The concepts of “nation” and “national identity” were developed in the late eighteenth century by thinkers whose acute sensitivity to the way in which language and culture made peoples different led them to place an unprecedented stress on the variety and texture of humankind. Reacting to the Enlightenment tendency to define human beings in terms of abstract and universal characteristics – notably the ability to reason – and building on the concepts of “folk” and “people,” of which German philosopher Johann Gottfried von Herder would make so much, they argued that human beings were always situated in a particular linguistic and cultural space and could not be understood or defined unless full account were taken of that critical fact.
In principle, these claims amounted to no more than a romantic, variety-affirming assertion that there were many ways to be human. In practice, the fact that they were taken up by groups delimited territorially as well as culturally transformed them almost immediately into a brief for the notion that each of the several communities within which human beings lived had a right to maintain the language and traditions that distinguished it. Further, each of those communities could, in pursuit of its collective self-preservation, not only resist control by some other nation over the domain that it occupied but also act within that domain to entrench and consolidate the linguistic, cultural, and other characteristics that set it apart. Communities that understood their special genius to derive from a unique historical experience or to be embodied in particular institutional forms were especially concerned to specify and preserve the features in their national lives by which they were distinguished. Historian Thomas Babington Macaulay’s celebration of the English talent for progress and sound government struck what would become an endlessly repeated note in his society, while the emphasis that philosophers G.W.F. Hegel and later Johann Gottlieb Fichte placed on the Germanic capacity to provide for the highest needs of humankind through a perfectly structured state apparatus developed into a principal component of their people’s troubled nationalism.
Even peoples who incorporated “universal” ideas into their definition of self and identity took a strongly conformist approach to the task of national consolidation; precisely because they saw what they possessed as something of universal significance, they could allow no deviance from it. As custodians of the republican ideal, both post-revolutionary France and the new United States acted to ensure that this ideal was honoured and maintained within their own borders; only if it were unchallenged there would it have the power to do its work among humankind in general.
For the first hundred years in the history of the national idea, much of its conformist, even coercive, character was obscured. Its partisans, managing to concentrate attention on those aspects of it that stressed a people’s right to live together free of external constraint, diverted notice away from the extent to which that people’s success in leading such a life placed it in a position to impose burdens – cultural, linguistic, or religious – on those whom it controlled. A few observers, the most important being English historian Lord Acton, saw the difficulty, but their pleas for a non-national form of political association seemed too much based on alien and exotic experience – in Acton’s case, that of the Austro-Hungarian Empire was most frequently invoked – and so attracted little support. The great nation-building exercises of the nineteenth century and the thrust towards self-determination and national liberation that became so prominent a feature of the twentieth thus continued to be viewed in positive terms. As manifestations of the principle that men and women could be “free” only if the (ethnically defined) communities in which they lived were autonomous, they seemed to be movements that were at once “natural” and “good.”
Even the fact of fascism did not discredit this expansive and generous view. Disturbing, to be sure, and clearly linked to nationalism of a debilitatingly conformist sort, its appearance did become the occasion for much rethinking of positions. This analysis, however, led not to a fundamental querying of the nature and processes of “nation,” but to the making of a careful distinction between two types: a bad, immature, immoderate sort of nation, out of which fascism had come, and the good, temperate, responsible kind, which had kept its liberal, democratic character and eventually triumphed. At its most influential, in the form given to it by Hans Kohn in the immediate post–World War II period, this argument staked out the ground on which conventional ideas of “nation” and “national identity”maintained their resistance to the sort of rigorous interrogation that might have focused attention on the less benign and positive aspects of their character.
The situation was nevertheless changing. Even as Kohn’s argument extended its influence, events were undermining the foundations upon which it and the “old” view of nationalism in general rested. Developments in global politics were particularly critical to this shift; these suddenly highlighted the problematic nature of the relationship among nations, states, and identities and so drew attention to the arbitrariness that had in greater or lesser measure always characterized it. The emergence of independent states in Asia and Africa showed in an especially dramatic way how imperfectly the limits of “state” and “nation” might coincide. Frequently founded on territorial units created by the old imperial powers, they had a patently multi-ethnic character that at once made it difficult to define them as nation-states and provoked closer examination of the concept of “nation-state” itself.
