Daniel Francis

Reading the National Narrative

No Identity is New Identity

Mar 14, 2016

Douglas Todd had a thoughtful piece in the Vancouver Sun this weekend about Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's musings on national identity.

In an article in The New York Times Magazine last December, Mr. Trudeau opined that Canadians share certain values but not a "core identity." There is "no mainstream in Canada," he said, calling the country "the first postnational state."

I am sure our prime minister knows that this is not a new idea. As far back as 1995 the journalist Richard Gwyn published a book, Nationalism Without Walls, in which he called Canada "the world's first postmodern state," by which he seemed to mean much what Mr. Trudeau means. There is no room for a hard and fast identity in a multi-ethnic country such as Canada has become. Gwyn, and the prime minister, would probably agree with Mavis Gallant who famously defined a Canadian as simply "someone who has a logical reason to think that he is one."

Fair enough, writes Douglas Todd. "No one defends nationalism in its rigid or extreme forms." On the other hand, Todd argues that nationalism can be a glue that keeps otherwise diverse people together. It is religion, ethnic hatreds, economic rivalries or tribalism that divide societies, he argues, not a healthy dose of national identity.

There is place for history here I think. Doesn't national identity emerge from a set of characteristics that evolve historically? For example, Canada is a constitutional monarchy, an electoral democracy, that was occupied originally by Aboriginal people and settled by colonists from France and Great Britain. These, and many other, characteristics are embedded in our institutions and make us different from other countries -- i.e. give us an identity -- whether we want it or not.

Anyway, Todd's is an interesting argument, which he even finds a way of connecting to the current debate about the Vancouver real estate market. I recommend it.