CANADIAN IDENTITY AND THE STRANGER ON THE "GO" TRAIN, By Robin Higham (Article)
The Scene:It is Monday morning and John Canuck (JC) is riding to his downtown Toronto office on the “GO” commuter train. Coffee at his side, he is catching up on his unread weekend newspapers. The train and John haven’t gone far before a new passenger appears and takes the bench opposite, facing John. The stranger is perhaps identifiable as a new Canadian because he speaks, in a manner that vaguely suggests that Canadian English is not his first language. Just as he begins to open his briefcase to do some last-minute paperwork…
JC:Help yourself to my newspapers. They are from the weekend, but yesterday’s news is as good as today’s…they are, as usual, about the failure of health care, the failure of the education system and the failure of our search for the Great Canadian Identity. This weekend the main item was the Identity thing.
Stranger: Thanks, and I would love to have a look at your papers. In fact, the identity discussions are of particular interest to me. I am a newcomer in Canada, and I need all the help I can get just fitting in. It’s not easy to know what you have to do in order to belong. It’s as though just asking, causes embarrassment…as though “identity clarification” was a main item of your list of politically incorrect subjects. Right up there with “how much do you “weigh”?
JC: Well, you don’t surprise me, Newcomer. Canadians have always had a hard time describing themselves in conventional “national identity” or “cultural identity” terms. And you are right, the subject does get us looking down at our shoes a lot…some Canadians think it is a national disgrace to be so vague about who we are as a people. If you really want a description, you may have to write one yourself…make your own list of who you think we are…or, who you would like us to be if you are going to be one of us.
Stranger:Do it myself? Great idea, and so Canadian too! Maybe you could help me. May we talk about it? Do you mind if I keep track? (The stranger reaches in his briefcase for his laptop.)
JC:Sure, why not? But don’t forget…either by accident or by design, we have pretty well disconnected the notion of Canadian citizenship from the notion of Canadian culture or Canadian cultural identity. Since we went “officially multicultural” in the 1970’s, the conventional “cultural specificity” tradition of most nation-states, does not apply here anymore...except perhaps in terms of a few ill-defined national values and citizen responsibilities. So don’t even try to draft a conventional Canadian cultural-identity manifesto. Instead let’s see if together we can make up a catalogue of “Some Characteristics of Canadians. But I warn you, that won’t be easy.
Stranger: Well, I’m not sure it’s going to be that difficult. In case you haven’t noticed, you have already proposed the first item for my list. Let me call it something like “It’s un-Canadian to define Canadians” or, even better, “Defining ourselves is un-Canadian”. From my brief experience here, whenever someone proposes how Canadians should speak or worship or cook or dance or whatever…others get all fidgety I think it’s because if you reach agreement on claims like that, you risk excluding a Canadian friend or a neighbour who speaks or worships or dances differently. My impression is that you can dance just about any way you want in Canada…isn’t that the whole point of being Canadian? Let’s start with that one. “Defining ourselves is un-Canadian”.
JC:You know, that’s not bad! And it fits a national preference for definition by negation. We are much better at saying what, or who, we are not, than we are at saying what, or who, we are.
But here is another negative declaration for your list. Can we agree that we are Not Assertive as a people? I think so…I think I think so…we wouldn’t want a clear “Yes” or “No” here…it might offend someone, some Canadian who is assertive for example. Get the point?
Stranger: I do indeed. You remind me of an experience I had with a Canadian before I came to settle here. I was once interviewed by an uncharacteristically assertive Canadian journalist who was monitoring an international conference that I was attending. The delegates were negotiating the text of their final report. The Canadians and delegates from a few other countries were clearly uncomfortable with some overly categoric language drafted by another group. In her impatience for results…I think she wanted to go home…the journalist labelled her compatriots “as assertive as jelly babies” Maybe she was right, but she didn’t stay around long enough to see the results of their unassertive corridor work. The compromise text that eventually emerged kept the opposing forces at the negotiating table and let the participants get on with the project at hand. The result was one of your legendary win-win outcomes. I was impressed.
JC: That’s a nice example of the “not assertive” characteristic at work. It responds to the criticism of those arm-chair negotiators who contend that “not assertive” reflects low self-esteem…a lack of confidence in our own judgement. I like to see the other side of that coin. For me, being “not assertive” means that we give ourselves more space to listen to other points of view, to consider and to reconsider, even to reach agreement. And we can do that without the loss of face that so often blocks compromise at the same negotiating table.
Stranger:Good, then we have agreement for the second item on our list. I am really comfortable with this one because it incorporates, if only implicitly, another Canadian characteristic which also travels with a negative stigma…here in Canada at least. I am thinking of Canadian style “civility” and the apparent fear of some Canadians that it signals “gullibility” and it is therefore a disadvantageous national characteristic. I happen to disagree that civility is a liability, but I am still not sure that it merits a place on our list just yet since it may be implicit in other items on our list to come. Let’s stick with “Not Assertive” as your characteristic number two.