In Europe, too, events were calling old ways of seeing the nation into question. Like the multi-ethnic character of the “new” African and Asian states, the persistence of Basque, Catalan, Breton, Welsh, Scottish, and other nationalisms in the “old” nation-states of Europe raised questions about the coincidence of “state” and national boundaries. Of special moment in the process by which new realities were forcing a change in view was the arrival of immigrants who were distinguished in both appearance and culture from the majorities in whose midst they came to live. Denied – the term is not too strong – full acceptance in their host societies, the newcomers developed relationships with those societies that threw into sharp relief the strategies of exclusion and marginalization and the concern with assimilation that had always been part of nation making and national maintenance.
Students of the nation-state, increasingly mindful of these realities, began to consider the extent to which it had to be seen, not as a cohesive social entity whose evolution had been “natural,” spontaneous, and unforced, but as a “made,” “created,” polydimensional fabrication whose manufacture and consolidation had always involved attempts to manipulate, silence, and suppress minorities and their identities. The arguments that the nation-state is a modern phenomenon created by elites concerned with consolidating territorial units for bureaucratic, economic, or class-related reasons are at their most cogent in the work of Benedict Anderson, Ernest Gellner, and E.J. Hobsbawm – “constructed essentially from above” is Hobsbawm’s crisp formulation. But these interpretations have not eliminated the idea that a dominant ethnic group may be an important part of what happens.
The most apparently homogenous of nation-states, then, rest on the suppression of local identities. And, if a kind of internal imperialism can plainly be seen in the process by which France and Britain constructed themselves as national societies, the sort of difference and diversity with which these great states were preoccupied is no less evident in political formations throughout human history. Indeed, argues W.H. McNeill, so central is “polyethnicity” to the experience of political communities generally, and so recent in origin are attempts to root it out, that viewed in the context of world history, the efforts to construct national societies must be seen as both new and aberrant.
Canadians, like members of most western polities, were involved in the framing of ideas and policies concerning “nation,” “state,” and “identity” from early in the nineteenth century. Developed rapidly and pushed by interest, ideology, and changing circumstance in a number of different directions, the results of their labours were quite astonishingly varied. An early and persistent view had it that Canada was an essentially British and imperial society. Challenging this position was the claim that the country had to be seen as a free and egalitarian community of the New World. The idea of the nation as an amalgam of the various regions that it incorporated as it expanded westward to the Pacific came to be widely embraced. By the 1960s, an era that saw the United States dissolve into violence at home and war abroad, the sense that Canada was a “peaceable kingdom” whose people lived together in enviable order and harmony would seem particularly attractive. And with the growth of the notion that the state’s capacity to meet social and economic needs made government a community-consolidating instrument of the first importance, a tendency to see Canada’s viability and even its character as a function of its social democratic commitment eventually took firm root.
In conformity with romantic nationalism’s emphasis on “nation” and “people,” the most consistently maintained Canadian impulse revolved around efforts to define identity in ways which were compatible with the idea that “peoples” existed, had definable characteristics, and must be accorded the recognition, respect, and status necessary to permit them to live fully and authentically. As British North Americans gradually began to identify themselves with the communities in which they lived and to distinguish those communities and their interests from others, these efforts initially saw formulations of identity and community cast in quite particularist terms.
The French-speaking inhabitants of Lower Canada (Quebec) were especially motivated by a concern to define the features that set them apart. Since they were in possession of their own language, religion, and shared historical experience, they had little difficulty distinguishing themselves as a people and urging the claims to recognition and autonomy to which they felt this status entitled them. Manifesting itself in poetry and literature and in the politics of national liberation, which became so central a part of Lower Canadian life in the 1820s and 1830s, their advance towards a nationalizing view of community and identity received a uniquely full and articulated expression in François-Xavier Garneau’s Histoire du Canada (1845).
