Archive for will ferguson

Happy Canada Day: Here’s Your Homework!

Posted in Canadiana, Essential Reading with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 1, 2013 by TheCanadian
What Canada looked like when your mom was still a teenager.

What Canada looked like
when your mom was still a teenager.

Well, it’s Canada Day.

Again.

And I’m not sure that I know what that’s supposed to mean.

When I was a kid, what Canada Day meant for me was going downtown for dinner for my best friend’s birthday (happy birthday, Kevin!) and then crowding in with everyone else around the rails at Canada Place for hours to catch about twelve minutes of fireworks. In spite of being crammed into the Skytrain like literati in a Gulag railcar afterwards, we had fun.

As an adult, Canada Day came to be the day I knew I would be free and clear of having to mark essays, enter grades, create assignments, and otherwise be helpful and available to a group of confused young people for the next eight weeks. It also marked the day that I could begin my roadtrip to come and be with friends and family in Wisconsin, if I hadn’t already managed to start out a day or two earlier. There were at least seven Canada Days I spent sitting and staring at the US in the lineup for the Blaine border crossing, if I wasn’t already in the US and barrelling down I-90.

In other nations, their “national birthday” is often celebrated with a great deal of flag-waving and consumption of ethnic or culturally-significant food. Fireworks are always a big thing. And we have all of that in Canada, too, but I suppose that none of that was ever particularly moving for me. I more or less subscribed to the artist Banksy’s point of view, that “people who enjoy waving flags don’t deserve to have one”. Patriotism and jingoism have never been easy concepts for me to separate, and frankly I always thought that being proud of the country where one was born was a little odd since one really had no choice in the matter. Our birthplace is actually quite arbitrary, really, and patriotism has always seemed to me akin to racism: there’s only a small difference between someone proud of being born in Canada, celebrating how great Canada is, and someone proud of being born white, celebrating how awesome white people are. In both cases, the implication is that somehow a completely random aspect of your birth made you necessarily better than other people. Me, I was always most proud of my accomplishments, the difficult shit in life that I couldn’t do or hadn’t done, and then managed to achieve after a period of trial and failure; I just somehow managed to derive more meaning from that than having been born with ten fingers or brown hair or something similarly utterly beyond my control.

What’s more is that I still remember calendars where July 1 was marked “Dominion Day”, and I knew people who flew Union Jacks and Red Ensigns on the first, harkening back to our days when Canadians were proud to have been born in a former British Colony. Is it really so easy in 1981 to be  proud and patriotic for being limited British Subjects and then turn around in 1982 and be proud that we’re no longer British Subjects? What is Patriotism™ worth if we can trade it in for New and Improved Patriotism® (Same Great Taste! Brand New Flag!) at the pirouette of a Prime Minister?

So yeah, I was never really down with the whole patriotism/Canada Day/be-proud-of-this-arbitrary-accident-of-geography-in-which-your-parents-met-and-procreated thing.

Though I can see how it would be very different for someone who chose to live in Canada.

Inevitably, someone will read this, make it all the way through that, and then give me the oh-so-very-clever response, “Well, if you don’t like it, leave!” To which I could reply, “Well, I did leave, thank you. I’ve been a US resident now for fifteen weeks.”

That said, I didn’t leave because I don’t love Canada, I just happen to love my wife more (and with her daughter and grandson here, she wasn’t going to be leaving the US any time soon). There are all kinds of things to love about those 10-million square kilometres of dirt, water, rock, trees, and rapidly-thawing polar ice and tundra, and all sorts of things I love about the 33.5-million people who live there. But I am still irritated by people’s patriotism, not only because of the very absurdity of national pride, but because of how wrong so many people are in the basis of their pride.

For example, I want to slap the living shit out of anyone who talks about Tim Hortons as a Canadian institution. Or at least I would like to congratulate them on their lack of sophistication and their gullibility for believing the very line of BS sold to them by USAmericans. Not until 1995 when Tim Hortons was acquired by the US company Wendy’s International, Inc., did ads for the doughnut franchise begin to claim that this particular doughnut shop was ingrained in the Canadian psyche. When I was a kid growing up, there was nothing particularly Canadian about Tom Hortons, no more so than there was about Nuffy’s Doughnuts, Robin’s Doughnuts, or Dunkin’ Donuts (whose poor spelling very clearly identified it as a US company). The only real association between being Canadian and any doughnuts at all was the faux Canadianisms in SCTV‘s Bob and Doug McKenzie skits. The irony here is that in responding to a CBC directive to include more Canadian content in the show, actors Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas created characters who embodied the US stereotypes of Canadians at the time.

