True Patriot, er, Fondness: some Oh Canada notes

By Stan Persky | October 13, 2004

In the Thanksgiving edition of the Toronto Star (Oct. 11, 2004), columnist Linda McQuaig writes a sort of count-our-blessings piece suitable to the season. Instead of once again ploughing the well-furrowed field of Canadian anti-Americanism, or the over-manured pasture of Canadian criticism of Canadian anti-Americanism, McQuaig turns her attention to a less-observed barnyard topic, namely, the turkey of Canadian anti-Canadianism.

She notes that “one of our charms as a country is that we take criticism well.” But lately McQuaig has been getting prickly about some criticisms of the country from an unusual source. “I’m struck by the increasingly fierce attempts to disparage Canada,” McQuaig writes, “coming from a small but influential group of right-wing Canadian academics and media commentators.”

The critics she names include historians Michael Bliss, Jack Granatstein, David Bercuson, and media punditti Margaret Wente and Jeffrey Simpson. University of Toronto professor Bliss apparently told the New York Times last month, “I’m in almost total despair” about the condition of the country. McQuaig rounds up some other remarks similarly dubious about the state of the nation. I’m not sure if the scattered nation-disparaging quotes that McQuaig collects constitute a groundswell of neo-conservative Canadian anti-Canadianism, but I too have noticed over the years various talking heads popping up on the screen and not-counting-our-blessings, but griping about the very things that strike me as national virtues.

Thanksgiving is one of those occasions that tends to inspire national musings. That’s especially true if you’re a Canadian who immigrated from the U.S. One of the first things you notice is that while Canada and the U.S. both celebrate Thanksgiving and gobble up turkeys, they do so on different days, more than a month apart. At first, if you’re an American immigrant to Canada, you think of the second weekend in October as “Canadian Thanksgiving,” in contrast to “Thanksgiving,” i.e., the “real” ( American) Thanksgiving. After a few decades of hanging around north of the U.S. border, you eventually get the idea that Thanksgiving occurs somewhere around Columbus Imperialism Day in early October, and that there’s also something you now think of as “American Thanksgiving,” which consists mainly of American NFL football games on the tube.

As it happens, I’ve been reflecting on The Truth North, Strong and etc. Here’s what I’ve been thinking.


 John Ralston Saul’s book about Canada at the end of the 20th century, Reflections of a Siamese Twin (Penguin, 1997), begins with a consideration of national myths and their relation to the reality of the country they concern. Though I normally tend to think of “mythology” in a literal sense as the stories and figures of pre- and quasi-history—Hermes, Orpheus, Odysseus, etc.—Ralston Saul uses the term to refer to distorted ideological images of Canada. To that sort of “mythology,” he sensibly counterposes a re-reading and remembering of the actual past. I should note, by way of a declaration of interests, that I’m a friend of Saul’s, and an acquaintance of his wife, Adrienne Clarkson, who was named Governor-General of Canada in the late 1990s (with Saul thereby becoming His Excellency, the Governor-General’s consort). The two of them seem to me the most intelligent and intellectually elegant people to occupy high office in the country since Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau in the 1970s.

Saul’s Reflections enumerate and challenge a number of national myths, starting with the notion that Canada was founded on the basis of a conquest by the British of the French. Other “myths” include the claim that Canada is a land of two (or more) solitudes and pervasive isolation; that Western Canadian and other regional “alienation” is a simple fact rather than an ideological position; that the country’s “natural” north to south ties are distorted by the imposition of its east to west boundaries; that Canada is constructed on a classic European nation-state model; and finally, that Canada finds its sole raison d’etre in being not-American. Interestingly, another recent book that challenges ideas about Canadian-American similarities, Michael Adams’ Fire and Ice (Penguin, 2003), uses the term “myth” in its subtitle. Adams’ book counters “the myth of converging values” between the two countries, and demonstrates a growing divergence of attitudes and values between Americans and Canadians in recent years.

