CANADIAN CULTURE IS … David W. Watts 24/11/2008

The phrase “Canadian culture” may seem like a contradiction.

For some, “culture” evokes elitism: hoity-toity people in furs and patent leather shoes, consuming hors d’oeuvres at the “galas” our PM spoke of while their fellow citizens hang out in video shops. For these “culture” may be a class thing, but it’s not a national one.

To others, shared culture isn’t a problem but a Canadian one is. They see Newfoundland culture, Québec, aboriginal and western cultures without much in common. Canada may have a history and institutions but these are seen very differently in our different regions.

These people might not go as far as the premier who said “Canada is not a country,” but they might agree “Canadian culture” is no more than a budget for funding local artists.

We could spend time debating these points. For now we’ll point out that Culture is more than the first group thinks, and “Canadian” is broader than the second group imagines.

Culture is like language: it’s not a question of whether but what kind you have. Every national culture is a mixture: The Scots, for instance, come from lowlands, highlands and islands: kilts, bagpipes and haggis are from parts of the country, but they’re all Scottish.

“Aboriginal” is a catchword for hundreds of cultures that share some ways of looking at life. And “Canadian” culture is a broad palette that spans a wide spectrum:

Canadian culture is a conversation. It brings people together, reflecting something shared within a group, and it helps them relate to others. This is obvious for folk culture such as traditional songs and dances. It also applies to expressions by artists who seem eccentric.

The paintings of the Group of Seven were at first disquieting to many people. In time they came to be recognized as representing our country in a deep and powerful way.

So Canadian culture is a conversation, a connective within a collective that shares it.

Second, Canadian culture is unfinished and undefinable: unfinished because it’s always growing and changing, like Canada itself. 500 years ago Kanata meant living in huts by a river. 300 years ago to be Canadian meant to be French and Catholic in North America.

140 years ago “Canadian” extended beyond the Saint Lawrence to include the Maritimes, the west and the north. But 90 years ago it still means to be British in North America.

Canadian culture reflects this flow in a river of human activity. Now it’s been stretched by multiculturalism and new strength of First Nations. And it is unfinished because it is

Living, and mirroring the lives of living, growing people. If it’s not alive it’s no longer part of our culture. The Behotuk of Newfoundland are part of our history and prehistory but not of our culture. Likewise the Orange Order that demonstrated against the French here as they did against Catholics in Northern Ireland. It, too, is not part of our culture.

Canadian culture is a conversation, it is unfinished, it is living and it is …

Tangible. To be alive, as we know life, a spirit must be material in some way. An idea is not part of our culture unless it is embodied. “Multiculturalism” is, because of the people that are here. “Bilingualism” is, too, because Canadians overlap in speaking English and French. The “social safety net” is more than an idea: it exists in programs and institutions in all our provinces and territories. Without the tangible expression, it would not be so.

Democracy has been a part of our culture for 160 years. Before responsible government, it was an idea our ancestors looked on like a later generation would regard communism.

With adoption of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982, Democratic Freedoms were written into our constitution, balancing minority rights and majority will.

Canadian culture is in some way universal in that it’s understandable beyond our borders. Cultures from far away and long ago speak to us: in the pyramids of the Nile and Central America. These speak of our fascination with the heavens. Though ancient Egyptian and Mayan, they live on embodied in our art galleries and observatories. While universal …

Canadian culture is also regional: in the dances of Acadia and Cape Breton, the painting of Emily Carr and Marc-Aurèle Fortin, the songs of Ian Tyson and Pauline Julien. To be embodied requires a specific context: a particular time and place.

Those who claim we have no culture are right if by national culture they mean a uniform, pan-Canadian blend. A National Ballet and National Opera represent us abroad but they are Canadian culture only as they bring together our regions and reveal us to each other.

Finally, Canadian culture is experience that brings together societies, time and space into the present Now. Mikhail Gorbochev launching a new Russian Revolution on a farm at Windsor, Ontario, Guy Carleton reporting to Britain on the quality of French Canadians, Alex Mackenzie writing “from Canada by land” on a rock—parts of the human journey.

This is Canadian because Canada, whose name means “village”, is essentially a meeting place. It is culture because it is part of the shared experience of humankind.

C – conversation

U – unfinished

L – living

T – tangible

U – universal

R – regional and

E – experience

Canadian Culture: the human experience focused on the northern half of the North American continent on the face of a blue green planet in an infinite Cosmos. And so it is.