Between SCTV‘s tongue-in-cheek portrayal of the Canadian identity and a well-orchestrated marketing ploy by a US corporation, Canadians in large numbers buy into an identity created for them by USAmericans — a cultural tradition that goes back to Sergeant Preston of the Yukon and beyond. The result is that many Canadians define themselves not by what is essentially Canadian but by what others think is essentially Canadian. Ironically, many of us do this in the same breath as we argue that we are not like the stereotypes others hold, and that we are not like those we associate with politically or economically. It was not uncommon prior to World War II for Canadians to define themselves by arguing how they were different from the British, nor was it uncommon after the war for Canadians to define themselves by their differences from USAmericans. Saying what you are not, however, doesn’t go very far toward saying what you are.

And I don’t think many Canadians know what they are.

This book will demolish your paradigms.

This book will demolish
your paradigms, and you’ll laugh.

If you’re a Canadian who thinks you know what you are, I’m going to suggest you read a little of humourist and satirist Will Ferguson. In his book Why I Hate Canadians, Ferguson takes on the preconceived ideas that we Canadians have about our nation, revealing many of them for the half-truths and nonsense that they are. He takes on the idea of Canadians as Peacekeepers, and illustrates our reputation for UN endeavours as greatly exaggerated, that the role we adopted (under Prime Ministers William Lyon Mackenzie King and Louis St. Laurent, and under the influence of Lester B. Pearson as Secretary of State for External Affairs) in the post-World War II era has only gone into decline since the 1970’s, in spite of highly-publicised involvement in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. We claim pride in a system of universal healthcare, but it is rapidly being dismantled by successive waves of conservative economic decisions and mismanagement (made by political parties both right- and left-leaning), and we just go on blissfully unaware of the eradication of this.

Ferguson’s book is a good read. It’s funny, and it gives a lesson in history as well as something to laugh about. More importantly, however, I feel that Why I Hate Canadians sets us up for a discussion about many of the more significant and dangerous ways in which we do not fit our own paradigms. For example, Canadians like to think we’re more environmentally conscious than other nations, and yet our (currently) strong dollar is based greatly on the exploitation of some of the dirtiest, most heinous oil resources in the world, requiring the destruction of millions of hectares of wilderness and the poisoning of First Nations people. We argue that we are a progressive, democratic nation, and yet we have not been spared the conservative (and dare I say neo-Fascist) wave that swept much of the world in the past decade.

The fact is that Canada really is something amazing — and can even be much cooler than many of us realise. And it has little to do with calling a couch a chesterfield or having a football field in the CFL that’s fifty yards longer and twelve yards wider than an NFL field. It’s because of things far more powerful and far more significant.

This book will help you to create a new paradigm, and you'll be educated.

This book will help you to create
a new paradigm,
and you’ll be educated.

In his book A Fair Country: Telling Truths About Canada, John Ralston Saul in part argues that Canada misses opportunities to exploit what truly makes us and our country unique. In Saul’s view, Canada is fundamentally “A Métis Civilization” — that is, it is a nation that is neither European nor Native North American, but rather a unique society shaped by the interaction of the European peoples who came to Canada over the last four- to five-hundred years with the Aboriginal peoples of North America who have been here for thousands upon thousands of years. This idea is nothing new to those who are familiar with syncretism who understand that whenever two cultures meet, both cultures are changed by the experience, and to those familiar with dialectics who know that the collision of opposing forces creates something heretofore unknown in either one of those forces; however, as it relates to understanding Canada and the Canadian identity, Saul’s ideas are quite novel.

The argument goes that because the Europeans did not take on a role of self-conscious extermination of the Aboriginal peoples in the way that other American nations did, and because the very economic enterprise that was at the heart of English involvement in the “new world” necessitated the participation of First Nations people, Europeans had to adapt to native ways and even adopt many native methods of interaction. While warfare was hardly unknown to native North Americans, greater emphasis was placed upon negotiation and upon mutual respect of land and resource use. Europeans would use the monolithic nation state as the primary unit of interaction, while for the First Nations people it was family that filled this role.

The result is that Canada more so than other nations (Saul argues) has a better understanding of the rights of the individual as they relate to the needs of the collective, that we are more able to see multiple perspectives on issues, and that we are better able to live in harmony with people who are different from us. The very groundwork for the multiculturalism that lies at the heart of Canadian identity (as opposed to the desire for a melting pot) was laid long before Trudeau, residing with the native North American tradition of sharing land and resources among different people whenever possible. Saul’s book gives us a new model for being Canadian and is in fact a more accurate paradigm than any of the trivial ones we bandy about now.

Blind patriotism is no substitute for a willingness to challenge our beliefs, to learn our history, and to embrace the cosmic accident of our birthplace in a meaningful way.

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