Misconceiving Canada:
The Struggle for National Unity

by Kenneth McRoberts,
416 pages,
ISBN: 0195412338

Reflection of a Siamese Twin:
Canada at the End of the Twentieth Century

546 pages,
ISBN: 0670870994

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Let Us Prepare Mythologies
by H. D. Forbes

Looking back on our time, future historians may say that we stood unknowing on the brink of Canada's collapse. We were part of a larger pattern of disintegration of multi-ethnic federations at the end of the twentieth century, as crosscurrents of globalism and localism undermined the powers and legitimacy of national governments.
Canada's break-up, they may say, was quicker and cleaner than that of the Soviet Union, not at all like that of Yugoslavia, far less bloody than the imposed partition of Sri Lanka, and less disruptive even than Czechoslovakia's "velvet divorce", because the Americans stepped in (from their base near Plattsburg) to ensure an orderly transition to sovereignty-association. They stifled the civil war that was developing from the attempt of the federal government to enforce its laws on the territory of Quebec and to fulfill its promises to the Crees in the north. They put a lid on the tensions within Canada's armed forces by reminding them of their primary allegiance to the Western alliance, which happened to be engaged at the time in a dramatic confrontation with China over the protection of human rights in Hong Kong. They eased the prime minister and his Governor General out of office, discreetly assisting the formation of a new coalition government headed by Stephen Harper, with Deborah Grey in Rideau Hall. (Preston Manning had died in the mysterious crash of a helicopter north of Val-d'Or.) The Canadian dollar, the common currency of both new countries, was temporarily pegged at 55 cents American, but this was a boon to export industries, and when the controls were lifted, the dollar eventually climbed back to the 80 cent level. In short, despite the best efforts of some zealots on both sides, Canada expired with a whimper, not a bang.
For a long time, though, most Canadians were bitter and demoralized. English Canadians, in particular, felt themselves humiliated. They avoided the eyes of Americans, who now openly dominated Canada as never before. Few of them had much interest in public life, and the enmities dividing the larger ethnic communities in Toronto, Winnipeg, and Vancouver grew into chronic afflictions.
But whom will they blame, these future historians, if indeed they are inclined to blame anyone at all, for the collapse of the country that a few years earlier had been officially rated the best in the world?
Neither of the books reviewed here addresses this exact question. John Ralston Saul, currently Canada's ranking public intellectual, warns that the break-up of a country never follows a predictable course. "If you throw the structures, habits, ideas, and rules of behaviour for co-existence up in the air, no one can expect to have predictable control over the way they come down." It's neither possible nor desirable to write the history of the future. The problem now is to avoid all the possible scenarios of disintegration, and we can do that, he says, if we remind ourselves that Canada is an old, strong, and basically stable country whose complexity is its strength.
Similarly, Kenneth McRoberts, a political scientist at York University with a deep knowledge of Quebec nationalism, ends his account of our recent history on a constructive note. Adopt a "multinational" conception of Canada, he urges. Recognize the distinct collectivities within the country (the "deep diversity" of the Québécois and the Aboriginals) and the need for a territorially based language policy. In this way, separatism can be overcome. Admittedly, it is exceedingly difficult to imagine our present political leaders making the necessary constitutional changes, but they can do so, if they wish. "Separation is not inevitable," he declares.
Without being inevitable, however, something may be quite possible, and it may obviously be on an author's mind. Both these books were written, or at least completed, in the wake of the October 1995 referendum with its paper-thin victory for federalism. Since then the economy and the federal government's finances have improved, some of the shine has gone off Lucien Bouchard, the other provincial premiers have crafted a "Calgary declaration" that has won remarkable popular support even in unlikely places, the bad cop-Chrétien-has made some credible threats, the PQ generation of Québécois is gradually dying off, and their places are being taken by immigrants, so the whole Quebec problem may just fizzle out. But what exactly created it? How should it be understood? Who should be blamed for our recent brush with disaster? These books return two very different answers to these legitimate questions.

