Canada Seeks the Ties To Bind It

FIFTY minutes past midnight on Oct. 25, jubilation erupted in downtown Toronto. The Toronto Blue Jays, playing in Atlanta, had just won the World Series.

Car horns honked and people screamed. Across Canada, national pride swelled. It was an uncharacteristic moment for Canadians, many of whom set aside their aversion to displays of national pride to praise the Blue Jays - not one of whom is Canadian.

United by the World Series, but divided over their country's future, 7.5 million Canadians the very next day voted "no" to a plan to remake their Constitution, a plan political leaders had promised would unify the country and prevent a split with Quebec.

It has been a remarkable year for Canadian baseball and politics. And all of it seems quite remarkable and not a little ironic to Grant McCracken, a cultural anthropologist and a curator in the department of ethnology at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. An ardent Blue Jays fan, he has watched as baseball, Canadian culture, and politics have begun to run together.

"My sense was that if we Canadians can identify with 25 ballplayers that are not, obviously, Canadian," he says, "then we can identify with anybody. Maybe there is hope for the country. If we are able to find a common bond with this team, then we can find a common bond with anyone - even each other." What defines a Canadian?

Perched on a work stool in his narrow quarters at the museum, Dr. McCracken explains that his job is to be a close observer of the cultural ties that bind contemporary Canadian society together. (See accompanying story.) From this vantage point he sees political changes as the outgrowth of changing social values. And it is from this point of view that he thinks Canada may be headed down a dangerous course.

"I think what Canada is now doing," he says, "is trying to create a polity in which it embraces all of the diversity of society, and all of the diversity that's imported into a country as it plays host to new, multiple cultures. But it seems to me that what we [Canadians] have failed to do is to find a single voice for all of that diversity."

Gazing through his anthropologist's lens, McCracken looks for signs of "commonality" and "diversity" (such as reactions to a baseball game or national referendum), symbols that isolate growing collective attitudes and values governing society that may be bellwethers of social change.

What he worries about most these days is that ties binding Canadians together are rapidly fraying and breaking. Cultivating a climate that embraces diversity may be good, he says, but a nation-state risks disintegration if it does not also offer up a strong, shared vision of national meaning.

Cultural chasms have opened across Canada's 5,000-mile expanse, with Canada's immigrants joining natives, Quebec francophones, and anglophones in a cultural stew whose ingredients, he observes, seem increasingly inclined to acquire as little of the flavor of the other groups as possible.

"The real question is whether all that diversity finally will overwhelm the kinds of commonality that a country, a nationality, a nation-state needs to sustain itself," McCracken says.

While America's "melting pot" assimilates immigrants into a shared understanding that leads to national identity, Canadians have embraced the counter-notion of a "grand mosaic." Within that mosaic, cultures retain sharp distinctions from one another. But without a common framework of understanding, this approach over time risks the failure of political discourse, he says.

"There is a danger here of tipping over democracy," he says. "If your notion of representation is that every individual is a majority of one, then the genie is out of the bottle and it begins to change fundamentally how people see the political system."

The issue is "whether Canadians can come to a single decision," he says, referring to the recent constitutional referendum.

"Is there anything like the commonality the country needs to be able to decide, or even identify, a common interest, a collective interest - let alone achieve it?"

October's vote was a massive bid by provincial and federal governments to satisfy the biggest, most alienated groups - natives, Quebec francophones, and western Canada - all at once. A common vision needed

But the compromise failed, polls and pundits say, because those same groups saw parts of the deal running against their interests. A much greater effort must be made in Canada to create and unite around a common vision, McCracken says.

"I think Americans have been better at saying, `There is something called American-ness.' Canadians have been reticent on that point....

"And that's the Canadian irony," he continues: "that we're a nation that defines itself by refusing to define itself. But when that becomes your source of identity - the fact that you don't define yourself - you're in real trouble."

If Canada fails to hang together, it probably will not be primarily because of economic hardship or strife, he says, but for lack of imagination about how to create a shared vision. And Canada must, he says, go beyond the traditional but weak symbols of the country's generous social services to a "commonality" of shared national purpose to carry Canada into the next century.

"What's been going on here in Canada is an identity formulation," he says. "People have said for a long time that a Canadian is somebody who isn't an American, defining ourselves negatively. That's just not enough anymore."

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