Even in the fragmented, diffuse societies of English-speaking British North America an incipient feeling of “nationness” – though one usually contained within the framework of a strong imperial sensibility – was emerging. Evidence of this development could be seen in the concern with place and identity displayed in the vernacular architecture of early-nineteenth-century Nova Scotia, and it was still more apparent in the focused, explicit attention given the province’s character and values in Thomas Chandler Haliburton’s fiction. In Upper Canada (Ontario) the conviction that a “people” was in the process of formation found notable expression in the epic stories of survival during the War of 1812 that began to appear in the 1830s. Together with efforts to establish “Canadian” educational texts and a “Canadian” literature in general, these accounts in fact put the province far ahead of any other English-speaking colony in defining the elements of which a “national” identity might be composed.
Although they were remarkably successful in crystallizing feelings of community and identity in the provincial sphere, attempts to define identity in terms of the cultural homogeneity and shared experience required by romantic nationalism’s emphasis on “people,” “folk,” and “nation” could not work on a broader basis. As soon as French and English speakers began to view British North America in the more comprehensive terms dictated by the movement towards union in the 1860s, they quickly found themselves abandoning the ideas of homogeneity that their focus on the local had allowed them to hold. Ways of thinking evident in outline years earlier, such as William Lyon Mackenzie’s rather impatient noting of cultural pluralism in Upper Canada in the 1820s, received greater sympathy and emphasis, and a disposition to acknowledge diversity and difference became more pronounced.
Sometimes there was much irony in what resulted. But if the observation by Henri-Gustave Joly, an opponent of Confederation, that the new creation would be as varied, but also as insubstantial, as a rainbow was informed by amusement and disdain, fellow Lower Canadian Gonzalve Doutre was quite committed in his concern that British North America’s diversity of peoples meant that it must be understood in terms of mutual tolerance and respect. And George-Étienne Cartier’s much-quoted characterization of the new dominion as a society of different peoples in which nothing “could be enacted which would harm or do injustice to persons of any nationality” was a clear affirmation of the fact that it could simply not be seen in classically nationalist terms.
Romantic, conformist, and homogenizing ideas of nation and nationality did not disappear after 1867. Such Quebec thinkers as L.-F.-R. Laflèche and J.-P. Tardivel built religion, history, language, and a sense of mission into a coherent body of nationalist doctrine, which was eventually turned by Lionel Groulx and the partisans of L’Action nationale into a function of heritage, ancestry, and a mystical consciousness of shared and exclusive experience. In English-speaking Canada a widely felt need to assimilate immigrants, marginalize native peoples, and contain the spread of the French language produced the unambiguously homogenizing nationalism promoted by members of the Canada First movement. At the same time, partisans of a “national” literature, among whom Graeme Mercer Adam, J.H. Long, and James Wilberforce Longley were prominent, sought an articulation of the “national” tradition that would ensure an essentially Anglo-conformist nation and culture.
Nevertheless, it became increasingly clear that definitions of “nation” and “people” framed in differentiated and specific terms could never mobilize support at the “Canadian” level. Eliciting that support would require precisely the sort of capacious and open sense of the whole towards which the architects of Confederation had been moving; only such a sense would define the nation in terms that transcended section, region, group, and culture and so win allegiance from all parts of the population.
It must immediately be added that thinkers and policy makers did not simply reaffirm Cartier’s idea that Canada was a political nationality equally at the service of the several groups which composed it. Times had changed; new, racist ideas of what constituted a people had arisen; and the population movements in train by the end of the nineteenth century were having a major impact on immigrant societies such as Canada. In these radically altered intellectual and demographic circumstances, the Cartier kind of pluralism would plainly not suffice; loose, open, a statement of vague general principle, it could offer no rationale for the emphasis on racial homogeneity that was increasingly admired. There was, in consequence, a discernible shift towards the sort of tighter, more focused, and clearly race-based idea of “nation” evident in the work of such commentators as George Foster, Stephen Leacock, and Andrew Macphail.
