Like most schoolchildren, I absorbed the official story of Canada early in life. It’s incredible how deeply a national liturgy can sink into you, both emotionally and intellectually, over time. There are the obvious causes: reading history or being taught about multiculturalism, medicare, Trudeaumania, or the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
But I’ve come to rank this formalized acculturation as less significant than the everyday experiences of growing up in a community with a codified account of its own identity, in a modern nation-state.
While the business of learning your country’s official version of itself may provide the backdrop, it’s the more subtle and quotidian moments that ensure the story and its underlying narratives really seep into the foreground of your imagination: rising to sing the national anthem each and every morning in unison, watching and playing sports, waving the Maple Leaf on Canada Day.
Whatever its exact source, the story I inherited represents Canada’s official self-understanding, one so omnipresent in our textbooks, on our TV screens, and in our daily lives that it can be felt by many of us just as easily as it can be described.
It’s the Canada inhabited by hewers of wood and drawers of water, where pluralism is the law of the land and the ship of state is guided by the pragmatic beacons of Peace, Order and Good Government; the Canada of wry self-deprecation and reflexive politeness; of beavers, maple syrup and Mounties, where most everyone is middle class, industrious, tolerant and hospitable. It’s the Canada of Pearsonian peacekeeping and universal healthcare; the always-welcoming country of immigrants; the cultural mosaic which somehow forges, out of difference, an ethereal unity.
This may have been the country I grew up with, but it’s not the one in which I have actually lived.
As Canada enters its 150th year — which we will mark on July 1 — the official mood is one of near exuberance.
True, the election of Donald Trump south of the border has somewhat blunted the spirit. Though, in another sense, this event has only served to reinforce it.
The narrative of Canadian exceptionalism has enjoyed an undeniable renaissance over the past 18 months, a fact arguably registered as much by foreign punditry as our own. While certainly boosted by global events — Trump, Brexit, the rise of right-wing nativism throughout Europe — the celebratory atmosphere really began in October, 2015, with the election of Justin Trudeau. “Canada is back,” our photogenic new leader then declared, having ended nearly a decade of Conservative rule and led the country’s ever-dominant Liberal Party into power once again.
Better than anything else, this declaration sums up the widespread spirit of exuberance and optimism which has come in the wake of Trudeau’s election victory. (Indeed the phrase has been brought up many times since then, most often in assessments of Trudeau’s performance.) But often missed or overlooked in the phrase “Canada is back” is its inherent conservatism. To be “back,” of course, is to return or be restored, not reinvigorated — and certainly not reinvented or born anew. Perhaps this explains why, for all the sunny exaltations about the country’s newfound progressive course, the sentiments evinced by its supposed return have overwhelmingly oriented themselves backwards and inwards, rather than forwards.
“Canada is back,” particularly when originating from the mouth of someone named Trudeau, is a nostalgic affirmation of the country’s institutions as they are and as they have been, rather than a clarion call for sweeping change. “Meanwhile in Canada,” another slogan currently in vogue, carries with it the smug implication that prejudice and violence are foreign phenomena that begin a few hundred kilometres south of the 49th parallel.
The familiar simulacrum of Canada as a uniquely open, egalitarian and post-racial utopia has reasserted itself with a vengeance both at home and abroad, alongside an equally familiar image of a uniquely constructive actor on the world stage.
Nowhere has this been more evident than in relation to the global refugee crisis. When Trump targeted Muslim-majority countries with his travel ban (since struck down in the courts), the prime minister informed the world: "To those fleeing persecution, terror and war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith. Diversity is our strength. Welcome to Canada.” Trudeau’s statement was reported glowingly by international media, though nothing about Canada’s refugee policy was actually being changed to take into account those in the U.S. who might need accommodation. Images of asylum seekers being greeted by smiling Mounties at the border became a viral sensation, while those showing the same asylum seekers being handcuffed and driven to detention centres have, perhaps unsurprisingly, been largely hidden from view.
In similar fashion, Canada’s global image as multilateral broker and peacemaker persists untarnished even as our government sits out critical nuclear disarmament talks and facilitates the largest weapons sale in its history to a repressive Saudi regime complicit in the mass starvation of Yemen. Leveraging this very image, the Trudeau Liberals campaigned on a promise to end Canada’s combat mission in Iraq and Syria — one they have since expanded with virtually no corresponding outcry.
Time and time again, the realities of Canada prove less important in our national discourse than the comforting illusions we liturgically celebrate in their place.
