Multiple Identities

From: The Encyclopedia of Canada's Peoples/Canadian Identity/Allan Smith

Not all observers were happy with the thrust towards recognition of particularisms that they saw embodied in these developments. The negative attention that Clark’s declaration attracted was especially clear. Trudeau worried publicly that its failure to specify what would hold the “community of communities” together bespoke a muddle-headed acceptance of diversity that could lead only to fragmentation. With the accession of new groups, such as women and the handicapped, to the particularist cause and strengthened support from older communities in Quebec and on the reserves, concern grew that centrifugal forces were in the ascendant.

This deepening anxiety, and what flowed from it, turned out to be a decisive factor in the process by which Canadians were refining their understanding of their society, its foundations, and what was needed to maintain them. Far from generating a sense that sub-national groups be “remarginalized” – given their size and prominence, that was hardly a possibility – the growing concern precipitated a search for ways to sustain recognition of those communities without undermining the integrity of the framework within which it was taking place, on whose symbols, traditions, and resources it depended, and in virtue of whose existence a common “Canadianism” had been able to establish itself.

The solution seemed to lie in engineering the process of recognition so as to compel it to act centripetally. The collectivity must continue to affirm the rights and identities of its members, but that affirmation would henceforth have to be managed through the agency of common institutions, procedures, and guarantees. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms of 1982, which was concerned as much with cohesion and nation maintenance as with recognition and particularisms, moved along two important fronts: first, it affirmed through clauses dealing with linguistic, racial, and other particularisms that the rights which it recognized were collective as well as individual (in itself a remarkable achievement); it then made citizens both bearers of those rights and holders of an obligation to establish and maintain the conditions of their exercise. Citizens thus found their orientation towards each other and their “similarity” as Canadians strengthened, not in virtue of their sharing a language- or culture-based identity (this they plainly did not do), but because they occupied common ground as possessors of a right to their own identities (within the limits specified in the charter) and because they each had an obligation to respect, uphold, and help give effect to all others’ possession and enjoyment of that right.

These realities were manifest at the practical level when the new “charter Canadians,” striving to advance their interests and claim their rights, interacted with each other through the political process. They were worked out in ways that affirmed the (national) institutions and procedures integral to that process. It would, of course, be a gross exaggeration to say that participation in the new, charter-driven politics augmented a movement towards the centre in some unqualified way. Fragmenting, decentralizing models of the country – the most important of them being “the three nations” (French-speaking, English-speaking, and aboriginal, each with its own divisions and tribalisms) – continued to be put forward. Failure to win acceptance for the changed national frameworks proposed in the Meech Lake and Charlottetown accords owed as much to the existence of strongly focused particularisms as it did to the opposition of disgruntled centralizers. And the resurgence of Quebec nationalism in the 1990s pointed with special urgency to the presence of destabilizing forces in the national life.

An altered, and in important respects more potent, form of “nationality” nevertheless emerged. It was present in the strengthening of institutions which the various groups lobbied and tried to influence in their efforts to advance their interests. It could also be seen in the attitudes and behaviours that developed as those groups formed alliances, made compromises, and generally functioned in relation to and association with each other. The coalescence of these attitudes and behaviours into a principal element of citizenship and nationality was, in fact, a critically important occurrence. Founded on “attitudinal prerequisites,” in Alan C. Cairns’s phrase, that had long been at work in federal institutions, where the impulse to adjust and negotiate has of necessity been a way of life, this “culture of accommodation” bespoke a commitment to cooperation and interdependence. Even in Quebec, and even among sovereignists, a disposition towards a “federal” politics of bargaining the terms of association remained much in evidence. In the country at large, intragroup and intrastate action, and the sense of being linked to others and to the whole that it fostered, became more textured and elaborate as particularisms of all sorts formed coalitions, claimed their own and recognized others’ rights, and simultaneously advanced their interests and those of their fellows through involvement in a common institutional or procedural framework.

To arrive at this point in the national story thus marks a kind of closure. Both the nature of Canada’s “identity” and an understanding of the processes that have shaped it are clearer and more developed than at any earlier period. Equally, however, openness and indeterminacy continue to be central features. Indeed, the very act of grasping Canada’s “nature” enforces the conclusion that the way forward must always be decided by ongoing and continuous negotiation, as the many groups that constitute the country seek and receive recognition, advance claims, reform and regroup, and enter into contact with each other and with the agencies of the whole. Pre-eminently a society in process, Canada demands definition in terms that can not be fixed and stable. It is, in Robert F. Harney’s words, a “civil polity between balkanization and assimilation, between petty nationalism and laissez-faire continentalism, between a begrudging, ungenerous dualism and a separated Quebec.” Its identity remains something that we are “travelling towards ... and we will all be better off if that travelling itself remains our identity.”

The story, however, cannot end there. Ultimately, what is significant is not just that Canada is difficult to govern because of its multiple groups with various identities. At least as striking is the utter obviousness with which that fact proclaims itself. Never in possession of the sort of “national” majority that allowed classical nation-states to mask the extent to which they contained various sorts of (often conflicting and dissatisfied) groups, Canada has been unable to prevent its history from testifying loudly and clearly to the existence of such groups and to the fact that the degree of national equilibrium that exists at any given moment is a function of the interaction occurring among them.

The “transparency” of the Canadian experience thus alerts those exposed to it to a dynamic that has more than a Canadian relevance and so marks the country out as a society that has lessons to teach Canadianists and students of state making alike. An anomaly in an age when the classical nation-state set the standard, Canada has gained place and status as that phenomenon has come under increasingly critical scrutiny. To what precise extent its enlarged relevance and meaning will permit it to assist in the comprehension of the national question as it is presently posed remains, of course, unclear; that it has already begun to do so is – as examination of a number of recent studies attests – no less obvious. In 1957 James Earys wrote that anyone wishing to understand Canada should “begin with the fundamental fact of Canadian life ... we are a plural community.” His counsel has retained its capacity to move investigators in fruitful and stimulating directions. A wise and helpful admonition when it was made, it has gained in worth and utility in the subsequent years.