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There is a diversity of people in Canada -- but what unites them?

By Mark Wegierski
web posted December 11, 2006

In The National Post of December 7, 2006, Andrew Coyne raised the important question, "What does 'citizen' mean?" While there is some merit to his brave endeavour to uphold the notion of "one Canadian citizenship" it simply has almost no reflection in the current-day Canada.

Even in the strictly formal sense, there are large numbers of people in Canada who are not Canadian citizens. There are permanent resident card holders who are not citizens, although they may be on the way to receiving citizenship. There are refugee claim applicants who are not citizens. There are foreign students and workers and visitors here on visas or without visas (the latter in the case of those countries for which Canada does not require visas). There are undocumented immigrants about whom the Canadian State, at least in theory, is mostly unaware.

On the other hand --  as was made abundantly clear during the Lebanon crisis --  there are a large number of persons living outside Canada for many years who hold Canadian citizenship as well as that of another country. It's possible that, given some international crisis, at least some of them could decide to come to Canada.

There are also people who are solely Canadian citizens living abroad as students, workers, or longer-term visitors in other countries.

In Canada, there are a considerable number of dual or even multiple citizenship holders, though probably many of them are not necessarily heavily engaged in the politics and culture of other countries. There are also persons, who, even if holding Canadian citizenship exclusively, are greatly engaged in the politics and culture of other countries. But the political and cultural activism of people engaged in the politics and culture of other countries, is supposed to be welcomed as part of multiculturalism.  Indeed, that leads to one of the main points of multiculturalism -- that Canadian identity can exercise no exclusive claim on one's allegiances -- indeed, that Canadian identity is essentially constituted out of the "mosaic" or "kaleidoscope" of these various heterogeneous cultures.

There are also in Canada varieties of separatism. One of these arises out of the duality of what were very traditionally called the two founding peoples of Canada. The Quebecois sovereigntists mostly view the Canadian State with antipathy. Aboriginal separatism has arisen since the 1960s. Many of the radical aboriginal separatists look with deep disdain at Canada. The idea is since the land was all "stolen" anyway, the Canadian State has no inherent legitimacy.

There is also a tendency among such archetypically Canadian institutions as the CBC, to "read out" certain groups of people as "un-Canadian." As far as the CBC is concerned, people who hold what are considered "reactionary" or "mean-spirited" social and cultural outlooks are simply not part of "the Canadian Way". Such outlooks are almost always characterized today as American-inspired, hence "un-Canadian". It is frequently enough suggested that the current Prime Minister and most of the Conservative Party may be such people.

The question that might clarify these various issues is not necessarily who is a "Canadian passport holder" but what is Canadian identity? It seems that there have been at least two, very different Canada's -- the one that existed before the 1960s, and the one that exists today. Traditional Canada was defined by its founding nations -- the English (British) and the French (the latter mostly centred in what became in 1867 the Province of Quebec). The two nations had been long pre-existent to Canadian Confederation in 1867. The founding document was called the British North America Act, and was approved by the Parliament of Westminster (the British Parliament) in London, England. The aboriginal peoples were included insofar as they were traditionally considered under the special protection of the Crown.

An understanding of the deep extent to which the British Canadian identity was formerly held – and a less negative view about its past role in Canada  – are indeed beyond the ken of most people in today's "New Canada." [1] There are in fact multifarious techniques today for rendering almost all of the traditional Canada to appear as utterly hideous to "decent" human sensibilities. When a CanLit novel is set in rural Canada, it is usually only to show the rural cultural landscape as utterly repulsive. The typical author is essentially thanking her lucky stars that she can now live in a cosmopolitan, post-1960s Toronto or Vancouver, with their spicy cuisine and spicier people. The frequency of rural settings does not necessarily mean, as ultra-hip author Douglas Coupland recently suggested, that CanLit is "anti-modern" and archaic. Indeed, the portrayal of the rural setting is usually informed by up-to-the-last-minute political-correctness.

It is pertinent to mention here that British Canadian identity was, after all, the mainspring of the Canadian commitment to Britain in the First and Second World Wars. What would have been the historical consequences if the currently fashionable, pacifist, anti-military, and anti-authority attitudes had been prevalent in Canada at the time of World War II?

Today, except for certain residues in political institutions, the British Canada has been all but annihilated. Nevertheless, it could be argued that Canada still remains in the penumbra of the WASPs, as many of them – whether in corporate or governmental structures -- have taken on the role of being one of the most "progressive", most politically-correct groups in Canada. Thereby, their elite enjoys lives of enormous material comfort and cushy sinecures, even as the New Canada conceptually engulfs all that their ancestors once held dear.

Obviously, it is impossible to return to the Old Canada. Nevertheless, it's possible that there may be the chance for a "post-New Canada" that will move in the direction of various scenarios of so-called "provincialization" – as the contradictions between the current-day hyper-centralization, to which huge economic resources are perforce committed – and the vapid cultural and spiritual hollowness at the core of the administrative "command" apparatus – become ever more apparent.

Perhaps the original idea of the European Community as a "union of sovereign states" -- rather than of today's E.U., which has become a bureaucratic, sometimes nightmarish "superstate" -- could serve as model for this "Canada Three." [2] Presumably, the "Canada Three" would be some kind of positive synthesis of the best elements of both the traditional and the current-day Canada. Some commentators have termed this scenario "the Swiss model" or cantonization. The hope would be that radical decentralization would allow for various arrangements that would actually make "Canada Three" a stronger and more "rooted" federation or union in its constituent parts. ESR


1. The author of this article is fully aware that the use of the term "New Canada" was one of Preston Manning's tropes in his attempt to disguise the traditionalism and conservatism of the Reform Party. In this article, the term refers to the "New Canadian State" created mostly by Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau. He was Prime Minister from 1968 to 1984 (except for nine months in 1979-1980).

2. Richard Gwyn, the well-known liberal commentator, had coined the term "Canada Two" to critically refer to what he imagined the negative consequences of the Meech Lake Accord (1987) or the Charlottetown Agreements (1992) would be (both of them eventually failed to win approval in Canada). In this article, "Canada Two" is the "New Canada" created mostly by Trudeau. "Canada Three" is envisioned as a positive synthesis of the traditional and current-day Canada.

Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher.




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