The Dissolution of Canadian Identity
by Elwin Ransom
Traditionally, the academic understanding of recognition has often gone exclusively in one way in regards to majority and minority populations. These discussions are often clothed in moralistic (and dehumanizing and harmful) language: “oppressor” vs “oppressed”; “victim” vs “victimizer”; “colonized” vs “colonizer”. This language dehumanizes those labeled oppressor by defining their being as a pejorative, but also the victim since it defines their being by their weakness and failure to preserve themselves in the face of a “superior” force. By trying to humanize communities we, in our blind empathy and views of equality, have done the opposite.
Our current model and conception of statehood is based upon the Treaty of Westphalia. This treaty was meant to bring an end to the extremely violent period of religious warfare Europe had been experiencing since the Protestant Reformation. The treaty established sovereignty based upon territory, fixed boarders and the right of a people to rule or govern autonomously within its lands. The concept of a state was tied to nationality, and although nation is a word that is seen to have political baggage today, it is the basis of recognition.
After all, a nation is broadly defined as a body of people united by common descent (race and ethnicity), culture, history, language and religion. All of these traits do not need to be shared by a nation; however, the more traits held in common, the greater cohesion the group possesses and the stronger the identity. When communities ask for national recognition, they are asking to have their nation recognized, and this is a form of nationalism. Nationalism is defined as identification with one’s nation and support for its interest.
But multicultural recognition breaks from this concept of national recognition by demanding we view the nation in a specific way, as a place where everyone’s identity is recognized. Multiculturalism has been the go to tool in the Western world and especially in Canada to enforce (and in Canada it is enforced legally by the state) the recognition of multiple races, cultures, and religious identities. Alas, by defining Canada as a multicultural “entity” we are stating that Canada has within it no unique people, and that being Canadian is not a matter of history, ethnicity, or culture, but rather something that is granted by the state, rather than rooted in history, territory, and lineage.
Conspiracies aside, it would seem that multiculturalism was imposed on Canadians not by a willing populace but by political powers attempting to create something that was not natural and indigenous to historical understanding of identity and democracy. Pierre Elliott Trudeau said as much when he called multiculturalism an experiment. It is interesting that a head of state would willingly subject his people to what amounts to human experimentation, but when power is centralized exclusively to the government, like in socialist states, the political leaders often dictate what is in the best interest for their people.
To call Canada a historically multicultural and diverse nation is fallacious. In modern times, academics try to defend current multiculturalism by stating that what we see in present times is simply a continuation of the past. However, this is either a deliberate misrepresentation of history or a blindness caused by adherence to ideology over truth. Depending on your views on diversity, it can be said that it is unfortunate that until the late 1980s, Canada was predominately European in cultural and ethnic makeup. Less than 10 per cent of non-European (including first-nations) people does not make a nation diverse, unless you hold that a nation having within itself a multitude of peoples from differing European cultures and ethnicities makes it multicultural. However, this would therefore invalidate arguments made today in regards to the need of diversifying Canada, especially rural communities, on the grounds that they are “too white”.
Unfortunately, it was lack of recognition and nationalism that lead to multiculturalism in Canada. The question multiculturalism attempted to solve was how to placate French Canada and incorporate their identity without subsuming it by Canadian identity. Hence, Canada becomes a multicultural state in the hopes that French Canadians would not feel that they were being absorbed and erased (politically, culturally, and demographically) by English Canada. British-Canada was still promised its institutions and its history preserved, and since it was the ruling culture, having conquered Canada, it was guaranteed dominance. If Canada had be defined constitutionally as a bi-cultural state, French Canadians would be expected to comprise half of political and institutional positions of power, thus threatening English rule. Multiculturalism ensured that English institutions of power would remain, and that French, indigenous, and other minority groups would be too fragmented to oppose their rule.
Multiculturalism was an act of compromise while attempting to ensure English domination, hence why Canada was made multicultural, not bi-cultural. Alas, it would have been truer a statement to define Canada as bi-cultural. Multiculturalism was a compromise and an experiment, bi-culturalism is the state of being that best describes Canadian history, culture, nation, and yes, identity. It was this dual identity that most defined and differentiated Canada from other western nations, especially the United States. Canadian identity was defined by many things, but its foundation is that of a largely European character.
Canada as a concept of a nation or a state did not originate with the indigenous population. The indigenous were too preoccupied with territorial dispute and tribal conflict to create a common transcontinental identity common to all indigenous. Cree, Ojibwa and whatever, was the only identity they had until Europeans came and gave them a broader identity. They could be Ojibwa but in the context of exposure to Europeans, they made a larger identity to be within. This shows how identity forms and is informed by others and their views on you. That being said, Canadian identity was created by the European settlers and pioneers who settled within her lands. But just as indigenous identity changed with exposure to newcomers, so too did Canadian identity.
The first uniquely Canadian identity that came about was that of the French settlers. The French were pioneers and missionaries. They tamed the harsh New France environment and grew their populations and communities. New France and French Canada was staunchly Catholic, with a conservative culture, a proud continuation of the culture lost in post revolutionary France. It was also a culture influenced by the generations of living and working the Canadian soil, cropping her fields, facing the wildlife and surviving the harsh winters. These hardships and trials created a rugged people, a trait we still sometimes associate with Canadians as a whole. The French Canadians who settled Canada through generations of labor became native to the land, and just as they affected the environment it affected them. So much so that French Canadians share little identity with France despite having originated from there and sharing a language. Nationalism and identity are a product of proximity and common struggle more so than ultimate origin. Identity is a temporal concept.
