Canada: The Post-Modern Nation
Lucian Bouchard once proclaimed that Canada is not a “real” country. If we were to solely define “realness” as reliant upon “unity”, then Bouchard’s statement seems reasonable. Canada, when juxtaposed with other nations of “Manifest Destinies” and revolutions, has very little to offer in moments or symbols of true nationalistic cohesion. The slow climb out of colonial status, mixed with the presence of various ethnic, linguistic, religious and political groups, all with varying ideas of what it means to be “Canadian”, solidifies Bouchard’s argument. Even Justin Trudeau, in a 2015 interview with the New York Times, exclaimed that “there is no core identity, no mainstream in Canada” (1) . Subsequently, Bouchard’s comment appears accurate. Canada is anything but a unified nation. However his traditional requisite of “unity” as that which makes a country “real” should be reassessed through a contemporary lens. In 2017, we live in an era that rejects traditional nationalism in favour of a new concept that, to paraphrase Trudeau, comes in the form of post-nationalism. This provocation by Bouchard, firmly based upon the logic that Canada is a false nation because of its divisibility, is blind to the contemporary truth that this divisibility now defines Canadians. Canada is a real country. But this realness is not bound to the confines of the traditional definitions that constitute nationhood. The nation’s seemingly inherent divisiveness, lack of meta-narratives and embrace of multiculturalism, an ideological mission that, in itself, relies on divisibility, has rejected the notion that a country must have unity in order to be considered authentic. Canada has instead embraced itself as a post-nationalistic country.
The concept of post-nationalism falls under the post-modernist movement. By applying Lyotard’s definition of post-modernism as an “incredulity towards meta-narratives” (2) the attribution of Canada as a post-nationalist country becomes strikingly apparent. Canada lacks an all- encompassing narrative that can tie together the identities of its diverse citizens. Famously stated by Marshall McLuhan, “Canada is the only country in the world that knows how to live without an identity” (3). This absence of a national identity or story can be uncovered by considering the vast array of peoples and cultures that constitute ‘Canada’. The complexity of different, and at times, separate narratives and histories negate any attempt in forming a recognizably holistic “story of Canada”. One of the great meta-narratives that signify national unity, ingrained in the histories of many countries, is the creation story. Modern France can point to the Revolution. Central and South American nations are able to cite the 18th and 19th century Latin American Wars of Independence. Even tumultuous Russia can refer to the dissolution of the USSR . Canada, in contrast, hosts a continuous debate amongst historians and intellectuals over the exact circumstances that lead to the birth of the nation. Firstly, Canada’s origin, in almost all contemporary textbooks, begins in Cartier’s 1534 claiming of Canada for France. And yet, this assertion fails to acknowledge the significance of indigenous history, acting upon an outdated presumption that Canadian ‘history’ begins at the European experience. Yes, it is correct in
proposing that the oratory traditions of indigenous Canada, traditions that capture their story, pale in scholarly accessibility to the detailed “Jesuit Relations” and “Codex canadensis” , resulting in most Canadians to (habitually) promote a euro-centric narrative. Nevertheless, the inability to acknowledge that a thriving pre-contact Canada, filled with a multitude of polytheistic, multi- ethnic and politically unique nations is, in hindsight, exclusionary. This treatment of history is inconsiderate and, more so, uncovers the difficulty in forming an all-encompassing narrative that Canadians can agree upon. This challenge in composing a cohesive national narrative reoccurs in another creation myth of Canada’s: the 1867 Confederation.
At first glance, Confederation might very well be this supreme meta-narrative that proves Canada’s legitimacy as a traditional nation. After all, there is a seemingly collective acknowledgment of Canada’s birth date as being July 1st, 1867. In fact, the federal government has been promoting this anniversary of Confederation (Canada 150) as a nation-wide celebration (and ‘birthday party’) for Canada. Unfortunately, the celebratory spirit of Canada 150 fails to acknowledge the exclusion of indigenous people during Confederation. If we are to consider indigenous peoples as contributing to Canada’s birth as a nation while, simultaneously, labelling Confederation, an agreement between the colonizers of France and England, as the founding of Canada, then the exclusion of indigenous contribution at this moment of foundation strongly delegitimizes 1867 as the true “Birth of Canada”. Additionally, the divisiveness in opinion over Confederation further highlights its inability to present itself as a meta-narrative. A 2016 survey conducted by the Association for Canadian Studies (4) found a considerable lack of consensus amongst Canadians over the identities of the founding groups involved in Confederation. According to the results, 34% of Canadians believe that Aboriginals, the French, and the British were the true founders whereas 24% believe that the French and the British were the founders. Interestingly, 37% agree with The Government Of Canada’s Citizenship Guide’s more safe and provincial outlook, that “the old Province of Canada was split into two new provinces: Ontario and Quebec, which together with New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, formed the new country called the Dominion of Canada (5)”. How can Canadians possibly use the exclusionary 1867 Confederation, an act reflected upon with little consensus, as the authoritative creation-story of Canada?
