: I like Canada for the same reason Canadians do: It’s not America. That’s what makes it interesting, charming, eccentric, entertaining.
The truth is that Canadians spend too much time worrying about how they’re not American.
Robertson Davies, one of the greatest Canadians, used to deflect this national identity crisis by saying that in fact, Canada had less in common with America than with Scandinavia. And he had a point. Scandinavia combines the convenience of America with the deep roots of Europe. I’d say that’s true of Canada, too.
But I’m coming to think that Canada’s real inferiority complex is not directed at America but at England. Canadians keep complaining that they don’t have their own culture or that what they have is overshadowed by ours.
Well, the truth is that America doesn’t have its own native culture, either. Our culture is the product of all our people and our people come from everywhere. Our nation is a melting pot (or actually a think, chunky, steaming stew) and so is our culture.
Canada needs to admit that it, too, is a melting pot/stew and so its culture will have elements of the many, many ethnic immigrants who now call it home. No, Canada does not have a Shakespeare to brag about like Mother England; it’s too young. We don’t have one either. Doesn’t bother us. Keeps bothering them.
Canada is a fiction, a make-believe nation. We have the all trappings of a modern state — our parliamentary floor show, our sad little army, and now our very own poet laureate. We have a few precious sacraments: our health care, our hockey, our beer, our news. But as much as we might like our country, we don’t love it, at least not with the Biblical devotion that seems hard-wired into the American psyche. A passion for Canada requires a delicate suspension of disbelief. We’re not just post-colonial, we’re a post-modern nation held together by speculative patriotism, a country forever trying to make cultural ends meet as it debates its own existence. A necessary fiction.
That is what I love about Canada: that national sport of icy self-deprecation (though one could argue that this is actually a national self-obsession, since one does hear Canadians talking quite a bit about what Canada isn’t or is). In any case: Listen to the angst: “We’re not real.”
Yes, you are, Canada. You have great literature (though there’s a complaint in the essay that so much of the literature is by immigrants and “our authors have become world-famous by setting their novels anywhere but in Canada”), great comedy, great musicians, greatly livable cities, damned good beer, and nice people. What’s not to love? Why can’t Canada love Canada? Beats me. I do.
Anyway, Johnson tries wisely to redefine Canadian culture not as stuff about Canada in Canada starring Canadians but, instead, a Canadian viewpoint: the Canadian perspective. It works.
What if real national maturity means that Canadian content can’t be measured by tallying up local references? Perhaps there’s such a thing as a Canadian point of view, and what makes it Canadian is its lack of national ego, and the transparency with which it filters the rest of the world, America in particular. That’s why we export so many comedians and journalists. Mike Myers deals in farce, Peter Jennings in news, but both mediate the world from a bemused distance. That same playful approach to the chemistry of communication is what made Glenn Gould, Norman McLaren, Pierre Trudeau and Marshall McLuhan so much more than simply a pianist, an animator, a politician and an academic. They were all media visionaries, transforming the art of communication….
McLuhan, of course, was the ultimate media guru, a prophet of globalization at the dawn of the computer age. Envisioning the “global village,” he asked this pointed question: “When everybody becomes totally involved with everybody, how is one to establish identity?” Canada has found a self-effacing identity as the Media Nation. Sitting backstage of America, we comment from a safe but intimate distance, with no need to applaud.
: As an aside, Johnson makes one very odd comment that I’m hoping is the product of wry irony only members of the Empire would understand; if it’s not, it is deeply offensive and stupid.
We’re not American. We can’t believe Letterman keeps making racist cracks about Manhattan taxi drivers in turbans without seeing the connection to planes flying into buildings. We’re onto that.
: Update: Marc Weisblott has more to say on the Maclean’s story and suggests the Canadian government would be wise to encourage Canadian Blog Content with a Canadian Blog Fund.