What is the Canadian identity?

  • April 16, 2007
OTTAWA - Who are we? What does it mean to be Canadian? Questions of Canadian identity have frequently occupied pundits, academics and politicians. Now the Conservative government is getting involved.
The Canadian identity point person is MP Jason Kenney, who was sworn into cabinet Jan. 4.  

"It's a reflection of the growing consensus that we need to focus on a multiculturalism that is based on the things that unite us and bring Canadians together rather than ghettoizing them," said the new secretary of state for multiculturalism and Canadian identity.

The move also reflects a growing need for "social cohesion" in a country that has the highest immigration levels in the Western world. In addition, there is a growing level of ignorance among younger Canadians about Canadian history and values. A recent Dominion Institute study showed that more than half of young Canadians could not identify the first prime minister or major First World War battles, Kenney said. "Social cohesion depends on a shared knowledge about our past."

According to University of Ottawa sociology of religion professor Peter Beyer, multiculturalism itself has become a key component of Canadian identity, "right up there with Tim Horton's" among younger Anglophone Canadians.

While multiculturalism in Europe has led to what the Pope has dubbed "the dictatorship of relativism," Beyers sees no relativism in Canada's approach. Over the last several decades, he sees a "clear line of government decision-making" along a "secular humanist" model that "has very little overlap with Christian ways of making these judgments."

"Whether that becomes a fundamentalism — we will tolerate anybody except people who are intolerant — becomes a conundrum," he said. "The trend is in a secular direction but not in a valueless one."

Multiculturalism became policy in 1971 and was entrenched in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982. In recent years, the liberal establishment has come to equate the charter and its interpretation by Canadian judges with Canadian values, according to the secular humanist model. That has meant those with traditional values concerning marriage, for example, have been accused of being anti-charter and by extension anti-Canadian. Kenney opposes that view.

"Arguably governments in   Canada have done some harm over the past decades to undermining Canada's sense of itself," he said, noting he would be operating by a "do no harm" principle.

"Pluralism is not this kind of radical secular fundamentalism that denigrates and diminishes the role of faith in culture," Kenney said.  Because religion plays a fundamental role in the development of individual identity, he wants to make sure government does not impose an identity, religious or otherwise, but instead allows religions to flourish.

Faith and conscience have a priori claims and are essential to human identity, Kenney said.

"My personal view: we should err on the side of a healthy respect for differences," said Kenney, a Catholic, arguing for a "big space for civil society for individuals and voluntary institutions including faith institutions." However, when those differences start to clash with the democratic values that unite Canadians, "obviously those principles come first."

Kenney held up the United Empire Loyalists' motto of "unity in diversity" as an example of what the government hopes to achieve.  Certain core values unite Canadians, he said, and these are basic liberal democratic values based on an understanding of human dignity, human rights, freedom, democracy and the rule of law.  

"Those values have a particular context and setting in our history which we should know and celebrate."

University of Saint Paul faith and culture professor Fr. Achiel Peelman, OMI, pointed out that one of the major innovations in the Catholic Church since Vatican II has been the emphasis on the fundamental dignity of each human person that includes a respect for his or her religious and cultural identity.  He noted a person "comes in a concrete way" into the world belonging to a people, speaking a language. Each person has a right to develop within this identity, he said.

"My identity is more than my Canadian passport, a piece of paper," the Belgian native said. "It is something we are building, not as individuals but as social beings" and that Canadian identity is constantly "reinventing itself."

He said previously the Catholic Church has sought religious freedom for itself, while tolerating others. Vatican II helped extend religious freedom to everyone, noting multiculturalism and religious pluralism is "a very positive thing."

But religious pluralism needs a foundation, argues   McGill University professor of Christian thought Douglas Farrow. Tolerance itself is inadequate. The philosophy of tolerance "derives from a kind of self-loathing of the post-Christian, almost post-rational west," Farrow said. "It's also increasingly uncertain of its own local expression and embodiment of the Western tradition.

Farrow believes the recent tensions over a Muslim girl who was kicked off the soccer pitch for wearing a hijab are signs of growing cultural insecurity, especially in Quebec. He said that a society confident in itself can afford to be generous in accommodating differences.

Farrow believes that healthy respect for differences is not possible without a strong sense of one's own identity.

"Because we've lost confidence in the past, we've lost confidence in the future. People live in and for the present. That's evidenced by the fact that (Canadians) have given up having babies."

Farrow, like others, worries that Canadians seem to have forgotten everything about the nation's history before the charter.

"We have to get back to knowing our own story," he said. "That means tracing it back a long, long way before 1982. When we do that, we have to trace it back into the larger story of Western civilization and Western Christendom. You cannot keep the country going on a story from the 1970s about the hockey summit series and the story from the '80s about the charter.   That is almost all we have now."

The Canadian-born editor of New York City-based First Things Magazine, Catholic priest Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, said the idea that we have anything to learn from other cultures or that they have anything of value to offer is a distinctly Western phenomenon. This good form of multiculturalism has been lost.

"Multiculturalism has come to mean loving every culture except your own," he said.

Among conservatives though, a question arises on whether government should be involved in shaping identity at all. Neuhaus said his first response is that government "should stay out of it."

But Neuhaus can see a role for government in making sure "all real differences get a fair hearing in the public square."

"Multiculturalism is not pretending that our differences don't make any difference," he said.

Kenney said notions that "organs of the state like the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) could impose a normative Canadian culture" are obsolete and agreed with Neuhaus that culture develops "organically and not by a kind of five-year state plan."

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