What is it to ”œbe Canadian”? The question of who we are and what defines our identity has preoccupied Canadians, more than people of any other nationality, since Confederation. If our national sport is hock- ey, then our national preoccupation is our identity. It has cre- ated a cottage industry in the groves of academe, in the theatre of politics and media, and it has been a perennial source of inspiration and income for Canadian book publishers.

Why is this so? For one thing we are a new nation, even after 141 years of nationhood. And paradoxically, we are a nation born out of the prolonged birth pangs of another nation, our huge neighbour to the south, with whom we share a history of arrival in the New World, a rich immi- grant experience, and a prolonged colonial nurturing. When the American Revolution ruptured the 13 colonies’ ties with Britain, we remained umbilically attached, and thus became ourselves and not them. When the American Union was reforged in the Civil War, the Canadian Confederation was obliged to stretch from sea to sea, or face immersion in the American expansion. Once again, we remained ourselves by becoming not-them.

For a nation that was created out of one century of shared colonial memory and almost another of affiliation with a far away colonial power, it is not surprising that the texture of national identity is heavily laced with ambiguity. ”œCanadian-ness” has always been a matter of contingency, never one of certainty.

American experience relies on an assertion of shared history (Lincoln’s ”œmystic chords of memory”), common ancestry (”œconsanguinity”) and pride in being part of a his- torical social experiment named America. With pride, Americans put their hands on their hearts and recite the pledge of allegiance to both a nation and to a series of ideas that culminate in ”œone nation,” which has also been ”œunder God” since 1954. The American civic tradition has been to depoliticize the past in order to assuage, with success, the wounds of revolution and the scars of civil war. Resolution of the struggle over civil rights remains an act in progress, but that act is seen as a continuation of the struggles that brought the nation into existence. In the United States of America, the past and the present have always been about the future.

Canadian experience, like Canadian identity, is less straight- forward. There has always been more division and ambiguity about ”œshared” history and less exuberance to our nationalism. It was not as if our ”œfounding nations” set out to create Canada. The Loyalists fought for a united British America, while the French had spent many of the previ- ous 150 years fighting for the opposite. The Confederation of British North America was as much an unintended consequence of the American Civil War and the recognition that ”œmani- fest destiny” could well result if Reconstructionists decided to send their battle-seasoned veterans across the 49th parallel.

The Canadian emphasis on diver- sity was born out of the British struggle to contain the 13 resurgent colonies in their expansion to the west: one of the sparks of American revolution was the British insistence on retaining rights for what we now call the First Nations. That insistence was mainly honoured in the breach, but it means that even before we came into national existence we celebrated multiple memories rather than a monolithic, collective memory. And that multiplicity was made eternal in the document para- doxically known as the British North America Act.

Canada has always been a deal based on choice, rather than a univer- sal idea made manifest. And thus the eternal question about our identity.

The irony is that the rest of the world knows who we are and what we stand for, no matter how problematical we find those issues. The problem is not the brand abroad but the brand at home.

”œOne disadvantage of living in Canada,” writes Northrop Frye, ”œis that one is continually called upon to make statements about the Canadian identity, and Canadian identity is an eminently exhaustible subject.” A stat- ue symbolizing Canada, say some, would portray someone holding his breath and crossing his fingers.

The former Canadian Conrad Black, whose knowledge of history for- tifies his penchant for provocation, once argued that we have no real rationale as a country, pronouncing that, ”œCanada is the only substantial country in the world with no cultural, linguistic or tribal homogeneity, nor any distinct revolutionary, ideological, or geopolitical tradition to give it an organizing principle.” (There is also, of course, India.)

Canada exists because Sir John A. Macdonald was resolutely anti- American, argues Richard Gwyn in his excellent new biography of the ”œman who made us.” Macdonald, who viewed America as both ”œgodless”(an amusing notion, given modern per- spectives) and ”œradically progressive,” was determined, says Gwyn, that Canada would remain the ”œun- America,” and this conviction would manifest itself in the construction of the coast-to-coast railway and the for- mulation of the National Policy.

W.L. Morton, who at university taught me the story of our first pan- Canadian ”œnational” institution ”” the Hudson’s Bay Company ”” told us that it was by design that our fathers of Confederation chose ”œpeace, order and good government” as their slogan. Not for us manifest destiny and the bland- ishments of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

And yet he saw those civic plati- tudes as having a magnificence of their own. As Morton put it in a series of lec- tures, later published as The Canadian Identity, we have constructed ”œthe greatest of civilizations in the grimmest of environments and elaborated in one of the largest, harshest and most intim- idating countries on Earth.”