By defeating the forces of New France in 1759 on the Plains of Abraham, Canadian identity became one of British character. This “diversity” brought to Canada was seen as a threat to the Canadians residing there. However, even though institutionally the English seized power and at times oppressed the French, a common fraternity developed. A Canadian identity was established, based on bi-cultural recognition, mutual respect, a common history (even if it was a history of conflict), and a common struggle to tame and settle the land. This shared identity is best exemplified in the flag of Canada prior to 1965.
The Union Jack symbolizes Canada’s membership in the British Empire and later the Commonwealth, and in the bottom right, the national emblems of the member nations from the United Kingdom who settled Canada, as well as the fleur de lis, all leading into a maple leaf branch. The old flag perfectly symbolized what Canada was and what it meant to be Canada. It would make sense then, for the sake of multiculturalism, that this old flag be removed with one that has no historical meaning and significance, or a symbol that excludes but also defines. The modern flag of Canada is that which requires no prerequisite to fly or bear, simply only a stately allegiance.
Multiculturalism has robbed Canada of its bi-culturalism, uniqueness, and identity. After years of conflict and struggle between two nations, it’s humorous that Canada would try to bring more cultures within itself, opening the door to multiple new conflicts. Canadian identity is important because Canadian identity is something. If it was not, if Canada was always multicultural, then terms such as “Canadian nationalism”, “old-stock Canadians”, and “Canadian values” would not been seen as problematic today. But they are, and they are because by saying that there is a Canadian identity you are saying that defining yourself as Canadian assumes a certain binding and precludes other identities. Being a Canadian would mean you are precluded from being something else, and in a world that hates commitment, responsibility, and duty, it follows that people would wish to be liberated from the binds of nation, all while still proudly declaring themselves Canadian for the benefits it grants. So what is Canadian identity, what is that which defines us and makes us unique, that which we are told does not exist or which is to be replaced by post-nationalism?
Multicultural Recognition = No Canadian Identity
Today, Canadian identity within the multicultural framework is touted as shared values. Shared values that are assumed to be universal. These are basically the tenets of secular humanism including tolerance, equality, and keeping of human rights. There are innumerable problems by defining the whole of a nation by flaky principles subject to constant change in the whims of social popularity. These “values” are hardly universal if they can even be called values. However, they are, within the multicultural framework, superior than, say, the rule of law, because the rule of law traces its origin to Europe (specifically Britain) with the Magna Carta. After all, as we are educated, laws change and have been used to oppress and persecute others, therefore the law no longer becomes an absolute principle, imperfect in ways but needed to preserve social order as a means of restriction. Canadian identity therefore has become that of the inoffensive “nice guy”, the state that accepts everything and everyone, not because it is right or moral to do so but so as to not cause offense or grievance, or stand for anything principled at all.
This view of Canadian identity lays in strong contrast to the older, real Canadian identity. Canada, as it was, was a strongly principled nation. So principled even that it almost at times destroyed itself over the conflicting principles of its two constituent parts. English against French, Protestant against Catholic, unity against separation. With all these internal strife and potentials for conflict, imagine how strong the traits and important the principles had to be that brought and kept this nation together, that bound us together and preserved our union. That trait, that uniquely Canadian trait was submission to just authority and an understanding that there can be just authority and infallible institutions. This of course has to be spoken about in religious terms, because the nature of this is religious and for the majority of Canada’s history, its people were devoutly faithful and based their lives on that faith.
Canada is a nation of loyalists, those that chose to submit although having the opportunity to seize independence and freedom. We chose to submit because we believe there to be a natural hierarchy in life, and that occupying a lowly role is just as dignified and fulfilling as occupying a noble one. It is an understanding that all people are needed and have roles in society, that we live in symbiosis, not parasitism. Although prestige and wealth may be distributed unequally, human dignity and equality is shared by all. Just as all are equal under the throne of God, or His temporal representative. The many internal issues Canadians had was the order of this hierarchy. It was, who do we chose to submit to and serve, because we must always serve someone or something. The English have the king and the French, although still loyalist, follow the Catholic church after the rebellion. The French worship a Catholic God while the English serve the God of Protestantism. Which of these Gods or conceptions of God occupies that head?
When the Americans settled their western frontiers they sent out settlers and order came from anarchic lawlessness. When we settled our western frontier, the Mounties were sent out. Americans place their faith in and see power as stemming from the individual. Canadians view power as stemming from authority. This at one time was divine authority, but now that power is of the government, supposedly democratic and of the people but depending on your view of our election system, that is questionable. Canada is a nation of loyalists. It is ingrained in Euro-Canadians, but unfortunately, not many institutions are deserving of that honor. Without God, all we are left with is imperfect secular institutions based on blind consensus and at the whims of fickle people. Our nation and our state was never intended to exist without the concept of a divine, or even just innate authority, which is why our identity has disintegrated. It is a crisis of faith and we have been left in a state of existential purposelessness brought about in part by multiculturalism. It is also why multiculturalism has replaced Canadian identity, because multiculturalism has within it no core, no one truth or order can be established, just anarchy for the masses and an authoritarian distant political elite.