Trudeau is to blame, McRoberts says. By rejecting and discrediting Lester Pearson's accommodating approach to Quebec, which accepted the fundamental duality of English Canada and Quebec, he led Canada to the brink of ruin. He taught English Canadians to insist on equal individual rights and a strict interpretation of federalism. "Opting out" and "special status" (or later, "distinct society") are just soft words for a dangerous trend, he warned. (Hadn't Canada won its independence from Great Britain step by little step?) Nationalism is an irrational craving for unjust power and status that increases when it is appeased. "Dualism" must be rejected in principle; "polyethnic pluralism" better describes a diverse country whose citizens are all equal. In a liberal democracy, there can be no "founding races" and no second-class citizens.
After 1968, Trudeau imposed a new vision of Canada and a new, three-pronged national unity strategy. Its centrepiece, according to McRoberts, was official bilingualism, which aimed to make the formal equality of English and French a practical reality from coast to coast. The federal civil service, which operated in English everywhere but in Quebec, had to become truly bilingual. Minority language rights-English in Quebec, French elsewhere-had to be affirmed and protected. Canadians had to embrace bilingualism as an element of patriotism. Only in these ways, Trudeau maintained, could francophones in Quebec be weaned from their primary allegiance to their provincial government and induced to identify with Canada as a whole.
Multiculturalism was the second prong of Trudeau's strategy. Official bilingualism, which represented a certain concession to French-Canadian nationalism, had to be balanced by official recognition of the equality of all cultures. Canada, as a liberal society, could have no official cultures. Its "dualism" had to be limited to individual language rights, the same everywhere, essentially independent of geography and history. Like all provinces, Quebec had to be compelled to respect the rights of all its cultural minorities.
The third and most familiar element of Trudeau's strategy was an entrenched bill of rights. Trudeau is on record advocating this idea as early as 1955. Only in 1981, however, following his victory in the first Quebec referendum, could he impose it. Defying Quebec's discredited (outside Quebec) provincial government, he linked patriation of the constitution to the adoption of a Charter of Rights and Freedoms that enshrined individual language rights alongside, or even in a sense above, traditional individual rights. It gave federally appointed judges vast new powers.
Trudeau's strategy has been an obvious failure, McRoberts argues. Rather than winning the allegiance of francophones in Quebec, it has alienated them. At the same time, it has hardened the resistance of Canadians elsewhere to any concessions to the government of Quebec. "A strategy designed to produce unity has instead produced division, and on a huge scale. It has destroyed the basis on which the stability of the Canadian polity had rested and on which a new reconciliation might have been developed." Indeed, McRoberts says, most English Canadians can no longer even understand Quebec's claims, which make no sense within a vision of Canada that has been constructed to deny their uniqueness.
The only remedy, he suggests, lies in a return to dualism, understood as a relation between two national societies, one centred in Quebec. This would involve special status for the government of Quebec (asymmetrical federalism) and different language rights on different territories (no more complaining about Bills 101 and 178), balanced by some real recognition, somehow, of the Aboriginals, who were not part of the problem in the 1960s, but who must now be treated as a third nation on an equal footing with the English and the French. If all this is impossible, as it seems to be, then so much the worse for Trudeau as a craftsman of national unity.
The great contribution of McRoberts's book is to present our basic political problem in a careful, scholarly way. It offers an orderly exposition of the elements of the problem, starting with a review of the historical foundations for a dualistic view of Canada, then explaining the forgotten options of the 1960s, showing how broad was the support they once enjoyed. The middle part of the book presents Trudeau's vision and strategy, as outlined above, making clear its fundamental shortcomings. The last part discusses the main developments since Trudeau-Meech Lake and Charlottetown-and shows where we stand at present, a few steps from disaster. McRoberts pays close attention to the views of others, calmly offers reasonable arguments, draws carefully qualified conclusions, and makes clear distinctions between different senses of ambiguous terms: his book has all the virtues of a good academic monograph.
Its caution and limited scope are political liabilities, however. It offers nothing to those who need a quick fix to steady their nerves. In fact, it reminds them of the abyss they face. It makes some practical suggestions, but these are not its strength. It will be instinctively rejected by those who insist that good analyses must lead to cheerful, encouraging conclusions.

