From Jan. 4, 2017
Canada as postnational? Maybe. It’s at least a useful fiction, and perhaps the only place in the world where that fiction might be aspirational, as this article suggests. I guess I’d put it another way – it’s the place where being Canadian is still an open question, rather than a more or less settled idea. That idea might be contested (it certainly is in the US, where Sarah Palin famously appealed to the “real Americans”, those who we might now call Trumpists), but in Canada the question of who is Canadian always has its answer in the future rather than the past.
The real success in Canada in my opinion is that the question has been kept as a living concern. It is not that Canada is better than other countries – it has as many sins in its past as anywhere else. It’s treatment of First Nations/Indigenous Canadians has been abominable. And yet, without minimizing any of those issues, I think it’s possible to see routes toward a better life precisely because the question of what it means to be Canadian has been kept as an open one.
I used to say that the US was the world’s first modern country, and Canada the world’s first postmodern country. The US looks back to, and fights over, a formative document or set of documents. It’s hermeneutic is Protestant, in that the Word is the text, and our task is to interpret that text for a new era. The further we get from the moment the text was written, the harder it is to defend interpretations, and the more prone the country is to extreme hermeneutical positions. The seminal moment for Protestants is the recognition of the inner light, the voice of God in the individual. At its best, this gives each person responsibility for their own interpretation (and its consequences); at worst, it leads to schisms and highly emotional attachments to a particular vision of the country. There’s a reason why it’s almost impossible to argue across the gaps in the US today – it’s not just that some groups accept reason and others don’t, but that the inner light gives a hermeneutic that organizes everything into a coherent whole. It’s almost irrelevant to point out to Trumpists all of Trump’s flaws – those who argue that way haven’t had the inner light, the voice of God, and if they had, they would see that Trump too has heard the inner voice. He’s “one of us”. That’s one strand of the Protestant Reformation (by no means the only one).
Canada does not have that hermeneutic. It looks more like Judaism, or maybe Mennonite thought (so, part of the Radical Reformation, and strictly speaking, not Protestant in the limited sense of the term). The hermeneutic is not driven by an inner light; there is no quasi-mystical “real” identity that those who partake in it will recognize and those who don’t won’t. There is instead an engagement with the day-to-day. The Talmud is the history through the ages of G-d’s engagement with humans, and the debates and discussions that ensued because of that. Judaism is in some sense being constructed on a daily basis, within the context of that discussion that stretches all the way back to Adam. Mennonites have their history. Yes, there is theology – the peace position, social justice, etc. – but that always works out “on the ground”.
Canada’s like that. It’s working itself out bit by bit. There’s no inner light. When I was growing up in Regina, we had very few people around from anything other than European heritages, other than First Nations/Indigenous people. Since those days, though, because of immigration, the character of the country has changed. Most people I know haven’t been shaken to their core by this, the way some Americans have. Why? The hermeneutic of Canadians matches that of those coming in to the country. In both cases, there is a sense of building, of asking who we are now, of becoming-Canadian. It’s not such a big step to walk alongside of an immigrant, if you’re all asking that question. Does this mean that there are no tensions, no anxieties? Of course not. There’s racism, plenty of it. Communities, especially in larger urban areas, can be insular, and suspicious of each other.
One effect of this difference in hermeneutic is going to be increasing tensions between the US and Canada, I predict. The US is going to be doubling down on its inner light hermeneutic. Canada will be seen as heretical, but more than that, as threatening, as numbers of immigrants rise. There will be a discussion of a wall with Canada, not just Mexico (good luck with that, by the way – 3000 miles, and no, Trump can’t get Canada to pay for that).
I am concerned about Trudeau and his cabinet in relation to Trump – Trudeau has high ideals and great rhetoric (not always brought into reality, as far as I can see), but I’m waiting to see what happens the first time he has to deal with a playground bully like Trump. I do want Canada to hold fast to its hermeneutic, if for no other reason than that I might want to come back someday.