‘Canada 150’ and the Idea of a Nation

In his Canada Day speech on Saturday (July 1, 2017), Justin Trudeau proclaimed,

Ours is a land of original peoples and of newcomers. And our greatest pride is that you can come here from anywhere in the world, build a good life, and be part of our community. We don’t care where you’re from, what religion you practice, or whom you love, you are all welcome in Canada! (Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, 2017 Canada Day speech, 9:42-mark)

There is an interesting, unanswered questioning lingering behind these maudlin words: who, exactly, is this ‘we’ who so passionately does not care about my birthplace, religion, and love life? And if they — whoever this ‘we’ might be — do not care whatsoever about any details or characteristics of my life, what do they care about? And who is doing the welcoming here, exactly?

Canadian national identity is famously vexing. Defining what it means to be ‘a Canadian’ does not distill into a single, essentialist descriptor: as a whole, we are settlers, colonizers, migrants, immigrants, forcibly displaced, refugees, or the descendants of some combination thereof. For many First Nations, Métis, and Inuit communities, the word ‘Canada’ represents a litany of broken promises, disastrous social policies, and [what most Canadians would describe in any other country as] exploitation and oppression. Ergo, defining a shared, collective sense of what it means to say, ‘I am Canadian’ is impossible because it feels like all descriptions inevitably omit or contradict each other. To fill all the placeholders for Canadian identity means coming up with a statement that says nothing by trying to say everything.

Trudeau himself has referenced the dilemma by referring to Canada as a ‘post-national‘ state where ‘there is no core identity, no mainstream in Canada.’ Whether we have entered the age of post-nationalism or not, Trudeau still apparently thinks that there is a ‘we,’ and I’m curious to understand who this ‘we’ describes.

Surrounded by Royal Canadian Mounties, cannon salutes, and CF-18 flypasts, I thought back to the writings of the German sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920) who coined one of the most famous and provocative definitions for ‘a state’:

a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory. (Weber 1919)

Whether you agree or disagree with Weber’s definition, it is worth noting how virtually every celebration of nationhood (anywhere in the world) is manifested by a commemoration of military prowess. Whether you live in Canada or North Korea — whether you parade your mounties or your missile silos — it seems impossible for us to say, ‘We are a state’ without simultaneously amplifying and showcasing our militaristic sovereignty. Apparently, you can’t celebrate a nation without celebrating its military — the ‘Canada 150’ extravaganza in Ottawa being no exception. (It might also be worth speculating how fireworks serve the penultimate function of conspicuous consumption — ‘Look! We have the power to randomly blow up lots of shit!’ — as a benign fanfare of nationalistic-cum-militaristic identity.)

If we follow Weber’s definition, it would be naïve to think of Canadian identity as just a pleasant ‘shared idea’ to which we all happily subscribe. Our national anthem is not a quaint version of kumbaya but a highly overt declaration of our commitment to patriotic sacrifice. However, I’m guessing most celebrants of Canada’s so-called sesquicentennial were not amassing to consciously cheer on their military. Perhaps this is another dilemma of being Canadian: perhaps ‘we’ refers to the identity of a nation who does not want to worry about who has the ‘monopoly’ on the legitimate use of violence? (As Machiavellian as it sounds, I think it is fair to say that Canada certainly speaks as a nation who has not had to worry about being invaded for a very long time.) Perhaps our eagerness to describe ourselves as international ‘peacekeepers’ stems from a deeply rooted cognitive dissonance.

If Trudeau’s ‘we’ refers to the institution of our sovereign nation state, then ‘we’ ultimately means the federal government. (After all, who possesses the power the set the date of a national birthday in the first place? Who else would arbitrarily delineate their point of origin to the signing of a confederation?) If this is the case, we could rewrite the speech: “The federal government of Canada does not care where you’re from, what religion you practice, or whom you love.”

On the one hand, this sounds refreshingly non-paternalistic. (Is this not the ideal we should expect from a free, healthy, liberal democracy? In a world full of oppressive regimes and dictators, does this not deserve to be celebrated?) On the other hand, it gets to the crux of the ‘Canada 150’ controversy: is all the hype about July 1, 2017, not ultimately just a big federally-sponsored party to celebrate the institution of the government itself? And if, since the date of its highly self-popularizing inauguration, this organization had gone on to violate your land treaties, forcibly remove your children from your home, and exploit your resources, would you not be forgiven for protesting the festivities? In fact, you might even be forgiven for questioning why so many other residents in the land uncritically don red and white and line the streets of the parade.

Many of us find ourselves with a difficult question: how do you celebrate ideas — like equality, human rights, and freedom — under the auspice of an institution that has — like all federal governments the world over — repeatedly failed to manifest them in practice?

What better way to celebrate a value than to act on it?

After all, if the ideas of equality, human rights, and freedom are what truly define us as the ‘we’ of Canada, then our collective identity itself is no stronger than the most discriminatory or exploitative policy of the governments we elect.

External links for further reading:

UNsettling Canada 150

Not everyone will be celebrating Canada 150 this weekend. Here’s why.

Facile ‘Canada 150’ celebration deserves to be disrupted

150 years of cultural genocide: Today, like all days, is an insult

Can you celebrate Canada 150 and still respect Indigenous rights?

‘You’re celebrating colonization’: 4 Indigenous people share why they won’t be singing O Canada on July 1


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