Monday, December 17, 2012

On "nationality"

Related to what I was saying last week...

Discussions I’ve had with a friend lately have helped to crystallize some of the perceptions I have on nationality—specifically, my own—which I have come to realize have changed over the years.

I don’t know if it’s a function of getting older or something but my perception of the group with which I self-identify has narrowed over the years. That’s not to say I’ve gotten xenophobic. Just that the groups with which I’m comfortable insisting I’m a part of has become more focused... unlike most questions in life, where the views have grown more diffuse.

I’m Canadian. That goes without saying. But is that my nationality? In a strict legal sense, yes; it’s conterminal with my citizenship in the modern era. But there’s de jure nationality and there’s de facto nationality, and I’ve finally had to admit they’re not the same thing.

Six years ago, the House of Commons officially passed a motion "that this House recognize that the Québécois form a nation within a united Canada." I’ve had a long time to mull that over and I’ve come to the conclusion that it doesn’t really amount to much... it simply states the obvious, admitting the existence of the elephant we’ve tried to deny really is in the room for desperate decades haunted by the spectre of separatism. The plain fact is that for the most part, Quebec is a distinct society. But the corollary is that you can’t have half a distinction. For something to be distinct, there has to be something else from it’s distinct from... something that, logically, is equally distinct from it, for all the same reasons. This is to say, if Quebec forms a distinct society within Canada, surely what it’s distinct from must also constitute a distinct society within Canada... to which the rest of us belong. To which I belong.

When I was a kid in the 70s, we very commonly divided Canada up into “English Canada” and “French Canada”. Nowadays it’s far less common to speak of “French Canada” because, by the nature of Quebec’s changes in terms of its self-definition, it’s essentially written off francophones outside its borders (a famous phrase by Quebec author Yves Beauchemin characterized them as “des cadavres encore chauds”—"warm bodies"), abandoning them to anglicization. Rather than seeing them as co-linguists and co-culturalists living in majority-anglophone provinces, Quebec chose to see them as the equivalent of a failing diaspora with a choice to make: flop to the water and survive or dry up on the shore. This created a Canada where the strongest champions of the survival of the French language outside Quebec were the governments largely run by anglophones. Anyway, you don’t hear “French Canada” used that much anymore. For a while during the ceaseless constitutional imbroglios of the 90s, ROC (“the rest of Canada”) had some cache, but I haven’t heard that in a while. We seem to have resumed referring to ourselves as “English Canada” on the rare occasions a distinction has to be explicitly made. One crucial difference is that "ROC" tended to abandon English Canadians in Quebec in a way that, unlike the Quebecois, English Canada isn't prepared to do.

The attribution of Englishness in Canada isn’t quite the same as you would expect to find elsewhere. It’s not primarily an ethnic marker... an English Canadian is not necessarily (or increasingly these days, even usually) someone whose genetic ancestors came from England, or even the British Isles. It doesn’t principally connote anything about race or ethnicity. It is essentially a cultural eponym, given rise to by one’s mother tongue, or else the language one has adopted for public life; and, more relevantly for contrast within a Canadian context, the worldview and assumed general values that come with it, with which Quebecois are prone to defensively take issue. David Suzuki, Rae Dawn Chong, Lincoln Alexander, and “Honest Ed” Mirvish are English Canadians and part of English Canada regardless of where their ancestors, or even they themselves, came from.

I saw my nationality on display before the world in the person of Carol Huynh standing on the podium in Beijing in 2008, as I watched the familiar words forming on her lips.


Philosophically I fought against it for a long time; partly out of fear of what admitting it might imply for the future of the country. But I’ve come to accept that while, yes, I’m a Canadian citizen, and that’s a fine thing, that my identity, my nationality, who am I am both in Canada and in the world, is more precisely English Canadian. And that’s okay. It’s not denigrating to French Canada or Quebec. It’s not seeking to marginalize, demonize, or ostracize them. It’s simply accepting a finer level of self-definition, and maybe even self-determination, than just stopping at “Canadian”. It’s okay to admit, even accept, that are two major cultures—nations— in Canada (and any number of smaller subcultures), and have been for hundreds of years; and that one of them is English Canada. And though we have great and important commonalities with others—French Canadians with whom we share a state and a national history, and anglophones elsewhere with whom we share a culture, a worldview, and certain values, and our place within Anglo America and the Anglosphere—we’re unique in our particulars and our circumstance. It’s who we are.

P-Doug has related to me in the past that one of the things Canada had a penchant for in the early days of the Second World War was to take the planes the US landed at the border during the Lend Lease days, drag them across so the US wouldn’t be in technical violation of its neutrality, and then immediately replace the American engines with British ones, which leaked oil like sieves but ran better. Not to trivialize matters, but I’ve long seen that as an apt metaphor for English Canada: a yankee plane with a limey engine. It makes me smile, anyway.

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