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I am English Canadian

Université de Montréal
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Flags on your backpacks!
Flags on your backpacks!

           Gordon Downie, to the crowd
           at a Tragically Hip concert

Surely the time has come for us to stop hiding from the truth. It is that, like the English, Scots, Welsh and Irish in Britain, like the Spanish, Basques and Catalans in Spain, like the Flemish and Walloons in Belgium, like the Jews and Arabs in Israel, and like the Québécois and First Nations in Canada, we English Canadians form a nation. Oh we pretend otherwise, of course, but the reality is that here we are, a nation living within a diverse multicultural country, some of whose cultures also happen to be national ones.

Yet how to justify this given that, as everyone knows, the vast majority of us don’t recognize ourselves as such? As the sociologist Ian Angus once put it, English Canada is “a nation whose unawareness of itself is legendary.” In a world full of nations clamouring for recognition, ours not only doesn’t bother but balks at the very notion that it exists.

English Canada: Know Thyself!

Say there’s a family. They’re a large group, a mother and a father and thirteen children. While their relations are pretty standard as families go, some of the siblings are especially close: they spend most of their free time together, are interested in the same books and music, and so on. One might be tempted to say that those in this group are not only brothers and sisters but also friends. When you point this out to them, however, they deny it. The reason? They fear that recognizing their friendship explicitly might threaten the family’s unity since it would undermine the sense of equality between them.

But it is not, of course, only what people say that matters, also what they do. And the members of this group do indeed act like friends. Now I believe that the same sort of thing can be said about English Canadians. Right off I should specify that I don’t mean to refer to all anglophones in the country, only that 50% or so that feel a special concern for English Canadian culture. And by this I mean to invoke neither politics nor the many relatively superficial, everyday social practices (trips to the doughnut shop, fashion, etc.) since such things are more or less shared with many other Canadians. Rather, what I am referring to is things like listening to CBC radio, reading papers such as the Globe & Mail and National Post as well as fiction by Michael Ondaatje, Alice Munro and others, and so on. There is, I believe, a real community of people who do these things, one that can be said to express a unique sensibility, from the weird sex in our films to the poetic lyrics of some of our best pop songs.
Now one could argue (although I certainly would not) that pretending that English Canada doesn’t exist does not do us any harm. The same, however, cannot be said about its effect on many other Canadians. Indeed, the irony is that our concern for the unity of the country has led many of us to an image of it that excludes a large number of its citizens, including the Québécois, the other French Canadians, the First Nations, even the various allophone ethnicities. Let me offer an example. Some time ago, Jian Ghomeshi concluded his CBC Radio One “50 Tracks: The Canadian Version” program, which had the aim of establishing “the 50 essential Canadian popular songs.” All except one song, however (Gilles Vigneault’s “Mon Pays,” which, tellingly, contains the familiar refrain “Mon pays, ce n’est pas un pays”) was sung in English. How could this be? Is the best Canadian pop music really so overwhelmingly English Canadian?

Of course not. The only reasonable explanation is that the show was actually about the 50 essential English Canadian pop songs. By not specifying this, however, we equate English Canada with Canada and so send a message to all non-anglophone Canadians, one that we have been sending for quite some time now: that they are not really Canadian. Of course this is not our intention, but how else to interpret the meaning?

The very same message is sent, say, by The Globe & Mail, which, though it is published wholly in English, has seen fit to bill itself as “Canada’s National Newspaper.” No surprise that its bestseller list for “Canadian Fiction” includes only books in English. And what of all of the books of literary criticism out there that claim to be about “Canadian literature” and yet which cover nary a work not written in English? Even the exceptions here disconcert, as with that chapter on writings in French in Margaret Atwood’s Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature (1972), which is restricted to works translated into English. In what surely cannot be considered progress, almost twenty years later Atwood introduced her Oxford University Clarendon Lectures, Strange Things: The Malevolent North in Canadian Literature (1995) by noting that she wasn’t going to deal with works written in French (other languages of our multicultural country weren’t even mentioned) both because of “the political ambiguities involved” and because it would make the lectures too long.

Recognizing Differences Doesn’t Divide, It Reconciles

So why do we do it? Why is our nation one that, as the political scientist Philip Resnick has put it, “dares not speak its name”?

One obvious reason is that we’re wary of the very idea of nationalism, believing it to be an inherently irrational, chauvinistic ideology. And yet there are many nationalists in the world who are anything but. This shows that while affirming one’s nation − or nations (plural) since just as one can have more than one friend, one can be a member of more than one nation − can take damaging forms, it need not do so. The problem comes only when its values are taken to an extreme, since this leads to the distortion, or worse, of other values. Yet the same is true of any value: too much individual liberty leads to a destructive, free-market libertarianism; too much equality to communism; too much beauty to eating disorders; and so on. While one may avoid such distortions by denying the validity of a value altogether, this will ultimately only transfer them elsewhere.
That is why, when it comes to national communities, we need to appreciate how recognizing their different values doesn’t divide, it reconciles, integrates. Think of how a Québécois, say, must feel upon being confronted with the “50 Essential Canadian Tracks” list; how can it do anything but alienate him or her further from Canada? But then think of how they could respond to a minor change to the list’s title: by referring to the “50 Essential English Canadian Tracks” instead we make room for adding a comparable list of Québécois tracks alongside it and so for affirming that both are fully Canadian.

Yet we will see the wisdom of this only when we recognize that Canada as a whole is a political rather than national community, a country which, like most other countries, contains many nations within it. This is one way of affirming the idea that Canada can be shared equally, if differently, by all of its citizens. So that, then, is why my Canada includes English Canada.

December 16, 2010.

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