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Canada: a great northern paradox?

A CHARACTER IN AN EARLY PLAY by Roberston Davies, who was a playwright long before he became a novelist of international renown, remarks sadly that Canada is not really a country you love: "It is a country you worry about." As it happens, I do love Canada, and most Canadians I know share this love; but it remains as true now as it was when Davies wrote it forty years ago, that Canada is first of all a country you worry about, puzzle over, diagnose. It is a country whose citizens are more or less incessantly taking its temperature, always expecting the worst. Publicly and privately, in English and in French, in Parliament and in the newspapers and universities, we worry about Canada's identity, its future, its place in the world, and above all, its chances of surviving as a political entity in its present form. In the minds of Canadians, those nervous and cautious people who have finally joined the Organization of American States after considering the idea for seventy-nine years, the most striking fact about our country is that at almost any given moment it seems--if you follow the rhetoric of its leaders--to be on the verge of ceasing to exist.

For as long as any of us can remember, Canada has lived a peculiar contradiction--it is boundlessly promising and simultaneously fearful of the future. To describe it is to sound as if you are describing a talented but troubled adolescent. In fact, we often speak of Canada as a young country, and it is commonplace for visitors or newcomers to remark on the newness, the freshness and sometimes the innocence of the place. Taken literally, this is nonsense--Canada has been in business for a long time. French immigrants, a mixture of peasants and priests and nobles, created New France on the banks of the St. Lawrence River (now the province of Quebec) in the 17th century; and even earlier there were fishing villages in Newfoundland, the island province out in the Atlantic. In 1867, before Germany and Italy were countries, Canada came together as a new kind of nation, a "dominion" from the Atlantic to the Pacific that was linked to Britain and loyal to the British crown but was understood to be moving toward independence. That event, Confederation, defined the political shape of the country; it was complete in 1949 when Newfoundland became the tenth province.

But "completed" is probably the wrong word to use about any element of Canadian history--Canada is a place that is always in a state of becoming, always transforming itself, always redefining its goals and its nature. Everything is contingent, and nothing is ever thought to be completed. Other countries--the United States being the leading example--may work out a constitution and a set of values and then spend centuries living by that constitution and those values, doing the job well or badly as the occasion permits. Canada, on the other hand, changes not just the circumstances of its national life, but the very philosophical underpinnings of that life. In a few decades we change our national beliefs, ideals and emotional connections.

In 1867 Canada was proud to call itself "a British Dominion," even though a large fraction of its population was French-speaking. For a long time Canadian statesmen paid elaborate homage to England and the English monarch, but in the twentieth century that connection began to appear (in the eyes of many Canadians) to be both unnecessary and dangerous. In the First World War and the Second World War, Canadians fought as part of the British Empire or, as it was called later, the British Commonwealth. But a great many French Canadians resented the fact that they, a minority within Canada, were drawn into way by the English-speaking and British-descended majority.

Before the twentieth century was half over there arose the idea that Quebec was in some ways a distinct part of Canada, requiring its own status and privileges within Confederation. Although only a quarter of Canadians were French-speaking, they began to assert their belief that they deserved separate and distinct rights. By the 1960s there was a popular movement within Quebec to withdraw from Canada and create a separate state. That movement is still very much alive in 1990, and remains a major reason why Canadians worry about their country's survival. Were Quebec to separate from Canada it would still be the major trading partner of Canadians on either side of it; but, they would be on either side of it--two chunks of Canada, separated as Pakistan was at its birth with such tragic results. This is why the constitutional discussions that became a more or less permanent part of Canadian life in the 1980s are crucial. The federal government and the governments of the ten provinces are not holding their endless meetings in order to deal with one aspect of the rights of individuals (such as occurred in the U.S. with promotion of the Equal Rights Amendment a few years ago). Rather, they are trying to find a way that Quebec can be given enough constitutional freedom to live in comfort within Canada without dangerously diluting federal power. They are engaged, once more, as Canadian leaders so often are, in saving Canada from falling apart.