 Saul launches his argument for the unusual character of the country by noting that “Canada, like other nation-states, suffers from a contradiction between its public mythologies and its reality.” He recognizes that mythology can have its good and bad days, as can various nationalisms. It can help “citizens to summon up enough energy to consider the public good,” but it can also encourage a denial of reality, in whose atmosphere “a rising undercurrent of fear creates the self-demeaning need for certitude. Absolute answers and ideologies prosper” in the place of healthy doubt. Flag-waving and chest-thumping also flourish. “In this way mythology becomes not so much false as mystification.”

Mythologies gone wrong, Saul argues, tend to turn on heroics and victimization. “The very act of brandishing slogans and flags, when done in the name of heroics or victimization,” he says, “necessitates the identification of villains.” Even though the need for villains is often denied, there’s usually a “code” by which “to identify the enemy, unnameable because they are a race or a language group or believers in another religion.”

In Saul’s view, the fundamental complexities that characterize Canada are a) its crosscutting founding linguistic groups, including its aboriginal inhabitants; b) its geographic northernness and particular accomodation to place and circumstance; and c) its social democratic ameliorative character. Such complexity can be lost in “the dangerous false clarity of mythological truth.” Of course, “we need a reasonable level of identity, nationalism, self-respect, pride and, for that matter, fantasy”; but, taken beyond the reasonable, we’re in trouble, and the country is then dominated by “the provincial, colonial mind at its most insecure.” Distorted mythologies subsume reality. “How is this done? Practical memory is eliminated. The modern tools of communication become the tools of propaganda. And fear of the consequences of non-conformity is propagated.”

Deformed mythology inspires a sense of victimization (each group sees itself as a victim of something or someone else), and a pervasive sense of victimization produces unrealistic, usually simplistic, imaginary options. Trivial contemporary examples of “imaginary options” range from the cries of victims of alienation who call for an independent “Cascadia” (or western Canada) to the straining of various Canadian cities to be “world-class,” a sort of “wannabe” mythology that bears little relation to reality. Saul historically locates much of this problem in the dominance and negative nationalism of two racist, anti-democratic 19th century movements, the Ultramontanes in Lower Canada, or Quebec, which resisted modernization and fought for Catholic Church control of education and politics, and the Orange Order in Upper Canada, or Ontario, which provoked the persecution of the Metis people, attacked francophone rights, and brought the Protestant prejudices and divisions of Ireland to Canada, circa 1830. Their legacy is no longer dominant, although it remains alive in contemporary Canada in the form of a neoconservative political party and the most negative elements of Quebec separatism.

Saul opposes both the mythologies of a founding conquest and a contemporary need to be not-American. With respect to the latter, he means, Canadians are not Americans, but their differences from Americans aren’t driven by some neurotic need to be not-American. As a by-the-way—and I’ll just cite this as a single example of method rather than reprise the entire text—Saul notices that the alleged founding British and French were not really all that British or French, but were actually “Scots and Irish, Bretons and Normans. In other words, on both sides the origins were largely northern (Viking) and Celtic. And on both sides these Celts were the descendents of the losers in the wars waged by London and Paris for central control and the elimination of both regional cultures and languages inside Britain and France. There could be no more eloquent illustration of the colonial mind-set than a bunch of Celts and Vikings in a distant northern territory insulting each other as les anglais and the French, as if they were the descendents of the people who had subjected and ruined them. But then racial interpretations always end up as farce or black comedy.”

Against the colonial mind-set, Saul counterposes the reformers who sought some form of independent, reconciliatory, “responsible” government, government that was inclusive not only of francophones and anglophones, but the aboriginal inhabitants. He identifies the figures of the 1837 Rebellion, the Confederation of the mid-1860s, and their successors over the next century and a half, as those with an authentic vision of the country. He particularly focuses on the formal agreement in 1842 (for the unification of Upper and Lower Canada) and the “binding handshake” of Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine and Robert Baldwin, the country’s original “Siamese twins.”

