Canada 150

July 1 is Canada Day, the anniversary of Canada’s confederation as a union joining the previously separate province of Canada (today Ontario and Quebec) with the British colonies of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. This year is the 150th anniversary (‘Canada 150’ – it’s even a twitter hashtag!), so the build-up to Canada Day and the official plans for its celebration are grander and more extensive than usual. I am not Canadian, but have worked and lived in Canada for several years. As an American raised on mythic tales of revolution, manifest destiny, and rise to superpower status, the story of Canadian Confederation strikes me less as a rousing call to national pride born of convulsive historical forces than as a deliberate, careful, and perhaps even reactionary attempt to improve on a political and economic system that was no longer fit for purpose. I say this knowing full well that all national histories, particularly those recounted and celebrated on national holidays, when patriotic fervor and national self-congratulation are at their peak, are always incomplete and contested. The act of confederation commemorated every year on July 1 is not even necessarily front and center in Canada Day celebrations, and the holiday was still officially named Dominion Day until 1982, with large public celebrations only really taking off in the couple of decades prior to that. Today Canadian governments at the local, provincial, and federal levels host celebrations that typically feature public concerts, lots of maple leaf flags, and fireworks, as well as the usual ramp-up and widespread official expression of “Canadianness” in paeans to the country’s diversity and multiculturalism, its inclusivity and positive image in the rest of the world, and its “niceness,” often juxtaposed against the rude, crude, and divisive character of its southern neighbor the United States.

As an aside, I do not endorse this video that I have seen floating around on social media, one of many in which Canada and Canadian identity are defined (usually by white men playing the part of an everyday Canadian) primarily in opposition to the United States, or at least a particularly Canadian vision of the US. These can be quite funny but also gratingly smug, and as a born-and-bred Kentuckian, I must say I find poutine very good, but putting gravy on things is not an innovation, so be careful, Canadian friends and relations, on how far you want to push that narrative. On the other hand, Canada in 2017 counts more than 20 percent of its current population as immigrants, presents an island of relative political stability amid the tumult of populist and nationalist movements rocking systems in the US and Europe, and weathered the global financial and economic crises of the past 10 years better than many other developed states. So far, so good.

In my political geography course, I often spend time discussing nationalism, and not just the obvious, flag-waving, full-throated version that declares love of and service to one’s country among the highest of individual and social goods. Instead I also discuss the ideas of nations as imagined communities and of banal nationalism, and the work of, respectively, Benedict Anderson and Michael Billig on these concepts. Anderson’s work on nationalism and national identity formation is well known, and highlights the processes by which we imagine the nation — that community of people defined by a common history, heritage, language, religion, civic responsibility — and how much constant work it takes to convince ourselves that this exists, that we are part of it, and that conforming to duties and expectations associated with it is a virtue. Billig’s work likewise examines the active forgetting that comes with nationalism and national identity, but highlights the ubiquity of nationalist ideals and ideology in the most banal ways. His focus is on language, looking especially at deixis, those parts of speech that have an assumed or taken-for-granted referent. These are small but vital words that are understood contextually. Billig documents, for example, the extent to which collective nouns and possessive pronouns (e.g., we, our, theirs, they, them, us) are used in official and media discussions of ‘the nation’ and of military operations. Their use in these fora (‘our troops’, ‘us and them’ characterizations of outsiders and enemies, ‘they’ in reference to outsider or marginalized groups) assume the listener knows exactly to whom and what these words refer without needing the referent to be explicitly named. This builds and reinforces the presence of the nation and national identity, often in narrow and constraining ways, through common language and in ways that are banal and unnoticed. In the context of my geography class, I ask my students to consider not just linguistic deixis but what we might consider the deixis of the physical landscape and built environment. How many Canadian maple leaf symbols do they see every day without really seeing them, for example? How many of them have ever actually seen a real, live moose? What other common representations and expressions are built into our everyday landscapes and taken for granted, and which subtly indicate and remind that one is in Canada, of what it means to be Canadian, of what conformity and non-conformity mean for individuals and communities? This is not to criticize Canada (after all, this process is not unique to a single nationalism), but it often proves uncomfortable in the classroom. It can disrupt an easy and common narrative of Canadian ‘niceness’, defined in part by a nationalism-that-isn’t-nationalism, a sort of pride in Canadian national identity and achievement (to which one might only be attached incidentally, or not at all), and which is built on the idea that Canada has overcome a history of racism, exclusion, and conquest to become a ‘good’ state and society, welcoming immigrants and embracing diversity, offering up opportunity to all in a mosaic of multiethnic harmony, or at least knowing that’s the goal and moving actively toward it. It is made further problematic because the white man in the front of the classroom (me, that is) hails not from Canada but from the US. I typically try to deflate that unease by demonstrating the deixis concept as a tool for critically understanding nationalism’s geography by taking apart American landscapes, discourses, and symbology. Nevertheless, some students respond to my questions about Canadian nationalism with silence or by highlighting the hypocritical distance between what official accounts of the US say the country is with what we read every day in the news or hear of American history.