John Ralston Saul's book is entirely different. Despite its length, it will be read by many more Canadians and it will tend to cheer them up. It does not directly address the grave problems that explain its appearance and determine its principal features. It does not so openly blame anyone in particular for our present political predicament. It can be seen as a dispassionate attempt to come to terms with our big, thin, weak, awkward, aging, distracted country.
What does it mean to be a citizen of Canada, or perhaps better, to have one's roots here? Is the country more than just an arbitrary collection of people and events defined by a line on a map? Can there be any such a thing as a Canadian identity when Canadians live so much of their lives within American popular culture, have such great difficulty forming any sense of themselves except in relation to that one other country, and are so divided in their reactions to it? Canada exists in the shadow-or is it the glare?-of the United States, and now it is threatening to fall apart. What sense can we make of it?
Saul has immersed himself in our history and literature. He has developed a feeling for the depth and solidity of Canada that he wants to convey to readers. There is much more here than you realize, he is saying. We share a distinct culture and political tradition that are not simply derivative. Canadians are a people who communicate in their own way, even across the language divide. We are not just the northern fringe of the American empire, even though that is the way many of our leaders now see us-and by seeing us that way, they tend to make us so.
Saul is a nationalist of sorts, and there is much in what he says that appeals to me. I especially like his acceptance of an unpoliticized dualism. Our two linguistic communities are like Siamese twins, he says. Rather than dreaming of a risky surgical normalization that would leave us both, at best, much less interesting, or more likely, dead, we should learn to enjoy our unusually complicated situation.
Further, our unity is a matter of our heads and not just of our heart. It is not just a matter of the obscure emotions that everywhere tie people to the places of their birth. It is more than just habitual responses to flags and anthems or nostalgia about youthful associations. Canada is first of all an idea or network of ideas, the result of conscious intentions, and not just a mindless by-product of greed and chance. More is required to understand it than a knowledge of economics, some lore about railroads, or the history of trade.
Admirable, too, I think is Saul's willingness to accept the prosaic reality of Canadian liberalism. He seems unaffected by the old romantic glorification of Empire that held so many British Canadians until about a generation ago, and he seems equally free of the cynical reactions against it. He accepts Mackenzie King for what he was and even notices Etienne Parent. But he scorns our older religious traditions, and I think he exaggerates the continuity of our political intentions over the past century and a half.
Let me try to convey a sense of the book's overall argument, or at least its style of argument, before developing these objections.

Saul begins on a modest note: he presents himself as an investigator of myths armed only with common sense. He shuns ponderous argument, cast-iron proof, and the pose of the expert. It's clear from page 1 of the book that it's not an academic monograph.
In the realm of mythology, however, truth, as common sense understands it, has almost no standing. The mythmaker, Saul explains, is like an archaeologist trying to reconstruct a vanished culture from a few fragments of the past; he is constrained by a few hard facts, but still has a lot of freedom to arrange them in different patterns. Saul wants to exploit that freedom without abusing it. Ideologists abuse it, he says, by asserting connections among some facts in order to obscure others. The result is mystification, which he says can be overcome by reflection, that is, by questioning and thinking.
Wouldn't it be better just to live without myths? That's not possible, Saul says; simplifications are a practical necessity.
So how should competing simplifications be judged? By their practical effects, it seems, though how these practical effects are to be judged is a little unclear.
Avoid myths of victimization, Saul warns, because they turn us into a lot of hapless, querulous victims, when we should be strong and united against our rivals. Beware of imaginary solutions to real problems, such as having a "special relationship" with the Americans. Negative myths of this kind charm us with an escape into sexual fantasy. Positive myths have to reflect reality.
Cultivate "balanced memory" and useful forgetting. When you think of the conflict between English and French in Canada, think of religious bigots such as D'Alton McCarthy and Monsignor Bourget-"the evil alter egos of the Siamese twins"-not Trudeau and Lévesque. Read more about the 1830s and 1840s to see how true reformers must "shake hands" across the cultural divide to keep Tories and false reformers (i.e., Reformers) out of power. Forget about the missionaries who tried to stamp out Native spirituality (or animism, to use a technical term) and see instead how the Natives played a founding role in the first three centuries of our history. In fact, our Siamese twins need a mythical third leg. Difficult as it may be for many Canadian to accept that our country rests on a "triangular foundation" (some prefer two legs to go with our two heads, while others are millipedians), that third Native leg is "the logic of history painfully kicking back into gear" after a century's rest.
Big confusing America obviously needs some simplification, so Saul has some advice about appropriate mythologies. The United States is "the natural prolongation of the European idea" of a "monolithic frontier-conquering nation-state", he says, while we, like the Russians, are the more authentically American country. "This is a nation conceived as existing in permanent motion; more a sensibility than an ambition." Our mobile sensibility is Socratic or humanist, predominantly oral, rather than Platonist or Hobbesian. We feel no overwhelming need, such as others do, to tie things down or write them out (as in the American Constitution), because we are comfortable with novelty, complexity, and ambiguity-our two heads and three legs.
Above all, avoid myths that oversimplify Canada, because "complexity is Canada's central characteristic," and we need a "myth of complexity". In other words, simplify enough to avoid blurring the right pattern of complexity with distracting details, but don't make it seem simple.
Historical material illustrating how to hold this balance fills about half the book. Neither topical nor chronological in arrangement, it is very hard to summarize, but it forms a picture of a national project. According to this picture, we have long been trying to create an inclusive middle-class democracy, not "bourgeois" in character, but progressive, with the right mix of public and private forces. Our project has always been opposed by conservative colonial elites typified by the Family Compact and the Château Clique. Baldwin and Lafontaine-"the original Siamese twins"-are the real founders of Canada. Laurier, whose speeches Saul admires, also occupies a prominent place in the foreground of the picture. Others who are usually more prominent have receded into the background. The John A. Macdonald who, in his 1865 speech on the Quebec Resolutions, declared that "universal suffrage is not in any way sanctioned" has disappeared altogether. So too has the George Etienne Cartier who, in his speech the next day, inveighed against mass democracy as "mob rule".
The recent history that is analysed in detail by McRoberts gets almost no attention from Saul. The Constitution Act of 1982 is mentioned a few times, but its significance is minimized in an offhand way. No doubt it pleased some and upset others, Saul says; it solved some problems and created others, but those who demonize it "risk losing track of reality." The dissatisfaction it produced in some quarters does need to be dealt with, he concedes, but not with the court-room dramatics favoured by "analytic minds". Some useful forgetting-letting it "slip into a larger context"-would be better. Saul devotes three pages to Meech Lake, but only because it was killed by Elijah Harper, silently, with a feather, showing, he says, the dominance of the oral over the written in our culture. "In effect, Meech was a reminder that the important events and debates in Canada's past have not revolved around textual debates and interpretations." As for the Charter, it does not even merit a mention.

