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Canada's identity crisis: Looking back to the mid-1990s

By Mark Wegierski
web posted February 5, 2007

It can be seen that the crisis of Canadian identity has been going on for decades. On January 31, 1995, Federal Multiculturalism Minister Sheila Finestone said in a television interview: "In my view, there isn't any one Canadian identity. Canada has no national culture." Ironically, Sheila Finestone, then 68, represented as a Liberal the wealthy Mount Royal riding of Montreal, which is often considered an "Anglo bastion" in Quebec. It was also ironic that one of her most outspoken critics was Neil Bissoondath, a younger Trinidadian immigrant of East Indian descent. Bissoondath, a prominent writer, is somewhat disliked by the Canadian intellectual establishment, for his standing up for Canada. There was, for example his piece in Saturday Night Magazine, October 1994, pp. 11-22, "Don't Call Me Ethnic: Author Neil Bissoondath argues for a new generation of unhyphenated Canadians."

At that time, Finestone's statements caused a little flicker of genuine debate. The forthright hockey commentator Don Cherry said pointedly: "I agree wholeheartedly there isn't a national culture... Multiculturalism has killed our Canadian culture. Thirty or forty years ago, we had a Canadian culture and everyone knew it." The disdain of the Canadian Left for Don Cherry may be exemplified by an article like that attack-piece, "Post-‘Grapes', Nuts, and Flakes: Coach's Corner as Post-Colonial Performance", by Ric Knowles. (See The Weekend Star, April 23, 1995, pp. WS1 and WS7, "Don Cherry under fire from Guelph professor: Don Cherry's Coach's Corner has been labelled homophobic and xenophobic by a University of Guelph professor.") While sometimes calling themselves Canadian nationalists, many on the Canadian Left seem to love to pejoritize any representatives of a more traditional Canadian nationalism.

Professor Tom Flanagan, one of Canada's few prominent socially conservative academics, commented: "The real Canadian heritage has been to a considerable degree disowned and replaced by a new and imaginary culture largely created by her party." (The quotations above from Don Cherry and Tom Flanagan appeared in "Canada's Cultural Quandary", British Columbia Report, February 27, 1995, pp. 10-13.) Although, speaking in strictly formal terms, direct federal multicultural spending is only around $27 million per year, the idea of multiculturalism is central to understanding the nature of the post-Sixties' Canada, and influences almost every cultural endeavour, and virtually every aspect of life, in current-day Canada. From a traditionalist standpoint, Canada has undergone a remarkable degree of cultural fragmentation since the Sixties.

The commonplace current idea "that Canada is defined by its tolerance" conceals a logical fallacy, namely, that "tolerance" in itself cannot really be the substantive content of a culture -- it is an attitude that one culture, which has certain defined characteristics, extends to another culture. Is it at all possible to perceive Canada's defined characteristics, or substantive content, today? It could be argued that to say that, "Canada is defined by its tolerance" or that "Canada is defined by its multiculturalism", is to say that Canada means very little in itself.

Canada has lost, for example, any idea of "the immense majesty" of Canadian Parliamentary Democracy (constitutional monarchy with a parliamentary form of government), with its very deep roots in Europe. It can be remembered, for example, that the very words "Minister" and Prime Minister are ultimately derived from the names of Charlemagne's officials, the ministeriales. Rather than politics of high purpose, it could be argued that Canada today has mostly politics of mediocrity. Nevertheless, the political sector or realm could be seen for traditionalists as the main fulcrum – however unlikely – for restorative change today, as there appear to be far, far fewer chances in the academic and cultural realms.

There is a case to be made that the neoconservative desire to mostly leave culture to the private sector would have traditionalist implications in Canada. Indeed, some might argue that the kind of arts endeavours the Canadian government funds today, often constitute an attack on whatever residues of true Canadian culture remain.

One example among many of the cultural projects funded by the government is described in The Weekend Star, January 22, 1995, pp. WS1-WS2, "Cold War cost Inuit a way of life...in Kevin McMahon's wrenching new documentary on Canada's far north, In the Reign of Twilight, the national anthem crops up in various melodic guises...sounds like a dirge, a jewel-box ditty, and a ragged atonal taunt...the new $500,000 film version...explores the effects of the 1950s Cold War on the native inhabitants of the Arctic." Indeed, it can be seen this production combines such trendy themes as anti-militarism, anti-Americanism, and a zealous concern for ‘native rights' among those who utterly damn the concerns of Canadians of British and European descent born in Canada.

Towards the end of that year, another bit of what could be considered cultural attenuation came to public attention, as reported in The Globe and Mail, December 6, 1995, pp. A1-A2: "Reform outraged by secret in Canada's coat of arms: Liberals took 18 months to announce heraldic addition". It came to light that the Liberals had modified the Canadian coat of arms by adding a red garland around the shield, inscribed with the Latin motto meaning, "They desire a better country". This addition might be perceived as expressing a liberal sentiment of dissatisfaction with traditional arrangements, and an "urge to change". It is interestingly enough also the motto of the Order of Canada. This Canadian distinction has been given out prodigiously to a variety of persons, including pedestrian Liberal party fundraisers, and ultraleft activists, and is often seen as nothing more than a badge of allegiance to the prevailing nostrums of current-day Canada.

It could be argued that no truly confident country implicitly announces to the world, in one of its primary visual emblems, that it is in some way imperfect.

Red EnsignAmong some of the most deeply symbolic changes in the Canadian polity since the 1960s have been the adoption of the new flag, and the attenuation of the use of the term "Dominion of Canada". It could be argued that the change of the flag, from the very traditional-looking Red Ensign (which had a Union Jack in the upper-left corner), to the current flag -- which some critics at the time saw as Liberal Party banner -- signified something like a "regime-change." The main visual change could be seen as being from the royal scarlet of the Red Ensign to a new, plastic-looking red, with a too-stylized, abstract-looking Maple Leaf. It could be perceived as signifying a farewell – or perhaps rather a good riddance -- to traditional Canada, and implying that a new Canada, a "Canada Two" was now in the making.

The use of the term "Dominion" was also reduced as far as possible. Indeed, in most official Canadian diplomatic documents and papers, Canada is today identified as "The Government of Canada/Le Gouvernement du Canada." In the case of most countries, the country is identified as some sort of realm distinct from the government, usually a Republic or Kingdom. Indeed, the nomenclature by which Canada is referred to in diplomatic documents suggests that its most fundamental reality today is the administrative-juridical apparatus, and that the people who live there are mostly irrelevant. This brings to mind Berthold Brecht's sardonic quip, in support of the East German Communist regime, along the lines that "the government must elect a new people."  Today, some of the main ways through which this can actually be undertaken in Western societies is through mass, dissimilar immigration, and intensive, indoctrinating mass-education.

Moving into the second half of the Twenty-First Century's first decade, traditionalists in Canada are mostly reduced to writing cultural laments or dirges for a Canada that becomes ever more remote. ESR

Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher.

 

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