But all this is important in a moment like Canada 150. The banal forms of nationalism that always lurk in public are made more explicit in celebrating the national holiday, and those who might not fit easily or neatly or fully within taken-for-granted official and common sense histories and identities have and opportunity to challenge these and alter them. This is not just for the sake of disrupting and undermining them, but in order to assert their presence, their right to be and to claim and exercise an identity and the rights associated with it, in a Canada that is neither as uniform nor as embracing of diversity as the banal nationalist narrative might state. In that spirit, I present here two images of competing posters related to Canada 150 that demonstrate this tension. The first is a picture I took of an ad campaign from the Canadian clothing company Roots. The second is a poster spotted at the corner of Queen and DeGrassi Streets on the east side of Toronto (thanks to Deb Cowen, who took the photo, for allowing me to use it here).

The former plays on the rote invocation of ‘being nice’ as a fundamental characteristic of Canadians and Canada. Established in Toronto in 1973, Roots touts itself as a quintessentially Canadian company, its logo a beaver and its corporate website describing the company’s founders as “inspired by their passion for Ontario’s Algonquin Park and everything it represented for them,” with a “strong connection between Roots and Canada” and “[t]he true north, strong and free … a defining aspect of Roots.” There is no reason not to believe this, though it does reduce Canadian identity to a simple slogan and an advertising campaign for a Canadian-based company that produces a large portion of its products outside of Canada. This is the nature of the contemporary global economy, especially for textiles, so in that sense this Canadian company is like most other American or European retail clothing brands. The appeal to being nice, the idea that Canada’s history is one of “being nice,” and the explicit tie to the anniversary of the state’s formation are the real takeaways here, and others have written about this more knowledgeably than I can. The rejoinder might be that this is simply advertising, all of which carries at least a hint of hyperbole and bullshit, and so we should not read too much into it. But it does not come from nothing, instead building on common tropes of Canadian national identity and history, and as an advertising campaign for a major international brand, is not confined to one poster on a wall near a single subway stop. This is the nature of advertising and of banal nationalism – these ads are common across Toronto, Canada’s largest city where around half the population is foreign-born, and through both the casual reduction of Canadian history to ‘being nice’ and repetition across the landscape, the ad reinforces an exceedingly narrow sense of what Canada is at 150, and what it means to be Canadian. Hit up the local Roots outlet, wear a maple leaf shirt, smile and be nice.

By contrast, the poster photograph Deb Cowen provided highlights that Canada 150 is not a celebration of being nice, and that not all Canadians are equally privy to the national community’s and state’s benefits, responsibilities, and protections. This poster places a very different reading of Canadian history over a black and white photo of Canada’s photogenic Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “CANADA 150 IS A CELEBRATION OF INDIGENOUS GENOCIDE.” Canadian history, dating to well before Confederation, is also a history of European settlement bought at the cost of indigenous cultures, territories, and lives, a history of treaties and their breaking, of residential schools and grinding poverty, of marginalization and removal. Perhaps things will get better over time, but many First Nations, Inuit, and Metis communities and people have already borne a tremendous burden in the making of Canada (as one example, there is the heinous history of experimentation with malnourishment on indigenous children forced to leave homes and communities and attend residential schools). There is more national and governmental attention now to the needs and demands of indigenous people in Canada, to their role in the country’s making, and to their enduring presence in Canada long before it was even called that. A recent article in the national newspaper The Globe & Mail asserted a similar point regarding the Black presence in Nova Scotia, which predates Canada’s confederation by decades, and where the Black community has suffered discrimination and marginalization throughout its history.

This is the trouble of nationalism and the celebration of national identity. What does it mean to be Canadian today? If it means, in part, ‘being nice,’ then what constitutes this niceness or politeness, and how can it be squared with Canada’s historical development as a place built on settler colonialism and forms of discrimination? What does it mean to move toward reconciliation, and is it possible? Canada 150 is a passing moment, and to some extent Canada is a fiction, an imagined community, like any national community, but the effects and processes of making and remaking Canadian identity and nationalism are very much real. Again, this is not to pile on Canada in particular, as I have chosen to live here and quite enjoy doing so, but rather to use the 150th anniversary of Canadian confederation to highlight the contradictory, incomplete, and contested nature of national identity and nationalist sentiment, as expressed in the two photos shared here.