The further one advances in Saul's book, the clearer become the myths that he deems healthy and constructive. But the basic problem in the background-why separatism?-may become more puzzling. If his positive myths have any relation to reality, if we are what they say we are, why are we in such difficulties right now, teetering on the brink of collapse? The more seriously a reader takes what Saul says, the more puzzled he or she may be by this inescapable question.
Saul has a clear answer, but not one that he presents systematically or defends in detail. The fault lies with our Americanizing corporatists, false populists, and neoconservatives, he says. Their ideas-universal economic laws, invisible hands, global markets, simplistic nationalism, referendum democracy, low taxes, balanced budgets, minimal citizenship, "the old Platonist model"-have weakened our national consensus, bringing us to the brink of ruin. Their debt-and-deficit-cutting policies, far from helping us to deal with our national crisis, are producing an explosion.
By attacking these targets-almost incidentally it seems at first, but more insistently and intemperately as the book progresses-Saul diffuses responsibility for our present plight and deflects it from most of his readers. Unlike McRoberts, he does not focus on any respected individual, such as Trudeau, or any formative event, such as the patriation of the constitution in 1982. He does not link our difficulties to any inherent tendencies of liberalism and democracy. Rather he attributes them to a vague climate of opinion, a broad loss of memory among both citizens and elites, a shameful dereliction of duty among most of our current leaders, and (although he never uses the words) outside agitators.
From the perspective he adopts, Trudeau is scarcely better or worse than Mulroney or Chrétien, and Lévesque, oddly enough, can be praised as a "positive nationalist". Bouchard can be treated as a typical colonial, his walls plastered with Pléiades, ignorant of his own country-but is he unable to communicate with its citizens? At any rate, the basic problem is that we have all somehow forgotten who we were, and our leaders no longer care about the common good. They have suddenly and rather inexplicably (universal economic laws having been around for a long time) become servants of the corporations and an alien empire, their consciences apparently dulled by too much neoconservative ideology. In a particularly feverish exercise of his mythopoeic powers, Saul traces an imaginary line from Napoleon to Mike Harris and Ralph Klein passing through Hitler and Stalin.

