Canada: Nation or Notion?

On March 30th, Maclean’s brought together Malcolm Gladwell and Adam Gopnik, two very successful Canadian journalists currently living in NY, to debate the very difficult topic of Canadian identity. The debate was aired on the CBC in its Ideas program and can be heard here. Maclean’s itself published excerpts of the debate on this week’s issue and while I haven’t heard the broadcast itself – and I will – the bits that I read were compelling and interesting enough for me to pass it on.

I particularly identified with Adam Gopnik’s position against a flag-and-fears nationalism and in favour of Canada’s hope-and-holiday nationalism, “rooted in shared hopes that are open to everyone and in a set of secular rituals – holidays in the broadest possible sense – that affirm an open-ended collective identity”.

Earlier on the debate, Gopnik addressed the issue of the individual and his rights:

“The individual and his or her rights is an abstraction. We belong, in reality, to homes, communities, traditions, places, and without them, in a certain sense, we don’t exist as individuals. This is an idea no one has articulated better than the great Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor: the collective is not merely tribal or vestigial. Without a common identity we cannot have an adequate idea of ourselves as individuals. We cannot help but belong to a family, a town, a city, and – in some abstract but real way – to a country. That country may be simply a countryside, a season, a sport, an accent, a habit of absurd good humour and politeness, the choice of speaking two languages, but it is a country and a kind of horizontal connection to others in a room who know those codes as well.”

and he goes on to say:

“Canada, from its very beginning, has been a country that can only turn to a nationalism of hopes and holidays to have any hope at all of making sense of its history and future. From the very first significant handshake between Lafontaine and Baldwin, the idea that what would bind us together was some common, fixed identity, has obviously been impossible. It’s not something you can persuade two very different founding peoples to believe in, to share. So instead you have in Canada, from that beginning in 1842, an idea that the only way we can construct a country is through some kind of shared, civic, humane ideal that doesn’t draw on some imagined commonality, but draws on common values and what are in many respects very abstract ideas of citizenhood. That, I think, is where and only where Canada begins.”

And it is particularly, this sense of a an identity based on shared human values rather than a fixed identity that has allowed many immigrants to quickly identify with Canada and call themselves Canadian:

“In a Canadian Muslim group, nine out of 10 of whom were born out of Canada, 94 per cent describe themselves as proud or very proud to be Canadian. What do they complain about? The weather. What do they admire? Our traditions of tolerance and civility and the enormous Canadian landscape.”


“The glory of Canada is that empirically, pragmatically, without a single binding ideology, but again and again in over 200 years, it has provided a model for the world – not of identity triumphant, but exactly the idea that home-and-hope nationalism encompasses the only values on which we can build a future: common sense, toleration, co-existence. Canada is a glorious notion, a necessary notion, and one that ironically, as the old, doomed idea of a nation comes to an end in our time, is becoming more – not less – of a model for what the nation can be in the future.”

Many immigrants, when they first come to Canada, feel a little lost in their effort to integrate. They want to know how should they dress, act, speak. They want to learn about typical Canadian dishes. They are puzzled when well-intentioned Canadians tell them “just be yourself”. Some newcomers criticize Canada’s tolerance for differences; they feel immigrants should be made to accommodate more. It should be more melting-pot and less mosaic. I’m always surprised and mildly shocked when I hear that. But I hope that they will soon realize that what makes us Canadians is not a particular eating habit, an accent, or dress code, but rather a common set of values based on fairness, social justice, human rights, civility, common sense and multiculturalism.

Of course, no place is perfect, but I do believe the Canadian model is worth emulating. I’m just not sure whether to have a model like that, a country needs to have gone through the kinds of experiences Canada has gone through. At any rate, it is a notion (and nation) that I quickly identified with and in which I feel at home. Although I wasn’t born Canadian, I am certainly Canadian today.