As Canada prepares to celebrate its sesquicentennial year this weekend, I can’t help but be reluctant about it all. Of course this sense of reluctance is itself a very Canadian thing.
For many of us, the 150th anniversary of Confederation has inspired a lot of uneasy self-reflection and self-flagellation. It has also provided an opportunity to read about, and publicly acknowledge, the brutal colonialism this country — like so many others — was founded on. If you’re from Quebec, like me, Canada’s 150th anniversary has also inspired a fair amount of justified finger-pointing and cynicism since Canada has failed — time and time again — to truly be the binational and bilingual country it purports to be.
As a populace, we have an aversion to the highly sentimental and the overly patriotic: we keep a low profile; we’re not big on flag-waving; we’re cool with a rodent being our national symbol (What did you think a beaver was?); and unlike our neighbours to the South, who like to focus on catchy inspirational stuff like “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” our Constitution talks about yawn-inducing aspirations like “peace, order, and good government.” Does it get any sexier than that?
The problem with these overhyped celebrations is that they often reveal our deep-rooted sense of ambivalence as Canadians. Who are we really? What unites us? It’s hard to understand how we identify as a country when even our own Prime Minister calls Canada “the first post-national state.” What are we even celebrating if we’re supposed to be beyond the unifying concept of a nation?
Are we a land of humble and noble peacekeepers intent on defending freedom and the values of multicultural diversity at home and abroad, all while supporting gay marriage and the legalization of marijuana?
Are we a bunch of distinctly different provinces and territories held together, as I’ve previously written, by a super glue of co-dependency, mistrust, indifference, and loyalty, occasionally welcoming a funny old lady in a hat who insists she’s our sovereign queen? Are we ultimately defined by being the rejection of something else? As Canadians are we simply not American, not British, not rude, not obnoxious and not really into the NRA?
Is a Canadian — as comedian John Wing once stated — simply “an unarmed American with healthcare?”
If, on the other hand, as novelist Irving Layton said, “a Canadian is someone who keeps asking the question, ‘What is a Canadian?”’, I guess this collective existential crisis going on right now is also pretty much us.
Perhaps our identity is exactly that — the distinct lack of an easily identifiable identity, which, in turn, allows us to easily shape and morph into something more, something ahead of the times, and less weighed down by the limiting expectations of who we are supposed to be and what we’re supposed to stand for. Novelist Stephen Marche recently wrote a wonderful opinion piece for the New York Times where he argues that Canada’s success might possibly stem from its long-standing identity crisis and the fact that it comes “pre-broken.” I think he’s onto something.
The more we open our eyes and delve into our collective history, the more we realize that Canada is far from perfect, and the more we can work towards correcting the wrongs that still persist today — mainly with our Indigenous communities. But this place is still quite amazing when you take a minute to look at what’s going on around the world.
We’re vast, we’re beautiful, we’re progressive and we believe in, and invest in, a social safety net, as flawed as it may be.
Our cradle-to-grave medicare system is something I’m ferociously proud of and one I willingly contribute to as a taxpayer. Yes, it could be a lot better and it’s taken some serious hits lately, but it routinely works well and ensures that people don’t go bankrupt because they fell ill. Even our constitutional squabbling and our political differences are discussed and debated — for the most part — in a civilized, non-violent way. It’s exhausting, but it’s mostly tame.
Canada invented the paint roller, instant mashed potatoes, basketball, and Superman. We gave the world Leonard Cohen and Cirque du Soleil. Our Prime Minister is far from perfect and still has a lot of promises he needs to keep, but he’s still someone who’s proud to call himself a feminist, takes his family to Toronto’s Pride Parade and wears colourful Eid socks while he’s there.
Yes, these are all often politically motivated symbolic gestures and he’s a pro at playing the social media game. But at a time where the U.S. President is waging an all-out attack on Muslims and immigrants, while treating women, the LGBTQ community, and the media with disrespect and open hostility, symbols of openness and inclusion from the government matter more than ever.
While our neighbours talk about building walls, we’ve opened our borders up to thousands who needed a safe place to start again, and we continue to build towards a diverse country that respects each other’s differences and strengths. We’re not there yet, but I do believe we’re further ahead than most.
A recent binational public opinion poll from the Angus Reid Institute found that Americans and Canadians, while similar in some respects, still differed greatly in their openness to vote for someone from a religious or cultural minority. While 71 per cent of Canadians would be open to voting for a gay man, only 40 per cent of Americans would do so. An atheist had only a 37 per cent probability of being elected in the U.S., compared with 68 per cent in Canada. Those are huge differences that reveal that most Canadians are not ruled by religious doctrine and that someone’s sexual preference is mostly irrelevant here. These are huge gains that should be celebrated.
According to Statistics Canada, by 2031, between 25 and 28 per cent of Canadians will be foreign-born and more than 60 per cent of Toronto's population will belong to a visible minority in 20 years. The future is coming quickly and it won’t look like today. We will all be better off the sooner we acknowledge that systemic racism and discrimination are problems here, and the sooner we become more open to diversity and differences.
There’s probably no average Canadian and no clear definition of what it really means to be Canadian. There’s no consensus or explanation on what makes this country tick (and some days we wonder if it even does), and we still have major problems to solve and reparations to make, but as places go, Canada is better than most. It’s not a ringing endorsement, but it’s a loving one and probably as good as you’ll get from a Quebecer.