Redefining Canadian Nationalism

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I’ve always looked at national pride as somewhat of a lie. Pride is something you normally feel through hard work or accomplishment not by the chance of being born in that particular country. So while I’m happy to live in a country with universal health care, gay marriage and a more tolerant populace, I’ll never take pride in it.

National pride is the driving force behind nationalism; it can be seen as harmless when waving a flag at a sporting event or celebrating the nation’s birthday. As long as the ruling government doesn’t use it as a distraction to other problems it can bring people of all stripes together in celebration.

However, nationalism can also be very dangerous. When pride turns to exceptionalism or the belief that we are somehow better than everyone else, governments and their leaders can better manipulate their population into accepting things they would normally protest. This is the type of nationalism that brought Hitler to power in Germany and that has kept the wheels of the American military industrial complex rolling for sixty years. It is also the same ideology that our current Conservative Government subscribes to.

Since the end of World War II and the emergence of the United States as a global superpower, Canada’s identity has come not from who we are, but who we are not. Living right above the free world’s biggest global force we had no choice but to adopt an identity that is both unique and modest.

Pearson and his Nobel Peace Prize

Canada’s national identity over the last sixty years comes in large part from one man, Lester B. Pearson. As the Canadian external affairs minister in 1957, he won the Nobel Peace Prize for defusing the Suez Crisis though the United Nations. As a result, he is considered the father of modern day peace keeping.

When Pearson served as Prime Minister he brought in universal health care, the Canada Pension Plan, the 40-hour work week, two weeks of paid vacation time and a new minimum wage. He will also be remembered for turning down an American request to send Canadian troops to Vietnam and the man who gave birth to our national flag.

Nationalism in Canada was forged in peacekeeping and progressive social ordinances. Current Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s own values are not etched into these types of modest behaviors and he has been trying to change our identity ever since he was first elected six years ago.

There is a belief among conservatives that Canadians have been nothing short of underachieving boy scouts on the world stage. Perhaps under the American delusional thinking that money and power is what makes a country great. It is that type of exceptionalism that all American politicians now have to pander to year after year or lose their job. Perhaps Canadian conservatives see an opportunity to mold the whole of the Canadian consciousness into something that only their one party subscribes to.

In order to reshape the mindset of average Canadians, we have been bombarded with the conservative government advertising Canada’s military past. They have spent millions of dollars on television and the internet ads recasting the war of 1812 when British forces fought back an American invasion. They have put pictures of war memorials on our new passports and even on the backs of our new polymer currency with no mention of our peacekeeping past.

The advertising campaign continues with ads about how our tar sand projects will help to bring about a stronger, more prosperous Canada without the environmental consequences. The Conservative Party knows (as do the rest of us) that Canada stands to gain more power and influence the faster global warming can take effect.

The melting polar ice will expand Canada’s stores of natural resources and open up new trade routes that would make Canada a major junction of international trade. It is no wonder that Harper’s government has done everything it can to quicken environmental assessment on fossil fuel projects and halt government funded research on environmental protective projects. How many people around the world will suffer in pursuit of this new found influence, money and power? It doesn’t matter…

Canadian PM Stephen Harper

So far it’s not hard to say whether our Conservative Government’s nationalist strategy is working among the Canadian people. There will always be those among us who desire money and power or those who think they are god’s gift to the earth, but with the party at 34% support, most Canadians aren’t buying it. You can’t change sixty years of a national identity in six.

On the foreign front, our strong new Nationalist strategy has been backfiring completely. Under Harper, we have been vilified for our environmental practices which now rank dead last among wealthy nations. Our partisan support of Israel has tarnished Canada’s reputation as an honest peace broker and likely lost us a seat on the UN Security Council for the first time in Canadian history as a result. If we were a nation of underachievers and boy scouts before, now we are simply underachievers.

I’ve never bought into the Nationalist philosophy, let alone the exceptionalist variety. It breeds arrogance, intolerance and inequality, three major conducts that have been used to describe our southern neighbors, but are rejected by most Canadians. If Stephen Harper continues to sell us bullshit wrapped up in a Canadian Flag and camouflaged in an American one, Canadians will take pride in voting him out.

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2 comments

  • Excellent article/analysis. I just hope this one particular line in it is accurate: “You can’t change sixty years of a national identity in six.”

  • I remember Gord Downie of The Tragically Hip once talking about the “New Canadian Nationalism”. This must have been around 2004-2006. It was about the things we identify with as Canadians, whether they are completely accurate, fair, or not.

    As a 28-year old, I grew up in a time when Canadians — according to polls — most associated their identities with Health Care, Peacekeeping, and Hockey. Underneath all that, their was a belief in multiculturalism, tolerance, liberalism, modesty, and — I believe — being a microcosm of what the world should be.

    I always believed that Canada was, in contrast to America, the truer experiment in globalization. We were bringing together many different cultures. Beginning with French, English, and Aboriginal cultures, we strove to create an ever-changing cultural mosaic. Unlike America whose melting pot forced everyone to be “American” and whose foreign policy forced the rest of the world to benefit America, Canada didn’t try to change anyone into a “Canadian”: we would meet them halfway by changing ourselves into something newer and inviting them to change as well.

    On the international stage, we weren’t striving for our interests; we were peace-brokers, trying to have our citizens’ home countries live in harmony like their peoples were already doing in Canada.

    Like all “nationalisms” or national-myths, this one isn’t exactly accurate and can be heavily criticized. But it was a good myth to try and live up to. Being a New Canadian Nationalist, to me, was being someone who strove to advance these ideals.

    I still try my best to be polite, sensitive, worldly, and knowledgeable when I travel around the world in my own contribution to this cause. But Canada today, with multiple election victories for Stephen Harper, isn’t that Canada anymore. We aren’t seen in the same way. And we need to take responsibility for that as a nation. I think we will become that progressive, idealistic, modest, and sensitive Canada once again, but for now the New Canadian Nationalism is on the ropes. It’s just plain ol’ literal nationalism, like Mike is talking about. And it makes me ashamed of Canada, even though I’m still proud to be Canadian.

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