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Recovering backpacker, Cornwallite at heart, political enthusiast, catalyst, writer, husband, father, community volunteer, unabashedly proud Canadian. Every hyperlink connects to something related directly or thematically to that which is highlighted.

Tuesday 21 February 2012

Canadian Identity

I first wrote this in 2009 - it still holds true today.

“There is no such thing as a model or ideal Canadian. What could be more absurd than the concept of an ‘all Canadian’ boy or girl? A society which emphasizes uniformity is one which creates intolerance and hate.”

    - Pierre Trudeau

I've spent a fair amount of time in Germany over the past few years; as such, I have developed a personal opinion of what embodies the German character.  My experiences are of friendly people, either open and fun or a bit reserved.  When I think Germany, I think of beer in the marktplatz or an almost Shire-like terrain, plus cobbled streets, colourful buildings, statuary. 

Of course, I know that my notion of Germany comes from a couple weeks travelling from the South-East to the North-West in 2001, plus my visits to the city of Weimar and the Buchenwald Memorial situated nearby. The influence of the DDR is still felt prominently in the East, and Weimar’s connection to the concentration camp has shaped its identity just as much as has its great and cultured history. My perception of what is Germany, really, is not reflective of Germany at all.  Instead, it's a collection of  impressions from my own experiences of specific people in certain places at a couple defined moments in time.

My grandfather – who spent time as an inmate of the Buchenwald Konsentrationsl√§ger – has a definitively different opinion of Germany, as a country. For him, Germany will always be hateful men in uniforms, vicious dogs, barbed wire and the constant fear of pain and death. This is a view of Germany that still pervades many of his generation, particularly those who fought in World War II. This view no more captures a fully “German” identity than does my own.

Many whose views of Germany are shaped by WWII have a similar bias against Japan. Indeed, depending on your age or particular interest, Japan might be the nation that perpetrated the Rape of Nanking, the place where Samurai with their Bushido code of honour lived, or a place that makes great tech and produces cool manga and anime.

As human beings, we are all prone to generalizations. It’s the only way we can easily communicate experiences and circumstances to others and make narrative sense of the world we live in. This is as true with our understanding of how nature operates as it is with our perceptions of how we, as a species, function. In the modern era, we look at nations, and prescribe national identities to them. Categorizing them so allows us to put them in a context in relation to other nations, and our own. As nations, we also try to fashion a national identity for ourselves that we can proud of, that sets us as an exemplar in regards to other nations and gives us status.

These identities are not and can never be fixed in stone. When I was teaching English in Korea, the opinions of those who lived through the war were distinctly different from those of my students, most who were children or teeny-boppers.

Nor are national identities universal; for our country, what it means to be distinctly Canadian will have differences in tone and texture for people living in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, or Toronto, Ontario. How we are perceived by people living in other nations is determined by a number of factors, including personal experience, the public face of our leadership and culture, and our involvement on the world stage. The residents of towns in the Netherlands will view Canada differently than Spanish fishermen, or the people of Kiribati.

One of the key components in shaping our identity is, of course, our leadership. Look at the United States – it went from being a global Satan to a cool place of hope overnight, due entirely to its change in leadership. Whatever you might think of Barrack Obama’s presidency, it cannot be denied that America-bashing instantly lost a lot of its cache when he assumed the office of Commander-In-Chief. The same is true for Canada – whatever you might think of his policies, Pierre Trudeau brought a worldliness and a distinct style to the national stage as Prime Minister; this personality percolated into the global perception of Canada as a nation.

National leaders have the ability to set the tone of their country, and that tone is what, through the media, becomes synonymous with the nation as a whole. If a leader decides that their priorities are to beef up their military and be seen as strong, yet not make efforts to protect its citizens abroad, then it will be seen as a warlike and somewhat heartless country. The public policy focus of the leader will play an integral role in shaping the perceived identify of a nation.

Of course, as was the case for the blind men experiencing an elephant, there are many aspects to a nation’s identity, and the wise leader makes a point of publicly celebrating the strengths, particularly on the international stage. Unwise is the leader who acts solely on their own priorities, ignoring the profile that creates for the world.

To me, Canada’s greatest strength, from its founding as a nation onwards, has been its ability to bridge the gap and find ways to work with diversity; this is exemplified every day by the fact that, despite great differences and occasional animosity, there have been few examples of physical conflict between the diverse elements that make up our whole. When it is absolutely necessary to take a stand, however, Canada has always done so with strength, efficiency and professionalism.

This diversity, discipline and ability to dialogue has led to a strong mix of art, music, theatre, cinema, etc, Canada is recognized as having made a contribution to the global stage, though not to the degree that perhaps we could be.

The view I hold and choose to promote for Canada is simple; ours is a nation of positive diversity, of compromise, and of balance between the practical and the bold. This national identity is not a universal one and I understand this – the fact that our society encourages the acceptance of this diversity is another of our strengths.

Our identity, as a nation, might be influenced by our leaders, but in a strong democracy, our leaders take their cues from the people.  It therefore falls to us, as Canadians, to recognize this, seize the opportunity and shape that identity into one we can eternally be proud of.

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