How We Talk about Canada

128 pages,
ISBN: 0774806583

Post Your Opinion
Canadians - On the Edge of Everything
by Cynthia Sugars

These days people tend to speak of the Canadian identity crisis as an outworn cliché. At least, this is the word on the street. Yet to me it seems that the very persistence of the crisis, the relentless need to rehash it, is a testament rather to a keenly felt urgency at its base. I think of Naomi Wolf's bestseller, The Beauty Myth. At the outset Wolf notes how for years people dismissed women's obsession with physical appearance and dieting as a sign of their superficiality. Wolf was interested in getting at the base of the obsession: she wanted to know why they were preoccupied with these things; she wanted to uncover the very real concerns that informed the obsession. The same might be true of the Canadian identity crisis. The fact that it continues to hold such sway over people's thoughts, even as they profess to dismiss it, reveals that there is a social reality at the core of the crisis that refuses to be repressed. Indeed, its professed absence continues to have immense pull on the imagination of many Canadians. A few wags have even tongue-in-cheekly surmised that it is this-and this alone-that unites the Canadian populace: Canadian identity as oxymoron.

Recent years have seen a spate of books on the subject. From the immensely popular Mondo Canuck, a study of Canadian pop culture by Geoff Pevere and Greig Dymond; to Daniel Francis's engaging analysis of Canadian mythologies, National Dreams; to Will Ferguson's less enthralling Why I Hate Canadians; to Ian Angus's excellent historical study of the discursive possibilities for contemporary Canadian social realities, A Border Within. This is but a handful of the books, and does not even touch upon the many essay collections, quotable quotes, satirical meditations, national quizzes, documentaries for The National, CBC radio cross-country checkups, and discussions of Canadian literature, especially Canadian postmodernism, which deal with the subject. The Vancouver Art Gallery, as part of the 1996 Group of Seven ("Art for a Nation") exhibit, also waded in. The top floor of the exhibit was given over to the question, "What Does It Mean to Be Canadian?", and visitors were invited to add their comments to what quickly became a wall papered in responses (so much so that it had to be cleared a number of times each day). Even Maclean's magazine got in on the act with its controversial 1998 Canada-Day issue sporting a list of the 100 "most important" Canadians (many of whom, ironically, were unknown to the majority of Maclean's readers).

W.H. New's latest study, Borderlands: How We Talk About Canada, therefore, is in good company. However, in conversation with me at UBC, New was eager to distinguish his approach from what he considers "the fool's errand" in trying to define Canadian identity once and for all. To speak of "identity and definition in the same breath", he said, is a "self-defeating notion"-and perhaps it is this that constitutes the vicious circle of much Canadian identity rhetoric. Instead, New's goal is to speak of those things that are "characteristic rather than limiting about Canadian culture", aspects which he connects, in part, to Canada's adaptability, its "capacity to change".

On one level New's book (a collection of three essays presented as the Brenda and David Mclean Canadian Studies lectures at UBC in 1997) provides an eloquent summary of some of the major concerns involved in the Canadian identity debate. Its focus is twofold: Canada's psycho-historical relation with the United States, and the necessary ambiguity of border metaphors generally. What most impressed me in New's account, however, and what most clearly sets it apart from the texts listed above, is its stated concern with psychic urgency. For indeed, there is something at the base of these relentless psycho-cultural self-flagellations that speaks to a void in urgent need of filling. What is too often forgotten in intellectual discourse on Canadian culture is that the historically conditioned phenomenon of psychic masochism (however loaded with self-irony), like fantasy structures generally and like metaphorical borderlands themselves, has immediate effects on those it touches.

A passage from New's conclusion conveys this sense of urgency. Through his reading of Jack Hodgins's The Macken Charm, New comes to the conclusion that Canadians have been taught to think of themselves in comparison with external models that "encourage admiration of the other as a substitute for self-esteem". This is one sense of the ways Canadians have been hemmed in or "bordered" by an imported way of thinking. "I do not believe that, collectively, we are finished learning these lessons", writes New.

"There are too many people about in our time who would rather give up the social structures we have carefully built in this society for models developed elsewhere, without ever checking on the worth of one and the inapplicability of the other....There are too many who conceived of globalism as a borderless virtue without ever asking whose particular advantage it serves. There are too many who still do not know how to listen to local voices and appreciate them. There are too many who have been educated to see themselves in stereotype, and cannot even yet get past the silly cliché of identifying things Canadian as the mere motions of identityless buffoons."

The mission here, as the old exhortation of Canadian Studies goes, is to learn "to know ourselves", though as New would agree, that is not, in itself, enough: "We have to find a way to speak, but also find a way to be heard". What is crucial about this goal, and what perhaps most informs the Canadian identity crisis, is the urgency of being heard, not only outside of Canada (in Britain and the United States particularly), but by Canadians within Canada. How does one break through the veil of apathy that clouds the perception of so many here at home? How does one get Canadian students, for example, to want to learn about their history and culture? How does one get them to slough off the preconception that Canadian identity is "uncool", that Canadian culture is somehow laughable or embarrassing?

