Saturday, August 30, 2008

I am Canadian.

Come in, but stay back, for the fire is truly blazing tonight. I found a rather fun subject and when it goes, it certainly goes. This next bit was a research project I did, and I think will be the beginings of the master thesis I wish to work on in regards to cultural identity and literature. I've found some rather nifty stuff since this first dip into the pool.

The Canadian people have always wondered who they are. Even now our identity is mired in a distinct lack of identity. While this can be touted as a good position because we are much more accepting of those outside influences which may shape a nation, yet with a critical eye, Canada is still seen as a country without a true identity. Unfortunately we will never achieve any state of true identity without accepting all the various events that created the country we live in. Due to the ignorance bred from ethnocentric historical bias Canada has lost its foundation, lost its connection to the very land which would give it an identity; by ignoring the massive contributions and the millennia of history provided by the First Nations the Canadian identity will never be realized.

“Canada, it use to be said by non-Aboriginals with more or less conviction, is a country of much geography and little history.” (Dickason VIII) A puzzling statement used to introduce Olive Patricia Dickason’s text A Concise History of Canada’s First Nations. It relates directly to the question of what exactly is Canada. We as a nation have struggled for hundreds of years to find an identity, and like most identities it has related to what we are not: USA’s little brother, peacekeepers, negotiators, British Subjects, nice. All descriptions used with a begrudging indifference, never satisfactory in truly capturing who we are.

Where this identity crisis becomes truly apparent is in our current definition of what it is to be Canadian. Our government’s official position is one of multiculturalism. We accept all races, and have decided since we cannot nail down a specific identity we will merely borrow from the world, and force no one to accept wholly the identity of Canadian. In fact it leads to some interesting descriptions given by individuals within our country. If you ask someone where they are from, the first answer is rarely Canada, it is instead to someplace else, connections to far away countries are given. This further highlights the disconnection Canadians have with their very country.

Where this disconnection comes from is the lack of recognition we give to our complete history. A separation from the history of the First Nations gives the myth that Canada popped into existence with the arrival of Europeans. While on the surface that disconnect might seem superficial and unimportant it leads to a very real issue in terms of the human psyche. Without the vital connection, without a base, a relationship with the very land we walk on every day we prevent ourselves from ever realizing who we truly are.

Take this idea a step back. Each individual identifies with the place of their birth. We can all name the city of our birth and usually we have some strong idea of what that place is like, either love or hate, or an idealized image. Without that initial connection in our mind we cannot establish the rest of the timeline that creates the personal history of who we are. That first step in our personal myth gives us the foundation, and initial connection of our identity.

As a country Canada has purposefully removed that connection. Most history books start with Cartier landing here and establishing the first French colonies. From there we learn of the arrival of the English and their eventual domination. What is never mentioned is the way First Nations history affected these events. Without the pharmacological knowledge of those Cartier first met his initial camps would have died due to scurvy, without the massive and intricate trade routes already established throughout North America the surveying of the land would never have progressed as quickly as it did, nor would the economic benefits from things like the fur trade have flourished. Without the military allies of the First Nations, Canada would have lost the war of 1812. These are only some very tiny examples of the overall effect that the First Nations had on European settlers, yet even these tiny ones show that without them colonization would never have occurred, would never have been profitable or desirable.

There is a darker side to this disconnection. Without that connection, and without that identity, we also have lost any real ability to embrace that multicultural identity we currently tout as Canadian. At first it started with the marginalization of the First Nations. These people were robbed of their ancestral homes, forced into new modes of life and survival, and systemic genocide was then employed to solve the problem they created. A people without a history have no future, at least according to Europeans, and by ignoring the history these people did have, it becomes very easy to see First Nations as less than human.

These ideas are ever present in the film “Dancing Around The Table.” The confrontational attitude taken by the government is due to two reasons stemming from the disconnect we have created in our national history and identity. First, it shows a lack of respect for the desires of Aboriginal people. How could any people without a history feel they deserve both a land base and to be treated with the same respect and privileges of Europeans. Trudeau’s interruption of the prayers to start the conference perfectly highlights this. Since the talks also mandate a constitutional accord, none of the provinces wish to agree to this. The constitution defines our country, and to add Aboriginal rights to that document would require recognizing the position of the Aboriginal people as a nation within Canada.

