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A Contradiction In Terms

The problem with trying to write an article about Canadian culture is rather simple. As a Canadian, I am well placed to be fully aware that most Canadians have renounced any concept of a Canadian culture.

There’s an awful lot of identity, and built upon that (or is that the other way around?), a lot of identity politics. In other words, very little is taught in the schools about how to feel, and a great, great deal is taught about how to respect who others are… and to a much smaller degree, to respect who you, yourself, are, in terms of the identity of your ethnic group.

Contrary to something I read at a website while researching this article, normal Canadians do not treat “ethnic” as a dirty word. We all have ethnic groups, including plain old descendants from England proper; I am not among them. Therefore, “English” is an ethnic group, as is “French,” or if you want to cut it a lot thinner, “Quebecois,” often confused with the broader term “French-Canadian,” and “Acadians,” who are usually forgotten and treated as appendixes when the term “French-Canadian” comes up. In fact, forget Acadians. Don’t bother assuming they’re being referred to when the word “French-Canadian” is used. If people mean Acadian, they’ll say so – and they probably don’t.

As a practical matter, aside from French-Canadians (who have a historic special status guaranteed since the start of Canada itself), you’re either what’s called a “visible minority,” such as  “First Nations,” which is the “in” term for a “native person,” at one time called Aboriginals or Indians or what have you, but if you can use a specific tribal name, go ahead and use that; blacks; Jews; or something else visible along those lines, or you’re just another Caucasian and no one cares what your ethnicity is. You’re just plain vanilla, nothing special.

So unless you’re part of a “special group” deemed by academics and political activists to deserve more attention than others, there is essentially no Canadian culture taught in schools whatsoever. (The preceding caveat exempted.)

Canadian “culture” is therefore very hard to define, because very little effort is expended into studying such a thing. Instead, there is some effort on studying history – to a point – but with an emphasis on getting away from “dead white men” and spreading attention around, diluting the little that Canadians tended to recall of their own history into a pool of near nothingness.

However, we can make a very limited number of broad observations.

1. Canadians are united by Canada

In other words, Canadians are, broadly speaking, united by actually liking Canada. They find Canada to be a nice place to live, a vast country with a high level of technology, a decent level of economic development and wealth befitting a “first world” civilized country, and limits to the reach of urban sprawl and the crush of humanity… depending on where you actually want to live. You could always pick a forgotten rural place like I live in, but recent immigrants tend to flock by identity in the major cities.

2. …Unless they’re not

The long-running drama of Quebec separatism has left a lot of bad blood over the years. The push for “Quebec sovereignty” (the in-vogue term among separatists) failed some years ago after coming very close to making the first step towards an awkward break-up of the country.

Certainly we cannot claim that the losers of that argument are motivated by a special love of Canada. It may be their country, but as a result of worked-up feeling over the whole issue of Quebec being a former French colony militarily conquered by the British, there is no attachment to the Queen of England, “the Crown,” and all the trappings of British civilization.

3. English is a tool

English is not learned because of some kind of special attachment to it. While broadly speaking, the Canadian education system regards British spellings and pronunciations as correct and American variations as incorrect, practicality and the mixing of language makes Canadian English a middle ground, neither wholly British nor wholly American. As such, it is very accessible, and Canadians who resist the temptation to overuse regional dialects usually have no difficulty being understood around the English-speaking world.

4. Official state institutions are overwhelmingly British

This is a product of history, but the important thing to understand is that British trappings of the state mean as much to Canadians as Roman trappings of the state meant to the citizens of ancient Rome; namely, very little in practice. Unless the issue is an immensely specific one, such as using “common law” as the basis of the civil court system rather than the Napoleonic Code, or the coats of arms used on official documents, British culture is mainly the legacy of colonial history: architecture, monuments, military organization, and the heavy use of the word “Royal” in regards to organs of the state. (Example: The Royal Canadian Mounted Police, or RCMP.)

My point being, respecting these institutions is respecting the state, which most Canadians actually like. These trappings are NOT to be confused with the cultural identity of the majority of Canadians. People identify with them, or don’t, as individuals and groups, but it is not some sort of universal cultural monolith.

