O Canada, Who are You?

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The Article

I have been increasingly forlorn as I read about the culture wars erupting in Europe. Unassimilated Muslim youths in France torch cars. Cartoons of Muhammad in the Danish press set off deadly riots. Honour killings and anti-Semitic attacks are on the rise. And in the face of this, Europe seems somehow impotent. Within the next thirty or forty years, Europe will be majority Muslim. This, in and of itself, would not matter, had these immigrants assimilated into European culture. Yet they have not, so when the European majority disappears, in all likelihood European culture will, too.

And so it is that I turn my thoughts to our own nation, and what it means to be Canadian as our national holiday approaches. I fear that we are heading down a similar road as Europe, because we have lost our gumption to promote what is essentially good about being Canadian.

Part of the reason this is difficult is that we don’t know what a Canadian is. I was taught in school that three things defined Canada: our health care system, our peacekeeping, and multiculturalism. None of these things is rooted in history, though. And because of that, our identity is often created on the fly. How can you be proud of an identity that doesn’t endure? After all, if our national identity is based on our health care system, we are truly in trouble. And our military has been so decimated over the last decade that it will be hard to base an identity on that. And multiculturalism? That never made much sense as a national identity, anyway, since how can you base your identity on the thought that people don’t have to share one?

If these three things have failed, the only thing that appears to remain is anti-Americanism. We are Canadian, it seems, precisely because we are not American. Yet can a negative be an identity? It sounds more like a schoolyard taunt. 

So what is Canada? An enduring answer must be rooted in history, not just defined by today’s fads. My ancestors flocked because their prospects in Europe were glum. Canada was a land of opportunity, mingled with kindness and fairness not found elsewhere at the time, where you could get a farm if you agreed to work. My husband’s family was mostly Scottish, and many of them arrived after being kicked off their farms by greedy landlords. They wanted opportunity, too, but they wanted it mingled with justice.

Talk to recent immigrants from a variety of countries, and you’ll hear even worse stories. People have gone through hell to get here, but in the end, they’re looking for the same thing: opportunity and justice, mingled with kindness.

How can we continue to provide these things if we’re not even confident that our nation is worth promoting? Like Europe, we believe so much in multiculturalism that we shy away from tooting our own horn. If every culture is equally valid, we cannot speak about what is good in our own. Yet if we don’t take pride in our identity, how will it survive? In schools, do we teach about the bravery of our soldiers, today and yesterday, and about the hard work of the first prairie farmers? Do we teach that Western societies, which were the first to bring democracy, end slavery, and grant women equality, have much to be proud of? Or do we teach disproportionately about the evils done to First Nations people or the tragic internment of Japanese Canadians in World War II? Acknowledging and learning from one’s mistakes is one thing; promoting cultural guilt instead of cultural pride is cultural suicide.

I do not believe that we can have second generation Canadians. I think each generation recreates Canada, so that we are all first generation Canadians. If we don’t vociferously support a vision of what Canada is, then Canada, as we know it, will cease to be, just as our European cousins may soon find. I still believe that there is no better country to live in than Canada. If we want that to stay true, we must push for our values to be retained, lest what we hold dear about our country is relegated to pretty pictures in children’s history books.

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