Jen Gerson: Choose wisely what holidays you cancel
Nations evolve, and symbols change. There will be others to take their place.
Well it’s been a few soul-shattering weeks for the Canadian experiment; last Thursday, the Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan announced that it, too, had discovered an unmarked grave site near a former residential school. This one is believed to hold more than 750 bodies, although the findings are preliminary, and many details remain unknown — including the question of whether grave markers were removed.
Coming as it does after the possible discovery of another unmarked burial site of 215 children near a residential school in Kamloops, B.C., and a fatal attack on a Muslim family in London, Ontario, it's starting to feel indecorous, and even obscene, to consider celebrating Canada Day.
There is an unexpected parallel with politics in the United States, which just declared June 19, or Juneteenth, as a national holiday to mark emancipation. While the Americans are commemorating the ending of a historic national shame with a holiday, we are repurposing a holiday in the service of our historic national shame.
Canada Day celebrations have been paused or cancelled in numerous communities in B.C, New Brunswick, and Saskatchewan etc. etc.
There is a deeper agenda at play, here. It's about more than just cancelling a holiday, or toppling a John A. Macdonald statue. It's also about undermining what these symbols represent. These are strikes against our unifying national mythology.
Legitimacy, and specifically the legitimacy to govern, is more than a question of arcane legal procedure and institutional heft; it's built on shared narratives. Weaken that glue, and you chip away at the fundamental authority to govern.
Or so the counter-argument goes. But before you go around draping protective tarps over pigeon be-shat statues, or digging a deeper trench in this line of the culture war, it may be worth asking which myths are worth the trouble.
I'll return back to this point in a minute. But first a few thoughts about which Canadian mythologies maintain a purchase over the collective national imagination, and why …
As much as many partisans hate to admit it, Canada possesses a great deal of ideological uniformity. Everyone talks a big game, but when in power, there's little practical difference between the Liberals, Conservatives and the NDP. They all govern to the centre, because that's where the votes live. This is also why our politics are so petty — and why fights over symbolic items like statues and holidays matter so much. As the old saying goes, it's vicious because the stakes are so low.
But there is one very clear, very distinct ideological divide that I don't think is well appreciated, although the most insoluble conflicts in Anglo-Canada can be traced to it.
It's the thing that separates central Canadian liberals from western-tilting conservatives — and please note that not all liberals live in the middle, and not all conservatives live in the west. We're speaking, here, more about ideological outlook than geography, although the latter is not a bad proxy.
Among liberals orientated to the Ottawa-Toronto-Montreal triad, it has traditionally gone without saying that a unifying Canadian mythology is a good thing. Institutions and habits that centralize power, and narratives and symbols that weave a universal story about our shared Canadian identity and values are sacrosanct.
If you are among this crew, you are always going to express frustration with our messy federalism; contempt for rogue premiers, and horror at any action that is perceived to undermine our shared virtues. Take, for example, the reaction to Ontario premier's decision to invoke the notwithstanding clause to override a court ruling that would impose new restrictions on pre-writ spending limits. The Charter is holy writ — except for the part that allows provinces to override it.
This is the dominant ideological viewpoint of the country. But it is not the only one.
The other — western-tilting conservatism — sees that urban triad as a remote, almost imperial power. The stereotypes and symbols of Canadiana are a geographic artifact that feel affected, hollow, even foreign.
Rather than advocate for more centralization, this crowd would rather power be further devolved. Issues that really matter ought to be decided at the most local level of government possible. This side of the line sees the messiness of federalism as a glorious feature, not a bug, of the Confederation. Populism, here, is not a dirty word.
There is a reason why provinces fought for the inclusion of notwithstanding clause in the Charter, seeing it not only as necessary failsafe to protect parliamentary supremacy against judicial overreach, but also as a point of leverage against the inevitable creeping influence of Ottawa et al.
This tension between these two worldviews pops up in weird and interesting ways.
For example, I recall that former Reform Party leader Preston Manning kept a portrait of Louis Riel opposing the railway on the wall of his office in Calgary. The details of the Red River Rebellion cling very distantly in the collective memory, and yet the legend of Riel retains a weird, semi-conscious resonance in the same way that France's electoral maps still divide along the same lines as the Dreyfus Affair.