The title metaphor of Saul’s book is inspired by Jacques Godbout’s novel Les Tetes a Papineau (Seuil, 1981), an allegorical tale about Siamese twins with two heads, one body, and two separate but interrelated personalities, whom most everyone wants separated, or “normalized… banalized,” as Saul remarks. I’m not especially taken with this metaphor, considering the real-life difficulties of conjoined twins. Still, I’m persuaded by Saul’s argument about the character of Canada, which differentiates it from both the United States and Europe, excepting some of the Scandinavian countries. The latter share with Canada its northernness and its social democratic political solutions, but not its multi-ethnic, multicultural population. Overall, Saul consistently argues for Canada’s uniqueness as a national formation.

I particularly like Saul’s theoretical framework. His tropes of mythology, victimization, false options and the rest seem to me effective and accurate. This is not academic theory in the sense produced by departments of professional historians (though Saul has a history Ph.D.), but popular and conversational thinking. Saul is a quirky thinker, which is to say imaginative, but the point is that he actually thinks about Canada, rather than accepting the shibboleths that have been concocted for it, which is a rarer virtue, in or out of the academies, than one might expect. He makes me think afresh about the history of what seems like, at first glance, a minor national backwater whose past is a dull replication of other colonial traditions. Under his convincing definitions, Canada turns out to be one of the most interesting, complex, and so far successful experiments in nation-building available.

Since Saul’s reading of Canadian history is not a neutral interpretation, but a polemic or normative presentation, naturally his opponents are driven crazy by his contrarian claims. What’s more, Saul brings to his Reflections some of the major themes of his earlier 1995 Massey Lectures, The Unconscious Civilization (Anansi, 1995), and applies them directly to the Canadian context. One of Saul’s big ideas in his previous work is that modern democracies are increasingly subject to “corporatism.” He defines “corporatism” not just as business corporations, but as any body (trade unions, occupational organizations, religious entities, advertising agencies, and a host of sectoral elites) whose attention is directed to self- and other partial, private interests rather than concern for a public, common good. Although “there is nothing wrong with business,” Saul points out that business is not in the business of democracy. “[Business] has nothing to do with defining the public good in a democracy, let alone defining a democratic nation-state.” The same applies to other forms of corporatism.

As against corporatism, Saul poses the figure of the individual citizen and the possibilities of his or her government. One of Saul’s unusual insights about individualism is that it is more effectively and properly expressed through citizenship than as a consumer of goods and entertainments. Thus, for Saul, the issue of public citizenly education, education for something more than vocation, is at the heart of the development of democracies. In Reflections, Saul notes that “everywhere the [pupils-per-]class numbers are creeping up, everywhere the amount spent per capita on students is declining and governments everywhere are attempting to replace teaching with technology.” For all that, Canada persists as a vibrantly unfinished, complex, non-conforming political and geographical entity. That likely accounts for the unexpected enthusiasm many of us have for it these days.


Just prior to my arrival in Vancouver in 1966—an event that, like a lot of the major occurrences in my life, was more accident than intention (I really am one of those people who backs into life-situations)—I embarked upon an autodidactic course of reading about the physically vast, sparsely-populated nation-state to the north of the United States. When I signed up to become a student at the University of British Columbia (UBC) that first rainy autumn, the reading continued. My becoming a student, by the way, was also partially accidental—I was required by Canadian Immigration to have some justification for my presence in the country, and it so happened that since I was a U.S. military veteran, a portion of my university tuition fees would be paid for by the G.I. Bill.

In reading about the place I was coming to, it was as if I intuited that I might be staying longer than I had at first planned. I began by reading the journals of early European explorers and visitors to what would become British North America. The first book I found was a recently published volume of the journals of Alexander Mackenzie, First Man West (University of California, 1962; Dover, 1996), edited and introduced by a historian named Walter Sheppe. MacKenzie reached the Pacific overland better than a decade before the Lewis and Clark expedition in the U.S.

Sheppe’s introduction to and annotation of Mackenzie’s Journal of His Voyage to the Pacific Coast of Canada in 1793 was so compellingly intelligent that my imagination was instantly engaged, and I followed this explorer/businessman along his circuitous route to the coast, all the way to the moment where he wrote, “I now mixed up some vermilion with melted grease, and inscribed in large characters, on the South East face of the rock on which we slept last night, this brief memorial—‘Alexander Mackenzie, from Canada, by land, the twenty-second of July, one thousand seven hundred and ninety-three.’”