The introduction of an explicitly racial element into discussion of what constituted the nation did not, however, mean abandonment of the concept of ethnic and cultural diversity. Indeed, not the least useful aspect of the new racism’s utility derived from the fact that it permitted maintenance of the very sort of pluralism which its emphasis on exclusivity and homogeneity at first seemed to be placing at risk. Nor was much work necessary in order to take full advantage of its capacity to render this important service. All the friends of the new racism need do was draw out the line of its peculiar logic. For if that logic clearly prescribed the exclusion of those deemed racially different, it also obviously mandated the acceptance of peoples whose “otherness” could be constructed as “merely” a matter of culture and ethnicity. Paradoxically, then, adoption of the racist idea might set clear limits to what “difference” could mean, but it also permitted maintenance of a belief that some accommodation of difference had to be an element in national policy.
The manner in which race-based ideas upheld rather than weakened understandings of Canada as something other than a classical nation-state first became clear in the way that they were put to work in assisting the coexistence of French and English speakers within the same general community. Stressing the character of French speakers as a “northern” people descended from the Scandinavians who had settled Normandy, commentators – among whom poet William Wilfred Campbell was one of the most influential – gave them the same sort of lineage and descent as that of their English-speaking compatriots. Differences of language and culture became qualities that masked similarity rather than signalled divergence, and having thus been identified as matters of secondary importance, they could be permitted to exist.
That the understanding of the nation to which race-based ideas led could affirm diversity at the cultural level even as it denied it at the racial was demonstrated with particular force during the debate over Asian immigration at the turn of the century. When the federal government moved to restrict Japanese entry, it did so, not on the narrowly Anglo-conformist ground favoured by British Columbia – how could French-speaking Canadians accept a policy founded on such terrain? – but on the broad substratum of race. It was white civilization, not a particular part of it, that was threatened; this was something that all Canadians, English and French speaking, could rally to defend.
Nor was the kind of diversity permitted by race-based ideas restricted to categories of difference in evidence at Confederation. The adoption of the broad ground of race as the criterion upon which people would be judged and accepted created room for those categories to grow and multiply, and as interior minister Clifford Sifton’s pursuit of immigrants from eastern Europe plainly showed, this was precisely what they did. Adoption of the Sifton expedient made abundantly clear the double-edged way in which racist thinking operated: where in the case of Asians, that attitude had limited the range of the acceptable, as regards the eastern Europeans sought by the minister, it enlarged it. Exotic, to be sure, and frequently found wanting by those already in the country, these newcomers were nonetheless “white,” and so, by the ineluctable logic of the argument now so widely in use, they could not be excluded.
Those who accepted the claim that racist orthodoxy allowed for – even required – acceptance of cultural diversity were, of course, not prepared to see that diversity extended beyond certain clear limits. English-speaking Canadians were unwilling to allow its mutation into linguistic pluralism, and fearing that continuation of French language rights outside Quebec would complicate the task of creating a largely unilingual society, they even worked to restrict linguistic duality. French speakers, apprehensive of the tendency of the English-speaking majority to associate them with other non-English-speaking peoples and, at least outside Quebec, target them for linguistic assimilation, responded by moving to protect their language and culture through a jettisoning of Cartier’s “multiculturalism” in favour of the bilingualism and biculturalism of Henri Bourassa. But though this pattern of development showed French speakers to be on the defensive and even forced their retreat from Canada outside Quebec, French-Canadian culture and identity retained its very substantial provincial base and so continued to frustrate the designs of those thinking in terms of an homogeneous “British” Canada.
Non-English-, non-French-speaking immigrants, for all that they experienced linguistic and behavioural assimilation, also preserved a strong enough sense of their own identities to create a significant measure of institutional completeness within their communities. And given the absence of a clear Canadian type or idea to which assimilation could be urged, that sense was sufficiently potent to ensure that the assimilation which they did undergo would be more a matter of adjusting to the exigencies of daily life than of putting on the mantle of a new national persona. It thus remained necessary, as Victoria Hayward and Kate A. Foster discovered in the 1920s, for those seeking to define the nation to do so in pluralist terms. Though these terms remained severely constrained by the limits of the racist idea – John Murray Gibbon’s The Canadian Mosaic (1938) made no mention of Asians or blacks, for example – they nonetheless confirmed the fact that a credible picture of Canada could not be constructed using the tools of classical, homogenizing nationalism.
