Is Canada a country?

Is Canada a country? © David Watts 22 July 2000


We’re not asking this question as a rhetorical exercise, but in a very real exchange of views.

A former first minister of one of our oldest and largest provinces stated his belief very clearly that “Canada is not a country”.

He headed a party formed for the express purpose of taking his province out of the Canadian federation and making it the country that Canada, in his view, can never be.

It’s important that Canadians understand the issues here—important not simply to persuade the people of Quebec of another view—even if that were possible—but important that we be able to answer this question for ourselves.

Even if we hold the truth of Canada in our hearts, if we cannot express it intelligibly, we are ready prey to the arguments of the self interests that are ready to carve up a piece of the country they cannot conceive as a whole.

Let us take as our starting point the statement that a viable country is one that has a land distinguishable from others, inhabited by peoples in relationship to each other, and sharing a collective consciousness, history or spirit.

On the first part—a definable land area—both Canada and Quebec can quality. Each has a large land mass bounded by at least two thirds natural features such as coasts or watersheds, the rest by borders set by historical decisions.

On the second part—people in relationship—there is some difference. From what began as a homeland to several first nations, the peoples of both Canada and Quebec started out as a French and then a British colony.

In Canada there has been a move to greater diversity beginning in a policy of official bilingualism and culminating in widespread multiculturalism. In Quebec the trend has been in the opposite direction—from official bilingualism at Confederation to a umilingual French state a century later.

It is this view of herself as the homeland of a particular people in which Quebec sees herself as a real or natural country, and Canada as an unreal one. This takes us to the third aspect of a country: that of a collective consciousness. Here Quebec’s identity appears beyond dispute. Canada’s is more elusive.

On the surface, few doubt Québécois share a collective history and culture. Isn’t the collective consciousness what we’re always hearing in “destin”, “peuple”, “distinct society” or whatever phrase is in vogue at the time?

One the Canadian scene we were doubtful of these bonds, at least till recently. Hasn’t half our history been spent agonizing over the question of identity? Isn’t our adoption of multiculturalism proof we didn’t have our own in the first place? Isn’t our history taught differently in different regions?

Let’s look beyond surface appearances, starting with multiculturalism.

On the shield of Canada’s coat of arms, in addition to the maple leaf, we find the emblems of France, England, Scotland and Ireland—ancient enemies, whose warfare goes back for centuries.

These symbols show that far from being recent, multiculturalism has been a longstanding part of the Canadian identity. Rather than reflecting a lack of cultural consciousness, pluralism was something our founders deliberately incorporated in the “new nationality” of Confederation.

Let’s look at the same issue in Quebec. Didn’t the then premier, the night of the last referendum defeat, blame “ethnic votes” for his lack of a majority? Are there not in Quebec vibrant anglo, Jewish, hispanic and other cultures? Admitted or not, multiculturalism is a factor on the Quebec scene.

On the question of common history, Canada certainly has a number of varying views. Some of these are regional: compare Newfoundland and BC. Others are economic and social: Liberal and Alliance Party members will have different outlooks. That’s what we’d expect in a country as big as Canada.

We can find the same in Quebec. We’re aware of the “Fortress Quebec” view—that sees Quebec as the one safe haven for the French language and culture in North America. But there are other stories: those of the Jesuit martyrs and the founding mothers of Quebec, who had a wider view.

These stories are not told much in Quebec anymore. Their naked spirituality—visions and miracles—is an embarrassment in the secular society after the Quiet Revolution.

Then there was the vision of the voyageurs, who travelled widely and opened up the interior of the continent. Their stories were ignored in their own time because their lifestyles did not fit the views of the priests. Today they’re ignored because they represent an alternative view to the official Fortress Quebec one.

A collective consciousness is a very subtle thing. Like a personal psyche it contains deep and unconscious elements—things we may reject in another because we’ve not come to terms with them in ourselves. Allowing these aspects to live side by side, working with them, is part of our healing as individuals, countries and as a planet. Canadians have been doing this for a long time.

If Canada is not recognizable as a country to some, it’s because we’re not the type of state that has been, but the kind that is becoming. If we appear a non-entity among ethno-states, it’s because we represent the new paradigm of the international one.

This new state is noteworthy not for its boundaries but for its connections, not for the firmness of its edges but for their flexibility.

As Canadian as possible under the circumstances” is a laugh not at our lacks but at our limitlessness: We can assume any size, shape or colour to connect with others in the world. This is our strength and our expertise.

Is Canada a country? It depends where you’re looking. Look among the nation states of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and you’ll feel frustrated and out of place. Look forward to Earth’s emerging Oneness, and you’ll find there’s a place on the planet where such a sense of community is already a reality.