Then I read the journals of George Vancouver, Simon Fraser, David Thompson, and some others—the raw materials that contemporary Canadian writers like George Bowering in Burning Water (Methuen, 1980), and Brian Fawcett in The Secret Journal of Alexander Mackenzie (Talonbooks, 1985) and Virtual Clearcut (Thomas Allen, 2003), would turn into literature.

Having acquired an initial sense of the lay of the land from primary sources, I turned, for a broader view of the country, to the works of contemporary historians and thinkers, such as Donald Creighton, Harold Innis, Stanley Ryerson, George Grant, Farley Mowat, Pierre Berton, and C.B. Macpherson, whose views covered a spectrum from conservatism to Canadian Marxist historiography. This unwitting apprenticeship in becoming a Canadian took a further turn when I went to UBC and, again luckily, studied with Michael Kew, an anthropologist who knew a great deal about the aboriginal peoples of British Columbia, and geographer Richard Copley, who had an acute perspective on the local landscape. His geography class field trip into the Fraser Valley, east of Vancouver, showed us the Sumas moraine, the leavings of the last ice age from 15,000 years ago, a literal lay of the land. In more mundane fashion, there were the 8:30 morning classes in the rain-sodden, small wooden amphitheatre of UBC’s geography building, amid the smell of damp cordoruy and wool clothes being dried by the body heat of the students. As Copley and Kew lectured, I took notes on where I was.

About five or six years later, I walked into one of those institutional buildings with pea-green walls and grey cubicle dividers which housed the local Canadian Immigration bureaucracy, and I applied to become a Canadian citizen. In the interim I’d become, among other things, a fairly notorious student and civic radical whose pontifications had been regularly reproduced in print and on the air. I handed my application to a man whose desk nameplate said Mr. Eliot, and who was as unprepossessing as his name and surroundings suggested.

He had a question for me. His hand rested on a file that contained a thick pile of clippings that had been gathered for him by one of the nation’s branches of the constabulary. “Are you a homosexual?” Mr. Eliot asked. At the time, the early 1970s, homosexuality in Canada had been recently legalized when the prime minister, Pierre Trudeau, declared that “the state has no business in the bedrooms of the nation.” His omnibus bill, striking down proscriptions against homosexuality, was passed by parliament with less fuss than might have been anticipated. However, the immigration laws still contained an anachronistic prohibition against immigrants who were homosexuals. I told Mr. Eliot that, given the implications of his question, I’d better consult a lawyer and come back later to answer his question. That was fine by him.

I was just buying a little time in order to figure out what he was actually asking me. I figured out that he certainly wasn’t asking me, “Are you a homosexual?” Mr. Eliot and Canada couldn’t care less about that. Instead, he was asking, “Are you planning to make a fuss about the homosexual clause in Canada’s immigration laws?” I wasn’t, at least not at that moment. No political martyrdom, thank you. The real answer to his question was, It’s none of your business, but that wasn’t a possible answer given the circumstances. 

A few days later I was back in Mr. Eliot’s cubicle. He looked as though he hadn’t left his desk in the intervening days. “I’m ready to answer your question,” I said. “Mm-hmm,” he said, politely not repeating the offending question. “No,” I said. That was evidently good enough for him. He seemed rather relieved (Canadian culture tends to eschew unpleasant confrontation). In due course, I was sworn in.

Most Canadians weren’t particularly interested in my sexual orientation, but were more curious about whether I was a draft-dodger, on the run from the American war in Vietnam. Nope, military veteran, I reported. Of course, every time I opened my distinctive yap, Canadians did say, Oh, you’re American, eh? No, I’m Canadian, I said, but that’s not what they meant. They meant that I had an audible American accent, despite my efforts to pronounce “about” and “been” in a Canadian accent. Perhaps they also meant, Once an American, always an American. In reality, I’m probably not a citizen of anywhere, but instead a “rootless cosmopolitan,” a Wandering Jew. Still, some Canadians have noticed, in the intervening three decades, that rootless cosmopolitans and Wandering Jews tend to be better Canadians than most.

