Canada shouldn’t even exist. We’ve broken virtually every rule where it applies to nation building:
- We aren’t one race but many. We are the only genuinely multicultural society (at least legally). Despite appearances, though, Canadians need to check their ego at the door when it comes to practicing toleration or celebrating diversity; we’re becoming less and less tolerant of Muslims according to a recent Angus Reid poll. America, yes the land of Donald Trump, is comparatively more supportive of new comers keeping their customs, language, etc. when immigrating to the United States than we are when people come to Canada.
No country is perfect I guess; and that’s quite a Canadian thing to admit, really.
- We don’t have one official language but two…and counting. Linguistic diversity sometimes poses a challenge (especially in schools and in the work place).
- Canada’s history is not a single narrative but a shared collection of stories. This is one of the few things about being Canadian I am genuinely proud of. There’s no point in celebrating any one branch of the Canadian family more than the next; everyone has contributed to creating this patchwork Canadian culture.
Nations are supposed to be simple things. Canada is far from simple. According to 19th century standards, nations consist of one ethnic group speaking the same language, worshiping the same God (in the same way), and sharing a common history. For example, Germans and Japanese nationalists insisted their respective countries were the greatest in the world in the 1930s. Around the same time Italians under Mussolini reminded Italy was once the seat of Roman power. In some respects deserved and in others not so much, France has persisted insisting it possesses a certain je ne sais quoi setting itself apart from other nations. Turning our attention to China, the Chinese refer to their country as the “Middle Kingdom” (a place existing mystically between Heaven and earth) while Americans are notorious for thinking themselves exceptional in absolutely every way. Canadians are different (or at least they think they are); they love their country while not holding themselves up as the standard by which all other countries are measured. Canadians admit they do some things well while acknowledging other countries do other things well.
Yet, Canada does have a rich history of intolerance. In shades of Plato’s “one and the many” dichotomy, there are examples in our history where the English majority (the “one”) attempted to push out or assimilate minorities (the “many”). English Canada has actively worked to limit French access, language, and legal rights. In the early days of Canada becoming a country, English Canada completely determined the path the country followed. Interestingly, the English aren’t the only ones who’ve been a little on the tribal side of the political spectrum. The early 20th century journalist Henri Bourassa wondered why French Canadians would fight for England in France when the fight for French liberty had not yet been won at home. French Canadians have also had some unflattering things to say about multiculturalism and such. In the mid-1990s, a prominent federal politician from Quebec named Lucien Bouchard argued Canada “wasn’t [even] a real country.” In a sense, he was right: we were too complicated a creature to constitute a nation. He was of course appealing to those 19th century standards about nationhood I previously mentioned. Bouchard didn’t view diversity as a strength but as a watering down of French Canadian culture and identity. Diversity was dangerous. In the early 2000s, Prime Minister Paul Martin argued the opposite observing “Canada is the world’s only truly post-modernist nation.” Martin invoked the post-modernist notion that diversity, truth, identity and purpose were relative things, not absolutes; there was more than one right way to go about building a nation.
Despite the recent Angus Reid poll, Canada is a multicultural society. We have our challenges (as do all notions, even ones with homogeneous populations). But I’m confident, invoking Abraham Lincoln here, that the better angels of our nature will eventually win out and the irrational fear people have of Muslims, specifically, will abate. Yet, optimism notwithstanding, tolerance is usually tied to how well the economy is doing more than anything else.
Pinpointing when modern nations first appeared in history is difficult. Some scholars claim England was the first nation state. They draw our attention to the year 1689 when England passed in to law its first constitution (Bill of Rights) thereby establishing a constitutional monarchy. Other scholars suggest the French Revolution (1789) brought into existence the first truly national identity. This particular view is not without its challenges; that is, only 50% of France’s people actually spoke French at the time of the Revolution (Cavanaugh, Migrations of the Holy, page 34). If one of the hallmarks of a nation is linguistic unity then France fails at every turn in 1789.
Ultimately, nations are not created simply by passing legislation limiting the power of the King (England) or by lopping off the Regent’s head (France). Nations are multi-headed creatures and complex. In the Canadian context, Canada breaks the rules and is successful primarily because, to quote John Raulston Saul “[Canadians] accept their non-conformity with some ease. They live it and so it makes sense” (Reflections of a Siamese Twin, page 9). In other words, we have little to no experience living any other way than being chill to one another. Not every Canadian is on-board with multiculturalism. Nonetheless, I would say it is an indisputable more Canadians than not support allowing individuals and communities to pursue happiness wherever it might take them.
Eventually France and England became nations but not for the reasons you might think: one did not love France just because one spoke French, revered the king or belonged to the Catholic Church. Historically speaking, France was divided into several dozen mutually exclusive rival provinces. Unity only came once people faced a shared threat from either Spain, England or Germany. The French nation, therefore, wasn’t born with the French Revolution, the declaration of the First Republic, and the beheading of King Louis XVI. On the contrary, France was born when she was invaded by the other powerful monarchs of Europe during the Napoleonic Wars (1798-1815). Nations, and national identity in particular, are created ultimately through destruction (war).
Wars make nationalists and nationalists make nations. In the case of the United States, it took two major wars—the American Revolution (1776-1783) and the Civil War (1861-1865)—for it to become a modern nation state. In the case of the Dominion of Canada, it became a country in form with the passage of the British North America Act in 1867; however, Canada did not become a nation in fact until our success at the Battle of Vimy Ridge in France (1917) during World War I. The shared sacrifice of Canada’s soldiers (French, English, German, Jewish, First Nation, Chinese, Japanese, etc.) gave Canadians a shared sense of pride resulting in a shared sense of identity. Heck I was born in more than 60 years after Vimy and the pride I feel is palpable. War is not the only way to build a nation. Yet, it seems to play a huge part in the development of national identity.
Above is a picture of a group of students I took to visit Vimy Ridge in May of 2015. (I’m the devilishly handsome and balding person with crossed-arms to the right of center.) The experience was unforgettable and one every single Canadian should make in their life.
There’s a certain irony that a nation like Canada which prides itself as an international peace keeper became a country following a military victory during an obscure battle on a non-descript hill in France in 1917.