerations of justice, order and fairness. Freedom and legitimate authority are complementary. And rights and human dignity have their own worth beyond the logic of the market place. Leading Canadians such as Terry Fox and Rick Hansen have shown that service to others and the community are equal in value to the pursuit of personal gain.
Ideally and traditionally, our public institutions are to be supported by, and participant in, a mixed economy. Coming from a frontier society with a sparse population in a vast and often harsh land, Canadians have long understood the advantages of a mixture of public and private enterprise. Collective self-help, from barnraising bees to our modern health system, has been a broad tradition of this country. We have always given our support in varying weights, at various times, to the public, private and cooperative sectors.

Canadians also have a dream of a balance between individualism and collectivism. We give high regard to individual freedom and liberty as well as to our ethnic, religious, regional and social sense of community. Pride in personal propulsion is balanced by a need for joint efforts for common goals. A healthy civic society is seen as a necessary base for individual achievement. Prudence recognizes that, taken to extremes, either collectivism or individualism will lead to the suffocation of the other — and of society.

However, the essence of the dream of Canada is in the way we treat each other rather than in our institutions. It has been said we have a “procedural consensus”. Canada’s fragile tentativeness is marked by a continuing process of striving for mutual recognition and appreciation. After our peevish outbursts against demands for change, common sense reestablishes itself as we rediscover members whose needs are not being met whether these be (at this period) women or the poor or natives or people of various regions.

Motivated by the expectations of our joint potential, inspired by the idea that diversity can be a treasure and division a grave regression, our dream is to strive for mutuality. We learn acceptance. The tensions of diversity may well be the ties that bind us. The process of mutual acceptance is buttressed by a desire for civility, for compromise and tolerance for peaceful evolution. Compromise does not mean concession in the Canadian lexicon but a settlement of differences by mutual adjustment. Tolerance seeks openness toward those whose opinions and practices differ from one’s own.

The notion of fair play extends to social justice. It too, is founded on a tension, this time between generosity and demands for social responsibility not only by those who give but those who receive. Canadian equity strives toward a greater equality of condition as well as of opportunity. There is a recognition that the rule of law must be supported by social justice. Equity, a decent standard of living, is perceived as one of the foundations of human freedom within society. And it too is the subject of eternal debate.

This dream of Canada can persist because it is solidly rooted both in the past and the future, both in the bedrock of our experience and in the current dominant trends of the world. Our history demonstrates that we can only garner the material benefits of this land if we can cultivate them together. Our sense of prudence, civility, and balance are the genuine result of the pressures of contending groups, none of which can be dominant, a society of many minorities, each of which can only be decisive politically in coalition with others.

Historians of civilization tell us it is not the nature of the challenge that defines a society but the nature of its response. Because of the complexity of our problems, it has always been tempting to throw up one’s hands in despair and to say, “To hell with all the others, I’m going to look after myself”. And yet the persistent, common thread that runs throughout our response is the continuous need for balance, for equilibrium, for walking the middle of the road, for rejecting the ‘either’ – ‘or’ in favour of the ‘both’ – ‘and’. Thus, ours is a difficult dream because it is an easy target for the simplifications of those who think only of their own narrow interests. Even if the dream of Canada represents a much better idea, in fact, one of the finest set of ideals in this cantankerous world, it demands eternal vigilance, immense forbearance, a steady hand at the tiller — and beady-eyed determination.

Do these ideals represent reality? The fact is, as I have mentioned, they have been drawn from a synthesis of books written about Canada over the past half century. They are largely subscribed to by a majority of respondents to opinion polls. Partly because of them, the UN keeps placing Canada at or near the top of its human development index and the vast majority of Canadians believe ours is the best country in the world in which to live.

Of course, any common set of Canadian ideals that is put forth will have its detractors. Each generation and each section has its extremists who prefer their partial vision to the dream of the whole. Such challenges should make us realize that times of tension are times for the dream of Canada to go into overdrive, for keeping our powder dry, for mutuality, for reciprocal acts of respect.

Because now, in today’s international system, the enforced sense of cultural and diplomatic sensitivity of Canadians are in demand around the world as ethnicity, telecommunications and economic globalism shatter boundaries and oblige interdependence not dominance, mutuality not hierarchy.

