Canada and Nationhood™

In a nation of nations, who retains the power to define nationhood itself?

As a nation, Canada has lots of ideas about nationhood.

The present federal government champions the notion of a “nation-to-nation relationship with Indigenous Peoples.”

The past government passed a motion recognizing “that the Québécois form a nation within a united Canada” — a nation within a nation.

How is it that the geographical territory we call ‘Canada’ can be the homeland of so many nations?

The answer, I think, is that the federal government of Canada has very few qualms with ‘licensing’ the use of ‘nation’ to particular groups that it needs to appease. But as with most negotiations, the most critical details live in the small print: at every turn, the ‘definition’ of nationhood is determined by, well, the Nation. In Canada, the word ‘nation’ has evolved more or less to become synonymous with groups who have a particular bargaining status with the federal government, but it is still nonetheless the federal government who bestows, grants, or acknowledges the officially sanctioned ‘nationhood’ of its subgroups of subjects.

Last week I heard Al Day, a local indigenous leader, give a talk. He brought up the observation that First Nation communities have little to nothing to do with defining their concept of nationhood. “First Nations” — and what it means to be such a ‘nation’ — is a definition imposed on indigenous communities by the government of Canada. Nationalism and Nationhood, he argued, are mental concepts inherent in the mindset of the colonizer, not the colonized.

On the global, geopolitical stage, nations are defined in practical terms by the juxtaposition of their power vis-a-vis one another. In a word, sovereignty. But within a nation, this idea of so-called ‘sub-nationalism’ must be defined by whatever rules and parameters the central authority deems most expedient. It is a brand of nationhood with caveats. Many, many caveats. Caveats that have been written by — and presumably serve — someone else. (If the terms and conditions of your nationhood are determined by another party, in what sense, exactly, do you consider yourself a nation?)

The lesson here is that it is important to subject politically mobilized language to scrutiny. When a central government defines and negotiates with a certain group as a nation, who retains the power and authority to define their nationhood? And, most importantly, whose nationalism is entrenched in the process? In Canada, we need to have a debate about whether it is the national identity of the ‘nationalizer’ or the ‘nationalizee’ that is served by the rhetoric of ‘nations-within-nations’ and ‘nation-to-nation’ relationships.

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