Despite his earnestness in invoking the urgency of this quest, the earlier portions of New's book are informed by a distinct optimism. He insists that we must become more aware of the ways in which discourse about Canada invokes a "boundary rhetoric", in terms of both the misleading and divisive conception of the "two solitudes", and the exclusive rhetoric of some identity politics within Canada. In this sense, he is echoing the work of many post-colonial theorists of Canadian culture, critics who argue that the complexities of Canadian space become masked by metaphors of limitation. In the course of this discussion, New makes a case for things that Canadians have in common: experience of the land, commitment to social programs, resistance to violence (especially in opposition to the gun laws of the United States), opposition to crass materialism and American-style individualism, valuation of multiple voices and cultures. In short, an experience of flexibility. By uncovering some of the historical influences on these aspects of contemporary Canada, New attempts to reveal that the illusion of the absence of Canadian identity is very much that-an illusion (which does not deny the fact that this illusion continues to have a very concrete effect on the way a people conceive of themselves). His work has affinities with Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor's discourses on Canadian identity in Reconciling the Solitudes, for New hopes to provide his readers with a sense of the community-oriented and collectively-chosen values of Canada as a whole.

Yet this does not, alas, afford one the luxury of identifying the United States-or any other conspirator (the British? Hollywood? free-trade? bilingualism?)-as the culprit upon whom one can pin responsibility for Canadian lack of confidence. If Borderlands offers one important lesson, it is this: that borders, or origins, or distinctions cannot be so securely defined. This does not mean that one should abandon the quest, however. On the contrary, it suggests that the community must seek even more meaningful ways of identifying its common values, particularly in the face of pervasive forces of reaction and globalization. During our conversation, New reasserted this necessity of choice, stating that as a culture we must "choose the influences that we want to accept" while also choosing which influences we are going to resist. "We don't achieve those choices by trying to satisfy other people's norms of what constitutes value," he said, "but by speaking in our own idiom, because it's our own idiom that will express the way in which we are a community-a mixed community, but a community nonetheless."

This notion of cultural adaptability brings us face to face with the "giddy limits", New's playful way of identifying the effervescence of border effects. In part, this book is a logical extension of New's interest in the discursive contours of space and landscape in Canadian culture in his 1997 study, Land Sliding. In that book he discusses the ways "the language of the land" is connected with certain assumptions about Canadian social reality. Here we are on the ground of epistemological borderlands-how certain borders or "codes of presumption" determine the ways people identify themselves, how rhetoric can direct self-understanding. One example which New explores is the discourse of the "two solitudes" in Canadian culture, notably the ways this particular border metaphor has effaced certain areas of linkage. Another, which constitutes the guiding thread of this volume, is the boundary line between Canada and the United States. He provides an instructive account of the various controversies surrounding the definition of the present-day border between the two countries, blending this with an evocative exploration of the ways Canadians have, in more intangible ways, attempted to construct defining borders between the two nations. Connected to this is his lengthy analysis of the Pig War of 1859, which offers a fascinating picture of the ways these issues were being debated (or not, in some cases) at the time.

New analyzes in detail how the 49th parallel informs Canadians' sense of themselves as a distinct community while also setting limits to this national sense of self. The "subversive appeal" of these binary categories, he argues, sometimes masks their contribution to a static model of Canadian society. This might be one way of intervening in the increasingly contentious debate about identity politics that we've been hearing in recent years. Identity politics, after all, are necessary to the constitution of group self-esteem; they are empowering. What we need, however, is some way of speaking about how individual groups are engaged in dynamic relations with others, how cultures interact and change. Stuart Hall speaks of this in terms of a "politics of articulation", providing a sense of both the ways different groups touch one another, while also valuing the individual "voice" of these groups. New's investigation of the borders of identity assumes this contact while also reasserting the communal values of Canadians. In his defence of government subsidy of the arts in Canada, he expresses this precisely by suggesting that national policies are "an expression of a social choice" and that these choices, over time, affect the sort of community (or communities) we are constructing.

The regrettable thing, however, is when Canadians themselves do not recognize the value of these choices. If the ambivalent response to Canada from abroad (often involving a coinciding idealization and denigration) attests to the combination of desire and fear that motivates the drawing of borderlines, the contradiction informs Canadians' sense of themselves as well (alternately celebratory and self-effacing). And if it is the boundaries (in all the senses that word might conjure) that "predefine what a culture believes to be worth doing", it is also this Canadian sense of being "on the edge of everything" that constitutes our identity. This brings to mind an ironic phrase from Joy Kogawa's Obasan: "Everything a Canadian does is Canadian." With New, I don't think that one would want to go that far. Even as borders can too readily restrict "definitions of individuality and state", they can also be so opened out as to become meaningless. What remains crucial to the Canadian identity question is choice. 

Cynthia Sugars teaches Canadian Literature at the University of British Columbia and is working on a study of representations of Canadian identity in Britain and here at home.


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