Canadian Traits

I’m completing an e-interview.

First question: “What do the words Canada and Canadian mean to you?”

I type: “Canada has been my home for seventy-five years. I love it.” Then recalling my scholarly obligations, I add: “Canada is a federation governed by liberal democratic institutions.”

I’ve neglected to say anything about the word “Canadian.” But I get a chance with the next question: “Are there uniquely Canadian traits and/or contributions to the world?”

Canadian traits. That’s difficult.

I think about “contributions.” Basketball? Farley Mowat? The Canadarm? I write: “We have one of the world’s oldest political constitutions. Ours is the first constitution to combine British parliamentary institutions with a version of the federalism invented by the U.S. I can’t say with confidence that recent regimes have copied the Canadian formula directly; it might be better simply to note that many free nations have found their way to it.”

Next. “What are you most proud of, and most embarrassed about, respectively, as a Canadian? Please explain why in each instance. Feel free to offer people as examples of those who make you feel either way, i.e., people who embody the best or worst the country has to offer.” (“Please explain.” Do you remember how your stomach used to cramp when you came across that phrase on exams?)

It’s time to come out with the flag flying. I write: “I am not embarrassed about any aspect of Canadian history or culture. There have been regrettable incidents, but comparatively few. (Nothing humans do or make is without flaw.) Confederation did not begin in war. We have had riots and violent police actions, but only some. We have not experienced a civil war. Relations with the conquered province of Quebec have been strained at times and the possibility remains that Quebec will someday leave Canada to build a separate, allied nation. There will never be a war between Canada and Quebec. Most political leaders in Quebec from early days embraced the British constitutional tradition. Some of our best constitutionalists are from that province. Last year the City of Quebec celebrated its 400th anniversary – four hundred years as a French-speaking city on the North America continent! We win our wars. Our forces served with extraordinary distinction in the World Wars. People from every continent come here to make a life for themselves and their children. People who once waged war on Canada (Germans, for example, and Americans) have made a good life here.”

I add: “There are women and men of distinction in our history, but I cannot say that our celebrated Canadians exemplify the “best the country as to offer” in a cultural sense. Canada is defined not by its culture, or by the traits of its citizens, but by its laws and political institutions.”

Done. I press send.

Immediately, there’s a cool breeze from the West. A message from Barry Cooper in Calgary? Oh heck! I’ve made the classic Easterner’s mistake. I’ve spoken of Canada as if the defining characteristics of our political life were established before the West was settled.

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6 Responses to “Canadian Traits”


  1. 1 Anne August 6, 2010 at 4:44 pm

    “Canada is defined not by its culture, or by the traits of its citizens, but by its laws and political institutions.”

    Hmmmmm. But if our citizens did not generally share certain cultural commitments and civic traits (through education, paideia), would we have the same laws and political institutions that we have now? A question of the chicken and the egg, maybe?

    I’m reminded of the somewhat platonic notion that a good political system can be wrecked by bad people, while a pretty bad political system can be made to work by good people. I’m also thinking about good ol’ Alexis de T who suggests that the traits and culture of the Americans are critical to the functioning of its regime while also giving rise to some things the Americans must guard against through laws and institutions . . .

    I s’pose, Janet, that your response would be that Canadians are not distinguishable, in any really relevant way, from Americans (or citizens in other liberal democracies) when it comes to civic virtues (and vices) and culture? Yet, as you note, there are differences in laws and political institutions. Would this not translate into some differences in culture and civic traits that one mght identify as being “Canadian”?

  2. 2 Anonymous August 8, 2010 at 8:09 am

    “But if our citizens did not generally share certain cultural commitments and civic traits (through education, paideia)”

    – Here’s the thing – we DON’T share certain cultural commitments and civic traits – not everyone, for instance, believes in universal health care, so does that mean those people are not Canadian?

    – Janet’s point is something more more subtle and complex – that we draw notion of Canadianness from our institutions, we allow for reasonable disagreement, democracy, and the like.

    “I s’pose, Janet, that your response would be that Canadians are not distinguishable, in any really relevant way, from Americans (or citizens in other liberal democracies)”

    I don’t think Janet would make this argument, in light of the institutional differences between our countries

  3. 3 Anne August 8, 2010 at 5:00 pm

    Agreed. We don’t share certain cultural commitments, and one of our cultural commitments is that that’s generally ok. We also, thankfully, don’t share all of our character traits, or what an odd society we would be . . .

    But surely our laws and institutions would not be able to function unless enough of us were committed to most of them? From whence does that commitment arise, and upon what grounds does it rest? From the laws and political institutions themselves?

    Perhaps. It’s because I’m unsure that I ask the question.

    While I don’t have any problem with the proposition that, if you want to see clearly what distinguishes one county’s citizens from another’s, look to its laws and political institutions . . . I’m simply curious about the claim that laws and political institutions “define” a country’s citizens, and that culture and civic traits do not. Where then, for instance, do many changes in laws and political institutions come from? Don’t they often happen when cultural change occurs and laws and institutions have to keep up in some fashion?

  4. 4 Anonymous August 8, 2010 at 6:35 pm

    Hi Anne,

    You should read Janet’s “The Once and Future Canadian Democracy” where Janet tackles this exact question.

    Cheers,

    Anonymous

  5. 5 janetajzenstat August 12, 2010 at 3:48 pm

    This is a good discussion. We will continue.


  1. 1 Canadian Traits « Macdonald Laurier Institute Trackback on August 22, 2010 at 6:46 am

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