Like most Canadians I know little of our past.
Sure I remember the Plains of Abraham, and Sir John A. Macdonald, and some other random bits from high school history class, but to be honest that’s about it. In fact it seems I know more about American politics and foreign histories than I do of our own.
Yet I don’t dwell too long over my patriotic shortcomings, because the things that make me Canadian are not meant to be so simple to define.
Canadians were never the big screen heroes saving the world from certain clichéd doom. We haven’t been constantly reminded that God blesses Canada. We are not the biggest, nor are we always the best. But still I always show my passport with pride, always answer “I’m Canadian” confident my reply will be pleasantly received.
Why? Why identify myself positively with this country?
Because I had a sense that this was a good place, that good things happened here. That’s it. That’s all I ever needed to feel proud of where I came from. I did not need a glorious history of rockets’ red glare or bombs bursting in air. I felt this country had a good heart and that was enough to instill in me a simple yet solid sense of pride.
In an increasingly globalized world, a traditional sense of national identity becomes less and less practical. Divisions based on name and place often lead to short-sightedness, so the fact that we Canadians do not wrap ourselves wholly and blindly in the red and white maple leaf is a good thing. It keeps us open and ready to evolve.
But lately I see things that trouble me, things that stir in me a desire to step up and defend this difficult-to-define nation of ours. Defend it not from typical enemies attacking traditional notions of country, but from more elusive adversaries threatening that more subtle definition of our nation.
In the past, as the world would eat at itself over petty disagreements and greed and distorted senses of value, we Canadians could always sit up here – supposedly cold and backwards and living in igloos – and chuckle at how silly they all were. We could recognize that quiet difference that made us slightly special.
But something is changing.
While the world tries to come together and find consensus, Canada’s embarrassing devotion to fossil fuels and big money has made it the number one hindrance to united action on climate change, tarnishing Canada’s reputation on the global stage.
After scientists and researchers working for Environment Canada were repeatedly banned from speaking to the media or discussing their findings with the public, a group of over 800 scientists from over 32 countries published a letter condemning the Canadian government’s actions and demanding more scientific freedom.
I hesitate to steer this in a partisan direction, but there comes a time when plain talk works best.
The Canada I see under Stephen Harper’s stewardship is not one I am proud of.
The first government in Canadian history to be held in contempt of Parliament. New election laws making it harder for citizens to vote. Orwellian controls on media access to government officials. Funding cuts to the arts and environmental protections while making it easier for outside money to influence election campaigns.
Secrecy. Divisiveness. Ideology justifying any means necessary.
There has been a steady and unhealthy copycatting of the worst parts of other nations’ political and cultural practices, a myopic focus on More, on Power, on Us vs Them. And everything else, even the very fabric of who we are as a people, is expendable in its pursuit.
Canada. The quiet neighbor, the polite partner, the rational actor to be counted on. A country once known as a model of successful immigration and multiculturalism, now being made to look at their fellow citizens and wonder of veiled boogeymen. A nation once heralded as a keeper of peace and beacon of common sense, now so very quick to simplify, to reduce, to resort to fear.
This country does not have a long, winding history, no singular culture or language that easily identifies it. And so if all we have to define us as a nation is that ephemeral notion of a good place where good things happen, then the actions of Mr. Harper and his government are not only causing objective harm but also attacking the very definition of what it means to be Canadian.
Doesn’t this seem impossible? Not here. Not us. Never would we allow the pursuit of power to influence our national welfare. Never would we want the Canadian political and media landscape to mimic other countries’ hyper-partisanship and ideology. Never would we take the low ground on an issue as critical as climate change.
But it’s happening. And it’s happening because we are losing track of the very thing that makes us who we are, the only thing that gives Canadians any sort of deep national identity.
So leading up to the election, take a moment to step back from the labels and default settings and remember that time being Canadian made you smile.
For me it was during a road trip to Florida with a big group of fellow young Canadians: whites, blacks, 2 Sri Lankans, a couple of Jews and an Italian. We were walking through a shopping mall in a major US city when I noticed people noticing us. I was still quite young and oblivious, but after a few minutes realized what it was they were noticing. It was us. A big group of mixed races hanging together and having fun. For us big city Canadians this was completely normal, we gave it nary a thought, yet for them it was something odd, something to notice. Standing in that mall, I felt for the first time that subtle difference. I looked back at my friends, saw what beauty our country had made, and was proud.
Photo credit: Tim Van Horn www.canadianmosaic.ca