The striking thing I’ve noticed about Canada is, as Saul points out, its fundamentally social democratic character. That is, most of the country’s political parties, and the majority of its polled population, accepts capitalism, however grudgingly, but favours some regulation of the marketplace. The country also thinks some goods ought to be in the public domain, including a segment of the media. And it believes there ought to be a collectivization of some of the risks of living, in the form of public health care, welfare, and education. Unlike European social democratic nations, however, its population is not ethnically homogenous and yet, as a multicultural assemblage it has managed to avoid ethnic riots and large-scale slaughter. Yes, plenty of injustice—against aboriginal peoples, ethnic groups (Japanese-Canadians were interned in camps during World War II), religious minorities, women, the poor, etc.—but no mass violence, at least not so far. And there is a tangible will to keep it that way.

Since the completion of Canada’s more than century-old constitutional process in 1982, another legacy of Trudeau, to be a Canadian means to speak one of the two national languages, and to formally adhere to the Canadian Constitution and its values. But there is no official Canadian national identity, unless one takes seriously the beer-guzzling, tocque-wearing “hoser” comedians on TV who do sketches about typical Canadian louts. National identity in Canada is consciously weak, especially compared to countries like Germany, France and the U.S., where there is a strong sense of being French, German or American, even if more in myth these days than in reality.

Once, I was on a literary panel that was prattling on about “the writer and the state in Canada.” An elderly woman in the audience couldn’t stand it any longer, and got to her feet to ask, while literally pointing a finger at us, “What makes you proudest of being a Canadian?” My fellow panelist, Brian Fawcett, a Prince George, B.C.-born, dyed-in-the-wool, authentic Canadian (if there is such a thing), didn’t pause as long as the blink of an eye to reply, “What makes me proudest about being a Canadian is that I don’t have to be proud of being a Canadian.” The audience, which burst into the laughter of self-recognition, thought that was a good thing, too.


Being an immigrant to Canada and a Canadian who lives outside of the country a good part of the time has concentrated my attention on Canada, perhaps moreso than for those who take it for granted. It accounts for my periodic but steady bits of writing about it for some three decades. I noticed that phenomenon again not so long ago, in Berlin in spring 2003, during a “Kanada Week” cultural offensive put on in the German capital, which included a conference on German and Canadian relations with the U.S., lectures on “Citizenship and Multiculturalism in Canada” at Humboldt University, a retrospective of a Canadian filmmaker at the local art film house, as well as a lecture-reading tour by Ralston Saul.

At the foreign relations conference, an old friend of mine, Phil Resnick, a UBC political science professor, turned up to give a paper delineating some of the differences between Canada and the U.S. Resnick was giving his talk just a month after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, an imperial excursion which the Canadian government, like those of much of “Old Europe,” had declined to join. On my way to Resnick’s talk, I’d been held up a few minutes because the police had blocked off the streets so that the black limo cavalcade of the visiting U.S. Secretary of State could zoom through Berlin’s thoroughfares unimpeded.

“Canadians, in general,” Resnick observed, “have been worried by the tendency of the Bush administration to act as sheriff of a new world order” in the period since the terrorist attack on the U.S. in 2001. “Instinctively, Canadian public opinion, despite strident support… for the American position” by the some of the media and the business sector, “has been closer to European public opinion,” he added.

Three striking and deep distinctions between Canada and the U.S. are observable, Resnick argued: first, the Canadian constitutional emphasis on “peace, order, and good government” contrasted with the “life, liberty and pursuit of happiness” phraseology of the American founding documents. The difference shows up in everything from “the wild west” of American legend compared to the more sedate taming of the Canadian prairies, to contemporary differences in attitudes toward capital punishment, guns, and the culture of violence. Second, “there has historically been a different balance between state and market in Canada and the U.S.” Like Saul, Resnick cited Harold Innis’s half-century-old argument that conditions in Canada necessitate a more significant role for the state than in the U.S. Canada, by circumstance, rather than “political virtue, genetic predisposition, or chemicals in our drinking water,” is a social democratic country. This feature of the society shows up in Canada’s early adoption of welfare state policies, from health care to public broadcasting.

