So I’m in the process of gearing up for my comprehensive exams in Canadian Politics, and my thoughts are drawn towards questions of Canadian nationalism and national identity. I’ve always been interested in questions of nationalism in Canada, and while I’ve read/thought fairly extensively about Newfoundland nationalism, there is a lot of ground elsewhere that remains to be covered. I spent the better part of June and July reading and writing about Aboriginal politics and nationalism in Canada, and on a recent trip to Montreal I made a point of picking up a few books on Québecois nationalism in order to start getting a grip on these other ‘sub-Canadian’ identities (‘national minorities’ and ‘stateless nations’ within Canada, as Will Kymlicka would put it). The Revolutionary Communist Party of Canada also runs a great little bookstore in Montreal, if that’s what you’re into. The Anarchist bookstore was closed.
Anyways. I’ve been thinking a lot about Canadian identity lately, and between Eva Mackey’s The House of Difference (1999) and George Grant’s Lament For A Nation (1965), I’ve been thinking a lot about the very neurotic obsession of the Canadian state (and its elite stakeholders) with constructing a functional pan-Canadian identity. Grant is worried his decidedly Red Tory image of Canada is a lost cause because Americanization is doomed to devour all of Anglo North America, while Mackey is worried that this grand, liberal multiculturalist project really boils down to ‘white supremacy with a human face.’ These are both very different arguments, made in very different historical contexts, but both I think lend support to the fundamental argument I’m going to make in my Canadian comp: that the Canadian political science literature reflects this neurotic preoccupation with the lack or weakness of unified Canadian identity.
I’m not going to get into too much detail right now, but that’s where my head is at generally. The next 8 months of research and writing (and my oral defense!) will determine whether or not I’m actually on to something here.
So it’s here, in the context of these thoughts, that I encountered Darrell Bricker and John Ibbitson’s The Big Shift (2013) this past week. I have a few thoughts about this book, and I will try to sketch out a few here.
The premise is pretty straightforward: the centre of economic and political power in Canada has shifted from the Centre (Quebec/Montreal/Ottawa/Toronto – that is, the ‘Laurentian’ area) to the West. Thanks to decades of liberal multiculturalism, a large contingent of Pacific immigrants have settled in Canada (largely in the suburbs), and both of these factors ensure that the basic structures of Canadian political reality have forever shifted post-2011. The Conservatives are the 21st century’s Natural Governing Party. While the ‘Laurentian Elite’ still retains cultural hegemony (through their control of the media, academia, and other cultural institutions), their effective political power has been terminally undercut by Western insurgency.
The rest of the book is devoted to unpacking this idea. Among other things, it includes a postmortem of Quebec sovereignty (in it’s contemporary iteration, it is fundamentally backwards and driven by fear), a charge that Official Bilingualism is at best a legal fiction and at worst a giant waste of taxpayer money, and some sharp words about the “universal” Atlantic Canadian mentality of laziness and entitlement. It bears repeating at length here:
[Atlantic Canada] is a place where facts go to die, where the laws of economics are miraculously suspended, and where a universal belief system is founded on the universal denial of reality. Only in Atlantic Canada (…) would anybody suggest that it’s perfectly reasonable to work in a ‘seasonal industry’ with the expectation that you get to work part of the year, and then the government takes over from the employer for the rest of the year while you do nothing (…). Only in Atlantic Canada would it be universally accepted that this should never change. (pgs. 73-74)
For a book determined to blast apart all the ‘Laurentian’ myths about the country, it uncritically regurgitates the same ‘Newfie Joke’ that has had currency among “Laurentian elites” since Confederation in 1949. There are many valid criticisms you can make about the uses and abuses of EI in Atlantic economies but this is a pretty brutal oversimplification. Maybe they made this passage artificially inflammatory in order to boost book sales! Or maybe the authors assumed we were collectively too lazy to actually read the book.
Either way, this attitude towards the East Coast is symptomatic of the book’s militantly neoliberal perspective. Right-to-Work states in the US are hailed as an engine of economic competition, private Charter Schools are presented as a panacea to the education system’s shortcomings (and a good way to circumvent those pesky teachers unions!), and concern about the severity of climate change is openly questioned in a few different parts of the book. All this is well and good, but Ibbitson and Bricker present their arguments not as ideologically motivated and engaged but as extra-ideological ‘common sense.’ Problems with all this aside, it at least suggests that they really and sincerely believe what they’re saying – which is always really refreshing to encounter after so much academic reading.
Overall, this is a pretty interesting read and worth looking into for any observers of Canadian politics. If you can stomach the thought of reading what amounts to a 300 page Globe and Mail editorial, it’s worth the couple of hours it takes to breeze through the book.
I intuitively agree with a lot of the arguments they make in the book, although rumours of Québec’s death here are greatly exaggerated. One of the major reasons I wanted to do my PhD in Edmonton is because I really do think power – broadly defined! – in Canada has shifted West, which would make this province the best place to study Canadian politics. And, quite frankly, I do think that Stephen Harper has been pretty effective at not only getting the West In, but in actively advancing the cultural hegemony of conservative ideology in Canada – maybe to the point of having it institutionally consolidated. There is always room for contingency and political agency, but I remain a cynic and I think most of these trends will be borne out again in 2015.
But what really stood out to me – and is pretty relevant to what I want to explore for my comprehensive exam – is the argument it makes about Canadian nationalism. This mainly boils down to ‘the issue of national pride is settled’ (citing the enthusiasm for the 2010 Olympic Games, etc) and a cool enthusiasm for Harper’s drive to celebrate the British monarchy and the great military victories of Canadian history (1812 and Not-Dieppe). It’s thrown directly in the face of all those ‘Laurentian’ elites who spent the better part of the 20th century worrying about the viability of Canadian identity (Grant! Atwood!), and I think it works as a nice post-script to a lot of Eva Mackey’s arguments about the precariousness of Canadian identity and the ways in which most constructions of Canada hinge on the deployment of this idea of ‘Britishness’.
Since reading Mackey’s book I have been thinking a lot about the reassertion of British symbolism under Harper, and the place of this argument in The Big Shift really spoke to me. I think Ibbitson and Bricker are on to something here, but I’m not nearly as excited about its implications as they are. Fleshing out why is one of the projects I’m going to work out this year.