|It’s not easy being Canadian. You get ignored by most of the world, and never taken seriously (Ambrose Bierce’s definition of humanity: “An animal so lost in rapturous contemplation of what he thinks he is as to overlook what he indubitably ought to be. His chief occupation is extermination of other animals and his own species, which, however, multiplies with such insistent rapidity as to infest the whole habitable earth, and Canada.”) You are expected to understand both Americans and Europeans, and sometimes help mediate between them. Outside your own country, you are generally taken to be an American, which is rarely good. There are enormously high expectations of you, based on the country’s natural wealth, education and proximity to world markets. Everything is miles (kilometres) from everything else, which is tough when transportation gets expensive, or if you don’t like driving in snow. The weather is, in most places, brutal — as Bierce implies, not really meant for human habitation at all.
And we have royally screwed up. Our treatment of aboriginal peoples — whose land we stole, and who we slaughtered without a thought — has always been and continues to be abominable. In the Alberta bitumen sludge mines (“tar sands”) we have created the greatest single ecological disaster in the history of civilization, and in the face of all the evidence about climate change, this disaster grows worse daily. Our treatment of animals, wild and domesticated, is appalling. We have squandered our natural resources — fish and forests especially — and now they are mostly gone forever. We have sold most of our land, resource ownership, and industry to foreigners who don’t give a damn about this country, and who don’t live here, and we sold it for an absurdly low price. Most of Canada’s large private employers are foreign-owned, which means that a large proportion of us work for foreigners, selling our labour, our resources and our intellectual capital, and getting very little in return. We have emulated, at one time or another, all the worst rules, behaviours and beliefs of both Americans and Europeans, and few of their best. We have a federal government run by an arrogant ideological extremist supported by only 30% of us, yet we are not outraged when he asserts that his government, and not the 70% supported by the opposition, represents the Canadian people.
Yet this country could be great, and its people could be models for the rest of the world at a time when sustainable, responsible, humble models are so desperately needed.
Author (and spouse of the former governer-general) John Ralston Saul explained in a TVO podcast last month why our legacy offers us some clues of how we could be great. Highlights:
- [Citing First Nations playwright Tomson Highway] “Language is given form by mythology.” Highway believes English is the language of the head, French the language of the heart, and indigenous languages are those of the body, the instinct and the senses. Today 45 of 53 indigenous languages spoken in Canada are disappearing, taking with them the original, and in Saul’s view the authentic mythology of this country. In the absence of an authentic mythology and native language we are not a nation, and we cannot address the unique problems and imaginative possibilities this land presents.
- We are, in fact, one of the few affluent countries in the world that are not monolithic, rational nation-states. By default, we are therefore a civilization of minorities (he did not use the word ‘tribes’ but that’s what came to my mind as I listened). That is not a bad thing, but it requires us to stop following the US/European models and create our own. To create that model, we need to stop wasting the time of the leaders of Canada’s 1.2 million aboriginal people in land claim disputes and allow them to guide us. The shared collective unconscious of our land is buried in their languages and we need them to interpret it for us.
- Despite ruthless and persistent efforts to get Canadians to embrace Anglo-American myths and values, many of the indigenous values remain strong in Canada, for pragmatic and physical reasons. They comprise the unconscious Canadian mythology, which is very different from that of the US and UK (and often really annoys Americans and British people who do not understand or appreciate its subtleties). Elements include:
- an appreciation and respect for complexity and ambiguity
- a patience to discuss, debate and negotiate as often and as long as it takes
- a willingness to allow truth and knowledge and consensus to emerge
- an aversion to cultural coercion and monoculture (the melting pot)
- recognition of the importance of striking the balance between individual and collective rights and interests
- a preference for adaptation over imposing will, as a strategy for dealing with change
- a preference for egalitarian, flat structures over hierarchy and rank
What would a nation that accepted this as its authentic mythology be like?
A few years ago I wrote about Hugh Brody’s book, The Other Side of Eden, an anthropological study of indigenous peoples, and it contained some clues. If our nation adopted an authentic indigenous mythology, and accepted this as our innate culture, in addition to entrenching the seven elements Saul notes above, we would:
- learn by doing, by experimenting, by practice, not by being told what to do by bosses, experts, ‘leaders’ or parents
- abhor dishonesty and revere candid and complete sharing of knowledge
- adapt to the land and physical reality of living here, rather than changing it
- appreciate that we belong to the land, not the other way around, and conserve it and steward it for future generations and all-life-on-Earth
- learn and adopt useful terms from all native languages
- embrace an oral culture, including learning when to speak, when and how to listen
- become master story-tellers
- learn the arts of analogy and inductive reasoning
- respect all forms of life as sacred
- appreciate the value of facilitation, consensus and conflict resolution
- leave it up to individuals to act responsibly after a discussion (rather than setting out an explicit ‘who will do what by when’ follow-up action list) — this would revolutionize how meetings occur
- listen to experts’ stories, but discourage them from proffering unsolicited instruction, advice or opinions — let the story convey the wisdom
- trust our instincts and our subconscious to guide us as much as our intellects
- be generous with our possessions, to encourage reciprocality and engender trust
- respect women as full equals
- acknowledge and respect uncertainty, unpredictability, qualification, nuance and imprecision, and resist oversimplification, false certainty and false dichotomy
- encourage and enable the development of self-esteem, self-confidence and self-sufficiency
- stress the importance of strong, autonomous communities
These 25 qualities are already somewhat recognizable in the national character of Canadians. It’s almost as if we can’t help ourselves, as if this is just part of the way we are. For nearly two centuries we have sublimated and denied these characteristics, but they are still part of us, instinctive, coded somehow in our DNA. While a minority of my readers are Canadian, I find that when I talk about these qualities they seem to resonate much more strongly with Canadian readers than most others.
I am no longer idealistic enough to advocate the systematic breaking up of Canada into small self-selected communities; in a globalized world that’s no longer feasible. But there are ways in which this national character, this authentic mythology of our nation might be institutionalized:
- We could teach it in schools, as an integral part of Canadian history: This is who we are and what makes us different from people of other nations.
- We could celebrate it during Canada Day, since right now what we celebrate on that day is dubious (the confederation of our country according to Anglo-American principles, ignoring the legitimacy and primacy of the First Nations who already lived here)
- We could legitimize Canada’s indigenous languages and work to protect and extend them
- We could abolish the useless Canadian Senate and replace it with a self-selected council of aboriginal leaders whose views on all matters of public policy and cultural development would be actively sought and listened to
- We could strive in all our activities to become and be seen as the world’s most accomplished and articulate story-tellers
- We could teach and encourage entrepreneurial business skills and formation, to make our society and economy more resilient and less dependent
- We could devolve power and authority as much as practical, not to massive provincial, regional and city governments, but to local self-governing communities, and give these communities as much autonomy as they can reasonably handle
Instead of dysfunctionally trying to make our country in the image of others, we could just allow our nation to evolve to be what it is intended to be. And we could stop pretending to be what we are not, and instead become models for the rest of the world: masters of complexity, subtlety, adaptation, story and attentiveness to what we know, without the need for laws, governments or rhetoric, to be right.