Mark Canada’s ‘moment,’ but with more honest self-examination

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November 1, 2016

Since the election of the Trudeau Liberals a year ago, we have witnessed a particularly aggressive reassertion of the liberal nationalism that has officially defined Canada since the 1960s. Stephen Marche’s essay “Canadian Exceptionalism” is perhaps the best summation yet seen of the sentiments prevailing in our country at the present time—both in how it characterizes the current moment, but also in how it accounts for it. 

Marche argues that, culturally situated between two beleaguered standard-bearers of an increasingly shaky liberal order (the United States and the United Kingdom), Canada’s institutions, values and spirit of optimism stand out as a radical exception. But why? To answer this question he offers a familiar account of Canada’s reigning political culture: whereas the United States has an essentially negative tradition born of a popular citizens’ revolt against taxation by the British Crown, Canadians remain its subjects and therefore see government as a positive guarantor of their rights. This apparently superficial difference, so the argument goes, has allowed Canada to develop a more egalitarian society that moderates internal critique, obviates nativism and elevates multiculturalism to the status of public good. 

A few of Marche’s specific claims are worth disputing. 

Contrary to his more rosy picture, Canada’s conservative movement has, since the late 1980s, enjoyed an intellectual kinship with America’s New Right that has, at times, rivaled the way many 1920s leftists identified with the Soviet Union. It was this alliance, not some random deviation from a more benign Burkean tradition, that birthed the Reform Party, the Common Sense Revolution, the Harper government, and the destructive mayoralty of Rob Ford. Far from being anomalous, the nativist streak displayed by the Conservatives during the last federal election is better seen as the culmination of their decade-long attempt to appropriate and realign Canadian nationalism for their own illiberal ends. Thus far, the most visible candidate to replace Stephen Harper, MP Kellie Leitch, is attempting to leverage that very same sentiment, and Maxime Bernier, the campaign’s apparent frontrunner, is musing about returning Canada to the gold standard. (And yet, Marche writes: "One may say horrible things about the Conservative Party of Canada...but they would never swallow this nonsense.”)  

It’s also far from the case that instances of populism in the United States are “always anti-government.” If so, how do we account for the socialist tradition represented by figures like Eugene Debbs, the popularity of Bernie Sanders’ recent presidential campaign, the populist movement of the late 19th century, or even something like FDR’s New Deal and proposed Economic Bill of Rights? The Civil Rights movement of the 1960s was certainly populist in orientation, but it also sought to use the power of the federal government as a positive guarantor of rights. While there are definitely qualitative differences between the American and Canadian political traditions, there’s no need to stylize them to the point of reductionism. 

How do we account for the popularity of Bernie Sanders’ recent presidential campaign?

In any case, what of Marche’s thesis about Canada, its national mood and its current position in the world?  A classically conservative penchant for order and tradition tempered by a liberal ethic of pluralism and tolerance: this is indeed more or less the dominant idea of the country among our own elites, and the essence of our civic story according to the cultural apparatus they’ve spent the past half century or so erecting.    

The great irony of our Anglo-Red Tory national ethos, so proudly defined by its “openness,” is how exclusionary and erasing its central narrative manages to be. Where exactly do the Québécois, descendants of the first European empire to colonize Canada and still the self-conscious stewards of a distinctive national culture, fit in? And how do we reconcile what Marche calls “the mysterious political unity of the Canadian people, which is equally ethereal, equally obscure” with their historic–and often loud–demands for recognition and self-determination? 

Marche writes in a sentence immediately following one about the breathtaking diversity of Canada’s Indigenous communities and others that “from the beginning, we have been forging a national sense of self from within the confines of multiple communities...Canada has never lived by national pride, or by a numinous sense of blood and soil.” This would probably be news to residential school survivors, Japanese victims of wartime internment, or the nearly 400 passengers of the SS Komagata Maru–Sikhs, Hindus, and Muslims–who were once turned away from Canada’s shores at gunpoint while Anglo-Saxon elites sang a rousing chorus of “White Canada Forever!” in celebration. 

In a lesser, but still egregious exclusion, Canada’s third political current–social democracy–is erased from the picture entirely, despite having produced the country’s most cherished institution (medicare) and been at the helm of government in six of its 10 provinces. 

It’s undeniable that Canada is experiencing a unique moment of national enthusiasm, or that the revanchist populism currently sweeping Britain and America has yet to seriously threaten our centrist liberal order. But contained within this enthusiasm–as evidenced by Marche’s essay–is a familiar and primordial resistance to honest self-examination, and a thoroughgoing maplewash of what it might reveal. 

For all the cheery exaltations about our swinging new zeitgeist, I am unsure what about it is radical or unique. The spirit of optimism supposedly embodied in the temperament of Justin Trudeau more or less explicitly posits itself as a kind of nostalgic celebration–the phrase “Canada is back!” representing an affirmation of the country’s institutions as they are and as they have been, not a progressive orientation towards a genuinely modernist vision of change. 

In broad terms, I agree with Stephen Marche about the inherent conservatism and deference of Canada’s reigning cultural orthodoxy. But I disagree strongly about its inherent value.

Luke Savage is a Toronto-based writer whose work has appeared in Maisonneuve, Jacobin, and on CBC radio. He works at the Broadbent Institute.