And so defining ourselves by what we are not ”” American ”” continues to be the most common response to the question ”œWhat is it to be Canadian?”

Contemporary Ontario philosopher Mark Kingwell says this is not necessarily a mark of inadequacy in national definition, because ”œIf you were the only dis- senter in a room holding a dozen people, standing up and saying ”˜I’m not the same as you’ would be a clear mark of moral courage.” (Thus he is taking up an argument that had been made, more opaquely, a generation ear- lier by the influential Canadian philosopher George Grant.)

In a column the New York Times chose not to publish, Kingwell went on to argue:

In any event, Canadian identity goes well beyond a game of I- know-you-are-but-what-am-I. For generations, we have been busy creating, in your shadow, a model of citizenship that is inclusive, diverse, open-ended and transnational. It is dedicat- ed to far-reaching social justice and the rule of international law. And we’re successfully exporting it around the world not by bucking the UN, but by seeing it for the flawed but nec- essary agency it is.

Kingwell’s argument is for a Canadian identity that has flourished under the shade-tree of benign colo- nialism. That is, indeed, a fundamen- tally Canadian thing to do. And yet, it also has its ambiguities, notably the fact that for some founding Canadians, colonialism was not always consenting or benign. For Michaéˆlle Jean, speaking at the Supreme Court in the ceremony to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the promulgation of Canadian citizenship in April (a short- er span of time than the existence of every province except Newfoundland and Labrador), our ”œFrenchness” is integral to our being.

In 1775, Quebec was the strategic colony whose adherence to the American Revolution would have severed British ties to the North American interior and rendered impossible any chance of Canada’s existence. Since then, Quebec’s place, or possible lack thereof, in Confederation has been a strategic factor in our nation’s existence and a constant theme in our periodic identity crisis. Quebec is the cornerstone of our diversity, and the challenge to any simplistic claim to national homogeneity.

Too often forgotten is that our ”œFrenchness” is pan- Canadian and not, as separatists would prefer, the exclusive preserve of pur laine Quebec. This is personified by those French-Canadians who have made a better Canada from outside the confines of the original colonial territory, such as Jeanne Sauvé, born in Saskatchewan, Gabrielle Roy, born in my native Manitoba, and Michaéˆlle Jean, born in Haiti.

Like the other countries of the New World, we are a country ”œunder construction,” and successive waves of newcomers continue the building process. Our open door (relatively speaking) approach to immigration means that currently one in five Canadians was born outside Canada. This past summer I revisited Pier 21 in Halifax, one of the ”œseven wonders of Canada” and the creation of the incomparable Ruth Goldbloom. Every Canadian should visit this for- mer immigration centre, where one million immigrants landed between 1928 and 1971, and reflect on our ”œimmigrant experience.”

Canada, writes historian Des Morton, is peopled by adventurers and ”œhistory’s losers,” those people who found themselves on the wrong side of conflict and power structures. The adventurers came in search of the rich- es of the Indies. The ”œlosers” came in search of sanctuary. Both sought opportunity, and settled for fishing, trapping and logging. If they were lucky and made money, they could then consider leaving the land that Voltaire described as ”œquelques arpents de neige.” Many did. Those who came after were often independent thinkers and iconoclasts.

After 1760, French Canadians were left behind when their leaders sailed home to France. The Loyalists lost the American War of Independence and fled north or home to Britain, and their recriminations still occasionally colour our national debates.

But from the British Isles after 1815 came the refugees from the depression that followed the Napoleonic wars and the Irish potato famine. In the 1890s came those who fled pogrom and poverty in central and northern Europe and tsarist Russia. Sir Wilfrid Laurier and his immigration minister, Sir Clifford Sifton, knew their value. As Sifton phrased it, the settlement of the West would be well served by ”œa stalwart peasant in a sheepskin coat, born on the soil, whose forefathers have been farmers for 10 genera- tions, with a stout wife and a half-dozen children.” It helped if that stalwart figure remained a Loyalist.

My Scots and Irish ances- tors migrated to Canada at this time. They fit into Des Morton’s paradigm. One great-grandfa- ther was a remittance man who’d been obliged to change his name on leaving the ”œold country.” Shortly after arriving, he bunked off, leaving his wife and six children to fend for themselves. Fortunately for me, they did.