The federal government has been working hard to satisfy Quebec for the last forty or so years, sometimes with the enthusiastic support of English-speaking Canada and sometimes against the wishes of those English-speaking Canadians who have traditionally been suspicious of French Canadian demands. In this process, the country has changed fundamentally. In 1950 a French-speaking Quebecker would feel a foreigner when visiting the national capital, Ottawa. Even though that city is poised on a river between Ontario and Quebec, it was then still a British city, and if you phoned the House of Commons the telephone operator answered only in English. Today Ottawa is bilingual, in keeping with the federal law that Canada has two official languages of equal status; and elsewhere in Canada you can find bilingualism in everything from customs offices to federally owned broadcasting stations.

While making these changes, the federal government slowly began eliminating the signs of British influence. Canada stayed within the British Commonwealth, and to this minute Queen Elizabeth is still, constitutionally, the Queen of Canada, our head of state. But to placate French Canada, Ottawa reorganized Canadian symbolism. In the 1950s the word "dominion" was quietly dropped, not because it was British in origin--in fact, Canada was the first country to use it as a national designation--but because British monarchs had taken to speaking of their "dominion beyond the seas", and because Rudyard Kipling, in a famous poem, spoke of Queen Victoria having "dominion over palm and pine". (We were the "pine", and some Canadians didn't like the sound of it after a while.) In the 1960s Canada stopped using as its flag the Canadian ensign which featured a British Union Jack as part of its design, and got its own flag, a simple maple leaf that betrayed no ancient allegiances, British or French. In the 1970s most other British symbols just faded away, usually without much announcement of mourning--the royal coat of arms disappeared off the mailboxes for instance. Meanwhile, the connection of individual Canadians to Britian grew more tenuous. A few decades ago any Canadian was legally entitled to live and work in Britain at will, and the reverse was also true. Today a Canadian is a foreigner in Britain, with less status than a Belgian or a citizen of any other EEC country. And in Canada, someone from Britain is treated like any other foreigner.

These symbols, these connections, are the outward signs of an inner progress toward a nationhood that always turns out to be something of a surprise. With each generation we re-imagine ourselves in unpredictable ways. The Canadian historian Ramsay Cook once remarked that in 1917, when Canada was celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of Confederation while fighting the First World War, a historian who was asked to explain the meaning of Confederation would "have concluded that his country's founders intended to build a nation capable of assisting Great Britain and her allies in their magnificent effort to make the world safe for democracy." At the time, that probably seemed more than adequate as a reason for nationhood; but ten years later--with Confederation sixty years old--it was obvious to everyone that the original purpose had been to lay the groundwork for Canada's eventual independence from British control, the most important stages of which were passed in the 1920s. A decade later, in 1937, it was argued among Canadian intellectuals that the highest purpose of Confederation was to set in place a central government strong enough to deal with the ravages of the Depression. By the 1950s, another war having been successfully fought at Britain's side, Canadians came to believe that their mission was to help make peace in the world, a belief that was buttressed when Lester B. Pearson won the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in getting the world through the Suez crisis of 1956. However, this role was also abandoned in the late 1960s and 1970s. Many Canadians now saw their national purpose focused on resisting United States expansionism.

This lack of a clear, permanent belief behind the events in our public life is what we mean when we talk about the problem of Canadian identity. We may feel secure at any given moment in our identity, whether it is based on a region, a city, an ethnic group or a pan-Canadian appreciation of the whole country. But is our sense of identity the same one that our grandparents understood? Is it in any way similar to the one our grandchildren will experience? In the United States, many can answer both of those questions with a confident "Yes". Similarly, many people in France today can say that, yes, fulfilling the goals of the French Revolution will likely seem as important to their grandchildren as it does to them. But Canadians can't answer with anything like that kind of confidence; and we can't anticipate a day when our situation in this regard will change greatly.

THIS LACK OF a firm ideological mooring is not purely negative by any means. For many people it is altogether positive. Last year, when the United States twisted and writhed over a Supreme Court decision that seemed to permit desecration of the Stars and Stripes, Canadians watched in astonishment. No Canadian could imagine for a moment getting excited about the fate of a piece of cloth or any other secular symbol; but then, we have no symbols going back to the 18th century, and even if we did, we wouldn't know what they signified. It would be impossible to imagine a Committee on UnCanadian Activities, because first it would have to determine what a Canadian activity is--and that argument would never end. For the same reasons, a Canadian Pledge of Allegiance, recited by schoolchildren across the country, is an impossibility.