Add to this the myth that is Canadian identity. It is firmly entrenched in the idea that the European settlers created Canada through trials and dangerous wilderness. If you accept that the First Nations are a nation and deserve that constitutional recognition then the myth is shattered, and there is no narrative. The identity that has been partially created is completely destroyed. At the end of the second conference in “Dance…” we see the Aboriginal leaders addressing the Prime Minister and the First Ministers. All being addressed hang their heads in shameful postures, knowing they have continued to perpetrate the damaging myth that is the only shred of Canadian Identity.

It is also important to recognize how this myth has been created. In Judith Butler’s article “Imitation and Gender Insubordination” she discusses the concept of psychic mimesis in relation to the normalization of the heterosexual gender: “Consider that identifications are always made in response to loss of some kind, and that they involve a certain mimetic practice that seeks to incorporate the lost love within the very “identity” of the one who remains.” (Butler 382) These are the basic tenants of how an identity is created, through both desire and identification. She further explains how this normalization of heterosexuality first creates the identity but also constructs a past, and then an ideal which can be strived through in the future. There is no normal instead it is a construct that creates a personal, and in the case of Canadian identity, cultural myth.

That is an important point when it comes to discussions of our fragmented Canadian identity because it means that it can be changed. While Ms. Butler is writing specifically to address gender and sexuality issues, they speak to the overall concept of identity, and a Nations developing identity follows the same steps as the personal. While the Canadian myth is built on that of the settlers it is only seen as the norm due to the iterability of the myth. It has been repeated, changing as we grow culturally, and if we take a look at the historical relationship of Canada with the First Nations we see how that relationship has changed.

At the first contacts there was an equal respect, sharing of ideas, knowledge and technology. Trading arrangements were made, and cultural exchange happened freely. It is even within the realm of possibility that the ideals of the Aboriginals made their way back across the ocean and were the sparks to create the intellectual movement that fueled the French Revolution. Once settlement started to become the policy, military might started to come into question, with restrictions placed on the number of guns the Aboriginals had. We have the French/English conflict, which relegated First Nations people to mere military pawns, used to strengthen weakened positions and harass the enemy. With the French loss came the Royal Proclamation, meant to appease the concerns of Aboriginal people but instead, the First Nations, who saw the conflict as between the French and English, lost their land in negotiations that did not include them. The War of 1812 once again saw the use of Aboriginals as military allies, but once this was passed, again they were without a purpose in the British Empire’s plans. With the formation of the Canadian government we see again how the First Nations were marginalized onto reserves, and Treaty negotiation further created relationships which put the Aboriginals further under the thumb of the government

While this is a rather brief summary of 500 years of history it shows how the relationship has changed drastically. From trading partners to subjugated race the Aboriginals were placed further below the status of the incoming settlers, and with that we get the birth of the Canadian myth. Entrenched in our identity is the thought that somehow the colonization was good for Aboriginal people, civilization was brought to them, and if they have chosen not to take the helping hand given by their social betters then it is their own fault. It is never mentioned that without the Aboriginal people Canada would not be a nation.

One of the most surprising pieces of Canadian identity to happen were the I Am Canadian commercials that aired, staring Joe Canadian and his rant on what it is to be Canadian. Cyntia Sugars writes in her essay “Marking Ambivalence”: “The paradox of a unifying Canadian ambivalence is central to Molson Breweries’ “I am Canadian” ad campaign.” (Sugars 125) She shows how the rant taps into the idea of a Canadian identity through the settler myth. It clearly shows images that it decries, such as a lumberjack and Inuit. These images are splayed larger than life behind Joe Canadian as he denounces them as part of the Canadian image, further reinforcing the ideas of colonialism.

One of the interesting parts of the rant is the claim of multiculturalism, showing a brightly coloured picture board of different nationalities behind Joe Canadian. Interesting to this is of course the beginning, showing Joe, a clearly white Anglo Canadian, and the names he references: “Jimmy Sally, or Suzie.” There is no native or even French names, both large parts of Canadian societies. In fact, the commercial did not even air in Quebec. This handling of the Canadian identity reinforces the subjugation inherent to the colonial, or settler myth that is Canadian history.

