The rise of nationalist discourse in American public life has generated a fierce riposte. According to its critics, nationalism endangers the well-being of those without a nation and can degenerate into xenophobia. These critics are right. But their ad Hitlerum rush ignores an example closer to home, which should be cause for concern. These critics ignore what happened to nationalism in Canada.
In 1963, George Grant lamented the defeat of Canadian nationalism at the hands of Canada’s ruling class and its political instrument, the Liberal Party of Canada. For Grant, the Canadian elite argued that nation-states, nationalism, and sovereignty were obsolete. These old concepts and institutions were collapsing in the face of the historically necessary—and therefore good—trend toward continental or global integration. The Liberal Party asked of Canadians only that it might have “personal charge of the government while our sovereignty disappears.”
But the ruling class’s historical predictions never materialized. Sovereignty, nation-states, and nationalism persisted long after the 1960s. Instead of abandoning nationalism, Canada’s ruling class simply reinvented it. Liberal neo-nationalism is now the prevailing ethos of the Canadian elite, from high and low culture, to social and political analysis, to political practice itself. It is not hidden, but openly embraced, and paradoxically vindicates nationalism’s critics: Peddled in the culture and on the campaign trail, the neo-nationalism of Canada’s ruling class is sophisticated xenophobia.
In Canada, nationalism has been discussed and debated for decades; since the 1990s, the most popular formulation is that Canada represents a “post-modern nationalism.” In Andrew Potter’s helpful summary of this concept, postmodern nationalism is not a slur but a compliment. It represents a commitment to keep a vague conversation going with no fixed goal. Yet the assumption behind this ongoing conversation is that Canada stands in an almost Manichean opposition to the United States. Canada is to fear the Americans.
Margaret Atwood’s literary nationalism is a good example of this. In Survival, the early work that made her famous, Atwood argued that every country has a single unifying symbol that “holds the country together and helps the people cooperate for common ends.” For Atwood, Canada’s symbol was “Survival.” In the age of explorers, this meant physical survival against the harsh elements; but later, this became a more spiritual “struggle against colonial oppression, with Canada as the innocent virgin fighting off the virile advances of the masculine American empire.” Atwood’s innovation was to present Canadian nationalism in the language of 1970s postcolonial and feminist theory, giving her an enthusiastic reception in the nascent “CanLit” establishment, and helping give it a particular shape, cause, and foe.
For Canada’s ruling class, political analysis is downstream from this cultural analysis. The objective of this political analysis is to stress national superiority. An ambitious effort to formalize the anti-American character of Canadian political nationalism was Canadian pollster Michael Adams’s 2003 book Fire and Ice, named by the Literary Review of Canada as one of the 100 most important books ever published in Canada. Adams argued that political and social values in Canada and the United States were moving in opposite directions. Canadians were moving toward values associated with idealism and personal fulfilment, while Americans were moving toward paranoia and isolation. “What is remarkable about social change in America,” wrote Adams, “is the society’s failure—or refusal—to postmodernise. Nothing is more striking than the country’s wholesale retreat from the idealism and fulfilment side of the map.” Canadians are supposed to feel better about themselves at the expense of their American neighbors. The villains of Adams’s study are in fact the traditional, conservative Americans. As he argues in his 2019 book, the conservatives’ love of authoritarian parenting styles and public displays of religion made Trump’s rise possible. Canadians should rejoice that those traditional American values are not postmodern Canadian values.
But while high culture affords the Canadian elite reasons to be smug, political campaigns urge Canadians not to grow complacent. We must stand on guard, for the tentacles of that American monster, the vast right-wing conspiracy, are far-reaching. In every election cycle, there are always some Liberal Party ads that try to connect Canadian conservatives to the American right. 2006 saw a particularly absurd batch. In the current 2019 election, the latest scandal is that the Conservative leader Andrew Scheer held American citizenship through his father (the process to renounce his citizenship is ongoing). A Manchurian candidate looms.
A whole cottage industry of literature exists to argue for similar links. Canadians learned, for example, that Stephen Harper was actually in thrall to evangelical Christians and implementing a “hidden agenda” crafted in ultra right-wing America. Leave it to others to guess how Harper, who vowed to keep lawless abortion the status quo and voted down a Parliamentary debate on abortion, expressed these notorious policy positions of the religious right. The point is to be afraid.
