The Canadian Mind: A Culture So Open, Its ‘Brains Fall Out’
By David Solway
The Canadian national temper is a funny thing, riddled with contradictions. It is plainly an abstraction, and yet it does seem to have discernible traits. Some jokingly regard it as absurdly apologetic — a Canadian is someone who says “sorry” when he is jostled. Canadians are polite and amiable, pacifist by nature; they are the world’s peacekeepers. Canadians regard themselves as morally superior, especially with regard to Americans. Canadians are inwardly attracted to failure, as Margaret Atwood contended in Survival — Canadians have a will to lose as powerful as the American will to win. And so on.
Canada is a huge but under-populated country. The wind echoes in our ears. Much has been made in our literature of the hardiness and resilience necessary for existence in a punishing climate and of the harsh labor required to extract the benefits of a resource-based economy. Susanna Moodie’s Roughing It in the Bush is an early classic detailing the rigors and challenges of domesticating an unforgiving milieu. Canadian fortitude is a national foundation myth.
One recalls Northrop Frye’s analysis in The Bush Garden of Canada’s “garrison mentality,” the fear of “being swallowed by an alien continent,” the fight for survival in inclement surroundings, and the feeling that events and achievements of significance must be happening elsewhere. Naturally, Frye’s thesis has been contested in a rising swell of self-importance and postmodern speculation. In Studies in Canadian Literature, Sherrie Malisch points out that many critics have taken umbrage with Frye, advocating for the replacement of the “myth” of the garrison mentality by something called “ecological logic,” by feminist sensitivity to the environment, or by an aboriginal sense of ‘wholeness.”
Similarly, writing in the Town Crier, André Forget, for example, thinks that Frye’s analysis is passé, that the “garrisoned mind” has opened up to an anonymous urban and Internet landscape which “has done away with most of the practical limitations geography used to enforce.” Canadian writers in particular have become more sophisticated. His argument is not entirely without merit and may be initially persuasive. Yet any reading of our literature and study of our culture and politics would strongly suggest that the Canadian imagination remains for the most part local, indigenous, imitative and mired in a state of general insipidity.
Everywhere one turns one sees a tendency toward mimesis — we tend to copy rather than invent — qualified by intellectual emptiness. In other words, it may be that the vacancy of the Canadian mind reflects the vacancy of the Canadian landscape. Of course, much of the land is variegated — lakes, rivers, forests, the impressive mountain ranges running down the length of “beautiful British Columbia” — in the same way, metaphorically speaking, that we can boast a number of resonating exceptions to the staple of tepid cultural and intellectual sameness.
One thinks of novelist Mordecai Richler, poet Irving Layton, critical minds Harold Innis, Marshall McLuhan and Northrop Frye, musicians Leonard Cohen and Gordon Lightfoot. Our founding father, Sir John A. Macdonald, was the ne plus ultra of our political class; there has been none like him since, which may explain why he is now on posthumous trial for war crimes and a hue and cry has gone up to remove his statues and rename eponymous schools.
The constitutive factor, however, exceptions aside, is the “howling emptiness” of a vast landmass that may partially account for the emptiness of our intellectual topography — if, as Jared Diamond had argued in Guns, Germs and Steel, geography governs the development of culture and spirit.
Any nation the preponderance of whose citizens regularly elects left-wing political parties; accepts single-payer healthcare; believes in the efficacy of the welfare state; endorses the hoax of global warming (as does even Sherrie Malisch, above); accommodates swarms of third-world immigrants and refugees who have no love for or understanding of a country becoming an open-to-all multicultural tombola with the highest proportionate rate of immigrants in the Western world; has allowed its educational industry, from pre-school to graduate school, to be corrupted possibly beyond retrieval by lockstep Leftism, “diversity and inclusion,” and “social justice” claptrap; has caved to the feminist and campus-rape fable; dutifully takes CBC Leftist propaganda as gospel; has fallen for the 16th Century meme of the “Noble Savage” in its dealings with the aboriginal peoples; extravagantly celebrates a second-rate rock band like The Tragically Hip and names a street after it; reads (when it does read) tedious scribblers like the acclaimed Joseph Boyden and Ann-Marie MacDonald; and gives a complete ignoramus like Justin Trudeau a majority government on the strength of name and coiffure, cannot be regarded as informed, well-educated or in any way distinguished. Unlike the U.S., there are no cracks, to quote Leonard Cohen, where the light gets in. The Canadian political, cultural and academic spectrum has gone dark from end to end.
True, America elected a fraud like Barack Obama, but then reversed course with Donald Trump — something that could never happen on a federal level in Canada. Nor would a Brett Kavanaugh ever be confirmed here. We have nothing like the First Amendment; our Supreme Court is a Leftist institution par excellence and has even decreed in effect that truth is no defense in cases where “protected groups” are insulted or offended. Paragraph 140 of a 2013 Judgment finds “that not all truthful statements must be free from restriction. Truthful statements can be interlaced with harmful ones or otherwise presented in a manner that would meet the definition of hate speech.” Section 15 (2) of the Constitution Act of 1982 abridges the rights that section 15(1) guarantees Canadian citizens.
Further, our Human Rights Tribunals are Soviet-style shadow courts that discard due process in adjudicating cases of supposed discrimination or “hate speech.” As Canadian Human Rights Commissioner Dean Steacy said: “Freedom of speech is an American concept, so I don’t give it any value.” Openness to everything except freedom of speech, chartered principle and practical reason is the hallmark of our justice system, as it is of the nation. As Carl Sagan quipped in The Demon-Haunted World: “It pays to keep an open mind, but not so open your brains fall out.”
As far back as 1904, novelist Sara Jeannette Duncan in The Imperialist had the measure of the country, especially in her character Alfred Hesketh, soon to be a naturalized citizen. Hesketh’s “open mind” was ironically being filled “to capacity,” which augured very little of substance though the act was accompanied by “satisfaction.” He would make a good Canadian. The Canadian mind was always “open” in the pejorative sense, but it has inflated exponentially in the current era. Regrettably, the opening of the Canadian mind does not signify an expanding hospitality to the world of truth, fact and reason but, on the contrary, a growing vacancy of disciplined thought, creative virility and common sense.
Susanna Moodie felt there was great hope for this country — her heart, she writes, “bounds with glee to hail thy noble destiny.” Philosopher George Grant in Lament for a Nation thought Canada was bound to disappear. I side with Grant. Indeed, I would argue that Canada, in both an intellectual and spiritual sense, disappeared a long time ago. My heart contracts with sadness when I contemplate its destiny.