There’s a Canada Worth Celebrating, But We’re Not There Yet
Canada 150 feels like a bust, as it should.
It feels like the 150th anniversary of the British North America Act is pretty muted in Canada. Half of U2 is opening the annual concert on Parliament Hill and there's a giant rubber duck in Toronto. True patriot love abounds.
Personally I have always found it difficult to celebrate "Canada Day." Newfoundland and Labrador's shotgun marriage with the rest of Confederation only turned 68 back on April Fool's Day, and many of us will spend half of #Canada150 in mourning. Forgive me if I can't muster warm feelings about the human meatgrinder that forged the Canadian nation at Vimy Ridge, or whatever awful blood-soaked national origin story you people like to tell yourselves.
Canada Day has always been the red-headed stepchild of national holidays. There is no romance in Confederation like there is in Declaring Independence from the tyranny of kings or storming the Bastille in a revolutionary fervour. Canada was a conservative political union to pacify occupied Quebec, born out of paranoia about the racial makeup of post-Civil War America, an Oedipal fascination with Queen Victoria, and a desire to funnel the riches of the North American wilderness into the parlour rooms of the Laurentian Valley.
Confederation was designed to be as staid, sober, and emotionally repressed as possible. Lots of people will tell you that this is actually the virtuous heart of the Canadian system and why this country is the greatest on earth. Maybe they are right. But "safeguarding the business interests of a transcontinental railroad" isn't fertile soil for nationalist romance, no matter how close Gordon Lightfoot got.
But a deeper problem with Canada Day is that Canadians are not very good at history. The country's early history makes them uncomfortable. It is unsettling to the Millennial children of Pierre Trudeau's constitutional revolution and even to most of their parents. Dissatisfaction with the original 1867 led the country to try and reinvent itself in the 1960s, and like most personal reinventions it involved repressing a lot of the horrible stuff that came before. Not that you can blame anybody: early Canada is a cesspool of corruption and graft, a playground for frontier aristocrats built atop an Indigenous graveyard. Any good, enlightened post-1960s liberal would want to scrub it from their brains.
The very fact we mark 'Canada Day' at all is testament to Trudeau I's success. Prior to 1982, July 1 was Dominion Day, which actually referred to the concrete historical event of founding the Dominion of Canada—a real meaningful thing that happened. Shorn of any historical referent in its national holiday, the geopolitical unit called 'Canada' becomes an empty space you can fill in with whatever ideas tug at your heartstrings while you enjoy your three-day weekend.
Check any opinion survey: Canadians are most proud of the Charter (which is at its heart an American import) and the healthcare system (which is among the worst socialized medicine schemes on Earth and only comes off well when compared to the American Thunderdome). Sometimes people endorse multiculturalism (pay no attention to the racism behind the curtain!) and the rest is empty trivia like hockey, regional food eccentricities, and Tim Horton's. Small wonder that all the heavy lifting in Canadian nationalism for the last 30 years has been done by corporate brands; marketing is the science of building emotional attachment to something ultimately meaningless, which makes it well suited for a country of amnesiacs.
But Ernest Renan reminds us that nations tend to disintegrate when they lose their memory—and Freud tells us that whatever we repress will inevitably return with a vengeance. Being trapped between these two positions is a distinctly Canadian neurosis, which might explain why we've never actually stopped wrangling with one another about what Canada actually is. What else would you call the Harper era?
There has probably never been a prime minister as historically self-conscious as Stephen Harper. His efforts to reassert the country's British bloodline by getting really weird about the monarchy and banging the drum for archaic 19th century wars feels like a fever dream now. In retrospect, the Harper project was less a recovery of Canada's buried birthright than another attempt at reinvention, a retrofuturist reaction by Old Stock Canadians against the creeping cosmopolitanism of the Trudeau family.
Meanwhile, the endless ticker-tape parade of "Canada's Back!" in the wake of Justin Trudeau's 2015 election victory has started to wear thin. It's ironic that a government whose greatest strength coming into office was its synergy with a particular branding of Canada™ has so thoroughly run it into the ground that everyone is burned out on Canadiana ahead of the big party. That's the sort of thing that happens when your track record is just a long series of cynical heel-turns on most of what you claimed would bring Canada back.
Remember last summer when Gord Downie gave Trudeau a shout out as the country's next great white hope at the Hip's last show? Good times. We were so innocent then.
The government's patriotic love-in has been such a bust that the dominant discussions around Canada 150 are all coming from Indigenous communities, reminding us that the Canadian state was born and lives in blood. Just look what happened when Indigenous demonstrators tried to set up a teepee on Parliament Hill this week. It's rare and refreshing to have a major patriotic holiday upended by dialogue about how much work we really have to do if Canada wants to live up to its nationalist hype.
The repressed has returned; history is back in Canada Day, just in time for the sesquicentennial. But it's not the history that conservatives fetishize or liberal dilettantes quaff over cocktails. It's a critical, liberating, unsettled history for a country in desperate need of unsettling. The Canadian history we need to recover and celebrate is neither its pedigree as a Anglophile settler state nor the myth of Canada as some post-national utopia.
Canada is a multinational confederation. It contains many Canadas and many not-Canadas. This is the only kind of Canada where nation-to-nation reconciliation is possible; it's the only Canada where decolonization is possible. Everything else, even the post-national Trudeauvian fantasy, is another way of erasing everyone who can't or won't say they're a "Canadian first."
Canada is not my nation, but it is my country. I like it well enough, and I take Confederation seriously. Beneath the rotting floorboards of a century and a half of crooked carpentry I really believe there is a moral foundation worth recovering. Federalism, the political arrangement whereby different groups of people could live and work together in common while still holding autonomy over their own affairs, is as far as I can tell one of the better political ideas yet devised—even if its application has so far been dicey.
It's honestly refreshing that #Canada150 feels like a bust. That the gap in our boring nationalist jubilee has been filled by Indigenous activists and other people who have long been relegated to the sidelines of Canadian cultural life. The conversation currently happening about decolonization this July 1 makes me believe it's still possible to turn our federalist principles of equality and multinationalism against the imperial impulse at Canada's heart.
Imagine how beautiful that country could be. Sounds like something almost worth celebrating.
Follow Drew Brown on Canada.