On the heels of Confederation’s 150th anniversary, and at the precipice of a singularly precarious and formative global period, the thriving narrative of Canada as a global exception continues to neutralize critical self-assessment at the moment that it is arguably needed most.
Of course, this maple-washed self-image — and the primordial aversion to critical self-examination it continues to cultivate — wasn’t conjured out of thin air or pulled from the ether by any single politician.
For something to return, it has to originate somewhere.
Few national narratives are pure contrivance. They take hold precisely because of their proximity to histories and experiences, real or supposed. But these are, by their very nature, contingent and subjective things: products of specific places, times, individuals and collectivities, not to mention the disparate relations in which culture and politics inevitably situate them.
Just like another modern institution (namely democracy, which is still less than a century old) we often forget that the formulation of “nation-state” hasn’t been with us for very long. The 1648 Peace of Westphalia roughly established the boundaries of most of Western and Northern Europe, where contiguous territories with existing states gradually assumed the character of “nations.” In Central and Eastern Europe, the process occurred in reverse, with embryonic national identities forging together political coherence, by way of civil conflict or outright social revolution.
Even if the ultimate outcome was the same, what differed was the architects involved: in the former case, lawyers, technocrats and royal administrators who staffed and managed the expanding states; in the latter, intellectuals, writers, artists, historians and others who inscribed a “nation” that provided the popular basis for the state.
What makes Canada somewhat novel is that it has, in effect, undertaken both processes at different stages in its existence. Confederation was the product of fragmented settler bureaucracies coming together in a political union that remained a de facto extension of the British Empire. But the modern Canadian nation-state — with its flag and its national mythos — was a product of the postwar decades, built jointly by liberal Anglophones and a newly self-assured Francophone elite.
It was primarily this period — the 1960s to 1980s — in which what we now regard as “the Canadian identity” was consecrated, its events and iconography still deeply rooted in our collective memory: the Suez Crisis and the advent of Pearsonian peacekeeping and Cold War multilateralism; the substitution on the flag of the Red Ensign for the Maple Leaf; the Bill of Rights and Official Languages Act; Trudeaumania, with its telegenic opulence and seductive if vague calls for a “Just Society;” the modernist flair of Expo 67; the Quiet Revolution and the flourishing of Quebec nationalism; the embrace of state multiculturalism.
Through a series of often-disparate events, now forged together in our national imagination, a new cultural consensus was created, culminating in the Constitution Act of 1982 and the liberal ethos it enshrined.
Like so much else about the postwar decades, this titular moment of our coming of age is often cast as a revolutionary point of rupture with the old order. But the ingredients were all there to produce what would become its modern identity — one which reordered and stylized the old much more than it invented the new.
The extent to which Canada’s existence owes itself to a combination of ancient imperial brinksmanship, sheer historical accident, exploitation and brutal conquest has not become a constituent part of a national imagination premised on the tropes of liberal multiculturalism.
What is now called “Canada” might easily not have been, or might have been in radically different form. More than anything else, it was the happenstances of 18th-century geopolitics and colonization that produced the various elements that would later become its codified modern character.
Then as now, the territory of Canada existed at the immediate periphery of the world’s decisive imperial actors. In what was effectively a proxy theatre of the global Seven Years’ War, the bloody conflict between British and French colonists (and their Native American allies) ultimately determined what came next. The 1760 conquest of New France marked the consolidation of British hegemony on the North American continent, ensuring that it would be controlled by English-speakers rather than French, and that its further colonization would be directed from Westminster (and later Washington) rather than the Château de Versailles.
In the 1763 Treaty of Paris, the French colony and its 65,000 inhabitants — les Canadiens — were officially transferred to British rule, though subsequent attempts to assimilate them and impose British common law were quickly abandoned in the face of nearby American unrest and a lack of English settler migration. In the first instance of legal pluralism anywhere in the British Empire, the Quebec Act of 1774 recognized the legitimacy of the two foundational elements in Canadien society: French civil law and Catholicism. The French colonists had suffered a military defeat, but not an outright cultural conquest.
This ensured that two parallel settler societies would persevere in North America, the French-speaking minority in Canada eventually asserting itself with considerable implications for the English-speaking majority. With the subsequent revolt to the South of the Thirteen Colonies against British rule, the basic parameters of what would become the Canadian state (and later nation-state) were set, the bizarre byproducts of global conflict, imperial brokerage, revolution and colonial conquest.