Finally, while “the appeal to patriotism in American politics is omnipresent, even embarrassing,” by contrast, “the Canadian temperament is less given to patriotic excess.” Even recognizing that Canada, as a minor power, is less tempted by such patriotism (and its corruptions), the deeper fact is that “Canada, in practice, is a multinational state with fault-lines of language running down the middle. This leads to the elevation of compromise into a high political art domestically,” Resnick said, echoing Saul’s refrain of reform and reconciliation as the historic authentic themes of the country.

About a thousand conceptual kilometres from the gathering of political scientists, but only a short physical distance away, the basement art-movie theatre in Potsdamer Platz was showing the films of Toronto director Bruce LaBruce. Resnick had pointed out that in Canada culture was a crucial and necessarily state-supported sector that preserved useful differences, and it was the case that the cultural attache of the Canadian Embassy was footing the bill for the after-show drinks, but still it was odd to imagine Canadian government backing for LaBruce’s films.

If Canada is typically all about moderation, reticence and compromise, LaBruce’s movies are typically about excess. They intentionally verge on gay porn, deal with homosexual fascism, and graphically portray full-frontal sadomasochistic sex, right-wing homosexual skinheads, and various other obsessions. They also happen to be fairly funny. Oddly enough, LaBruce’s sexually extreme movies are not atypical of Canadian cinema, which is what gets my attention. LaBruce’s preoccupations aren’t all that different from other Canadian fare, such as Atom Egoyan’s Exotica, Denys Arcand’s Love and Other Human Remains, Robert Lepage’s The Confessional, John Grayson’s Lillies, or a Lynn Stopkowich film, Kissed, based on a Barbara Gowdy story that’s about necrophilia (it’s strange, but strangely, not implausible).

Naturally, that’s not the only thematic of Canadian film, but the field is small and independent enough that it is noticeable. Although Canadian literature is competent and interesting enough, I’m especially taken with the aspects of Canadian feeling that emerge from the country’s comedians and its filmmakers. Under all that “whoops, sorry” Canadian reticence, there’s a lot of curious passion.

Finally, that week, I tagged around with Ralston Saul for a couple of days as he gave talks and readings at a number of venues. What he had to say, expectedly, were mainly turns on his argument in Reflections. In discussing the tri-partite aboriginal, Anglo, and French-speaking founding peoples, he even included a footnote of approval for historical inter-ethnic “sleeping together,” which received an appreciative chuckle at an early morning seminar at Berlin’s Free University.

Saul also shrewdly observed that the successful “psychological trick” of Canada is “to immediately treat immigrants as citizens.” Altogether, this fortnight of Canadian rah-rah seemed to me persuasive that there is something profoundly interesting about Canada as a political entity. Although one wag has remarked that Canadians are a people who, without a trace of irony, love to yell about how modest they are, nonetheless, it’s the case that the prizewinning entry in a recent radio contest to define Canadian identity in a single, short sentence, was, “As Canadian as possible under the circumstances.” Again, that line produced a national chuckle of self-recognition.

A long time ago, during a protracted Canadian debate about the adoption of a national anthem, a mischievous friend of mine proposed a tuneless refrain that went: “Canada, it’s the same country / all over the world,” a sentiment that nicely captured Canadian self-mockery of national blandness. In the tuneless official song we ended up with, “Oh, Canada,” it warbles of “true patriot love,” but the reality is closer to affectionate fondness. We prefer, apparently, to reserve “love,” patriot or otherwise, for other venues.

Berlin, October 13, 2004


  • Stan Persky

    Stan Persky taught philosophy at Capilano University in N. Vancouver, B.C. He received the 2010 B.C. Lieutenant-Governor's Award for Literary Excellence. His most recent books are Reading the 21st Century: Books of the Decade, 2000-2009 (McGill-Queen's, 2011), Post-Communist Stories: About Cities, Politics, Desires (Cormorant, 2014), and Letter from Berlin: Essays 2015-2016 (Dooney's, 2017).

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