Post Colonial Literature in English: Canada

Canada -- the Problematics of National Identity

David Harris, the Queen's University of Belfast

This document has been adapted for the Postcolonial Literature and Culture Web with the kind permission of the Canadian Association for Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies (CACLALS). It derives from a project directed by Dr Leon Litvack as a requirement for the MA degree in Modern Literary Studies in the School of English, the Queen's University of Belfast.

There has always been a problem for Canada with the definition of its national identity. In fact, it would almost be fair to say that an unease about the lack of such a collective identity is what defines Canadians the best. This page briefly considers some of the causes of this situation, and then goes on to consider some broad themes which might be described as distinctively and characteristically Canadian. Obviously, this is a very tricky area, as any discussion of national identities must be, with the twin dangers of oversimplification and essentialism. But the purpose here is merely to convey to the uninitiated a little taste of what Canada is and has been, in cultural terms.

It has always been apparent that Canada a constructed nation. Now while this is in some senses true of all nations, the ancient European countries have been able to disguise their constructedness through gradual evolution and myths of national origin. Before the Europeans arrived, what came to be known as Canada was a vast, mostly uninhabited wilderness, and the various peoples who did live there had as little sense of a collective identity as they did of international borders. The early history of European settlement consisted mainly of fur trading with the Natives, and a steady trickle of French immigration into a relatively small area in what became Quebec.

Northrop Frye has written of the "garrison mentality" of these early settlers, faced as they were by a huge and inhospitable wilderness, and the constant threat of attack from the Natives on whose land they had built their homes. It was not until 1763 that Britain gained control of the northern territories with the conquest of New France; and the independence of the French speaking Canadians has remained an issue until the present day. And of course it is one of the integral notions of the European concept of nationhood that the state should be based on the existence of a community of common language speaking inhabitants. Canada has, in the late twentieth century, witnessed an even wider diversification in cultural and linguistic identities with the arrival of massive numbers of immigrants from Asia and the Third World. She, at an official level, has tried to adopt the self-image of the "mosaic", rather than trying to assimilate the various groupings to the more or less hegemonic English speaking culture. Nonetheless, tensions continue to run high between the cultural and political notions of nationality.

It would seem, on the face of it, that the problems faced by Canada are remarkably similar to those of the United States. Why, then, has the latter country been able to form a comparatively clear and coherent sense of its own identity? An important point to bear in mind here is that the chief original motivation for Canadian national unity was anti-Americanism and a resistance to continentalism. This united the English and French as nothing else could. Thus, at the outset, Canada defined itself in negative terms, and for a long time afterwards its political life was pragmatic and inductive: what mattered was what worked, what would ensure survival, independence and economic growth. By way of contrast, the US has largely had a deductive politics, founded on the tenets of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. They defined what was to count as American and what was un-American. She was the "New World", and she was intent on abandoning old world pragmatism for a fresh political idealism. Partly because of this, and partly because of its historically close relationship to the British Crown, Canada has often tended to be culturally and politically conservative where the US has been radical (her constitution and parliamentary system are still largely based on the British model). In recent decades, however, there has been an increasing willingness to accept multiculturalism and participation in a global environment where national boundaries are becoming less and less important. On the other hand, efforts to foster a national consciousness, albeit of the "mosaic", continue unabated, and governmental subsidisation of the arts, which are seen as vital in this area, is among the most substantial in the Western world.

Postcolonial Web Canada politics