The year 1763 marked the signing of the Treaty of Paris, but also the Royal Proclamation which forms the basis for the relationship between First Nations and the Crown — with all its foundational asymmetries and injustices — to this day. At Fort Niagara the following year, approximately 2,000 chiefs representing 24 nations gathered to ratify the Proclamation which, on its face, signalled Britain’s willingness to respect their territorial claims and right to self-determination.
But the document’s ambiguous language was a dark nod to the colonial relationship that has more or less persisted ever since. Declaring on one hand that the “Nations or Tribes of Indians with whom we are connected” should “not be molested or disturbed,” it also asserted British “Dominion” over the same territories and implied them subordinate to the Crown’s legal jurisdiction and rule.
With one hand, European settlers gestured towards mutual respect and peaceful coexistence; with the other, towards paternalism and cultural domination.
In the two and a half centuries since, the latter instincts have almost invariably prevailed.
If the 18th century established the parameters of what would become the Canadian state, and the 19th institutionalized them through Confederation, the first half of the 20th laid the final foundation for the Canadian nation that would be inscribed during the postwar decades.
It was at century’s turn that the country’s mostly homogenous Anglo-French settler society began to receive newcomers from destinations and backgrounds previously unknown. As it lagged far behind Britain and other European nations in terms of capitalist development, the primary impetus for such immigration was economic rather than cultural. Cheap labour was needed, both for expanding industry and the growing agricultural economy, several thousand Chinese migrant workers having already been exploited for the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway — prior to an outright ethnic ban.
In 1901, Canada had a population of only five million. Some three million more would immigrate by 1914. Alberta grew by an almost unfathomable 412 percent, Saskatchewan by 440 between 1900 and 1910. Amidst these waves were racialized migrants, many of them of Ukrainians, Poles and Jews hailing from Eastern Europe.
The racial animus that greeted these newcomers, often from the same sources of officialdom grudgingly granting them entrance, was considerable. Take, for example, one representative remark of Alberta’s Minister of Immigration Frank Oliver, who in 1901 called Americans “desirable in every way,” adding: “They are people of intelligence, of energy, of enterprise, of the highest aspirations,” while later commenting, “We resent the idea of having the millstone of this Slav population hung around our necks.” In 1914, “White Canada Forever” was the country’s most popular bar song. In Saskatchewan, the only English province where ethnic Brits were in the minority, the Ku Klux Klan had an estimated membership of 15,000 to 20,000 during the 1920s.
Canada was certainly to be a nation of immigrants. But the people who journeyed here by sea, often risking life and livelihood along the way, were not always welcomed. The country maintained a racially discriminatory immigration system until the late 1960s, while many who were granted entry faced the prejudices inherent to a society whose elites were determined to keep it white, British and Christian.
While the later embrace of multiculturalism as official policy has served to marginalize these histories, they remain a constitutive part of how Canada came to be rather than a random deviation.
Perhaps it is tautological to call any moment in history “unique.” But the circumstances in which the personality of the Canadian nation-state was eventually consolidated were certainly distinct.
The world had just emerged from an epochal conflict and the resulting rivalry between nuclear-armed superpowers threatened to trigger another. Britain, Canada’s original imperial benefactor, had effectively handed the baton of Western hegemony to the United States. European powers, shattered and bankrupted by war and confronted with anti-colonial nationalism, were grudgingly dismantling their global empires.
A combination of external pressures and internal shifts precipitated what came next. For one thing, Canada had become a fact well beyond the existence of its state apparatus. Immigration was now a lived reality, even if plenty of racist attitudes — not to mention colonial dynamics — persisted. With several of the country’s industries sufficiently developed, and with the proliferation of mass media, the process of deep economic and cultural integration with the United States could begin in earnest.
But when it came to reconfiguring the political landscape and producing the version of Canada we know today, Quebec’s sudden transformation is unrivalled. Some 200 years after Major General James Wolfe’s fatal victory on the Plains of Abraham subordinated the colonists of New France, the Quiet Revolution set off seismic tremors that would be felt as much in Ottawa as in Quebec City or Montreal for decades to come.
When Jean Lesage’s Liberals took power in 1960 under the slogan “Maîtres chez nous” (“masters in our own house”), a political and social revolution that would have reverberations far beyond the borders of Quebec had begun. The nationalism which so suddenly and confidently burst forth in the early 1960s was a synthesis of old and new, the product of a distinctiveness born of incomplete conquest commingling with liberal humanism and postwar capitalism. That nationalism projected itself inwardly and outwardly, as a new generation of Quebec politicians (Pierre Trudeau foremost among them) reshaped federalism to incorporate the French fact while others sought to create a sovereign nation independent from Canada.