After World War II, the factors compelling a pluralist definition of Canada strengthened. In the first instance, this change was a function of the large-scale immigration that once again became a feature of national life. The unprecedented diversity of the newcomers, who arrived not only from Britain but also from Italy, Greece, Portugal, Germany, and the countries of east-central Europe, acting in combination with the continuing absence of a nationalizing idea, made it more difficult than ever to understand the Canadian polity as a national state of the conventional sort.
Paradoxically, the intensifying thrust towards “nonnational” definitions of the country which these developments produced was often at its clearest in formulations that had nothing directly to do with culture and ethnicity. Representations of the national experience framed in terms of climate, geography, and landscape worked to attenuate the links that had once been though to exist between northern heritage and national identity. Moving decisively away from the idea that Canada’s northern character made it a place in which only peoples of northern stock could be truly at home, partisans of the new environmentalist view saw nature as operating on all those exposed to it, regardless of their cultural or ethnic background. The conviction held by literary critics Northrop Frye and Margaret Atwood that, in the harsh and difficult landscape they took to be quintessentially Canadian, it was the capacity for endurance and survival that gave Canadians their “national” character, thus involved a complete rejection of the old ideas and with them any reference to the way in which culture and ethnicity might or might not enhance and strengthen that capacity.
Even historian Donald Creighton’s continuing application of the Laurentian concept that he had first developed in the 1930s conveyed the same general message. To be sure, he was not altogether convinced that culture had nothing to do with one’s ability to respond to the challenges of the environment; certainly, French speakers of the St Lawrence valley had failed almost completely to respond to its great nation-creating imperatives. In the end, though, his stress also was on nationality and citizenship as a function of what an individual made of what he or she found. Persons of any ethnicity and background – Samuel de Champlain, Pierre de La Vérendrye, or the pioneering farmers of the northwest – could belong to and take their place in the “dominion of the north,” provided only that they had the disposition to grasp and meet the challenges that life there posed.
If conceptualizations of Canada and its experience cast in terms of land and climate turned out to be compatible with a broad and latitudinarian idea of nationality, the increasingly influential depictions of the country that took ideology and political culture as their focus were no less so. Political scientist Gad Horowitz’s emphasis on the tripartite character of Canadian political culture as a key element in national existence made class and the consciousness related to it the central cleavage in Canadian life. But, far from contributing to a lessening in the emphasis on regional, linguistic, and cultural division, the effect of Horowitz’s focus on ideological diversity was to reinforce notions of heterogeneity in general. S.M. Lipset’s work affirmed the pluralist view of Canadian society even more clearly. Seeing Canada as a moderately conservative society whose people valued deference, hierarchy, and order, he had no difficulty defining it in terms of the way that its relative antipathy to universalist principles reserved an explicit place to particularisms and differentiation of all sorts.
The most compelling evidence that the pluralist idea was becoming central to an understanding of the country was offered by those scholars who explicitly built the concept into their account of Canadian society. Historian W.L. Morton’s approach was especially adroit. Concerned to stress the country’s British and monarchical character, much taken with the idea of northernness, and, as a westerner, face to face on a daily basis with the fact of ethnic diversity, Morton managed a definition of the country that merged these three elements in a striking and cohesive way. His handling of monarchy’s role was peculiarly deft: hitherto associated with the “British” view of Canada, it became in his interpretation the principal emblem and guarantor of pluralism and diversity. As the capstone of a society based on allegiance, it demanded loyalty from the several groups, communities, and cultures over whose affairs it presided, but not the sort of conformity that came as the price of life in an egalitarian and republican jurisdiction.
By the end of the 1960s Ramsay Cook could coin the term “limited identities” as the most fitting description of national life. Fellow historian J.M.S. Careless elaborated the idea in what became an argument of seminal importance, and other commentators took up the task of showing how Canada’s various diversities and pluralisms made it something that had to be understood in terms quite at odds with those deployed in discussing “normal” nationality. There were, or course, dissenters. John Porter challenged the sunny, accepting view by pointing to the fact that, although Canada might be a “mosaic,” it was a “vertical” one in which different groups were situated in a relation to each other that could only be described as hierarchical and discriminatory. In responding to this argument with the claim that the placing of some groups in a position inferior to others could only be remedied if all were recognized and treated as full members of the larger society, friends of the pluralist idea managed nevertheless to maintain their claim that Canada was a society of groups, all of which needed place and recognition.
