Yesterday Canada celebrated its 141st birthday and Canada Day festivities popped all over the city. I didn’t go to any of the main events; rather, we went to our friend HD to visit Fort York and did a bit of cycling afterward. But on the way home, I couldn’t help stopping at Queen’s Park to check out the festivities there. I really enjoy Canada Day. As far as nationalistic holidays go, it’s a very nice one. People are generally in a good mood and it’s nice to spend it in a place like Toronto where we see all the immigrant families and their kids with their flags out, enjoying the day. There are usually big festivals set out everywhere, live music, face-painting, food (nearly free in many places – at Queen’s Park, one could get 10-cents hotdogs)… It certainly beats the military parades with which I grew up. Nothing against military parades, which can be kind of cool, but when that’s all there is to celebrate a national holiday, it’s pretty sad.
As it couldn’t be otherwise, all the newspapers were full of the usual articles exploring Canadian identity, celebrating famous Canadians, and discussing what Canada Day means. The Toronto Star edition was the more uplifting, with a good article by Thomas Walkom comparing the issues plaguing Canada today with the state of the nation in those early days of 1867. He sums it up at the beginning of his article:
We’re still here. It’s been 141 years since this improbable country was created from a collection of disparate British colonies, with little linking them other than the fact they were not the United States. And yet we persist. In fact (and don’t let on, lest we lose our characteristic Canadian angst) we’re doing rather well.
His comments on politics are dead on:
Politically, we have survived as well. As prime minister, Stephen Harper has not turned Canada into Washington’s 51st state. He is not captive to the religious right and has not dismantled the federal government.
Like other demonized leaders, Harper has operated, more or less, within the normal parameters of Canadian politics. He makes promises, breaks promises, cozies up to Quebec and focuses on his own re-election.
Indeed, the striking thing about Canada 141 years after Confederation is how little the country has changed. In 1867, like now, we were a nation dependent on immigrants, making our living mainly by exporting raw materials to the rest of the world. We both envied and feared the Americans in those days. We still do.
Even our dependency on immigration has stayed the same. In the early twentieth century, writers were concerned about the difficulty of assimilating Eastern European immigrants, then arriving at great numbers. Today we talk about the “dangers posed by unconstrained Muslim immigration”. It seems we always worried. But as Walkom says,
Will the newcomers adjust? Will they fit in? Will they change our traditional ways?
And yet, our traditional ways, such as they are, persist. Canadians of all races and creeds pay homage to iconic symbols of a shared nationhood – medicare, Tim Hortons (which, typically, is US-owned) and the former theme song of Hockey Night in Canada.
In temperament, we are we have always been – realistically optimistic with a touch of grim fatalism. As Hollywood can attest, irony is out main cultural export. Even our superlatives are muted. Pretty good. Not bad. Could be worse.
Of course, Wartom oversimplifies and overgeneralizes the similarities between 1867 & 2008, but he does touches on some important continuities. Immigration policies, for one, have changed and evolved throughout the past century, changing the make up of newcomers but the fact remains that immigrants have always been an intrinsic part of the Canadian landscape. I often get into arguments with recent immigrants, who complain (!) about Canadian attitudes towards visible minorities and ethnic groups, saying it will destroy the country and it harms Canadian identity. I argue that a century of waves of immigrants have yet to create splits in the country (other things do that; immigrants seem to be more keen in preserving unity) and as far as Canadian identity goes, it is more elastic than meets the eye since it is less based on markers such as race or religion and more on a set of attitudes and freedoms. It is indeed a very Canadian thing to guarantee the rights and freedoms of visible minorities and ethnic groups. As Royson James so elegantly phrased:
How silently you stole my mind and wrapped yourself around my heart, painting corners red and white. (…)
Canada is neither ancestral home nor Nirvana. It’s home, a place of choice, an idea that sits restfully on one’s shoulders. Still waters in a raging torrent. Keeper of the peace. A place of sober second thought.
I came to Canada, ten years ago, with little knowledge of the place and more out of convenience than choice. I had married a Canadian and it was simply easier for me to move up here than for him to move to Brazil. I had no plans on becoming a Canadian citizen at that point. But slowly I learned much about Canadian history and culture, and almost unconsciously, acquired many Canadian attitudes. Canada gave me room to grow, to find myself, and showed me that all I needed to succeed was will. It taught me the importance of fairness and justice. It was only after I understood all of these things that I felt ready to commit, to become a citizen. That’s why I relate to what Royson James said. I wasn’t convinced of this by anybody, I never had a Canadian try to convince me of how great Canada is, it’s not a simple case of brainwashing. It grew slowly and it hasn’t made me blind. Actually, what I appreciate in most Canadians is this ability to be proud of their country without losing sight that things are not perfect and should be improved. As Stephen Marche put so well, “our lack of patriotism is our patriotism” and Canada is a place where even the second most powerful person in the country has to fly economy and get in line with everybody else. It’s no Nirvana, but it’s home and the place I feel the most free.
Thomas Walkom, “141! Not too shabby, eh?”
Royson James, “2 flags, intertwined, touch my soul“