Of course, it would be silly to suggest that Canadians should not distinguish themselves from Americans. Grant made this point himself. But the difference between Grant’s vision of Canadian nationalism and Canada’s postmodern nationalism was that the former resisted a theoretical idea of technological civilization to defend a distinct romantic ideal. In “In Defence of North America,” Grant recognized the theoretical limitations and defects of American civilization, but praised Americans for practicing a way of life that resisted nihilism. Grant criticized an ideology found in America, but he defended Americans. Canada’s postmodern nationalism flips Grant’s nationalism on its head. Canadian postmodern nationalism makes Americans the enemy, but is friendly to American ideology.
The irony of Canada’s postmodern nationalism is that for all its anti-Americanism, the multicultural regime that Pierre Trudeau initiated and his Liberal Party successors continue borrows heavily from American identity politics. As state policy, multiculturalism generates a range of symbolic initiatives to rectify past wrongs and advance the new vision of a multicultural, inclusive country. Here, Canada’s initiatives awkwardly copy American ones. In 2015, the Obama Administration announced its intention to replace the image of Alexander Hamilton on the $10 bill with that of a “notable woman,” a “champion for our inclusive democracy.” This plan was later abandoned due to the popularity of the musical Hamilton. But Canada’s Liberal government was paying attention—in 2018, it took the Canadian $10 bill and replaced its image of John A. MacDonald, Canada’s first prime minister, with that of a Canadian black woman, Viola Desmond.
Desmond has recently received recognition because in 1946, she sat in a section of a movie theater that management reserved for white clientele. Because the section required a more expensive ticket, which Desmond had not purchased, and each ticket was subject to a government tax, she ended up being fined $20 for evading the tax on the more expensive ticket. Desmond was obviously treated unjustly. But her rapid promotion in Canadian political culture reveals the elite’s determination to import the history of American race relations into Canada. Desmond rose to prominence because she looked like Canada’s very own Rosa Parks. But their cases cannot properly be compared. Desmond was defying a private theater’s policy, not Jim Crow laws—none existed in Canada. Moreover, she wasn’t prosecuted through a racist statute.
But these historical details matter less to Canada’s postmodern nationalists than does constructing a particular kind of symbolic narrative. It is not just about acknowledging the place of minorities in Canadian history. It would be possible—and salutary—for national symbolism to acknowledge that there has been a small but significant black community in Canada since the settlement of the Loyalists. Some fought in the war of 1812 and in the 1837–38 rebellion to defend the settlements of Upper Canada. Canada’s early history could provide a very different symbolic narrative. One could tell how Canada and the British Empire, at the vanguard of the abolitionist movement, successfully brought slavery to an end in their territories without civil war. One could tell how freed and escaped slaves, and their descendants, participated in the nascent life of Canada to the point of offering the last full measure of devotion.
Yet the ruling class forgets these patriots and ignores what should be cause for celebration. Instead it constructs a narrative where Canada becomes a participant in a continental-cum-global psychodrama of minority oppression, in which the struggles of Canadian minorities are one with those of minorities in the United States and the Jim Crow South. Canadians are meant to feel just as guilty for their past as those who grew up in the shadows of plantations. But the consequence of this kind of equivocation is to diminish the true injustice of historical racism in the United States, making it just another instance of minority oppression.
Canada demonstrates how nationalism serves the made-in-America ideology of identity politics, creating a noxious political theology. As Joshua Mitchell and Pascal Bruckner remind us, identity politics is not advanced secularism. It is the transformation of theological concepts, with its own catechism of innocence and guilt. The achievement of Canada’s ruling class, and its political instrument the Liberal Party, has been to hone this into a national catechism. With this catechism it proselytizes, from sea to sea, a kind of nationalism ultimately based on the friend-enemy distinction. The Liberal Party is a party at prayer. Each member prays thus to himself: “God, I thank thee that I am not like the Americans.” It is hard to discern whether it is his parochialism or his pomposity that exceeds his hypocrisy.
Nathan Pinkoski is a postdoctoral research fellow at St. Michael’s College in the University of Toronto.
Photo by Alex Guibord via Creative Commons. Image cropped.
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