The Canada experiment: is this the world’s first ‘postnational’ country? | Charles Foran | The Guardian
2017/01/07 Leave a comment
Nice long-read by Foran, commenting on what ‘post-national’ means in practice:
Can any nation truly behave “postnationally” – ie without falling back on the established mechanisms of state governance and control? The simple answer is no.
It can also be argued that Canada enjoys the luxury of thinking outside the nation-state box courtesy of its behemoth neighbour to the south. The state needn’t defend its borders too forcefully or make that army too large, and Canada’s economic prosperity may be as straightforward as continuing to do 75% of its trade with the US. Being liberated, the thinking goes, from the economic and military stresses that most other countries face gives Canada the breathing room, and the confidence, to experiment with more radical approaches to society. Lucky us.
Nor is there uniform agreement within Canada about being post-anything. When the novelist Yann Martel casually described his homeland as “the greatest hotel on earth,” he meant it as a compliment – but some read it as an endorsement of newcomers deciding to view Canada as a convenient waystation: a security, business or real-estate opportunity, with no lasting responsibilities attached.
Likewise, plenty of Canadians believe we possess a set of normative values, and want newcomers to prove they abide by them. Kellie Leitch, who is running for the leadership of the Conservative party, suggested last autumn that we screen potential immigrants for “anti-Canadian values.” A minister in the previous Conservative government, Chris Alexander, pledged in 2015 to set up a tip-line for citizens to report “barbaric cultural practises”. And in the last election, the outgoing prime minister, Stephen Harper, tried in vain to hamstring Trudeau’s popularity by confecting a debate about the hijab.
To add to the mix, the French-speaking province of Quebec already constitutes one distinctive nation, as do the 50-plus First Nations spread across the country. All have their own perspectives and priorities, and may or may not be interested in a postnational frame. (That said, Trudeau is a bilingual Montrealer, and Quebeca vibrantly diverse society.)
Though sovereign since 1867, Canada lingered in the shadow of the British empire for nearly a century. Not until the 1960s did we fly our own flag and sing our own anthem, and not until 1982 did Trudeau’s father, Pierre, patriate the constitution from the UK, adding a charter of rights. He also introduced multiculturalism as official national policy. The challenge, then, might have seemed to define a national identity to match.
According to poet and scholar BW Powe, McLuhan saw in Canada the raw materials for a dynamic new conception of nationhood, one unshackled from the state’s “demarcated borderlines and walls, its connection to blood and soul,” its obsession with “cohesion based on a melting pot, on nativist fervor, the idea of the promised land”. Instead, the weakness of the established Canadian identity encouraged a plurality of them – not to mention a healthy flexibility and receptivity to change. Once Canada moved away from privileging denizens of the former empire to practising multiculturalism, it could become a place where “many faiths and histories and visions” would co-exist.
That’s exactly what happened. If McLuhan didn’t see how Chinese, Japanese, Ukrainian and later Italian, Greek and Eastern European arrivals underpinned the growth of Canada in that sleepy first century, he surely registered before his death in 1980 the positive impact of successive waves of South Asians, Vietnamese and Caribbean immigrants. The last several decades have been marked by an increasingly deep diversity, particularly featuring mainland Chinese, Indians and Filipinos.
Others have expanded on McLuhan’s insight. The writer and essayist John Ralston Saul (co-founder of the charity for which I work) calls Canada a “revolutionary reversal of the standard nation-state myth”, and ascribes much of our radical capacity – not a term you often hear applied to Canadians – to our application of the Indigenous concept of welcome. “Space for multiple identities and multiple loyalties,” he says of these philosophies, the roots of which go deep in North American soil, “for an idea of belonging which is comfortable with contradictions.”
How unique is any of this? Ralston Saul argues that Canada’s experiment is “perpetually incomplete”. In other countries, a sovereignty movement like Quebec’s might have led to bloodshed. Instead, aside from a brief period of violent separatist agitation culminating in kidnappings and a murder in 1970, Canada and Quebec have been in constant compromise mode, arguing at the ballot box and finding ways to accommodate. Canada’s incomplete identity is, in this sense, a positive, a spur to move forward without spilling blood, to keep thinking and evolving – perhaps, in the end, simply to respond to newness without fear.
None of this raw populism is going away in 2017, especially as it gets further irritated by the admittedly formidable global challenge of how to deal with unprecedented numbers of people crossing national borders, with or without visas. But denial, standing your nativist ground, doing little or nothing to evolve your society in response to both a crisis and, less obviously, an opportunity: these are reactions, not actions, and certain to make matters worse.
If the pundits are right that the world needs more Canada, it is only because Canada has had the history, philosophy and possibly the physical space to do some of that necessary thinking about how to build societies differently. Call it postnationalism, or just a new model of belonging: Canada may yet be of help in what is guaranteed to be the difficult year to come.