Born in Canada of British parents, I grew up speaking French, and went to school with Portuguese and Italian kids. For me, that always captured the essence of a country which remains, in a way, an experiment: Hybrid, perhaps a little unsure of itself, but certainly open to new things. Somehow, the country makes it from one year to the next against improbable odds – surviving and, of late, thriving.
It’s hard to overstate what a remarkable achievement this is. If two centuries ago a soothsayer had predicted a major conflict on the North American continent without specifying where it would break out, few would have guessed at an American civil war. It was Canada that was then riven with divisions. The French and British were historically enemies, and with the arrival of British refugees from the American Revolution in what had been French colonies, they now lived cheek by jowl.
Canada survived this inauspicious birth by taking a unique approach to consensus-building: you could celebrate your culture in the home, but had to leave it behind when you entered the public square. That agreement didn’t come without a price. Canada is, yes, famously boring, restricting all but the most anodyne of cultural expressions to close quarters. The first Canadian commandment is, be nice, and don’t offend. If the Brits are like a glass of warm bitter and the Greeks a shot of ouzo – flavourful, but not to everyone’s taste – Canadians are a glass of water: everyone likes it, but won’t exactly write odes to it.
You see, negation lies at the heart of Canada’s existence. A Canadian is an American in denial. If you doubt that, just ask a Canadian audience to define their identity. They’ll reel off a long list of the things we do better than the Americans, from looking after our sick to keeping our streets safe and clean. But it’s more nuanced than the inevitable inferiority complex that comes from being – as one Prime Minister put it – a mouse sleeping next to an elephant.
Created when the British settled American refugees in lands they’d recently taken from the French, the English settlers of Canada were from the start culturally and linguistically American. But the ‘Loyalists’ wanted to keep the monarchy and strong state, and the French settlers left behind when Paris vacated its North American colonies were willing to go along. To this day, therefore, Canadians have an attachment to the state and its institutions – public health-care, public broadcasting, public schools, state universities, the police and the laws – that can look supine to American eyes. But that unity around the state’s institutions has proved sufficient to bond peoples with disparate, even at times contradictory cultures. Wave the flag, pay your taxes and respect the laws – and boy, do Canadians respect their laws; the Swiss look rebellious by comparison – and you pass the citizenship test.
When I fly back for visits, I now enter a country I barely recoginise from my childhood, but which in ways never really changes. One time, I found myself in an airport queue behind a group of women, some of whom were veiled, all of whom spoke in Canadian accents and were keen to get home to see the Canadian hockey team play their arch-rivals, the Americans. And while politicians will occasionally try to make people reveal their true colours, nativism seldom gets far. In the last federal election, for instance, the Conservative government tried some dog-whistle politics by proposing a ‘Barbaric Cultural Practises Hotline’ to out Muslims engaged in dark deeds (critics pointed out drily it already existed: dial 911 and ask for the police). Challenged on whether a terrorist could keep his citizenship, then-opposition leader Justin Trudeau replied ‘a Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian’ and left it at that. The rest, as now-Prime Minister Trudeau can tell you, is history.
Of course, for this compact to work, there must also be a healthy dose of denial. The country is, after all, built atop what is essentially stolen land. Not surprisingly, many First Nations Canadians are foregoing the weekend’s celebrations. Similarly, for all the warm embrace Canada gives its refugees, the fact is they have first been subjected to a vetting process that would make Steve Bannon blush. Canada picks and chooses from among the finest and most endowed, leaving the poor, huddled masses to other countries. It’s all very well to say the world needs more Canada; the country doesn’t actually intend to offer that much of it.
However, what you can say about Canadians is that more than most other peoples, they do recognise that their country is still a work in progress, complete with its design flaws. Amid the rising ethnic populism and cultural insecurity of the Western world, Canada serves as beacon that perhaps the greatest legacy the West offers the world is its institutions. So raise a glass to boring, stable Canada, for it shows that politics can still be a noble endeavour.