“Through its self-referential stance, the ad performs a version of national skepticism, for even as it promotes Canadian nationalism, it dramatizes a debunking of national identity constructs.” (Sugars 126) By rejecting the images that are most common to the settler myth, the commercial in fact reinforces them; leading to the question of what is Canadian identity. While on the surface it may appear that the commercial might answer those questions, in fact it was recognized by the heritage minister of the time, what should be gathered from it is the lack of identity, the shame involved both in the lack of identity and the reasons for it. A commercial to sell beer should not be seen as the answer to Canadian identity.

Relating this back to the marginalization of Aboriginal society is the rejection of those things that are still a part of our country. This marginalization is what has lead to the various conflicts, and how they are handled. Oka is the one most commonly cited, but I believe the GW land claim stands as a much better example of the systemic racism invoked when ignoring the history of First Nations. From the initial court rulings, to the eventual reversal of legal policy, we see the damage of ignorance of complete history.

Even looking at the Judge McKechrine’s statement of the life of the GW is ignorant of the history that was provided him: “Life was at best nasty, brutish, and short.” It ignores the thousands of years of shared naming, the cultural development and social structure required to respect and use a system based on earned hereditary rights. Not only that, but his dismissal of the oral histories is in direct conflict with the basis of original settlers which were led to the ‘New World’ by papal bull that allowed them the right to claim land from Aboriginals because they followed a different religion. The rights given to Europeans is sacrosanct, the rights of Aboriginals are only what the settler myth will allow.

While there is a great many political and anthropological reasons given for his decision, I feel it relates more to identity than anything else. There is a mistaken belief that identity is static, that it is something we decide upon. Identity is not an ideal, nor does it remain the same, it is a perfect example of iterability, repetition continuing, and changing with each repetition. Garry Sherbert states in the introduction of Canadian Cultural Poesis: “Our identity is therefore determined by our repeated, ritualistic social behaviours before we are even aware enough of our identity to challenge it.” (6) To accept Aboriginal oral history, and the full history of Canada is a radical break from the identity we now have, it would force us to first accept the mistakes, and the accompanying guilt, that have been made and then rewrite our collective myth.

The first step to that is the repetition of that idea. Unfortunately most discussions that start with this concept are immediately seen as an accusation due to the trauma associated with both the fragmented identity and the guilt of past mistakes. A close to irrevocable state of melancholia is achieved as stated by Ms. Butler: “In Freud’s view […] incorporation – a kind of psychic miming – is a response to, and refusal of, loss.” (Butler 383) We are caught in an identification with the myth with have created, but have lost our true connection to the history of our country, leading to a melancholic state that cannot be resolved until we can also identify with that loss in a conscious manner. The identification is only operating on a subconscious level, creating a love/hate ambivalence that further feeds the settler myth and causes but the subjugation and appropriation, usually through stereotypes or archetypal roles, of the Aboriginal culture and history.

By stepping beyond the first hurdle, understanding the idea that the myth is not the norm but a fabrication that allows the basis of our current fragmented identity, the first act to reconciling the break in our collective identity can begin. Without focusing on those first few steps most issues within Canadian culture will continue to fracture and no forward progress of our nation and its global identity can happen.

It would be one thing if this disconnect only involved the First Nations, but it doesn’t. This disconnect leads to further atrocities. We didn’t learn from our mistake, in fact while continuing to ignore the totality, the whole, that is Canadian history it allows us to further marginalize and repress parts of the culture without understanding why. The Japanese detainment during World War II, the creation of segregated farming communities brought over by displaced and disposed German refugees (Huderites) and finally in dealing with any of Quebec’s constitutional demands. We continue to be unable to actually accept the tenants of our proclaimed identity because we lack any real connection to where Canada truly came from. Instead we are all forced to mourn for our lost identity, never more than a shadow of what we could become. The Canadian Nation is one of immensely diverse and incredible talent, but never is that talent ever fully tapped, never is that country fully realized, because we don’t ever start properly. We have no real birthplace. We have a place of being, disconnected from our very home.

Saturday, August 9, 2008


Come in, the fire is nice tonight, a few small flames, and a lot of warm coals. Watch how the light plays along them. Orange to blue: bright, electric, and alive. Watching it can lead your mind into new places. Try it.

So I thought I might try an experiment today. I'm going to give you a couple of short jokes. They're crude, and possibly offensive. If you are offended by the joke, write down from 1 to 10 how offended you are. Post those numbers for me. Ready?

What do you tell a woman with two black eyes?
Nothing, you've told her twice.

Why can't Stevie Wonder read?
(He's blind?)
No, he's black.

Share your thoughts.