A Neurotic Nation – The ‘Canadian Question’ in Canadian Politics (and Political Science)

This is a little different from what I normally post here, but this is the text from my presentation at the University of Alberta Political Science Grad Student Association’s conference this past week on ‘Activism, The Arts, and Academia: Beyond the Ivory Tower’. It’s a substantially condensed summary of my comprehensive exam in the field of Canadian politics, and it was received so well I thought I would post a copy online for those who might be interested but for whatever reason (ie. geography) weren’t able to attend. If any of this interests/outrages you and you’d like to read the longer paper from which it is derived, let me know and I’d be more than happy to hook you up.

One of my colleagues in the audience offered a number of helpful suggestions about how to expand and deepen my discussion of indigenous issues, particularly surrounding issues of sovereignty, etc. I fully admit that I remain, in many ways, regrettably ignorant about much of the history and dynamics of settler-colonialism in Canada – which, in the course of my studies, I have gradually come to understand as the biggest political problem (and gravest injustice) in North America today – but I also want to stress that I’m committed to overcoming this ignorance and doing the subject justice. So, if you have any comments or resources about this area in particular, they would be greatly appreciated.


We’re here today, as I understand it, to talk about how our work as intellectuals might come to have some bearing in political struggles on the ground. In that spirit, I am here to suggest that public intellectuals might have a very important role to play in Canadian politics, because many (if not most) of our political problems stem from a problem of ideas, of ideological self-understanding as Canadians.

My starting point is fairly simple. In his essay on the legacy of the Canadian Confederation, Newfoundland philosopher F. L. Jackson tells us that “to be Canadian is to be (…) an ambiguity.” And, of course, we know from Freud that neurosis – as a psychic disposition – is characterized by an inability to tolerate ambiguity. It has therefore seemed to me – in both my lived experience negotiating my identity as Newfoundlander, Canadian, and a legatee of colonial oppression, as well as my intensive 10 month study of the academic literature – that Canadian politics is permeated by a profound anxiety that stems out of the need to end this ambiguity and work out some more or less definitive answer to the ‘Canadian question’. Exploring how this anxiety plays out in the literature of Canadian political science is basically the 60 page monstrosity that is my comprehensive exam.

Obviously I don’t have time here to get into this in much detail, so instead I’m giving you a grossly oversimplified (and partly polemical) historical narrative about Canada’s national neuroses. If any of this interests you, or you want some evidence to back up what you feel is a particularly outrageous claim, just hit me up later and we’ll hash it out.

The ‘problem’ with Canada (or, more politely, the ‘Canadian Question’) is that no one can agree on what Canada is and what it’s supposed to be. The Founders, in their infinite drunken wisdom, never managed to work out a conclusive definition of the political nationality they were creating and we’ve been dealing with the fallout ever since. As I see it, there are – very roughly – three overarching ‘answers’ that have variously been proposed for this Canadian Question: an Anglo-centric, essentially reactionary vision of ‘One Canada’; the Trudeauvian vision of a bilingual, multicultural, pan-Canadian individualism; and a vision of Canada as comprising two, three, or more ‘nations’ within a more properly federal system.

Canada, as it was founded in 1867, was intended to be explicitly anti-democratic and conservative – if the intellectual patron saint of the American Founding was John Locke, for Canada it was Edmund Burke. The BNA Act was legislation from the British Parliament, passed on the advice of a small cadre of colonial politicians, and imposed on the mainland British colonies with no democratic input despite deep unpopularity in the Maritimes. The only jurisdiction where Confederation was put to a vote was Newfoundland in 1869, and there the Confederates were obliterated. Canada was never intended to be a democracy, and many of its institutions (such as the Senate and the sovereignty of the Crown) continue to reflect this.

It was also founded, both explicitly and implicitly, as a proudly imperialist project. In contrast to the ‘degenerate mobocracy and its Negro element’ in the south, Canada was to be quite literally the ‘Great White North’, a Kingdom of the Northern Races. The plains were cleared of indigenous peoples (in part by a policy of deliberate starvation) to make way for European settlers and Aboriginal title was extinguished through the numbered treaties. Alberta and Saskatchewan were designed and constructed as fringe tributaries to “the commercial empire of the St. Lawrence” and the industrial lifeblood of the Maritimes was drained into the imperial heartland of Southern Ontario. Confederation built a country; but it did not build a nation.

But while an elitist, anti-democratic, and unabashedly colonial regime might have been palatable in the 19th century, this vision of the Canadian nation began to break down as the 20th century wore on. There are a number of reasons for this, but I’ll keep it short: a liberalizing trend in Canada’s political institutions that provoked increasing distaste for its illiberal foundations, the successful mobilization of sub-national identities (particularly Québécois and indigenous nationalism), and a palpable insecurity over the fact that any distinctive Canadian identity was in danger of being subsumed either into its incestuous closeness to the Mother Country or being sucked into the gravitational pull of the cultural, political, and economic behemoth south of the border.

Out of this generalized national identity crisis flowered Pierre Trudeau’s constitutional revolution. I say ‘Trudeauvian Revolution’ here not because Trudeau is the undisputed Philosopher King of Canadian politics, or even that he was a clear victor in the struggles over the 1982 patriation, but because his tenure as Prime Minister profoundly altered Canada’s institutional and ideological landscape. Trudeau set out to symbolically re-found Canada, and he succeeded; although he arguably created more problems on this front than he solved.