Particularly anxious to make that argument an enduring one were representatives of the “non-charter” ethnic groups themselves. They were under no illusion that the status accorded them by the mosaic concept had, in practice, been more than minimal, and they therefore sought to use their numbers, the educational resources and access to communications that they had acquired, and their communities’ lobbying power to work towards securing the substantial measure of recognition to which they felt both the pluralist idea and their own positions entitled them. They were especially exercised by the exclusivity of the debate in the 1960s over the place of Quebec in Canada, since the focus on bilingualism and biculturalism seemed to pre-empt discussion of, much less recognition of, their own place in the country’s life. The groups first pressed for membership on the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, then succeeded in having the commission broaden its vision to accommodate the multicultural idea, and finally secured the embodiment of that important change in legislation passed in 1971 which proclaimed Canada a multicultural, as well as a bilingual, society.
This victory was, of course, not theirs alone. It owed much to the sense of the nation that had been evolving for a century, and it could not have been managed without the sympathy and support of a prime minister, Pierre Trudeau, who had explicitly linked his thinking to the Actonian idea that a state at the service of one part of the community over which it presided would inevitably become the oppressor of other elements in that society. What had happened was nonetheless related in an important way to the fact that a construct which had once been the property of the charter elites – and had often put into play by them faute de mieux – was now being deployed by a broad coalition of groups anxious for the kind of recognition that the entrenchment of this concept would confer.
If demographic change, ideological consolidation, and a good deal of persistent lobbying had done much to enlarge the significance accorded the multicultural idea after World War II, a no less potent mix of elements in the same period – revulsion against naziism, a new, relativist anthropology, and the dissolution of the European empires – worked to transform the concept of race in ways that fundamentally altered the shape of Canadian pluralism and diversity. In some societies, it must immediately be said, the new view seemed simply to reinvent white hegemony. Liberal, individualist polities were especially likely to be implicated in this process. In them the overthrow of racist conceptions of colour and its meaning took the form of a categorial denial that colour had any meaning at all, the practical effect of which was to diminish the significance of what was often a principal attribute of visible-minority identity, to define members of visible-minority groups as individuals like any others, and to encourage them to move towards acceptance of the values of the dominant majority.
The efforts of the civil-rights movement in the United States to make race “disappear” as a factor affecting the citizen’s position certainly had these results. Minimizing the importance of that citizen’s sub-group affiliations, leaving his or her relationship to the social whole unmediated, and positing “integration” as the hoped-for outcome, those efforts in fact promoted a movement towards the values and norms of the larger society in the clearest and most explicit of ways. In Canada, less “liberal” but initially animated by an American-like understanding of how racism was to be remedied, several initiatives of a broadly similar sort were undertaken in the twenty-five years following World War II. The Canadian majority first moved to extend the franchise to Asian Canadians, then acted to dismantle racial barriers to immigration, and finally proposed the assimilation of aboriginal peoples in a white paper of 1969. It thus showed very clearly that it too could act on the assumption that the proper recognition of members of racially distinct groups consisted in looking past colour, seeing the individuals behind it, and securing to them the rights to which they were entitled.
Yet, as this American and Canadian action was unfolding, theorists of race were beginning to define an approach that would permit the rejection of racist thinking to work in more subtle, identity-affirming ways. Mindful of the assumptions underlying the notion of “negritude” and familiar with the work of Frantz Fanon, they pointed to the importance of distinguishing between racist modes of thinking and quite different lines of argument which contended that physical attributes such as skin colour had a role in the complex process by which identity and culture were created. The first, they stated, plainly had to go, but the second could be – indeed, had to be – allowed if the integrity and meaning of lives lived within communities bounded in part by their members’ possession of these “racial” attributes were to be properly grasped and recognized.