5. We’re Not All The Same – And That’s OK

As  such, with the major caveat that these British trappings of the state are considered vital to keeping Canada together as a country (which we may shorthand as “the greater good”), the defining trait of Canadian culture is the tolerance of ethnic cultural identity. People may not agree with something, but they will keep their disagreements out of the public arena and will tolerate it without complaint.

So no, we’re not all the same. We know it, it’s not going to change… and that’s OK. There is NO ENFORCED IDENTITY beyond the barest of the bare minimums.

That’s why I titled this article “so-called Canadian culture.” When you really boil it down, there is a broad Canadian identity, but to call any of this “culture” approaches bad joke status.

It’s Not All OK, Honestly

Even given the really thin things that we can peg as “Canadian culture,” or as I propose, “Canadian identity,” the schools are doing a very poor job of actually teaching this. Though, I suppose that isn’t all that different from the other subjects they’re not teaching as well these days…

Still, the point is, if you try to make culture something that is everything to all people, soon you have something that is nothing to everyone.

Some may find this enlightened. It has practical problems which are unfortunate, but nothing is going to be done about it, so that’s how it is.

Non-Identity/ Cross-Identity Culture

So if we can firmly lay to rest the idea that Canadians are one people in any acceptable sense of the term, we can take a brief look at culture that is not rooted in “identity,” or more importantly, identity politics, that plague upon civilization. (And yes that is my opinion – J)

Two examples will suffice, but I intend to get much more into this genre of writing in the future.

1. Hockey

In Canada, hockey is not only the de facto national sport (yes we know lacrosse was declared the national sport but do you see anyone care? No? I thought not…), it is a sport that has always crossed the English/ French cultural, geographic and linguistic divide.

While I’m sure a lot of this was rooting for one’s own group against the other, it wasn’t especially rooted in anything ethnic; it was rooted in cities and the realities of those cities. It’s the sort of tribalism that goes back to the Romans. We could call them the Reds and the Blues instead of the Canadiens and the Maple Leafs, and it wouldn’t change a thing.

Hockey is a very physical sport, but it is also one that requires a great deal of skill, a sport that rewards strategy and team play, and yet does not lose sight of individual accomplishment. When it moves, it moves quickly, so like with international football/ “soccer,” there can be fast turnarounds. This has made the sport a rewarding one for fans, historically.

Nowadays, Canadian nationals play for American teams left and right, European players have made strong entrances, Americans even play… and expansion of the so-called National Hockey League (even though two countries are spanned!) and financial stagnation of the dwindling Canadian teams has greatly altered the sport since its heyday. Nonetheless, it is a sport for which interest crosses many identities, peoples, and cultures, without the slightest regard for WHO you are, only for what you can do on the ice.

This is refreshing.

2. Comedy

Jim Carrey is perhaps the most currently famous of this group, but Canada has been the birthplace of a great many comedians’ careers. Not only this, but Canada has a reputation for producing good comedy, which is certainly something to be grateful for. Granted, not all is good, but it is nonetheless one of the small blessings of the country.

With Canada not having been able to support anything like Hollywood productions for most of the 20th century, comedy was a way for acting and speaking talent to emerge at very low production cost. Of course, no one would call Carrey cheap at this point in his career! However, the general principle holds: Canada has produced fine comedians who went on to fame and wealth, of varying degrees, in the United States.

Once again, comedy is not the monopoly of any ethnic group or ethnic culture. Some is much more specific than others – Jewish humor should be left to Jewish comics for reasons of propriety, after all – but a great deal of comedy is nonetheless universal, something people can appreciate across cultural boundaries.

Anyway, that’s the gist of it.

Canadian Culture: Broad, Thin, But Strong

It may be fair to say that the Quebec separation dispute led to a great deal more displays of “Canadian culture” (heavily financed by the government of the day, which became a subsequent political issue) than had been the case for quite some time beforehand.

The real point about “Canadian culture” is that it is not restrictive. If you follow certain very broad guidelines of acceptability, tolerance runs very high. Conversely, Canadians tend to cling very strongly to the things they can identify with the country itself, which is overwhelmingly popular, even though it is a colonial construct and was only reinvented after the fact as a multicultural bonanza.

The real bottom line is, teaching, promoting, and enforcing “Canadian culture” would make tolerance of ethnic and cultural identity utterly meaningless.

That’s why you see very little teaching and promoting of it. And enforcing? Ha. Please.

Sorry, that was a Canadian trying to be funny.