The 1982 patriation is a watershed moment in Canadian political history, but its full impact is as deeply ambiguous as it is momentous. The Charter of Rights and Freedoms in particular has replaced federalism as the central organizing principle of Canadian political life, inaugurating a new regime of individual rights where the Supreme Court, not parliament, is the final political authority. For some, this represents the full consolidation of the rule of law; for others, the full consolidation of the rule of lawyers. In any event, it has had a profound impact on Canadian identity – not only has it substantively altered the way politics are carried out, but the Charter is far and away the most popular national symbol of Canada, particularly among the young.

But I also want to suggest here that the constitutional megapolitics leading up to 1982 served a more direct tactical purpose: to diffuse political movements deemed threatening to the interests of the Canadian state and ruling class (in particular, Québécois and indigenous nationalisms). This was accomplished both by implanting constitutionalism in Canadian soil, and by articulating a national vision that is was profoundly individualistic, where all Canadian citizens are united in a single, if markedly multicultural, political nationality. Many commentators, both conservative and critical, note that this is in many ways “a fulfilment, not a rejection, of British imperialism” and that ‘official multiculturalism’ works to regulate, manage, and subordinate difference in the interests of a white, ‘bilingual’ (though still primarily Anglo) elite which is, in turn, insidiously effaced from view. Leigh [Spanner] earlier today in her presentation cited bell hooks to the effect that in Official Multiculturalism, ‘ethnicity becomes a spice to liven up the mainstream white palate’ and I feel that’s pretty eloquent – I wish I had cited it in my exam!

In any event, it didn’t work. If anything, the ‘national unity’ problem is even worse in the post-Trudeau era, as we know from the failures of Meech Lake, Charlottetown, and the narrowly aborted Quebec secession of 1995. This is because the Trudeauvian vision of ‘One Canada’, however pluralist, is fundamentally a misrecognition of what Canada is supposed to be: many nations united together in a political community structured around principles of federalism – that is, shared sovereignty and divided loyalties.

Indigenous claims to nationhood have been recognized as far back as the 1763 Royal Proclamation, and the 1996 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples affirms that not only are these claims to nationhood valid but that they must be institutionally accommodated. It is also undeniable that the Québécois constitute a nation within Canada – Parliament under Harper has asserted as much – and, for the most part, in fact, the robust federalism that defines the Canadian political community is itself a French-Canadian invention.

Newfoundlanders, too, understand themselves to be a nation – University of Alberta scholar Jennifer Delisle has argued we constitute a ‘diasporic people’ (she’s right) – and recognizing this fact both explains the island’s idiosyncratic politics and casts new light on the history of British and Canadian imperialism, as well as underscoring that what is called ‘English Canada’ is not itself homogenous. It kills me that I can’t get into this here – because, as many of you have discovered, I can literally go on and on and on about Newfoundland for hours – but suffice it to say that recovering Newfoundland’s pre- and post-Confederate history of economic exploitation and political autocracy undercuts a lot of the more flattering national myths that ‘British North America’ likes to tell itself.

But don’t take any of this to mean that I am an Anti-Confederate; far from it. We are all greatly enriched by a multinational understanding of Canada built on the institutional recognition and affirmation of difference in accordance with the federal principle. Confederation and its nations must accommodate and respect the ‘many worlds’ within them (that is, Anglo, French, Indigenous, as well as newcomers to this country); insofar as they do this, they are properly ‘Canadian’. Clearly, the political and moral grounding here must come from the decolonizing aspirations of Canada’s indigenous peoples; First Nations must remain first.

Decolonization is a properly revolutionary movement. As Kiera Ladner puts it, it is a project to rethink and restructure Canada’s political, cultural, and economic foundations to “create a mutually beneficial and mutually agreeable future for Indigenous and settler nations alike.” It is an opportunity that all Canadians must seize if we are to make a better life together in this country.

Now: all this is more than simply armchair theorizing. A multinational articulation of Canada enables an anti-colonial, democratic, and substantively egalitarian politics that can best assure the continued structural integrity of Confederation. But this requires acknowledging that Canada has been (and in many ways remains) at its heart a reactionary, colonial enterprise. And so our task is to reiterate (re-iterate) what Samuel LaSelva calls Canada’s moral foundations – a new political nationality founded on deep diversity, multinationalism, equality, and autonomy – in the context of contemporary conditions.

Canada’s contemporary political history can be read as an attempt to come to terms with its past. Pierre Trudeau attempted to banish it, to break with it completely without confronting it head on; Stephen Harper is returning to it, venerating it, fetishizing it, without really reconciling Canadians to it in all its complexity and all its darkness. Trudeau’s liberal utopia failed because the past is never another country; it persists as the ‘Eternal City’ of our collective unconscious. By closing the door on Canadian history, he could not pull up the roots of white, English privilege which burrowed beneath his new constitutional foundations. Likewise, Conservative efforts to mount a neoliberal restaging of Canada’s imperial Oedipal complex will also come to ruin because images of Imperial Glory have no place in the 21st century, and to reassert them will draw out the drums of the historically dispossessed, which will beat louder and louder until the levee breaks.

Some people reject ‘decolonization’ as something that would “disintegrate the country.” But the country can only avert disintegration, can only truly fulfill the “special role [that] Justice has in sustaining Canada’s existence as a nation,” if the principles of equality and respect for deep diversity are turned against the colonialism in Canada’s heart. This can be the only answer to the Canadian question. Canada can and must survive as a decolonized and truly egalitarian nation, whose identity and citizenship is as expansive and diverse as the peoples it encompasses, or it is not a nation worth preserving.

Thank you.