An unfinished country

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The Article

The silly name for our national holiday, “Canada Day” (imagine “Italy Day” or “U.S.A. Day”) always makes me flinch. It has done so since 1982 when Dominion Day, a perfectly appropriate name for a big, beautiful country like ours, was voted into the oubliette of history after five minutes’ debate without a parliamentary quorum present. “Dominion” happens not to refer to the British empire, as assumed by the bill’s presenting MP, but to the 72nd Psalm: “He shall have dominion also from sea to sea ?” But appearance is all, in matters multicultural.

In his new book The Unfinished Canadian, Ottawa journalist, professor and prolific author Andrew Cohen crisply defines this insulting act of historical theft and its replacement (he describes Canada Day as a name of “crushing banality”) as “a renunciation of the past, a misreading of history, laden with political correctness and historical ignorance.” Hear, hear.

Indignation over heritage vandalism in general sits well on Cohen, a spirited champion of all that is good in the national character, and an unapologetic scold about all that is ? less good. A writer whose discursive, often breezy prose tends to mask his erudition, Cohen displays a keen eye in The Unfinished Canadian for the ideal hierarchy of civic values a citizen of any healthy country should cherish, highlighted with symbolic gestures—like the Canada Day fiasco—that reveal our carelessness about embracing them. He neatly closes the loop with an unapologetically prescriptive “finishing” program for achieving national maturity.

Politically I’m not always on the same page or even in the same chapter as Andrew Cohen, but his analysis of our cultural deficits and the national character quirks they spring from—tall poppy syndrome, the obsession with presenting as better than Americans, the default sacrifice of elite standards to egalitarian mediocrity (“Ottawa is the standing-ovation capital of the world”) and the deference to victim narratives behind our reticence to serve the national interest—are spot on, and backed up by compelling evidence.

Ottawans were angered by Cohen’s merciless street-by-street attack on the city’s provincialism, pettiness and indistinction of its architecture, monuments and symbolic placement. Why, he asks for example, do the embassies of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, no particular friends to Canada, claim two prime spots on the ceremonial mile? Why can’t Ottawa’s central library raise more than $40,000 in its annual fundraiser in one of Canada’s wealthiest cities? Good questions, and a host of others equally embarrassing, as they should be, to all Canadians.

I particularly liked Cohen’s ratiocinative deconstruction of the intellectual frivolity and multicultural sycophancy at the heart of Canadians’ facile acceptance of the virtually unaccredited and ideologically ambiguous Michaelle Jean for G-G, on the one hand, and on the other the public pillorying of the much worthier, but—alas for her—nationally aspirational Adrienne Clarkson.

I’m on board for all of Cohen’s prescriptions for a healthier and stronger nation, amongst which:

– As “a nation of amnesiacs” we must rediscover our past through civics courses and ramped-up history programs for students;

– Create a National Trust to preserve our landmarks of cultural significance;

– Ditch Victoria Day and institute Vimy Day, April 12, to commemorate our 3,598 dead at Vimy Ridge as a pledge of our intention to begin celebrating real heroism;

– “Canada is blessed to have America as a neighbour.” Indeed. Enough with reflexive anti-Americanism; Beef up our citizenship requirements and its oath. Less emphasis on rights, more on responsibilities. It’s time for the Hotel Canada to go condo;

– Institute mandatory public service, either military or otherwise;

– Bring back Dominion Day;

– Make Ottawa a real capital city—i.e., lend pride and vision to its public spaces, official residences and monuments.

One quibble: I do take issue with Cohen’s unnuanced assessment of “moderation” as intrinsic to our character. He says we have “an aversion to ideology ? because that could lead to stridency, or even militancy. We dislike militancy.” That may be true for Canadians in general, but, as any father seeking custodial equity in our feminist-dominated family law system can tell you, Canadian social policy and law are very much guided by militant ideology. Case in point: It was certainly not “moderation” that led to the passage of the gay marriage bill at the speed of light.

But I will overlook this lacuna in the spirit of Canadian compromise if Cohen’s book is responsible for a successful campaign to bring back Dominion Day. Happy (ouch) Canada Day to all.

Barbara Kay
Latest posts by Barbara Kay (see all)

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