Taking a Second Look
A year ago when I was presenting some of these same ideas, I was asked if they still held true after all the changes of the past decade? Had Canada not changed under the impact of globalization, of free trade, of neo-conservatism, of competing French and English nationalisms, of immigration, and of the post-modernist value changes, and what have you? These are serious questions requiring serious answers. Once again, I must protest that I am not unaware that Canadian values are presently in disarray. Nevertheless, a strong case can be made that the erosion of some Canadian values has not manifestly modified the sense of identity I have portrayed.

Let me make my basic points one more time. First, the sense of identity I am attempting to portray must hold reasonably steady over time. Otherwise it is just an epiphenomenon, a blip on the social radar that teaches us little. My hypothesis is that, in its essence, it will hold steady because it corresponds to the major, constant, problems and tensions arising from Canada’s sociopolitical milieu (the massive presence of the United States, cultural and regional fragmentation, intergovernmental conflicts, public-private rivalries, and the search for social equity). These are realities with which Canadians must deal on a daily basis, they are not cultural constructs of the imagination. Second, there is a two level hierarchy of Canadian values, process values and substantive ones. It is the former, the manner in which we treat each other, that are more stable and more determinant for defining the Canadian identity. Recent research does not indicate that Canadian process values have substantially changed or are in terribly poor state.

Let us see, first of all, what the social psychologists have to tell us. At a conference this January, two of Canada’s leading social psychologists, John Berry and Rudy Kalin of Queen’s University sought to answer the question, “Under what conditions can we all live together in a plural society?”‘ They suggested that from a social psychologist’s point of view some preconditions would include: general support for multiculturalism; acceptance of cultural diversity as a valuable resource; low levels of intolerance or prejudice; generally positive mutual attitudes between ethnocultural groups; and a degree of attachment to the larger Canadian society, but without derogation of its constituent groups. In their 1991 survey of 3325 Canadians, they found:

  • In the national population as a whole, both the level of multiculturalism and level of tolerance are moderately high, and the long term trends have been for both to increase over the past 15 years …
  • For British and “Other origin” groups, those with an “Ethnic” identity do not score lower on the Canadianism scale, indicating the much-maligned “hyphenated identity” is no threat to one’s attachment to Canada …
  • Diversity appears to be alive and well in Canada, and there is broad social acceptance of this fact.
  • Ethnic attitudes are generally positive.
  • Identity as a “Canadian” and attachment to Canada are generally widespread and strong.

Second, let us listen to one of Canada’s foremost public opinion pollsters, Michael Adams of Environics, report on his conclusions after 25 years of public polls. He was speaking in April of this year:

  • I see signs that the public has reconsidered recent constitutional history, is contemplating various scenarios for the future, and may be prepared to be reasonable, if their political leaders can figure out a way to do the same …
  • Only 9 percent of Quebeckers want their province to become a sovereign country, totally independent from the rest of Canada…
  • I said the problem was not about values … A country that historically accommodated and even celebrated differences has actually ended up creating a culture where a broad range of values unites us and differentiates us from the Americans …
  • In fact, the values of French and English Canadians are far closer to each other than either are to those of the Americans … both conform to the shy and deferential stereotype, we are non-violent, except when on ice, we are courteous …
  • Canadians have constructed a national identity that consists of flexible, multiple personalities — a sort of synergistic schizophrenia. Although Canadians continue to value their individual linguistic and ethnic identities, they are no longer a prisoner of any one identity that dictates their every thought and action. And in many ways, this applies more to Quebec than to the rest of Canada. Ethnic tribalism in Quebec, while politically significant, is far from being the whole story and disguises the growing complexity in the character of Francophone Quebecers …
  • In such a context, “fixed identities” and “final solutions” are for madmen. Canada is about accommodating differences between ourselves and within ourselves …

Third, let us turn to social policy researchers. Suzanne Peters of the Canadian Policy Research Networks has recently completed an analysis of 18 opinion polls between 1980 and 1995 and of 18 focused discussion groups with 276 participants held in eight cities across the country, to search out Canadian values and attitudes toward social policy issues. She found that Canadians believe in self-reliance, in compassion leading to collective responsibility, and in investment in equal access to education and health care. Other core values include democracy, freedom, equality and fiscal responsibility. While there are certainly ambiguity and ambivalence about the degree to which current social programmes continue to realize our values, “our core values have remained fairly constant”. Canadians prefer renovation of social programmes to their dismantling and expect governments to stay in the forefront of building collective well-being.

