Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...
WANTED: CANADIAN IDENTITY
Between roughly 2005 and 2015, canada was subject to a governmental scenario so lunatic it looks like something a script writer could have written for a British parliamentary comedy, or perhaps a tragic tale of what happens when oligarchies try to run countries. The official governing party was in minority status, with too few seats to pass any legislation it liked barring intense public and judicial opposition. The official opposition party was actually the same party as the officially governing party, but had a separate existence due to historical accident. The opposition didn't want to oppose, and to somehow win the next election. The result then and now that canada is being subjected to an attempt an an enforced neo-liberal makeover with right wing nutbar frills. This is remains true with the election of the former official opposition party to a firmly majority government in 2015. It has even gotten to the point that the usual definition of canadian as 'not american' is being radically challenged, because if an outsider were to judge by the lunatic federal government alone, canada looks a lot like an ersatz united states.
For my part, being Métis and Indigenous to canada, I've always been curious about the cultures of euro-canadians. Generally I don't hear anything directly about any of them unless the mores of my culture clash with them, or canada day is coming up or something in which case a random collection of qualities are held up as 'canadian.' This is highly ironic, not least because originally, 'canadien' was the usual french term for Indigenous people. By the 1700s or so, the french in québec had appropriated the term for themselves, and finally by the mid to late 1800s it had been rendered 'canadian' and appropriated by the english, who nevertheless insisted they were really english, just not living in england. The changeover began once the transplanted europeans decided that the 'Indians and half-breeds' only had twenty-five years or so left before they were all dead, so the term was open and could be used for legitimizing purposes. In any case, it seems to me that there are definitely euro-canadian cultures, yet there doesn't seem to be a clear euro-canadian identity or identities. 'Seem' is such a powerful word though, that I think it's worth worrying at the question some more.
Until the anthropologists got hold of it, 'culture' was a very different word. Today its use to mean "intellectual training and refinement" is slipping away, although you can still hear a person referred to as "cultured." That expression shows the word refers originally to farmland, and not so long ago it would not have been considered appropriate to use it in reference to people. Once the anthropologists got in there, the definition began to shift, and today it tends to mean:
"the customs, arts, social institutions, and achievements of a particular nation, people, or other social group" (Oxford English Dictionary)
'Achievement' is a highly judgemental term that anthropologists still use as a justification for ranking cultures by their supposed 'degree of advancement.' For the purposes of this essay, let's try to escape value judgements at least for the purposes of definition, and rework the definition of culture to say:
"the customs, arts, social institutions, and inventions of a particular nation, people, or other social group."
'Identity' isn't mentioned in any of those definitions, probably because identity tends to refer to an individual rather than a social state. It's an odd word with contradictory meanings and uses:
"1. the fact of being who or what a person or thing is; characteristics determining this;
2. close similarity or affinity" (Oxford English Dictionary)
Originally identity meant simply to be the same in comparison to something or someone, which still shows in the related word 'identical.' Nowadays identity is a fancy way to declare that a person or thing exists in its own right as an independent entity.
Although dictionary writers may not overtly link them, identity and culture are conjoined twins. Practically speaking, the only way humans have to become human and assert their existence is via their culture. Culture is what provides the framework we use for living, including language, work, religion, and everything else. Each of us has an independent identity in that we have a personality and way of being we express regardless of the input or direction we may receive from others. People who become famous as 'celebrities' are good examples of a pathological development of this sort of independence. Expressing self-directed individuality appears to be an intense human need, manifesting in even the most conformity-enforcing environments, from the military to religious orders. Cultures are also independent in this sense, although in the case of a culture the self-directed expression is a phenomenon growing out of the cooperation of many individuals. In fact, cultures can be independent in this way in spite of the expressed and determined wishes of the people creating and enacting them. Any colonial culture demonstrates this, and in its earliest days will do so overtly, especially through imports of goods from the 'mother country.'
