Sunday, July 5, 2009

american vs canadian nationalism

If we put American nationalism and Canadian nationalism into a boxing ring to duke it out, American nationalism would win, hands down. Even online, in the blogging world, the sheer number of blog posts devoted to July 4th vs July 1st is (in my point of view) alarming. The need to publicly commemorate the day a bunch of old white guys got together and signed a piece of paper with a bunch of guiding principles for a group of people by posting about it on a blog never ceases to surprise me. Maybe this is because I am Canadian and we Canadians tend to be more humble about our national pride, which is mainly defined by our NOT being American (an irony that can be discusssed at another time) and by sewing red and white flags onto our backpacks to announce to the world as we travel that we are Canadian tourists (you know, the good kind). (Another irony for a later date...)

Don't get me wrong, I'm not against the celebrations, I just question the need to endorse a nationalist identity with such fervour. I live in a neighbourhood where Quebec flags hang in sovereign pride and I'm only blocks away from where Montrealers gather to celebrate June 24th, the Quebec national holiday (another irony: a national holiday within a nation, but that is an irony I won't explore at a later date!).

What unites Americans as a nation? What do Californians have in common with New Yorkers? Really? Other than a shared collection of stories that define the nation. Make no mistake, I am in awe of America's ability to create such an all embodying and consuming mythic identity. Driving through the Catskills a few years ago, I was struck by the the powerful force of the collective American identity. Canada has failed to create such an all consuming identity, which is both good and bad. There are no stories that tie us together as a nation, not really. I mean, Americans learn to wholeheartedly embrace their history, their stories, their legends, and their manifest destiny as children. Canadians don't. Oh sure, we learn about the exploitation of the Chinese worker to build the railroad and the French/English fight for the nation, but our history (as rich as it is) is rarely taught with fervour and excitement, and most students are completely indifferent to it. Friends who were forced to take Canadian history courses in university groaned over having to memorize the names of our Prime Ministers. And yet, I know that Obama is the 44th American President (or something like that) while having no clue how many Prime Ministers Canada has had. No one cares about our concentration camps (if they know about them) and the Oka crisis. Or the little known fact that Canadians burned down the White House while having a drunken Prime Minister at the helm. Even though we have a rich literary heritage don't have our own Rip Van Winkle folklore or mythic national authors like Steinbeck, Hawthorne, and Hemingway telling the tale of our nation's development and carving out a shared mythical, national identity. Don't get me wrong, we have great novelists, we just don't celebrate our own canon, nor does our canon celebrate us a nation the way the American canon does.

We are a nation who apologizes for ourselves and while it makes for some great literature, it doesn't make for a great sense of national pride.

At the core of my discomfort over the buoyant national pride that defines American life is my unease with the concept of nationalism in the first place (American, Canadian, Quebecois or other). Fireworks, free outdoor concerts, and picnics aside, what is nationalism really?

Benedict Anderson defined nationalism as: "an imagined political community - and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign."

For me the key to what bothers me about nationalism is at the core othe above quote: imagined. To me nationalism is really a false concept of boundaries and shared identity that unite a nation. What does it mean to be Canadian, other than NOT being American? Social welfare and healthcare? Being seen as being peace keepers instead of soldiers? That the world sees us as being "nice" instead of a bully? A flag? Having a liberal and progressive government? Supporting gay marriage? Vast and diverse landscapes? If these are the things that unite us as a nation, then I think we have cause for concern. Our healthcare is under attack, we have a conservative leader that is trying to drag us into the military fray and is ruining our peace keeper identity (not that he is the only one who did so), we're not signing Kyoto or making any progressive movement towards environment care or sustainability, and while we've legalised gay marriage (yay) there is still a large faction of our population who is vehemently opposed to it.

At the end of the day, all of the things that I felt defined my Canadian identity were rudely removed and erased by the election of S. Harper. In so doing, the fact is, is that my fellow Canadians (the majority of those who went out and voted) spat in my face and essentially told me that the values I thought were part of a shared Canadian identity aren't as shared as I thought they were. (I imagine many Americans felt this way about Bush and conversely, Obama). So what does it mean to be a liberal, tolerant Canadian, who supports multiculturalism and social democracy when your country no longer endorses such an identity? At the end of the day it means nothing because what defines me as Canadian is not a shared political will, or common goals for the larger community, but a set of artificially drawn borders that divide one nation from another. And to me, that is not something that is worth having pride in.

Perhaps when I feel proud of my nation again, I will feel differently on the issue and will be like my friend who recently returned from years of living abroad and attend Canada day celebrations with pride. Who knows, maybe one day I will actually blog about the national holidays (June 24th and July 1st).

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