What this means is that no political form is imposed on Canadians, and--for some of us at least--the cultural air therefore is easier to breathe. Outsiders are sometimes bemused by the fact that, in Canada, citizenship does not even require adherence to the idea of Canada itself. Citizens in Alberta or Quebec or Newfoundland may openly declare themselves in favor of withdrawing their provinces from Canada or may publicly regret that they ever joined--even today there are many Newfoundlanders who frankly state that it was a mistake for Newfoundland to become a province of Canada in 1949. But these people, far from being shunned or exiled, are treated as perfectly good Canadians and may even find themselves filling certain jobs in the federal government. The late Rene Levesque, a Quebec premier who spent the last two decades of his life trying to uncouple Quebec from the rest of Canada, was mourned as a national hero from sea to sea when he died. Why? Because he was honest and forthright, he represented his people as best he could and he pursued his goals by democratic means. Certainly no one ever said Levesque was unpatriotic just because he wanted to break up the country. And many other Canadian politicians have made their reputations by declaring, in effect, that they want their province to remain part of Canada only if the federal government makes this or that concession. No one in Canada says, "My country right or wrong." Canadians say, "My country, maybe," or "My country, if."

Even so, the late 1980s, as well as bringing us a constitutional crisis over the status of Quebec, also produced the most passionate outburst of patriotism since the Second World War. And if this patriotism largely emerged in negative terms, specifically as anti-Americanism, then it is also true that the passion behind it was generated as a defense of Canada and its values.

The United States, of course, is perceived as the major external threat to Canadian independence, whether it recognizes itself in that role or not. The last time the U.S. and Canada actually went to war was in June 1812, the same month Napoleon attacked Russia. Britain, while conducting its war against Napoleon, had searched U.S. ships and partially blocked certain U.S. ports. The response of President James Madison was to attack the British colonies to the north, which were still in the process of turning into Canada. The war eventually reached from the Atlantic provinces to what is now southwestern Ontario. Part of Toronto was burned, Montreal was attacked and British troops defending Canada eventually penetrated as far south as Washington, D.C. After a peace treaty was negotiated in 1814, everyone's territory was returned and both sides claimed victory. They have done so ever since, and to this minute you can find quite different versions of the outcome given in the school textbooks used in Niagara Falls, New York, and, a hundred yards away, Niagara Falls, Ontario.

But if that difference is interesting to students of truth and history, it is not nearly so striking as the difference in the way the two countries see U.S.-Canadian relations. In the United States, save for a few border towns and some isolated university courses, Canada does not exist as a political and cultural entity: it is a source of evil weather, it is a large piece of geography, and for many it is a wonderful place for vacations. But neither the politics of Canada--which are entirely different from U.S. politics, being parliamentary--nor the culture of Canada--which is different too, though in more complicated ways--can even be glimpsed in the U.S. media or in U.S. education. Once in a long while a Canadian news story appears to be important to U.S. editors or producers--the election of a separatist Quebec government, for instance. But the idea of Canada as a separate country, jealously guarding its distinctiveness, has never mattered to more than a tiny minority in the States.

The U.S. public was taken by surprise, therefore, when the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) signed by the Reagan and Mulroney administrations became the most important political issue in Canada in many years. To some people, the FTA seemed an entirely logical extension of a process that has been going on for more than half a century, the economic integration of North America. From the standpoint of the Mulroney government and the public servants who did the negotiating, the FTA was a way of avoiding the spectre of U.S. protectionism and ensuring the relative stability of markets for Canadian goods in the U.S. But to a great many Canadians--including the Liberal Party, the New Democratic Party, and the majority of artists and intellectuals--the FTA looked like a way of destroying Canada. It would allow U.S. culture to swamp culture produced in this country, it would lead Canadians to abandon their public health care system (in order to standardize conditions in the two countries) and it would eventually lead to the absorption of Canada by the United States. Facing Brian Mulroney in a TV debate, John Turner of the Liberals said: "I happen to believe you've sold us out . . . We have built a country . . . that resisted continental pressure from the United States. For 120 years we've done it, and with one stroke of the pen you've reversed that.... And that will reduce us, I'm sure, to an economic colony of the United States, because when the economic levers go, the political independence is sure to follow."

