The Evolution of Canadian Identity

If you were to ask an English-Speaking Canadian what his nationality was at any point prior to the First World War, the overwhelming likelihood is that he would tell you that he was British.

This is hardly surprising; for all intents and purposes, English Canadians of the era were British; they had a British culture (with a few ‘regional variations,’ some of which were humourously outlined in the works of Stephen Leacock), learned about British history and the glory of the British Empire in their schools, had a British form of government (whose laws could be overturned by the British Supreme Court), swore their allegiance to the British monarch, and lived under a constitution called the British North America Act.

Now, of course, after World War One, all of this suddenly started to change; the war caused the population to sour (to some extent) upon the whole imperial project, and a sort of local nationalism began to flare-up, amongst the English-speaking population, for the first time. Greater political autonomy followed, and in and fits and starts over the next century or so, Canada gradually tried to assemble a national identity for itself–one which simultaneously distanced itself from its British past, avoided wholesale adoption of Americanism, and was defined broadly enough as to include both French and English speakers. While it is debatable the extent to which this was successful, Canadian nationalists eventually managed to define identity in terms of symbols (the maple leaf, hockey, the Canadian wilderness) and, especially, in terms of values.

Since these nationalists were overwhelmingly on the Left of the political spectrum (right wing intellectuals instead being initially in favour maintaining links to Britain, and then of building them with the United States), the values considered at the core of the Canadian identity are overwhelmingly the values of the Left: Humanism, egalitarianism, multiculturalism, environmentalism, peace and what is often erroneously referred to, by all sides of the political spectrum, as socialism (but is really a liberal economy with government intervention).

Needless to say, this has left Stephen Harper in a bit of an interesting situation, since his policies are diametrically opposed to so many of the values listed as being at the heart of the Canadian identity. His strategy of getting around this has been to try to recycle the old, prewar nationality.

Indeed, looking around Canada today, one gets the impression that everything old is new again. The Harper Regime is spending more than twenty-eight million dollars to commemorate the bicentenial of the War of 1812, while tellingly, they let the 30th anniversary of Canada’s new constitution pass with barely a mention. Meanwhile, the Canadian Navy and the Airforce have had their “Royal” appelation reapplied to them, and now we are hearing that we will even be sharing embassies with the British abroad. Everywhere, the old virtues of the Empire are being ballyhooed once again, and I’m almost surprised that they haven’t tried to bring back the old flag or anthem yet.

Now, of course, I have nothing against Britain: I’ll admit to being quite a connoisseur of their cultural exports. However, I feel no emotional attachment to Britain, and I would wager that the overwhelming majority of my compatriots would say the same. Thus, I expect that the Regime’s efforts will prove unsuccesful. This is 2012, not 1912: nearly twenty percent of Canadian citizens today were born in other countries, and I can’t imagine that or Francophone or Indigenous populations get overly misty thinking about the British Empire either. Moreover, I would guess that the overwhelming majority of British-descended citizens under the age of forty or so would tend to identify more strongly with post-war values. Most likely, what will happen is a historical anomaly, righting itself almost immediately on that long-awaited day when Harper is thrown out of office.


About thevenerablecorvex

I have the heart of a poet, the brain of a theoretical physicist, and the wingspan of an albatross. I am also notable for my humility.
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