If you were of the central Canadian mindset at the time, Riel was a violent traitor, and one of the great obstacles to Canada's inevitable destiny as a country that stretched from sea to shining sea. From the other side of the line, Riel was a freedom fighter, willing to go to war for the independence of his people from a remote and tyrannical elite.
Or, heck, take the ultimate symbol of Canada — our flag. The great visual symbol of our nation is the leaf of a tree that has almost no purchase west of Thunder Bay. The prized sugar maple is native to Ontario, Quebec and the Atlantic provinces. The Acers that can be prodded to grow west of Manitoba are an invasive species.
(Pedantic arborists, please hold your fire. I am aware that there are a handful of maple varieties that grow in places like B.C. This hardly undermines the central point. If the locus of power lay in the west of this country, a flora-focused flag would be adorned with a bundle of wheat, or a cedar tree.)
Or, take this comparison.
In the Atlantic, American conservative David Frum played the part of the establishment Laurentian Consensus in his defence of John A. MacDonald. The troubles inflicted on Indigenous peoples weren't really MacDonald's fault, Frum argues. "Macdonald shared many of the prejudices of his time," Frum concedes. "Leave Macdonald’s monuments to weather in the respect they deserve, in the parks and squares of the gentle country he founded in his own kindly image." Sure, he was imperfect but no Canada without him, so we have to take our founding heroes as we find them.
Now compare this defence of our first Prime Minister to its rebuttal, written by quintessential cranky western conservative type, Colby Cosh. "It is a wonder Frum does not invoke the old omelet metaphor. He certainly seems to resent the reluctance of the eggs.”
Here's another weird resonance: Alberta's fringe separatists, also known as WEXIT, frequently profess great affinity and respect for Indigenous peoples.
After the discovery of the 215 unmarked graves in Kamloops, WEXIT sent out a press release condemning "the elite's overreach and 'Ottawa Knows Best.'"
"I grew up with stories from my Grandmother, who grew up in a residential school system, and it infuriates me to think that the Laurentian Elites committed this cultural and human genocide," it read.
Now, back to Canada Day.
All national mythologies, symbols, and holidays are necessary lies. Patriotism is a bullshit fantasy that holds disparate tribes and interests together into a single cohesive national identity that is sometimes capable of working in unison for the pursuit some notion of a greater good. The Good, whatever it is, requires self-sacrifice, and compromise. And these altruistic tendencies rarely emerge unless we’re willing to put our petty self interest aside in service of something greater than own individual nonsense; our families, our communities, our faith-based groups, and, ultimately, our countries and ideals. Nowhere are the lies of patriotism more necessary than in Canada, which is less bound than most nations by common history, ethnicity, economic, or geographic similarity.
Take away the fiction of “Canada,” the absurd, self-aggrandizing stereotypes of “Canadianness,” our increasingly murky attempt at a national objective, and what are we left with? Just a bunch of far-flung tribes competing in a zero-sum game for power and resources, that’s what. No doubt some would argue that we’re already there: to this I respond — whoo boy. Just wait. No one guaranteed you that the future would be better than the past. No one guaranteed you this.
There is a reason a group like WEXIT makes hay on stories like the 215 unmarked graves in Kamloops; and it’s deeper than mere guilt. It’s also not just a show of solidarity with Indigenous peoples who possess parallel sovereigntist ambitions.
The more WEXIT can associate concepts like “Canada” and “Ottawa” with feelings of revulsion and moral repugnance, the easier it will be to create a competitive national mythos. One that will put up statues to a very different pantheon of heroes, and hoist a flag with a very different assortment of flora and fauna. These myths would all be lies, too, of course. But lies that would put new people at the top of a smaller heap; everyone wants to be King Shit of their own Turd Island.
Time fades all memories. Eventually, all holidays become welcome days off work, regardless of how much emotional baggage we try to shove into them. Those who would undermine the national project should probably take a wary note from history: people need their myths. And those who topple statues rarely get to choose which figures replace the fallen angels of empty plinths.
Nations evolve, and symbols change. There will be others to take their place.
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