A final characteristic of Canada that solidifies its identity as a post-national country develops from this lack of shared stories. Generally, in traditional nationalistic countries, the ideological mission shared amongst its citizens is derived from a meta-narrative. For example, in America, “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” is developed from the mythos of the American Revolution. But how does one nation develop an ideological mission when devoid of these required meta-narratives? In Canada, the process has occurred backwards and, in doing so, rebels against the normative linear progression of other countries. Despite lacking these requisites, the construction of an ideological mission began under the government of Pierre Trudeau and his legislative introduction of multiculturalism. In contrast to Mackenzie King’s wishes to avoid any alteration of the “character of our population” (6) through mass immigration, Trudeau set about embracing the cultural mosaic that had since formed from the waves of immigration throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. Subsequently, in 1988, The Canadian Multiculturalism Act was given royal assent. In a sense, this is the most consistent ‘mission’ within Canadian history. However, in practice it appears that multiculturalism generally leads to the formation of ethnic enclaves (communities in which 30% of the population belongs to a visible minority). According to Statistics Canada, between 1981 and 2001, the number of enclaves in Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver exploded from 6 to 254 (7). Multiculturalism, an attempted construction of an ideological mission, inherently celebrates and pushes forward the divisibility of cultures so as to preserve them. Interestingly, Environics Canada, after surveying 2,003 Canadians in 2015, found that 54% of Canadians place multiculturalism as “one of the most important symbol’s of Canada’s identity” (8). It appears that multiculturalism, reliant upon the divisibility Bouchard had identified, is now one of the country’s most prominent ideological missions. As stated previously it is in Trudeau's post-nationalistic country that Canadians find themselves defined and paradoxically united by their embrace of being divisible.
Canada is a new type of country. Any attempt to shape it into Bouchard’s traditional definition of a “real” country as one that is insusceptible to division is short-sighted. Through a lack of shared history, definitive meta-narratives, and the embrace of an ideological mission that, in itself, is inherently divisible, Canada still exists as a real country. Even after the fin de siècle 1995 Quebec referendum, one of the greatest tests of the nation’s paradoxical unity, Canada remains, somehow (and sometimes barely) intact. Instead, Canada has embraced its inability to agree on anything, from its grand-narratives to its very own birthday, and has instead found an identity in embracing multiculturalism, something which, in itself, promotes a cultural mosaic reliant on the embrace of differences between the groups of Canada. It is through this paradoxical embrace, this incredulity to an objective identity, that we find Canada as a very real and, simultaneously, very divisible, post-nationalist country.
- Lawson, Guy. “Trudeau’s Canada, Again.” The New York Times. December 08, 2015. Accessed November 08, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/13/magazine/trudeaus-canada-again.html?_r=0
- Lyotard, Jean-François, and Geoff Bennington. The postmodern condition: a report on knowledge. Minneapolis, MN: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 2010.
- Foran, Charles. “Canada’s identity is an experiment in the process of being realized.” The Globe and Mail. March 24, 2017. Accessed November 08, 2017. https://beta.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/canadas-identity-is-an- experiment-in-the-process-of-being-realized/article30505358/?ref=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.theglobeandmail.com&.
- Government of Canada, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, Communications Branch. “Discover Canada.” Government of Canada, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, Communications Branch. October 26, 2015. Accessed November 09, 2017. http://www.cic.gc.ca/english/resources/publications/discover/ section-05.asp.
- Kassof, Mark and Patrick James. Canadian Studies In The New Millennium: Second Edition. Toronto Buffalo London: University Of Toronto Press, 2013. 143
- Marina Jiménez. “Do ethnic enclaves impede integration?” The Globe and Mail. February 8, 2007. Accessed November 10, 2017. https://beta.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/do-ethnic-enclaves-impede-integration/ article1070403/?ref=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.theglobeandmail.com&
- http://www.environicsinstitute.org/uploads/institute-projects/environics%20institute%20%20focus%20canada%20spring%202015%20survey%20on%20immigration-multiculturalism%20-%20final%20report%20-%20june %2030–2015.pdf