JC: Suits me. It’s your turn, Newcomer. “Not Assertive” was mine.
Stranger:No problem. How about the word “Abeyance”? I like that word and I have always been intrigued by how Canadians tend to be willing to deal with problems, to manage them, rather than to insist on resolving them…keeping things in abeyance. To return yet again to things that you are not, this is hardly a characteristic that one would assign to the Americans or the French, for example. The Iraq war or headscarves come to mind. When others insist on fixing a problem, your response tends to go more in the direction of “let’s talk about it”. In Canada “The dialogue is the solution.”, to paraphrase Marshall McLuhan. Perhaps one could claim that “talking about it”, abeyance, is why you still have Quebec in the confederation.
JC: Very observant of you. “Abeyance” it is then…number three. If it’s my turn now, I will employ some characteristic Canadian irony and propose the phrase that a clever sports journalist came up with once to describe the mediocre results by Canadians in the Olympic Games. He spoke of our “Passion for Bronze”
Stranger: Ooh, that stings!
JC: Well, it did at first, but then I got to thinking about it. Always the optimist, I decided that there is some merit here. For me “passion for bronze” suggests that Canadians are prepared to go for gold only to a certain point. Beyond that that point, other values or objectives kick in, values that we are not willing to compromise just to stay in the running for gold. No knee-capping the other figure-skater, if you know what I mean. And no gold by hormone supplements, please. We’re Canadians.
Stranger: You know, I think we can list that one, although I am not sure that we don’t get our fair share of Olympic gold. And what about our top ranking on the UN Human Development Index? Not only did we win gold for years running but our Prime Minister at the time never seemed to stop reminding us of it.
JC: That’s true, but it makes my point exactly. When the UN awarded us top scores on the Human Development Index, it was never really accepted by many Canadians, especially the mainstream media. They claimed that we can’t possibly be entitled to first-place, to gold, because of our relative ranking on the international prosperity file…other systems were generating more GNP per capita than ours. “The measurements must be false, this is fools’ gold, we want bronze!” they said. What so many of us didn’t understand was that, precisely because our governments had succeeded better than others at balancing priorities, we got gold for overall performance. We may not have the world’s best health care or education or national defence or environmental controls, but our gold, or near-gold, ranking was due to relative success at incorporating a broad spectrum of values into many of our public policy priorities. Result…a Canadian human development environment that is hard to match any place else.
Over to you, my friend, and by the way it’s interesting to note that you are talking about “us” now, rather than “you Canadians”. Welcome home!
Stranger: Thanks, I guess that’s true. I hadn’t realised it. But in a way you took me there. You’ll see what I mean…I was about to propose characteristic number five as something along the lines of “In Canada all voices are legitimate.” That you are having this discussion with me, a perfect stranger and an obvious newcomer, makes my argument on this point. You have accepted me as a legitimate interlocuter in a discussion which in many other countries, especially those with a clear idea of their national cultural identity, would be much more difficult. I often feel like I have been allowed into the mainstream too easily, without complying to the usual precondition of cultural assimilation. Citizenship or landed immigrant status is all you need to be integrated. That is a difficult trick for any society that seeks to welcome newcomers and to capitalize on their presence in the community.
JC: It is difficult and if we are justified to put it on our list now, it is only because Canadians have been making progress on this point in recent years. Accepting legitimacy of minority voices means re-jigging one key popular notion of democracy. I am of course talking about the “majority rules” rule. In many so-called emerging democracies, “majority rules” is interpreted to mean that minorities have little or no legitimate voice… Over time, and with the arrival of so many minorities in Canada, we have finally begun to accept a qualification to the rule-by-majority tradition. We are starting to understand that while the preferences of minority groups may not always prevail in public policy discussions, peaceful co-existence dictates that the system has to ensure that their views are listened to. We know that we must take them into account and accommodate them as much as possible. Official language rights for minority groups were perhaps the issue that first brought this message home to us. But we have gone beyond that now and in our public policy debates, we expect to hear why something matters to minority groups be they a linguistic minority, religious, ethnic, sexual orientation, or other. As long as we live up to it, your “All voices are legitimate”, point number five, hits the nail on the head as a key characteristic that makes it possible to govern the diversity of this country. Thanks for pointing it out to me…for helping me better understand us.
Stranger: Well, thank you for listening to it. I suppose we are reaping the benefits of more than one perspective on the discussion. Can you keep the pace? Characteristic number six is yours to identify.
JC: Easy, its “Bricolage”
JC: Bricolage…in my view this is a key Canadian characteristic. It’s a French language word of course. I don’t know of an English language equivalent for “bricolage” unless we stretch it out to something like “the capacity to cobble together as you go along” …hardly satisfactory but you’ll get what I mean.
Stranger: I’m not sure I do. Keep talking.
JC: Bricolage! It’s more than just tinkering. It’s our tendency, our preference even, to muddle through, to take small incremental steps to manage problems or even to develop policies.