Is there a generation and ethnicity gap? Here is a little anecdotal evidence to the contrary. In 1996 the Association canadienne française de l’Ontario in Prescott-Russell held a literary contest. Le Droit published the winners’ essays. High school student Geneviève Morin wrote, “This is what permitted the Franco-Ontarian people to develop typically Canadian qualities. Patience, compromise, sharing and perseverance are what have allowed the creation of exemplary Canadians.”

Or we might ask, am I being a little too abstract in suggesting that the Canadian identity is built on the tensions arising from the cross-cutting currents in our recurrent political problems? Let us see what noted Canadian novelist and social commentator, John Ralston Saul had to say in the Winter, 1995 edition of Queen’s Quarterly:

Let us come back to our available options. On one side there is order versus disorder. On the other is my obscure phrase – continuity through the tension of equilibrium. What it refers to is humanism, balance through tension … not joined by anything practical but by the opposition between them… Even if we only get part way, we will have avoided catastrophe because equilibrium is a protection against extremes .

All of which means to say, I presume, that the answer to my question is that all Canadians are equally obscure.

Finally, I can’t finish without mentioning one other author who has actually proclaimed a revolution in Canadian values during the decade 1985-1995. I am referring to Peter Newman and his recent book, The Canadian Revolution: From Deference to Defiance. In his Prologue, Mr. Newman led us to think that Brian Mulroney had encouraged Canadians to “abandon their culture of prudence, civility and tolerance”. He quotes Globe and Mail columnist, Jeffrey Simpson, as saying, “Canada’s traditional political culture cracked like river ice in the spring. ” Newman pointed to a newfound feeling of personal licence and militancy that turned Canadians against their politicians and sacrosanct institutions. I thought to myself, this is certainly going to turn my poor little Dream of Canada on its head. What was my astonishment when I read the following in Peter Newman’s Epilogue:

The problem with Canadians’ new-found liberation was that, left untended, it could easily turn into anarchy: collective conscience finds few outlets in a mere defiance of authority. Selfish bedlam was not what most Canadians had in mind. The aspect of deference worth preserving was the civility that usually accompanied it. While they were firmly set against the old style of leadership, Canadians were determined not to abandon the mutual respect that separated them from the Americans.

And, a little further on Mr. Newman concluded:

It was natural for Canadians to want to tend to their own spirits in the absence of a national soul, I reflected, and perhaps it was about time the values Canadians really cared about — co-operation, tolerance, genuine gender equality and civility — sprang from the people’s hearts, instead of their crumbling institutions.

It seems to me we can conclude from this varied body of proof that:

1) core Canadian values have evolved without being eviscerated;
2) attitudes are still open to mutuality and reconciliation;
3) Canadians have and still do appreciate diversity;
4) the ties which bind Canadians together may well be the tensions between them;
5) the value differences between French and English are relatively small and not insurmountable;
6) cooperation and tolerance are alive in peoples’ spirits; and that, hence, the Dream of Canada is still viable.
John Trent, “Values in Disarray”, in John E. Trent, Robert Young and Guy Lachapelle, (eds. ), Quebec-Canada:The Paths Ahead, (Ottawa, University of Ottawa Press, 1996), pp. 131-134.
J.W. Berry, “Canadian Ethnic Attitudes and Identities Inside and Outside Quebec”, in J. Trent et al., eds., ibid, pp. 221-234
ibid, p. 222 and p. 231.
Michael Adams, “From two solitudes to multiple identities: Canadians at the end of the millennium”, speech presented to the Council for Canadian Unity, Environics Research Group Ltd., Toronto, April, 1996.
Suzanne Peters, Exploring Canadian Values: A Synthesis Report, Canadian Policy Research Networks, Renouf Publishing, Ottawa, 1995.
“Last Call of the Citizen: Language and Lying – the Return of ideology”, p.834-835.
Peter C. Newman, The Canadian Revolution, (Toronto, Viking, 1996), p. 396-397.

John E. Trent
Chelsea, Québec