There is no “One Size Fits All” Canadian identity

Happy Dominion Day!

For several years now I have marked our national holiday marking the Proclamation of Confederation in 1867 by reflecting in public on the elusive Canadian identity.

It’s a subject that continues quietly to bubble along amongst Canadians, even though the quest for answers is a little less public than it was when I was growing up in the 1960s.

There are a pair of very good reasons why the quest for a univocal identity for Canadians will elude us, certainly for as long as the country we have had since before Confederation persists. (The land will always be here, with people on it, but the society and culture can die, to be replaced by something new.)

The first is that from the beginning with the United Province of Canada, and the triumvirate of Lord Elgin as Governor-General, and Robert Baldwin and Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine as Justice Minister and Premier, Canada has been conceived of as consciously more than one nation bound together in a single state.

Multi-national states are usually, in one form or another, empires. Some of the nations rule over the others.

Indeed, when Britain sent Lord Durham to be Governor-General, and Upper and Lower Canada were merged, it was with the intention that the English-speakers would dominate the French-speakers, ultimately to assimilate them.

What we Canadians did in response was different: we developed responsible and shared government. It was a joining of established peoples by choice, but not a merging of them. If you like metaphors, a rope was built by twisting the strands together: stronger than any could be individually, entwined to allow each to bear the loads of the other and to persevere together, yet with all the differences retained.

I may be an Anglophone, and the offspring of settlers from the 1812 Red River colony coupled to immigrants who came from the UK and Ireland just before the First World War, but the French-Canadian Ô Canada, with its lines terre de nos aïeux (land of our forefathers) and ton histoire est une épopée des plus brillants exploits (thy history is an epic of the most brilliant exploits) is mine, too by adoption, even though I am not pur laine. That’s the twisted skeins at work.

We are also a people of, to use the Welsh word, cynefin — the place where our multiple identities dwell, or, to put it another way, we all have multiple cultural, historical, traditional, religious, communitarian, etc. pasts of which we as individuals are only partly aware.

When someone says “Canadians are naturally conservative” — not in the party political sense, but in the sense of being situated in time, and sensing that they have bonds to the past and to the future of preservation and stewardship respectively — they are saying this “multiple connections not fully comprehendible” in another way.

The phrase from the 1960s was the “Canadian mosaic” (as opposed to the American “melting pot”). We have no “civic theology”, as does the mythos animating the United States (revolution, flag, manifest destiny, city on a hill, etc.); we have no “single history”, as required by the French (it is said that one has qualified to become a French citizen when you can say, without irony, “our ancestors, the Gauls”); we have no animating idea, like the Australian “mateship”.

Instead, we build up from very small tiles (as with a mosaic), indeed, from neighbourhood, to communities, to municipalities, to provinces, to country … to the world. We layer, interweave, connect and share. In the process, as our horizons of interpretation shift and change, we lose sight of some of the elements of our inheritances from the past, and left in a position where what we still know “will have to be enough”.

The right way to see the Canadian identity is not with a mirrored cover, as on W. L. Morton’s book of the same name, but with a hand mirror that’s been cracked many times and distorts the view!

Canada has added 15,000,000 people in the last forty-five years alone, drawn from all over the world. I do not praise multiculturalism — part of its intent was to cut us off from our history and national culture of the twisted, entwined existence we shared — but neither do I decry it, save only to say that the new tiles in the national mosaic need to be fitted to the entwined tradition just as much as new strands need to be added to the national rope. We’ve done a not half bad job of that.

Those Canadians who today think the elements of that entwined core — the Crown, usually — must be done away with simply to modernize or to simplify our identity miss the point. Simplifying and standardizing who we are would cause us to lose ourselves. It is all these elements holding each other up that is who we are. Each of us, in turn, reflects a different weighting, balance and interplay within that.

The Canadian identity is ever-shifting, always fragmentary, yet contains a deep core of traditional inheritance from our forebears and a purpose in stewardship of who we are unto further generations.

If you must have a univocal identity, there it is: being responsible through time for bringing the whole thing along and strengthening it as we go.

I am a Canadian by birth. I am a patriot by upbringing. I am a nationalist by choice. For we have done something here that stands tall in the annals of human history.


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