How we understand and answer questions about identity and culture will vary significantly depending on whether we understand culture as something we take active part in, or as something we imbibe passively. Considering what I have already written above, I subscribe to the active version. In my experience, people are creative and engage in their cultures all the time, whether they are Indigenous or not and whether they are considered scholars or artists or not. Yet this does not seem to be a widely held view. The passive version seems to be more common, even among Indigenous scholars like Taiaiake Alfred who advocate resistance to colonization and assimilation.
The more widely held view seems to be that people are prone to assimilating to a 'dominant culture' at the least provocation. If the supposed 'dominant culture' doesn't get them, then the unfailing lure of 'savagery' now more often referred to obliquely as 'non-western societies' will instead. 'Western civilization' is amazingly fragile, with almost no real hold on anyone. Most people are quite incapable of staying 'civilized' on their own, so culture is in fact a regular replanting and inoculation achieved via sources like television, newspapers, religious observances, sports, and so on. The majority of people are quite helpless, unable to do any planting or inoculating themselves. They are effectively slates wiped blank each night when they go to sleep, who must be rewritten again throughout their waking day. But a few, a blessed few, are permanently cultivated and inoculated, and they spend their time valiantly shepherding the rest, patiently rewriting their slates for them. If this caricature held any real truth at all, the Earth would already be covered over by a vast, Borg-like uniculture. It would always have been, and essays like this one would be impossible to conceive of, let alone write. What this caricature is good for however, is for justifying modes of social control intended to enforce conformity and rout out creativity. It is a commonplace among many canadians and americans that this view of culture is inherently a 'communist' one. In fact, any ideology that is based around the idea that only one way to live is correct will happily use this caricature. The ridiculous claim that 'there is no alternative' to capitalism is as good an example of that usage as the totalitarian system formerly in place in the soviet union.
Typical arguments or discussions about 'canadian' culture in fact euro-canadian culture revolve around a curious ritual. Someone asks what 'canadian culture' is, or brings up some appalling thing happening in the united states. The ritualistic response is 'not american' or 'thank goodness that sort of thing could never happen in canada.' The truth is that this ritual is a red herring (or maybe a red maple leaf) that quickly diverts thought and discussion from the real questions. In counterpoint to the red herring ritual is a media ritual in which canada is declared to have 'come of age' usually after taking part in a war, or after the police have been used to trample civil liberties. As soon as a new war or example of the police being encouraged and permitted to run amok comes along, canada comes of age all over again. Obviously this is ridiculous; if canada is analogous to a human being, there is only one coming of age. Apparently media pundits can't agree about when canada has come of age consistently, or it could be that this is a generational ritual. It isn't 'canada' as an abstract noun that comes of age, but a particular generation of euro-canadians . The discussion of 'canada's coming of age' seems to run alongside a nagging embarrassment over canada not having been created by having a war with england or 'valiant cavalry clearing out the injuns.'
In other words, there is an important part of the euro-canadian population who deeply admire, even idolize a version of euro-american culture to the point of wishing canada had a near identical history. This position is actually an understandable one for a person to take. There are plenty of movies, books, and television shows glorifying 'america' and its supposedly inherent and overbearing masculinity. Canada tends to look like a milquetoast in comparison to this comic book illustration since it isn't associated with the glorification of warfare and the military and has less economic clout. In a society that remains baldly sexist, it can be hard to resist the invidious comparison without putting some work into it. Then there is the fact that an important portion of the euro-canadian population is descended from individuals who intended to be euro-americans, and for all sorts of reasons ended up on the wrong side of the medicine line and couldn't relocate. Some of those ancestors were forced to flee what would become the united states during its war with england, some pulled up stakes because of the american war with england, others missed that war because they were in what would become canada whether deliberately or not, and may have faced unhappy repercussions if they had gone back. Most others were probably economic exiles, unable to make ends meet in the context of the putative 'american dream.' We underestimate the power of nostalgia, especially the handed down kind, at our peril.