History simplified for political purposes can yield strange patterns. As an attempt to shore up Canada's unity by teaching its citizens some history, Saul's book suffers from its bulk and its showy display of CanLit culture, but most of all from its too obvious attempts to obscure awkward problems. There is room here to mention only two additional examples.
Much of what Saul has in mind when he goes on at length about Canada as "above all an idea of what a country could be, a place of the imagination, very much its own invention" could be summed up in one word, multiculturalism. In a mere seven syllables, it would gather up the main elements of dualism, triangularity, positive nationalism, Canada's poverty (more apparent to us than to most outsiders), our sense of being a "permanently incomplete experiment", the acute tension we now feel between a society of movement and a sedentary one (no longer the old tension between coureurs-de-bois and habitants), and our reliance upon vague oral understandings rather than precise black and white agreements. It would point to what makes us, in Saul's terms, an "animist country", one that is "polytheistic by nature": it has nothing to do with our real history, our Aboriginal heritage, any widespread belief that there are spirits in stones, or the latest natural science, and everything to do with our new need to accommodate all the world's religions.
So why not use the word "multiculturalism" to label our present "confusion of minorities major and minor"? Why not just say that multiculturalism is our new national mythology? Saul is pretty good at describing some of its key elements, so why does he not use the word?
The short answer is, because a lot of Canadians don't like the sound of it. In particular, for the reasons explained in detail by McRoberts, many Québécois hear it as a rejection of dualism and a demotion of their own ethnic group, which they like to regard as one of two founding nations. And if you are in the business of crafting a new national mythology to bind a fractious nation together, as Saul is, then you must choose your words very carefully and must sometimes use ten thousand of them when one would otherwise do.
Similarly, Saul papers over a great discontinuity in our social reform tradition by avoiding the word socialism. Its absence is astonishing in a book about ideas and ideologies in Canadian politics. If, as Saul maintains, we have been a country dedicated to social equality, perhaps it has something to do (as some have suggested) with a touch of socialism in our political culture. Does it make sense to trace our egalitarian commitments back to a handshake between Lafontaine and Baldwin in 1842, but to say nothing about Saint-Simon and Proudhon, Marx and Engels, Robert Owen, William Morris and the Fabians, the British Labour party, the Russian Revolution, American socialism ("co-operative commonwealth" was an American coinage), the Regina Manifesto, the NDP, the Wafflers, Charles Taylor, and in general the once popular theory of secular salvation through public ownership of the means of production and comprehensive economic planning-in short, socialism? About half the high-level political debate between 1920 and 1980 is being passed over in silence, as if it had never happened and as if its outcome had nothing to do with the present popularity of the neoconservatism that Saul execrates.
Saul likes to strike a dreamy, reflective pose, his head cocked slightly to the side, exposing a little neck, but don't be fooled: he has a stake in his hand that he wants to drive through the heart of neoconservatism. He has no interest in hearing, and God forbid that he should repeat, their arguments. After all, they're the arguments of traitors!
The two books I have discussed clarify two ways of approaching our present political situation and two interpretations of it. Their arguments, simplified, may become the myths by which future Canadians understand what happened in our 1980s and 1990s.
If we come to grief in the next few years, it will be very hard to reject McRoberts's interpretation. Those who do so will rely on moral rather than factual objections. The charge, as some reviewers have already indicated, will come down to saying that he presents multiculturalism in a bad light. He does not appreciate what he cannot himself deny is a "compelling vision". If Canada must collapse, these critics say, still following Trudeau, let it go with a bang (in a blaze of moral glory) rather than a whimper of compromise with the forces of evil in Quebec. McRoberts is willing to appease those forces. He may even have become one of them. He does not recoil in horror as he should, clutching his garlic and crucifix.
If we scrape by, then thirty years from now Trudeau's strategy will look much better, and multiculturalism will be firmly established as our national mythology, explained more or less as Saul explains it. Classic socialism will be forgotten, except by a few historians. Neoconservatism will have lost its contentious edge, and Saul's agitation about it may seem quaint, but will there be any reason for rejecting his account of how the Americans and their colonial stooges ("the elites") almost wrecked the world's best country?

H. D. Forbes's most recent book is Ethnic Conflict: Commerce, Culture, & the Contact Hypothesis (Yale). He is also the editor of an anthology, Canadian Political Thought (Oxford).


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