In the 20th century, thanks to the vision of Sifton and Laurier, Canada became a land of hope for those seeking opportunity as well as a safe haven for those fleeing oppression ”” including Poles, Czechs, Hungarians, Chileans, Latin Americans and, more recently, the Vietnamese, the people of Hong Kong, and the varied peoples of Africa.

Since 1980 over half of new Canadians have come from Asia, with a contribution as important to nation- building in Canada as the much more public (and controversial) flow of Latinos into the United States.

I think the trauma of ”œbeing on the wrong side” has worked to our advantage. Combined with our rain- bow of diverse origins and the neces- sity of having to manage our international affairs in the shadow of hegemons, however benevolent, it has obliged a certain patience and tol- erance. When applied adroitly, it gives us the skill set necessary for con- sensus-building at home and abroad.

What else gives us our ”œCanadianness”? First, our sense of the North and our sense of nature. The North is our equivalent of the American ”œfrontier,” and it continues to hold our imagination. It is a frontier that we embrace rather than ignore. The struggle with climate, geography and our northern destiny now has a new resonance with the promise of oil, gas and diamonds; the threat of global warming; and the geopolitics in the Arctic related to the Northwest Passage.

Second, our sense of good govern- ment, which is also a function of our sense of self in a vast natural expanse.

Confronted by a cold climate and a vast geography, with our popula- tion mostly huddled within a few hundred miles of the American bor- der, we accept that government will play a lead role in creating national institutions.

  • In transportation, this meant investment (and scandal) in canals, railroads, roads and air- lines.

  • In communications, this meant the CBC and CRTC.

  • Our red-serged RCMP has populist recognition, from Rose Marie to Due South and now Corner Gas.

  • In health care, there was Medicare, begun by Tommy Douglas in Saskatchewan, and John Diefen- baker in Ottawa, who appointed the Hall Commission. It was final- ly implemented by Lester B. Pear- son, the leader of two great minority governments in the 1960s.

All of these things ”” our colonial experience, our fundamental sense of diversity, our consciousness of our small hold on a vast territory and our consensus that government is a shared social resource ”” have played a role in a third Canadian national charac- teristic: our deeply non- antagonistic political culture.

Finding what Arthur Schlesinger has described as the ”œvital centre” has been the path to success in Canadian politics. The accommodation between Upper and Lower Canada ”” the compromises of Baldwin and LaFontaine, and later Macdonald and Cartier ”” extended beyond language to law, religion and education. From the beginning it was the only practical way to keep French Canada and English Canada together; thus bilingualism, a civil and the Napoleonic code. In the beginning this consensual deal-mak- ing was the only way to achieve nationhood and ensure its survival. Perhaps it still is. We don’t always get it right, but we carry on, impro- vising until we find a way or become comfortable with the status quo.

Marshall McLuhan concluded that Canadians are masters of what Bertrand Russell called the 20th centu- ry’s highest achievement: ”œthe tech- nique of suspended judgement.”

This probably explains why, when Peter Gzowski ran a competition to determine the Canadian equivalent of ”œas American as…apple pie” the win- ning entry was ”œas Canadian as…pos- sible under the circumstances.”

The practice of ”œgood governance” has become a Canadian expertise that we now freely share through organiza- tions like the Canadian-inspired Forum of Federations.

Third, our sense of improvisation and humour.

We may not be so forcefully ”œcan- do” as the Americans but we are sur- prisingly inventive, and because we don’t have the resources and money, we improvise, innovate and make things work with what we have on hand ”” be it zippers or pacemakers, the Ski-Doo or the Blackberry.

To survive in this intemperate cli- mate, manage our remarkable pluralism and get along with the ”œColossus” next door, we’ve had to develop a sense of humour that is gentle, self- deprecating, and subtle (unless it is directed at our southern neighbours). Compare Rick Mercer, This Hour has 22 Minutes, Royal Canadian Air Farce and Té‚tes aÌ€ Claque with Leno, Letterman, Colbert and Stewart.

Humour is a Canadian constant, from Stephen Leacock to Rex Murphy. And it travels well, viz Lorne Michaels. America’s favourite comedians are Canadians like John Candy, Dan Ayckroyd, Mike Myers and Jim Carrey.

Fourth, our sense of international- ism. Canada’s willing colonialism of the British Imperial era has mor- phed into something new and impor- tant. This is why Lester Pearson and the Nobel Peace Prize remain a core part of Canadian iconography. We were not just present but we were active participants in the creation of the United Nations and North Atlantic Treaty Organisation and other multi- lateral organizations, including the Commonwealth and la Francophonie. The St-Laurent-Pearson-inspired Colombo Plan was as important for postwar education in Asia as the Marshall Plan was for the reconstruc- tion of Europe. Public opinion surveys consistently tell us that whatever our differences at home, what we do and have done beyond our borders ”” as peacekeepers, peacemakers and multi- lateralists ”” gives us pride and a com- mon cause.

