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Nationalism Without Walls:
The Unbearable Lightness of Being Canadian


by Richard Gwyn,
ISBN: 0771037171


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Richard Gwyn Stick-handles on Thin Ice
by H Forbes

Richard Gwyn's discussion of the Canadian identity or "the idea of Canada" combines enthusiastic endorsement of Canada as a multicultural nation with frank criticisms of the main policies that have made us what we are. Canada, he says, is the first postmodern state, and this is a good thing, for it puts us on the leading edge of history. Rather than being an old-fashioned "nation-state" based on communalities of ethnicity and history, we are a modern "state-nation," essentially a political community or an "idea-state", like the Americans. But we differ from them because we have two distinctive national ideas, caring and sharing for the sake of equality and tolerance for the sake of diversity.

Not so long ago, we may have been a "manly" "militaristic" "northern" people, unafraid of war. The history books tell us that we were keener than the Americans to fight the Hun and less willing than they were to welcome strangers. But since World War II we have undergone a change of character. Our gentler qualities have come to the surface, and now we represent "the feminine principle in North America". We have learned to relax and let ourselves be pampered by our "provider" state. In fact, doing so is now "part of our national DNA."

Once again, however, our character is changing, and this time it may be the end of us. Free trade, globalism, and neo-conservatism are threatening to destroy the Canadian social contract, which is "our substitute for the ethnic identity possessed by almost all other nation-states." Since 1988 we have been sleeping with the elephant (to use the standard metaphor) and now we have to figure out how to preserve what's left of our national purity. We have to defend our generous social welfare schemes not just because they are good, but because they are our own. Modern neo-conservatism should be rejected, says Gwyn, not just because it attacks community and citizenship, but because it challenges "the core of our character as a state-nation." Either we uphold our distinctive caring and sharing philosophy or else we disappear into the United States by adopting their pure individualism. "Without our ethic of egalitarianism and our sense of collectivism, we will become simply a poorer version of the United States. Once akin to them, we'd have no reason not to become them." Indeed, by simply exchanging our blue passports for green ones, Gwyn says, we would realize an immediate twenty per cent increase in our material standard of living!

These familiar dangers are discussed in a conventional, almost reassuring way in Part I of Gwyn's book. The deeper dangers are then introduced. They stem from our second way of being distinctive, the one that gives us a claim to being the world's first postmodern nation.

We believe in tolerance and equality for all groups. We want people to live together peacefully, with respect for each other's individuality, human rights, and cultural identities, enjoying rather than merely "tolerating" cultural differences. People, we think, should preserve their separate identities while intermarrying and working together in modern world-wide corporations and vast government bureaucracies. So far, we seem to be successful in promoting this distinctive national vision. Gwyn's evidence that we are on the brink of creating a society like none other in the world-"the first postmodern nation"-is the number of mixed-race couples he has seen on the streets of Toronto and Vancouver.

Supporting these hopes and dreams are a number of new nation-transforming policies. Gwyn highlights the Charter, which has given us a new, more "American" sense of our individual and group rights; employment equity programs, which have put a new "equality of results" in place of the old "equality of opportunity"; official multiculturalism, which has encouraged a rich medley of cultural expressions; and the immigration and refugee policies that have "made Canada an incomparably livelier, more creative, more richly textured society."

These sources of our new identity are also, according to Gwyn, sources of serious problems (not least, perhaps, a dim, depressing awareness of how we always just imitate the Americans). Gwyn's criticisms are unoriginal but clearly and forcefully stated. The Charter promotes an irritable rights consciousness with no corresponding sense of responsibilities. "Employment equity" is a thin disguise for discrimination against white males; those who promoted it should have known that it would eventually produce a backlash, like the one against "affirmative action" south of the line. Official multiculturalism isolates cultural communities behind internal walls, inflaming their conflicts while undermining any sense of common citizenship. The Charter and multiculturalism encourage the identity politics that is really "the McCarthyism of the 1990s". Finally, our immigration and refugee policies are a mess and can be summed up by saying that they have been designed to serve the interests of would-be immigrants and political parties rather than Canadians.

The result of all these questionable policies and practices is something wonderful, present-day Canada, the world's first (rather than just second or third) postmodern nation, but Gwyn worries about a "progressive loss of national stuffing" and a "slow unravelling of the national fabric". English-speaking, culturally converged Canadians with white skins-"English Canadians"-may begin to think of themselves as just another ethnic minority (ethnic Canadians?) and then either withdraw into a sullen passive-aggressive silence or else lash back at their ethnic rivals who have pushed them from centre stage. In either case, "the Canadian centre will simply no longer be able to hold" and "the Canadian political community will lose its cohesion, its very sense of being a community"

The real danger, according to Gwyn, is not wealthy Americans, or neo-conservative ideologues, or even overt Canadian racists, but ordinary quiet prosperous English Canadians who may want to be remade in the American image because they no longer feel much affinity with most of their fellow-citizens. The higher the internal walls created by identity politics, and the greater the insistence on differences, the less will most Canadians care about each other. The greater will be their tendency to withdraw behind various ethnic walls (the small town, the new "walled estates", the cottage, etc.), send their children to private or American schools, and vote against (and skilfully avoid) taxes for programs that benefit others. If ethnic Canadians feel like strangers in their own land, is it reasonable to expect them to make many sacrifices on its behalf?