I am among those who tend to feel that in effect, 'canada' has never ceased to be a colony. The original canada was a french colony, and later a second enlish canada was created. These two canadas were ultimately stuck together thoroughly against the wishes of practically everyone actually living here, although everyone but the french and english tend to be elided away in accounts of the event. The result was "british north america," a british colony which britain ultimately abandoned to the american orbit when it became too expensive. Today canada is an american colony, albeit a poorly behaved one. Nevertheless, this doesn't mean euro-canadians are in fact euro-americans. As I noted above, colonial cultures tend to become independent even if they begin as dependent entities. Colonialism is fundamentally an economic interaction imposed by a stronger power. The stronger power attempts to erase the original culture of the colonized and replace it with its own in an effort to make the colonized easier to control. Such attempts are unnecessary if the cultures are the same, and such attempts are indeed being made in canada on one level by euro-canadians attempting to assimilate Indigenous nations and on another level by euro-americans attempting to make canada more receptive to capitalist fundamentalism.
So, if there are indeed euro-canadian identities and cultures, what are they? I can't answer this question, not being a euro-canadian and not having done any directed anthropological study of euro-canadians yet. I also believe that there are more euro-canadian cultures than just the french and english ones, which adds complexity to any potential answer. If you don't believe me, go to newfoundland and tell one of the locals they're an english canadian. Or new brunswick, and tell an acadian that. You may rest assured that they will set you most thoroughly straight, as will the huge ukrainian-canadian population in central alberta, the dutch-canadian population of southern ontario, irish-canadians wherever you like but start in the ottawa valley and montél, and so on.
You may still be wondering, what about the apparent lack of clear euro-canadian identities? 'Apparent' is exactly the point; the lack is only apparent. There are clear euro-canadian identities, however they are not typically laid out and advertised, and the vague to explicit euro-canadian inferiority complex vis-à-vis euro-americans contributes significantly to this phenomenon. An even bigger contributor, however, is simply that euro-canadians have been taught that they are superior. Supposedly euro-canadians took over canada by virtue of their superiority over Indigenous people and their cultures, not by virtue of unremitting warfare of every conceivable kind several forms of which are still ongoing. That is still the message of mainstream history books, especially the ones children are subjected to in school. Euro-canadians are taught to define themselves as the norm and the default from which everybody else deviates, which means they are also taught to be deeply aware of deviations, and wholly unconscious of what the ostensible 'norm' or 'default' consists of. This is what deceives people into imagining that culture is something that we passively absorb.
A fascinating quirk of euro-canadian cultures most reflected in the mainstream Canadian media is that their 'norm' or 'default' culture is not their own, but that of an idealized euro-american, a sort of abstract new englander with business and military acumen. The mainstream canadian media is the primary purveyor of the canonical and bleary 'canadian identity.'
- This passage has been thoroughly revised based on additional research on the terms 'canadien' and 'canadian,' especially from the books The Myth of the Savage: and the Beginnings of French Colonialism in the Americas, by Olive Patricia Dickason (University of Alberta Press, Edmonton, 1984) and Becoming Native in a Foreign Land: Sport, Visual Culture, and Identity in Montréal, 1840-85, by Gillian Poluter (UBC Press, Vancouver, 2009).
- The definition in the dictionary really is this Lewis-Carroll-esque. The oxford dictionary I'm using in this case is The New Oxford American Dictionary that came installed by default on my computer.
- 'Pathological' in the sense that the celebrities seem to end up acting out against their own constructed media image.
- Alfred has made the controversial claim that whites don't have a culture. See Peace, Power, Righteousness: An Indigenous Manifesto (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2009).
- 'The Borg' may be a dark mirror of the way the boosters of 'Western culture' see it.
- The question of the 'communist' or 'socialist' nature of the former ussr is not a simple one; the question is at least as complicated for the united states.
- Indigenous peoples living in what is now called canada don't seem to share this 'canada coming of age' interest.
- There is of course no singular "american" culture at all, and there couldn't be in such a physically huge country and such a large population. Geography is probably more important than population size, because with roughly a tenth of the american population, canada is also highly diverse culturally.