We may not be warlike, but we are a nation of warriors. And this, too, is part of our internationalism. We earned a reputation as the Allies’ shock troops at the Somme, and British Prime Minister David Lloyd George wrote that ”œfor the remainder of the war they were brought along to head the assault in one great battle after another. Whenever the Germans found the Canadian Corps coming into the line they prepared for the worst.”

This past summer, at Menin Gate and Vimy Ridge, my brother and I traced out the names of our great uncles, Harry and Neil, the sons of my grandfather, the remittance man. I keep on my desk giant bronze ”œpen- nies” in their memory with the inscription ”œHe died for Freedom and Honour.” They are two of the 100,000 who gave their lives for their country in our wars overseas and now lie in far- away fields that are forever Canadian.

Every year Ottawa receives a gift of 10,000 tulip bulbs from the Dutch Royal family in recognition of the refuge given to Princess Juliana and her daughters during the Second World War. It is another reminder that the Canadian identity is recognized, respected and even revered beyond our borders.

The Crown in Canada is another uniquely Canadian institution: we’ve been a monarchy of one royal family or another since 1534. Its Canadian adaptation, eloquently described by Jacques Monet (La Monarchie au Canada) and Michael Jackson (The Canadian Monarchy in Saskatchewan), also helped set the stage for that other great, if underappreciated, multilateral institution, the Commonwealth of Nations. And the Crown, as Prime Minister Harper observed, drawing on a speech given by Winston Churchill during a 1929 tour of Canada, ”œlinks us all together with the majestic past that takes us back to the Tudors, the Plantagenets, the Magna Carta, habeas corpus, the Petition of Right and English common law.”

But how do we maintain ourselves in our ”œCanadianness”? Reconciliation with our First Nations aside, probably the greatest challenge for Canada in the 21st century will be the continuing successful selection and integration of new Canadians. The Bouchard-Taylor Commission hearings in Quebec demonstrate the angst, especially in rural communities, around the immigrant influx. But as Michael Adams concludes in Unlikely Utopia, there is good reason to be opti- mistic. Reasonable accommodation, he observes, is ”œalready well paved with laws, rules, norms, institutions and extremely powerful integrative economic, cultural and social forces…Fixing them is a matter of thoughtful improvement not radical reinvention.” 

Critics say that our current approach lacks accountability for results, and that insufficient resources are devoted to the practical challenges of learning English or French and teaching local mores and customs.

Integration should be a seamless process, beginning in the place of application and continuing in the place of abode. There are models for emulation. When I was posted in Hong Kong during the peak years of migration from the then British colony, we created an evening pro- gram to help prepare those who had received their visa for their new life. ”œMeet with Success” drew inspiration from SUCCESS, perhaps the most suc- cessful ”œintegrator” within Canada. The British-Columbia-based organiza- tion has helped Chinese immigrants for over 30 years. Finding work is essential to successful integration, and we need talent yet our guild system of professional associations, particularly in the health-related professions, is keeping out rather than bringing in imported competence.

If demography is destiny, continuing immigration ”” the safety valve of nation- al policy that continues to bring new talent and ideas ”” is the only recourse in the face of a birth rate that has not sus- tained our numbers since the 1960s. Competition for talent and ideas is going to increase, and recruitment strategies like those of Shoppers Drug Mart for immi- grant pharmacists, will become the rule rather than the exception.

Historian J.M.S. Careless has argued that Canadians are people with what he calls ”œmultiple identi- ties.” Multiculturalism is both a poli- cy, with a ministerial portfolio, and a creed that we preach beyond our bor- ders. But have we reached accommo- dation with diversity, especially in our great cities, at the expense of national cohesion? Hérouxville and the Toronto 18 are a reminder the challenge is never-ending for a coun- try that by design and determination remains ”œunfinished.”

We must keep asking ourselves: was Yann Martel right when he famously observed that Canada is just the ”œgreatest hotel on earth”? If all we have in common is our diversity, do we really have anything in common at all?

Climate and geography has creat- ed a dynamic culture that becomes more original as it becomes more diverse. Our culture is now character- ized by both a ”œdiversity of authentici- ties” and an ”œauthenticity of diversity.” We can actually inhabit the shoes of others. We are light on our feet. Our culture understands, pre- serves and integrates many cultures. We do so with enormous success, because we have a sensibility and sen- sitivity that travels well.