That outburst touched a national nerve--the national nerve, in fact--the fear of U.S. domination. In the opinion polls Turner suddenly leapt ahead, and for a time it seemed he might defeat the prime minister or at least cut the government's representation in the House of Commons to a minority of seats (which would have led to the defeat of the FTA). As it turned out, Mulroney's forces rallied, he won his second majority government, the FTA was ratified and so far Canada remains an independent country. But 1988 reminded everyone that Canadian feelings about the United States run deep. Canadians watch U.S. TV and movies, read U.S. magazines, enjoy U.S. baseball, eat at McDonald's, and yet believe in themselves as a separate nation with a history worth remembering and traditions worth preserving. Mulroney, who in the beginning truly believed that what he was negotiating was just another valuable commercial agreement with an old friend and ally, was instructed by the public in the extreme delicacy of U.S.-Canadian relations.

Of course, there are still those who say that "Canadian culture" is an oxymoron, that the country lacks anything but highly derivative forms of artistic expression. Arthur Erickson, who is often regarded as the best of Canadian architects, once said, "I am fortunate that I can stand in Canada, a country without a culture, and look at the world." Canadians, in other words, being culture-free as well as ideology-free, can glory in the spiritual mobility this gives them. In truth, they have been working for a long time on building a culture, or cultures, and with notable success.

French Canada has found it easier, in a way, because of the comparative isolation that language provides--Quebec poetry, novels, plays, TV shows and movies speak directly to their intended audience (and often to faraway audiences in France, as well) in a way that no other art can. In English-speaking Canada, on the other hand, the majority culture--mass movies, TV, music, fiction--traditionally has been imported from the U.S.; in a sense, the Canadian audience for popular culture is an overflow basin for U.S. products.

This means that Canadians must fight for an audience in these fields--even when government-backed, our movies and TV shows rarely capture huge audiences. Canadian artists, for the most part, have shifted to the higher ground of painting, poetry, serious fiction and non-fiction, and in these spheres have done well. Canada produces a good many artists who find mass audiences, but usually the audiences are found in the U.S., and in the rest of the world via the U.S. "America's Sweetheart" in silent movie days, Mary Pickford, was a Toronto girl, and Lorne Greene, the star of what for years was the most popular TV drama, Bonanza, was from Ottawa. The man who created Superman and the woman who played the superhero's girlfriend in the movies, Margot Kidder, are both Canadians. The writer who dreamt up Rambo, the macho hero of the 1980s, is a professor from a small city in Ontario. Regularly Canada sends a stream of stars and producers across the border--Michael J. Fox, Donald Sutherland in one generation and his son Kiefer in the next, the creators of SCTV and of Saturday Night Live. In the United States these personalities are not seen as foreigners to be assimilated, but as near-natives, which in a sense they are, since most of them grew up watching U.S. TV. Quickly the successful Canadians are lost in the great ocean of life in the U.S., and only their fellow citizens back home remeber that once they were considered part of "Canadian culture".

TO OUTSIDERS, Canada must seem a paradox: the second-largest country in the world, thinly populated, rich in natural resources and arable land, next door to the best market on the planet--yet insecure, internally conflicted, and altogether uncertain about how to approach the future. We are a country with problems as large and as varied as our geography. And yet they are the problems of a lucky people, and of a people who, for the most part, understand how lucky they are to be born in Canada or to end up here. I cherish a story that emerged from Ottawa in 1950 when the Chancellor of the Exchequer in the Labor Government, Hugh Gaitskell, was visiting Canada. At that time, his opposite number in Canada, Finance Minister Douglas Abbott, was bedevilled by many problems typically Canadian, involving the sharing of tax revenues between the federal and provincial governments. Gaitskell's England, on the other hand, was still devastated by the Second World War bombing, everything from sugar to clothing was rationed, the British pound was the subject of laughter in the money markets of the world and the Labour government was widely regarded as a gigantic failure. When Gaitskell arrived in Ottawa, Abbott described the excruciating political problems of the Canadian federal system and then asked, "What would you do if you had my problems?"

Gaitskell looked at him for a moment, "Well," he said, "first thing, I'd get down on my knees and thank God."

Robert Fulford has been a journalist and broadcaster in Toronto for thiry-nine years, specializing in the arts and literature. He was editor of Saturday Night, the leading Canadian monthly, for nineteen years, and in 1984 was co-chairman of Neighbors: Canada, Mexico and the U.S., an international conference in Aspen, Colorado. His most recent book is Best Seat in the House: Memoirs of a Lucky Man.
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Author:Fulford, Robert
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Date:Jan 1, 1990
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