One settler society having partially conquered another, textured further by new waves of immigrants and situated historically between no less than three global empires, the modern Canadian nation-state was ready to be born.
In the span of roughly 30 years, Canada’s foundational eccentricities coalesced to create a radically revised political consensus resting on the totems of official multiculturalism, bilingualism and eventually a new constitution. A distinctly Canadian version of liberal pluralism, grafted onto the existing constitutional monarchy, was quickly adopted as both a civic and a cultural identity. Though this consensus has sometimes appeared precarious — as on the night of the Quebec referendum of October 30, 1995 — it is now firmly institutionalized in law and embedded in the body politic.
In channelling and codifying the liberal spirit of the 1960s and bringing a newly assertive Quebec decisively into federal politics, the postwar decades had all the intimations of a national founding. Their historical novelty continues to imbue them with a great mythic power, and given that they still exist in the fairly recent past, it is perhaps no wonder that they continue to resonate so viscerally.
In some respects, the exceptionalist mindset that persists today can be linked to this temporal proximity. Most other nation-states (at least of the European variety) have to reach more distantly into the past for their founding events and precepts, while ours still reverberate in living memory. Yet in another sense our national mythos has the very same antediluvian quality — much of its imagery and raw material mined from sources a good deal more ancient than the specific events that produced it. This is perhaps the reason Canadian history is so often rendered in bowdlerized form, represented through bucolic images of chivalrous Mounties, romantic depictions of intercultural exchange and immigrant life, or oil paintings of vast, unspoiled wilderness.
In founding a national narrative upon the premise that all of the country’s constituent communities are equal in the present, there is a risk the past will be erased or stylized out of recognition: the ugliest and most violent elements — from every theft of land, broken treaty, or residential school to every black or Asian immigration quota; every brutally put down strike; every missing or murdered indigenous woman; every S.S. St Louis or Komagata Maru — sanitized or relegated to the status of unfortunate deviations rather than component parts.
It is noteworthy for this very reason that Canada’s postwar identity struggles reached their climax in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms — a document which recognizes the equality of all citizens before the law, alongside distinctive language rights and treaties between the Crown and indigenous peoples. To recognize something is only to acknowledge and institute it in the present, and a formal decree of justice only goes so far if systems or histories of oppression run deep.
Where the liberal ideal of universal equality becomes axiomatic, it can quickly grow myopic toward its own inherent blind spots. And when the injustices of the past are remembered in only the most abstract and refracted forms, it becomes impossible to recognize their progeny in the present even as they stare us in the face.
Another consequence of the Canadian identity’s relative newness is that thoroughly contingent events have sometimes become its signifiers or reference points. While most every nation-state clings to the maxims of its founding moment beyond their strict point of relevancy, Canada’s innate sense of its position in the world occasionally takes this reflex to absurd extremes. As a result, its self-image as a multilateral broker and a nation of peacekeepers — mostly drawn from the Suez Crisis and the intermittently independent foreign policies of Diefenbaker, Pearson and Trudeau during the Cold War — persists despite bearing little relation to how its governments now conduct geopolitics.
Even in the years immediately following Pierre Trudeau’s departure, both Canada’s international image and its corresponding reality shifted considerably. Nevertheless, attempts to transform the former have met with very limited success. Brian Mulroney may have succeeded in deepening the country’s economic integration with the United States, but his attempts to reshape its function within the Canadian psyche can hardly be said to have taken hold. Stephen Harper, who was openly contemptuous of multilateralism, assumed an alternative foreign policy posture premised on the Manichean belief that an infinitely complex world can be neatly taxonomized into good and bad.
In their own ways, both offered sketches of a prospective national image. A few historical dominoes rearranged and perhaps one might have embedded itself. Had Mulroney’s vision succeeded more comprehensively, many more Canadians might now see themselves as junior partners in a U.S.-led global order, along the lines of the UK’s so-called “special relationship.” Harper’s conception of the Canadian identity — a peculiar pastiche of Loyalist, multiculturalist and pro-American currents built primarily around the monarchy and the military — could have created a different country altogether. But even as the tectonic plates of Canadian and global politics have shifted, the country’s foreign policy along with them, the anachronistic image of peacekeeper and multilateral broker has remained firmly entrenched.
The subtext of the multilateral chimera, however, is easily identified and a lot more far-reaching in its implications.