Those who always see the glass as half empty, see bricolage as a dangerous absence of political left or political right ideology, …a characteristic to be avoided in many countries where citizens are more politically oriented as left- or right- leaning, and often, by the way, more engaged voters. I view bricolage as our preference for pragmatism. It can be, for example, when the political left turns right, or the right turns left…at any given moment…just to get the job done. Bricolage is another of those Canadian characteristics that befuddle those who seek to follow and interpret our society and our politics. Bricolage is one more reason why we have so much difficulty explaining ourselves to others. By the time an explanation has been worked out, we have moved on and the proposed model is no longer valid.
Stranger: Like moving the goalposts. Alright, I’ll put it down. It’s a bit flakey so I have a feeling we must be coming to the end of our list. However, I do like your reflection on the challenge of explaining ourselves to others. I have always felt that “explaining ourselves to others” is the best way of explaining ourselves to ourselves. That was the starting point for this whole discussion if you recall. We set out to explain ourselves to others. Drafting this list of Canadian characteristics is a good example. If you allow me though, I would like to propose just one more: Choice Maximisation.
JC:I can hear you coming.
Stranger: Good! But let me explain it to you anyways…it will help me understand what I mean. Choice Maximisation is another national characteristic which is too often dismissed by Canadians themselves. Yet again, many consider it as a weakness, as fence sitting, as an inability to make up our mind, as a way to avoid making any choices at all. But we Canadians need our space, don’t we? We are only comfortable when our options are wide open. Since I have been in Canada, I have seen that choice maximisation characteristic at work on many occasions. It is most noticeable in your interminable culture-policy discussions, cultural trade policy in particular. I think it has to do with Canadians’ simultaneous passion for, and fear of, globalization, of identity homogenisation through the universal (read “USA”) entertainment culture. Many nation-states share this fear of course. But in spite of that méfiance (distrust plus fear) Canadians want access to the full range of market-driven entertainment products of the international cultural industries. We want USA entertainment in particular. But maybe we’re a bit greedy. We want everything. We even want access to Canadian content in our choices of TV programming, cinema, magazines, books and recoded music. Canadians want those choices even when the dictates of the marketplace would exclude home-grown where demand may be inadequate to support competitive production. Free traders at home and abroad, denounce that as protectionism, as anathema to constructive globalisation. Canada’s cultural warriors see Canadian Content (CanCon) as indispensable to the sustainability of the special character of their country…as undefinable as that may be. It's when policy options are presented as mutually exclusive, that we get skittish. Choice maximisation is about not painting ourselves in a corner. Choice maximisation may not always lead to the most efficient marketplace, but it is supportive of our insistence on a diversity of perspectives… “All voices are legitimate” remember?
JC: Of course, and I agree that Choice Maximisation belongs on our list. But that list is beginning to look a little long, don’t you think? You’ve been taking note, can you read back our points? I think there are seven.
Stranger: Yes, there are seven. First: Defining ourselves is un-Canadian. Second: we are “Not Assertive”. Third: “We prefer to keep things in Abeyance”. Fourth: our “Passion for Bronze”. Fifth: in Canada “All voices are legitimate”. Sixth: Problem-solving and policymaking by “Bricolage”. Seventh: “Choice Maximisation”, don’t fence us in.
JC: Not bad “un-stranger” What do you think? Are they marketable?
Stranger: Well, I’m not sure they are. After this discussion, I am starting to understand you, us, better. I have a feeling that our list would provoke the Passion for Bronze response. I think many Canadians would consider our characteristics profile much too up-beat, too self-congratulatory. They would come up with all kinds of arguments and anecdotes to prove us wrong.
JC: Yup, you’re probably right. Maybe we should entitle it “Some Characteristics of Some Canadians, Some of the Time…Under Certain Circumstances”
Stranger: That sounds just a little clumsy, don’t you think? I wonder if instead we could pre-empt the risk of rejection by adding an eighth qualifying characteristic.
JC: Perhaps. How about this? Characteristic number eight: Canadians sometimes knowingly, or unknowingly, sin against all seven of the above. What are Canadians, after all, if their institutions do not act un-Canadian on occasion? If getting caught acting out-of-character, exposes our transgressions and jerks us back to some kind of improved character compliance, then our list would be doing its job!
Stranger: Wonderful! It sounds like a hockey coach: “The best defence is a good offence.” Number eight it is then, “Regretful Transgressions Recognition” In any case, we know by experience that whenever we betray the un-written code that we just wrote, there will always be a whistle-blower not far away, to remind us that it is un-Canadian to…
JC:Whoa! Careful my friend! Remember point number one about not defining ourselves? Don’t ever finish that sentence. You’ll really get us in trouble.
Stranger: Yeah, I guess you’re right. Thanks for doing this with me. Here’s our stop in any case. Are you finished with those weekend newspapers?
Robin Higham 2/3/04
(With ideas from, various newcomers and friends including Ian Angus, Alan Cairns, Walther Lichem, Edgard Pisani, Gilles Paquet)