What does it mean to be “Canadian”? A Historical Conception of Nationalism and Identity

In a May 1972 made-for-TV interview conducted by Vincent Tovell of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), Canadian historian Ramsay Cook explained his views on nationalism and identity within the context of the then contemporary state of the professional historical community in Canada. Cook’s interview with Tovell came on the heels of a publication that has since become a standard read in graduate-level courses in Canadian history. The Maple Leaf Forever: Essays on Nationalism and Politics in Canada, published by Cook in 1971, challenged the notion that there exists in Canada a singular national identity governed by a singular state. Rather than conform to homogeneity, Cook argued that Canadians should learn from the unique circumstances of variation.  

The Maple Leaf Forever probed the word “nationalism” to the extent that some readers, historians and politicians alike, called Cook anti-nationalist. This, at time when Canadians were eager to proclaim a national identity of their own, sparked a level of controversy from which Cook’s interview with the CBC partially originated. In his TV interview with Tovell, Cook described nationalism conceptually as a country that is a “culturally and politically homogenous place,” out of which can be devised a set of symbols, emotion and ideology that act as a “strait jacket” into which people seem to have to come and fit. Using the ideology of the United States – the American way of life – as an example, Cook downplayed any suggestion of a so-called ‘Canadian way of life.’ Unlike our friendly neighbours to the south who are first and foremost American, Canadians are culturally and ethnically diverse, and it’s important to remember that so too are our histories, or so went Cook’s argument.

Upon dissecting certain intellectual peoples and groups of peoples in French and English versions of Canadian history, Cook discovered that they spoke a language which ran contrary and even unacceptable to other large population segments in Canada. In the interview, he discussed this view with reference to “the whole” of Canadian history which, in the state of scholarship of the 1970s, was either French or English and rarely a mix of the two. In his reading of Canadian history, Cook found many examples of ideological nationalism that was fragmented rather than cohesive. Fundamental to his argument is the distinction between a nationalist state and a nation-state, where the nationalist state is based on a kind of material and spiritual cultural homogeneity that the nation-state is comprised of but not confined to.

In discussing the basis of his argument, Cook states: “What I am really trying to argue is that we should look at our own problems within our own terms. Certainly look at the way other kinds of people in other communities have tried to solve [problems], but remember that this is a community which has its own roots and we need to come to certain kinds of solutions to problems within our own terms.” Tovell asked Cook if he was simply “restating in a new way the familiar Canadian proposition that we’re a cluster of minorities,” to which Cook conceded by recalling the words of sociologist John Porter in referring to Canada as a mosaic society. This logic further explains the basic concept of multiculturalism to suggest that Canada is a mosaic of different ethnic, language, regional and religious groupings that are unequal in status and power.

In one of the most intriguing moments of the interview, Cook suggests that the history of Canada is a “continuing accommodation, particularity between French and English but also between the varying sectional groups.” In 1867, the British North American Act set the rights of French-Canadians living outside of the modern provincial territory of Quebec. This so-called accommodation of French-Canadians came to fruition in the massive resentment by French-Canadians towards Canadian participation in both the First and Second World Wars, to use but one example of a topic previously explored on Clio’s Current.

At the time of the interview, Cook said that he was strongly in favour of the continuation of Canada, but not in the terms that one sees in traditionalist nationalist rhetoric. Contrary to the primary discussion topic of the interview, nationalist motifs in Canadian history are certainly not confined to an English-French dichotomy, nor do they play out simply in a past context. Indigenous nationalism, or at least cohesion, recently strengthened the “Idle No More” movement to the extent that a collective voice made itself heard internationally. But it’s important to remember that nationalist motifs are by no means confined to groups of peoples. Technological and economic nationalism, as well as commercial uses of nationalism by elite and non-elite individuals and corporations impact Canadians on an ongoing basis.

Ultimately, there are many ways of being “Canadian.” We may live in a nation-state whose history is an ongoing contestation, but we have the ability to ask questions of our current governing body in such a way that is unique to our individual interests and needs. Canadians should not try to emulate other countries because from our history has derived a decidedly different set of circumstances that we must learn to investigate and approach on our own terms. Canada will naturally have problems that are similar to those of the United States as well as other nations of a similar size both in population and economics, but nonetheless to recognize and embrace the varied histories of ethnic culturalism is to appreciate the uniqueness of what it means to be “Canadian”. In our last post on Canadian identity we concluded that national “heroes” are no different than the “general” population, but it’s also important to remember that in such a state of commonality there exists differences which should be embraced rather than feared.