But there is more to be done. We’ve done a good job in defining the rights of citizenship through the Charter of Rights and our com- mon law, but are we doing enough to define, inform and educate Canadians, ”œnew” or ”œold,” about the responsibilities and obliga- tions that go along with ”œbeing Canadian”? Citizen- ship ceremonies should be celebratory and imbued with the spirit of pomp and circumstance. Bring our artists and our veterans into the classrooms and invite the participation of members of the Order of Canada.

The 40th anniversary of the Order of Canada has just passed with little fanfare beyond banners and book- marks and an exhibition at the National Library.

After 40 years it would seem time- ly to take a look at our honours sys- tem. We celebrate public service and there are orders for the military and police but not for the largest group- our civil service. And given the impor- tance of globalization, the Canadian diaspora and the many friends of Canada abroad, why not some form of recognition for them? Other nations have made it a successful part of their statecraft. The Legion d’honneur comes to mind. If the French, one of our founding peoples, can do this, shouldn’t we be able to? The linking of politics and prose and the rewarding of achievement in the arts commensurate with achievement in business or state- craft enlarges, as John F. Kennedy observed, the cultural opportunities for all our citizens. 

Finally, if we are serious about identity, shouldn’t we put more emphasis on learning our stories in the classrooms of the nation?

Memory matters ”” especially in a country that is ”œunfinished.” History is memory and narrative. Memory provides intelligence; stories stimulate our imagination. Out of his- tory comes everything. It explains how we got here and gives us context and perspective ”” the indispensable build- ing blocks to prepare and plan for the future. History breeds principles, codes, morals, and ethics.

Over the past year I’ve visited our extraordinary galaxy of galleries and muse- ums. From the Rooms in St. John’s (the box the cathedral came in, as Rick Mercer cheekily put it) to the new RCMP Heritage Centre and the Canadian Personalities Hall in the Museum of Civilization, we do history well. And just wait until the new techno-literate Museum of Human Rights opens at the Forks in Winnipeg. So why not give that history to every- one who joins the Canadian experi- ment, via a year-long family pass to our museums and galleries for every new immigrant?

Historica, the Dominion Institute, Canada’s National History Society and the Royal Canadian Geographic Society are among the leading institutions striving to keep Canada’s history alive in the hearts and minds of Canadians. They and hun- dreds of like-minded local historical soci- eties ”œraise the level of the water” through history fairs and youth engagement and professional development for teachers, keeping alive the torch of memory through interviews and appearances with our veterans; through The Beaver, Kayak and Canadian Geographic; and online through the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, The Canadian Encyclopedia, the Canadian Atlas and provincial encyclope- dias in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia. And now there is the Citizenship Institute. All do good work. But each must seek government support and compete on a playing field with museums and galleries, in a country where ”œheritage” projects get less than 3 percent of private sector giving. Isn’t it time for consolidation or, at least more partnerships, with the recognition that the cause matters more than personalities?

If we are serious about an informed citizenry, why isn’t a course in Canadian history required for high school graduation? And the larger question: How do we make our past more accessible to Canadians?

The subject of history and citizen- ship would seem a natural for the Harper government’s new model of focused, time-sensitive task forces.

Having spent a large part of my working career living beyond our borders, I can tell you that the idea or ”œbrand” that Canada represents with- in North America and elsewhere is hugely envied. Every day, I met peo- ple who wanted to come to Canada because of what that brand repre- sents: freedom, cultural diversity and opportunity.

This sensibility and sensitivity are means to an end. The end they serve is to give Canadians the confidence and knowledge to play an increasingly constructive role ”” first in Canada, and then in the world we share.

The problem, but also the promise, is that the agenda is unfinished. This is the Canadian complaint. But the complaint may have an answer.

Years ago, my friend Denise Chong accompanied her husband, Roger Smith of CTV News, to China. She decided to write about her roots in what became the best-selling and award-winning book, The Concubine’s Children. After a couple of years in Peking, Denise, who grew up in Prince Rupert, wrote home to her mother that despite having lived and travelled throughout China, she was having trouble coming to terms with her ”œChineseness.”

Her mother, Winnie, a very practi- cal woman, wrote back:

”œYou’re not Chinese. You’re Canadian. Stop trying to feel any- thing.”

You are welcome to republish this Policy Options article online or in print periodicals, under a Creative Commons/No Derivatives licence.

Creative Commons License