Both before and after 1867, Canada’s proximity to the United States has been integral to its inhabitants’ own sense of being. From the original Loyalists to the Tories who governed in the years after Confederation, from the Bomarc Missile Crisis to the free trade election of 1988, fear of cooption and cultural absorption has been a foundational current in the Canadian psyche. Through many an ideological transfiguration, English Canada in particular has defined itself in large part against the American Republic, with any perceived point of difference feeding into a distinctly Canadian notion of exceptionalism.
Consider, for example, these words from Canadian philosopher George Grant:
“Unless we have our own national way, we will have the American way. If we bow prostrate before the culture of Hollywood; if in education we accept from the south the phoney precepts of so-called ‘progressive education’; if socially we welcome in our Granite Clubs the Babbitry of the middle west and the intolerance of the deep south; if economically we accept the uncontrolled individualism of American business and call it British freedom; if our entertainment criterion is Frank Sinatra and philosophically and religiously we accept the materialist claptrap from the USA — then we will in effect have given up those values that are essentially Canadian and we might as well become part of Leviathan. Morally and intellectually we will have become a colony of the republic and should therefore ask for admission to the union.”
Despite being a classical conservative and sometimes reductively Burkean traditionalist, Grant’s philosophy of Canada, famously articulated in the elegiac polemic Lament for a Nation, found a sizeable audience among both liberals and socialists. (That, with a few words and references substituted, the passage above could probably have been written in any one of three centuries is evidence of just how deep in the Canadian psyche the sentiment truly goes.)
Indeed, in the face of deepening economic and cultural integration with the United States, Canadians have clung ever more fiercely to their national symbols. Even as they increasingly consume the same TV, music and mass culture as their neighbours, the official iconography of an egalitarian, multicultural Canada remains a comforting marker of difference — one that virtually the country’s entire cultural edifice has gradually evolved to project, mythologize and reproduce.
This is probably the single greatest catalyst for Canadian exceptionalism as a narrative, and a tendency that continuously reinforces itself through every contrast, real or imagined, it is able to draw. In the inverse, virtually anyone or anything that succeeds or even registers in America reverberates more loudly in Canada as a result. The relationship binding the modern Canadian identity to the United States has thus become a peculiar combination of repudiation and embrace, both facets tending to feed back into the same collective feeling of distinctiveness and rectitude.
While all nationalisms have an edge of vanity to them, the resulting complex of diffident superiority lends Canada’s its own particular tincture of smugness and complacency. American exceptionalism is imperial, booming and hubristic. The Canadian variant is quietly provincial, just as our perceived cultural sensibility is earnest, apologetic and meek.
More than anything else, it is this characteristic that makes Canadian exceptionalism exceptionally harmful.
Canada may be “back,” though in many ways it never went anywhere to begin with.
Our modern self-image has obstinately persevered even as it has experienced changes within and witnessed them without. This stubbornness paradoxically reflects both a visceral smugness and a visceral insecurity. As a matter of course, Canadians fiercely perform their innate sense of national excellence but often recoil or look away when its foundational narratives are confronted or challenged.
Insofar the Canadian project has in many respects been more successful than others, a major obstacle to progress continues to be an implicit sense that its institutions and values function harmoniously as they are. Even as many traumas and problems linger, there is a persistent and dominant inclination to partake in only the most idealized kind of historical memory, producing a past that is thoroughly maple-washed alongside the present.
The irony is that, for all of its flourishes about pluralism and tolerance — in fact, precisely because of them — our national narrative continues to erase the past and contort the present.
It is the ensuing cultural reflex that enables so many to believe in good faith that we have transcended the problems and injustices manifest in every other liberal democracy, even as they continue to stare us squarely in the face. Institutional racism persists, as incarceration rates for black and aboriginal citizens soar and the federal government continues to deny First Nations children the same basic welfare provisions their non-native peers receive by birthright. Poverty remains a deeply racialized phenomenon, disproportionately falling on aboriginals and non-white Canadians. Casual, everyday instances of discrimination — of the kind some Canadians associate almost exclusively with the United States — are common. The country remains structurally unequal, with its middle class shrinking, the wealthiest 10 percent owning almost half of all national wealth, and the richest CEOs pocketing the average worker’s annual salary by lunchtime on January 1.
Canada is indeed back, but if we spend the next 50 or 150 years liturgically celebrating its return, we will be unable to imagine a more just and egalitarian future — let alone actually bring one about.
Illustrations by Garth Laidlaw.