Thus, one was obliged to reject “racializing” links between race and culture, and with them the process by which those in positions of power ascribed characteristics to members of visible minorities on the basis of their physical attributes. But one was equally compelled to see that persons who perceived themselves to share physical markers with others might experience solidarity with them, feel themselves to be members of a community, and consider their relationship to the larger society to be mediated by the sense of “belongingness,” shared experience, and common culture that these perceptions both defined and generated. Seen from this perspective, the theorists concluded, “race” was plainly a constituent of identity, and attempts to remove it from the social equation were at least wrong-headed and perhaps harmful to those whom it helped delineate. The recognition that, as Janet Helms wrote, there existed a “sense of group or collective identity based on one’sperception that he or she shares a common racial heritage with a particular racial group” was essential.
The pivotal role which this argument gave to the idea that the individual’s relationship to society at large was mediated by sub-group affiliations meant that it would find little support, and less understanding, in places where that idea had never had much currency. Certainly, American advocates of the concept were for many years confined to the quite marginal areas occupied by advocates of black power, and even so anodyne a form of the idea as the term “Afro-American” had some difficulty establishing itself. In Canada, by contrast, familiarity with social definitions of precisely the sort that allowed group affiliations to stand between the individual and the whole ensured that the argument would get a hearing here. This country, of course, had experience with the notion that recognition of an individual’s worth and integrity could not in practice be distinguished from that of the group to which he or she belonged. Consequently, Canadians could hardly resist assertions that such recognition would require, not an ignoring of racial markers and the identity and experience bounded by them, but an acknowledgment of those markers and the heavy significance that they might bear.
Withdrawal of the white paper of 1969, abandonment of the assimilationist notions behind it, and response to the First Nations as collectivities involved recognition that, in their complicated case, particularity was defined not only by the complex interplay between “race” and “culture” and claims to the land, but by increasingly insistent demands for autonomy and self-government. In the case of racially marked communities that had no territorial base or aspirations towards self-government, recognition was complicated by quite a different set of factors.
The First Nations, however marginal their status, had never been excluded from depictions of the national history and experience, but blacks and Asians very largely had. Making plain their role in the process by which the national community had been shaped would therefore require that these depictions be restructured in ways that would quite literally “re-vision” the national epic that they purported to depict. The creation of institutions intended to recognize the multiracial fact at the level of policy and remedial action, among which the addition in 1981 of a race-relations unit in the Multiculturalism Directorate was among the most important, was therefore only part of what was required. If the multiracial character of the country was to be “seen,” nothing less than a basic change in the portrayal of its public face would have to come about.
Of the several expedients adopted in pursuit of that objective, some, such as the ending of television’s virtual monopoly by whites and the occupancy of public office by members of visible minorities, were more clearly expressive of the intended message than others. But even innovations in public architecture had their effect. Metis architect Douglas Cardinal’s Canadian Museum of Civilization, for example, put a First Nations imprint on the federal capital. And the decision to permit Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers to wear turbans dramatically demonstrated that even the oldest and most venerable of national institutions was now to be seen as accessible to and the property of Canadians from all racial and cultural groups.
The reallocation of symbolic resources involved in these and other initiatives did not alter the fact – patently clear in statistics concerning poverty, income, education, and health – that members of visible minorities were disproportionately represented in certain sectors of the population. Still less did it signal an end to discrimination and prejudice. If, however, building the idea that Canada was multiracial had not yet resulted in recognition for all groups by the others, its utility as a tool that encouraged the meeting of at least some claims of racially bounded groups allowed it to maintain and even extend its reach. Quebec nationalists themselves began to abandon their commitment to the nineteenth-century style of nationalism based on “people” and “culture” that had so long characterized their attempts at self-definition, and especially after the arrival of immigrants from Haiti and Vietnam, they moved towards a sense of their society as racially, as well as ethnically, diverse. And when, in 1980 Prime Minister Joe Clark pronounced Canada to be a “community of communities,” racially bounded entities were among the many groups that he meant his broad and capacious definition to include.
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.