The Canadian Imagination

What it means to be Canadian; examining and reworking Canada as a nation.

Monday, May 09, 2011

The things that bind us

We can choose to define ourselves in terms of things we are not, or in terms of the things we are. Call the first a negative sense of identity, and the second a positive sense of identity.

If we stay clear of politics and beer commercials, the single source of identity which most strongly evokes emotional reactions is our relationship with the United States. Few indeed are the citizens of Canada who do not react to being confused with an American. Some find it a compliment and an ideal. Others have a slightly different opinion.

Take the United States out of the equation: and what are we left with? What remains, to bind us together and which we can commonly call Canada?

I find but three things: a public broadcasting station, the monarchy ... and hockey. (We may not all be hockey fanatics, but few indeed are the Canadians who would reject hockey as a cultural touchpoint.) Some might add to the list such things as Mounties, the military, VIA Rail, multiculturalism, or even a love for nature: but some of those are taken for granted as services or rights, some live more in the past than the present, and some are at least as divisive as they are unifying.

It is laughable to even think about excising hockey from the Canadian soul: but hockey is not unique to Canada. This country cannot cling to unity on hockey alone.

Far fewer are those Canadians who still revere the monarchy as once we did. We have moved on, many of us think: and maybe we have. Yet were it not for the monarchy, we would long since have become part of the United States. Even were Canada to separate from the British monarchy here and now, I would not give much for our chances of continuing to remain unified and independent. Too many other forces are pulling us in all directions: and however reluctant we are to acknowledge it, only the monarchy holds us together against them. For better or for worse, having a monarch from across the seas is part of our common cultural identity.

To many who place their loyalty behind laissez-faire capitalism, no government press can ever be a free press: yet ask Stephen Harper whether he feels that the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation is the voice of his government or even supports it. How is it that after five years of Conservative rule, our armslength government media corporation can still be seen as "leftist", and that by exactly the same people who complain about too much government control in any government medium?

Set aside the ideologies. No other agency in Canada has done more to lift up a mirror and show a farflung country its own united image.

Take away the CBC: and what remains?

Those of us fairly close to the United States border would still get the news from a dozen disparate sources, each fighting to dominate and keep the attention of the viewer or listener: but audience attention spans are short, and the in-depth coverage would be cut accordingly. We would still get entertainment from sources with larger domestic markets and consequently bigger pocketbooks: until through sheer population demographics, most Canadian content would be priced right out of the market.

If you happen to live in a farflung part of Canada, one of those places not dominated by population or political attention: well, you would be out of luck entirely. Where capitalism alone is the funder, it is not cost-effective to bring a national service to the distant parts of Canada.

Strong are the forces which are determined to shut down the CBC and tear Canada away from the monarchy. Ever since many have become determined to make monetary cost the only basis by which to measure value, those forces have become much stronger.

We don't often think of things we take for granted as desperately fragile: yet until just a couple of generations ago, Canada had been sheltered from the kinds of forces which rip apart countries. That sheltering hand is now gone, and a global fracturing tide is still rising.

What price a united and independent Canada?

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