Is National Identity Really What We Need?


That question is the last line of Bryan Palmer’s new book, Canada’s 1960s: The ironies of identity in a rebellious era, out now from UTPress. I used to think it was the most important question facing Canadians; the fact that I now think the search for a Canadian identity is both misguided and counterproductive is what (partially) explains the somewhat negative tone of my review of John Ralston Saul’s latest book, in a forthcoming edition of the LRC.

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Is National Identity Really What We Need?

  1. I think it’s valid. Many people do examine feelings of nationalism that they have as part of their own personal experience of themselves. Is this my place? How do I belong? Those questions and inquiries are fine and people should make them. The answers are the ‘Identity’. Historians will unravel the main views of people in any age and define a past Identity. This type of inquiry is part of keeping continuity with the past and moving ethically into the future. John Raulston Saul is not my favourite writer, his take of what people think is too elitist and removed from me. Yet the question is valid. A Canadian Identity. What is it?

  2. No, we definitely do not need another ‘national identity’. I liked the one we had before Pearson/Trudeau came along and destroyed it but I see no need to search for another one. Nations aren’t people, we should all be left alone to find our own ‘identities’ and taken together something will form. I wish the national identity wallahs would go away and torment each other but leave the rest of us out of it, thank you very much.

    • Good lord jwl! Do you really think the world was hunky dory before Pearson/Trudeau? Those gentlemen, like all politicians really, are merely a reflection of who we are and who we would like to be. I don’t say that the Canada of earlier times was bad for its time. But just that – a reflection of its time. Many things have improved – just ask women, natives or immigrants if they wanna go back to that Canada?

      • We obviously disagree on what makes a national identity. Who said anything about returning to policies of pre-Pearson age? I believe national identities are formed from symbols, like our flag, and history. Libs/libs seem to believe that national identity is formed by policies, like our health care system or multi-culti. Paul Martin use to get me so wound up when he talked about how young Canada was as a nation, because to his mind ‘Canada’ was formed around 1970 or so, while in fact Canada is one of the oldest and most stable nations in the world.

        We will never have a national identity if we base it on policies because they constantly change over time. I guarantee 30 years from now people will look back to today and think we were heathens, just like some look back today and think our ancestors were neanderthals.

        • Yes national identities are formed from symbols, like the flag and say the charter – one which i suspect you don’t like, but both show that new symbols can be adopted. I agree that policies do not a country make, but neither does nostalgia for a role we no longer play in the world[ large armed forces ww2 ] – I contend that we’ve always been multi-cultural, cept now it’s entrenched.

          • 1. kc, you are wrong on multiculturalism. When polled, Canadians are actually more likely than Americans to indicate support for a “melting pot” approach to immigration. It is possible to find a point of interstition as well, after which immigrants are generally far less integrated (perhaps around 1980). I would posit that you wouldn’t have something like Woodbridge in 1960 – ie. a predominantly Italian neighbourhood, primarily populated by second-generation immigrants).

            2. I share a lot of jwl’s problems with Canadian nationalism. The problem is that 1970’s Canadian nationalism was essentially manufactured, and largely in keeping with Liberal party policy. It isn’t a product of evolution, it is an artificial product that has survived largely because young Canadians have a profound lack of knowledge about their own country.

            3. The Canadian identity project was undertaken with a clear purpose: to preserve national unity by de-anglicizing (references to peacekeeping, instead of Canada’s tremendous contributions in WWI and WWII; elimination of the union jack; official bilingualism; a “multicultural” ROC rather than an English one) what it meant to be Canadian (or really, what it meant to be English Canadian). Has that succeeded in creating a common identity among French and English? Absolutely not, indeed, things are as bad as ever on that score.

            4. To me, this is what it means to be a Canadian (and I probably mean English Canadian):
            Canadians are…
            -polite but unpretentious (Torontonians excepted – and I’m one of them)
            -dutiful and loyal
            -pragmatic and careful

            Even when that means being…
            -standoffish (Americans are nicer than Canadians, but also kind of phony)
            -missing opportunities
            -less than dynamic

          • H to H
            Wow, i didn’t expect this degree of ignorance from you – jwl i kinda do, of course he’s entitled to his views. 1. Yr wrong here, Canada was as divided an multic-cultural prior to its entrencment.Yr Woodbridge example is wrong, there are parts of Edmonton [ i spent a dozen ys there] where ethinic conclaves have existed far into the past, where folks kept to themselves. They didn’t make so much fuss as immigrants today partly because of the anglo cultural dominence. You seem to be arguing that this is a good thing, and we made a mistake in abandoning this state of affairs. In fact reality abandoned us- it has a way of doing that. I don’t except yr asserton that most Canadians would prefer the melting pot model, particularly outside of consevative voters- which is hardly a majority of Canadians. The charter changed everything, we’re all equal now – no 2nd class citizens that abounded in the era you admire. In fact i admire this era too, it’s not a zero sum game.
            I agree that that the changes haven’t been that successful in forging a pan Canadian identity – but yr solution rested on outmoded colonial concepts of Canada as a Anglo nation – sorry , it may have worked but it was hardly fair or equitable. Trudeau’s attempt to head off the Q problem wasn’t entirely successful, or without it’s downsides. It was however a bold attempt to bring Canada into the modern world of inclusive and fully representative nations – to write this off as mere liberal party image building, is cheap partisan consevative sour-grapes on yr part. And yes i’m an Anglo – born and bred actually!

      • isn’t that back when TO was the “holy city”? according to my mom.

  3. Real “national idenitites” evolve naturally from the history, culture, and collective aspirations of a nation. Artificial national identities – those manufactured by government propaganda – have a very short shelf life.

    • You mean like Turkey’s?

      • You are probably making a good point, but I don’t know enough about modern Turkish history to comment. Are you referring to Ataturk?

        • My family’s ottoman has been an heirloom for ages!

        • Yeah. He basically invented the modern Turkish identity out of whole cloth, did he not?

          • Wouldn’t you say that he also redirected the authentic Turkish nationalism that followed WWI into his own channels — i.e. that he defined a hazy desire for a new identity? It seems to me that a national identity has to be built on genuine achievement — on history — and Ataturk took advantage of Gallipoli and the Greek war. Whereas the African states CR cites had been cut off from their history, tried to invent new nationalities out of thin air, and it didn’t take.

  4. “I used to think it was the most important question facing Canadians; the fact that I now think the search for a Canadian identity is both misguided and counterproductive…”

    Why’s that AP? Is Canadian’s attachment to their regional identity now so strong that pursuit of a national identity is actually damaging?or what? The stressing of regional over national identity has always bugged me. So, have the premiers won? I know some say that Q has already separated in its mind now, how long before ROC says, so what?

  5. Are we not to have a national identity? Have the Premiers and regionalism won? Some say Q’s already separated in her mind; how long before ROC says:”so what”?

  6. Canada’s identity is fluid/adaptable/modern/able to leap tall buildlings; i like it that way.

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