Canada's Search For Identity

Founding events didn't create a unifying national myth

THERE is no Canadian story.

There are English-Canadian stories, French-Canadian stories, Aboriginal-Canadian stories, Maritime-Canadian stories, Western Canadian stories, and New-Canadian stories.

But these are not complementary accounts of the country that can be pieced together like a puzzle or even layered, one voice upon another, to achieve a distinct national harmony. Canada is a land of many unities but no single unifying hope or fear. While it is easy enough to catalog the country's characteristics, its character remains frustratingly elusive.

For most of its history, Canada's official story has been a colonial one and the national persona that of a careful, gifted child. Quebec, or New France, stood in that relation to France. The Dominion of Canada really began to make its presence felt in the world and to feel itself a presence as an independent nation only during World War II.

As Britain's influence in Canada has waned in this century, the very notion of an official Canadian story has collapsed. And Canadian politics has increasingly become a debate about what the good colonial child will be when (or perhaps, if) she grows up.

The contrast with the American experience is striking. The national mission of the United States was written - in blood and gunpowder - as it attained independence. In Canada, the sense of national mission and identity has grown more tentative and obscure with greater independence.

The early European history of Canada is exciting and vivid but curiously irrelevant to most of the nation's central preoccupations. Sometime in the 10th century - 500 years before Christopher Columbus's unsuccessful attempt to reach the Orient - Viking adventurer Leif Erikson, Leif the Lucky, landed on the coast of Newfoundland.

"There were fields of wild wheat growing there, and vines, and among the trees were maples," the Viking sagas say. There were also communities of aboriginal people who didn't believe the continent needed a new wave of discoverers and settlers.

Viking attempts to colonize what would become Canada around A.D. 1000 were violently opposed. The sagas say the Vikings soon recognized that "although the land was excellent, they could never live there in safety or freedom from fear."

The next reliably documented European visit was paid by John Cabot in 1497. A Genovese mariner - his real name was Giovanni Caboto - he braved the Atlantic crossing under contract to King Henry VII of England. For his immense trouble, he was awarded a modest pension and a regal gift of 10 British pounds. Whereas Columbus is rivaled only by Britain's Queen Victoria in the English-speaking world as a subject for statue, plaque, and other gruesome forms of public art, Mr. Cabot remains an uncelebrated figur e.

That brings us to the era of French exploration and colonization of North America - to Jacques Cartier, Samuel de Champlain, Sieur de la Salle, adventurers whose histories are most evocatively chronicled in English by the 19th-century Bostonian Francis Parkman.

It is no accident that English Canada never produced a version of the nation's earliest European history to rival that of the admittedly brilliant American writer.

In the US, the settlement period is regarded as an inevitable and logical prelude to the revolution, when national history begins in earnest. The struggle for independence becomes a permanent part of the present.

In Canada, the analogous event is the Battle for Quebec at the Plains of Abraham in 1759. In the British victory and French defeat, the future course of the Canadian nation was set and the country's national histories really begin.

For English Canadians that history is a conventional colonial one. It is a story about struggling with the wilderness, subverting the aboriginal peoples, seeking an accommodation with the defeated Quebeckers, and trying to repress the inevitable transformation from imperial conquerors of a foreign land to natives of a new world.

Americans found a new identity and a new freedom in a revolutionary identity in a new world. English Canadians experienced a fall from full citizenship in an empire that spanned the globe to colonial status in a promising but parochial setting.

French Canada's account of itself is even more traumatized. Its sense of nationhood was simultaneously created and swept away on the Plains of Abraham. History begins, and to some extent ends, with the conquest. French Canadians have been haunted by the past in the way American Southerners have been.

As the great 19th-century French Canadian Abbe Groulx put it: "History, dare I say it, and with no intention of paradox, is that which is most alive; the past, is that which is most present." Every license plate in Quebec is punched with the provincial saying: Je me souviens I remember."

Despite a feeling of perpetual separateness (what novelist Hugh McLennan called the two solitudes of Canada), English and French Canada were able to reach a political accommodation in the aftermath of the conquest that provided the basis for a century and a half of relative peacefulness and increasing prosperity.

Canada defined itself as a nation of two founding peoples under the British empire, in which English Canadians exercised most of the national economic and political influence and the province of Quebec enjoyed a high degree of political, social, and cultural autonomy.

But by 1945 Canadians could no longer refuse to accept the burdens of full nationhood. At the end of the war, Canada was the fourth mightiest military power and highly industrialized.

The challenge since has been to define a national mission greater than the obsessively inward-looking one of merely maintaining the successful coexistence of the dominant language groups.

For Canada's founding deal between English and French Canadians is not just too self-absorbed, it is also incapable now of holding a vastly changed political federation together. Canadians of the western provinces have become deeply unsatisfied with a political system that keeps them mere satellites of the central provinces of Ontario and Quebec. New Canadians from nations other than Great Britain and France felt profoundly excluded by a national self-definition that doesn't acknowledge them. Aboriginal peoples, some of whom fought as allies of the British, some as allies of the French, denounce the notion of two founding peoples as racist.

Even the so-called founding peoples themselves have been aware for decades that the old accommodation has ceased to function. Watching their bargaining position deteriorate and their historical guarantees come under attack, many French-speaking Quebeckers have decided they need the full powers of an independent state to protect their language and culture.

English Canadians have seen their connections to an imperial past - what they considered their history - swept away. They fear that if they allow themselves to become North Americans, they will merely hasten a process of assimilation turning them into Americans of the north.

Canada's incessant constitutional wrangling looks petty, irrelevant, and nonsensical from abroad. To outsiders, Canada appears a solution in search of a problem.

In fact, Canadians are seeking to create an account of their past and their present that is so inclusive and so compelling that it will rally all the nation's people to a united future.

However, it is obvious that Canada doesn't contain the components to build a nation in any traditional sense. That is the cause of much pessimism today, especially among those who are convinced that without a strong, unifying national identity English Canada will collapse into the US and Quebec will go it alone.

But it is still possible to imagine Canada as a new sort of nation, less burdened than other states by the irrationalities of nationalism or the corruption of great power. This is the country that can bridge the First World and the Third World, the land that conceived of United Nations peacekeeping and made the concept work.

At moments in the last few decades, it appeared that Canada was slowly transforming itself into this imaginary internationalist nation. That hope still remains. But most Canadians are focused so frantically within that they cannot see the hope that lies beyond themselves.

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