To ward off this danger of "hollowing out", Gwyn advocates unspecified changes to make Canadian citizenship "heavier" and to restore dignity to "the habits, assumptions, and values accumulated and shaped over the decades by people who happened, principally, to be white males of European origin." In short, to sustain our "feminine" and multicultural nationality, we should do the opposite of what the partisans of feminism and multiculturalism generally demand.

As Gwyn's argument slides towards Reform, he senses that he is getting on thin ice. He knows how chilly the climate can suddenly become for anyone who takes too seriously the discontents of "pale, patriarchal, penis people". He has an irritating way of repeatedly saying that he or someone else is "saying the unsayable," yet he never quite says it.

A nation's effusive identification with its social safety nets means almost nothing if its taxpayers are unwilling to pay for them. Pollsters, politicians, forensic accountants, and now Richard Gwyn report that the relevant Canadians no longer care so much about "caring and sharing". Gwyn analyzes some of the main reasons why. His book would be clearer and more coherent if he did not hide his acceptance of so many neo-conservative ideas behind the fašade of an attack on neo-conservatism.

Nevertheless the book is full of interesting little facts and opinions and it points to one of the most troubling aspects of contemporary Canada. "Far more `cultural anxiety' exists about all the changes now going on than the governing class is either aware of or has been able to bring itself to recognize by discussing publicly. In recent years, the political antennae of the elite have been at best weak, or have been completely switched off." Gwyn's overarching theme makes a good deal of sense. We have a wonderful country that we should be proud of and willing to pay for, but we should also quickly change the crazy policies that have made us the kind of caring, sharing, yielding, and almost bankrupt people that we are.

Let me make only two critical observations. First, Gwyn seems reluctant to ask, Cui bono? In his discussion of immigration policy, he makes a few realistic comments about political parties seeking votes and employers looking for cheap labour and a more disciplined work force. But when he discusses the welfare state, he does not delve into the political economy of taxes, services, subsidies, inflation, debt, and deficits. He might at least have noticed that a great many Canadian males were floated up into the professional and managerial classes by the tide of immigration since 1945. The younger generation now has to pay the bills while facing employment equity. Gwyn ignores their specific complaints. In addition he is silent about the ordinary Canadians who own houses on urban land, which goes up in value as our cities become more crowded. In general, his discussion of economic and social processes lacks realism. He has trouble even with simple distinctions like the one between income and wealth.

Second, Gwyn shows little understanding of Quebec and French Canada. He is right to point out that "English Canadians" are the only group whose only country is Canada. "Only English Canadians are here alone, emotionally and psychically." Fair enough, but he is wrong to assume that French Canadians are not part of the Canadian political community, and he may be wrong to assume that Quebeckers will vote no in the upcoming referendum. It may be a good guess, but Gwyn shows no interest in or understanding of the reasons why so many (perhaps a majority) will vote yes. He seems unaware of the contributions that French Canadians made long ago to overcoming Canada's outmoded, "British" national identity. He does not explain how the postmodern, multicultural Canada he is discussing has alienated Quebec while making English Canada its hostage: the more we tell ourselves that we are the world's first postmodern nation, the more we need Quebec, yet the less we appeal to it.

Gwyn proposes to deal with the whole Quebec problem in an offhand way, by means of a "symbolic distinct society" clause in "the preamble to the Constitution" where it would be "only a statement of good intent, without legal or political implications." The same bureaucrats who gave us Meech Lake and Charlottetown are, I suppose, going to be asked to craft the language for this safe but satisfying clause, following the PQ's defeat on October 30th. But will English Canadians then embrace it? Will our governing class (their antennae switched back on) be able to persuade us that this is what Quebec really wanted all along and what we can no longer refuse?

Modern societies like Canada need journalists like Richard Gwyn who bring together all the topics that are normally kept apart (trade has nothing to do with culture; multiculturalism has nothing to do with immigration; employment equity has nothing to do with separatism; racism has nothing to do with welfare; etc.) but that in practice have to be dealt with simultaneously Parliament is clogged with legislation and whipped into silence on most questions of interest to the public, so only in the media, and in the books written by outstanding journalists, do our national policies ever get publicly debated. Gwyn has made an important contribution to depicting our current political situation. His main blind spot seems to be Quebec. The referendum will determine how this limitation strikes readers and reviewers. When Gwyn was writing this book, he could not know how Quebec would vote; as I am reviewing it, I do not know; but you will know as you are reading this review, and one way or another it will affect how you judge his book and this review.

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