Canada? It’s Scott. We need to talk.
Summary (aka TL;DR): Our national struggle to end colonial practices and create true Indigenous sovereignty can end two ways—with the dissolution of Canada, or the evolution of Kanata.
There’s a cute Canadian Heritage Minute about Jacques Cartier learning that the Huron’s name for their land is “Kanata,” and deciding on the spot to call his new colony “Canada.” It’s cute because the subtitles reveal what the Huron chief, Donnacona, is trying to communicate: “Kanata” refers to their village, not their nation—and certainly not to a tri-coastal landmass comprising more than half of the continent. Also for yuks: some voyageur at the back tries to correct the Jesuit priest on his mistranslation, but he doubles down: “No, no, believe me, I know the word. It means ‘nation’ and Ka-na-ta is its name.”
Traditions get started as easily as that. Someone with a shred of authority makes a blunder, tries to cover up by throwing their weight around, and the next thing you know, it’s all over the money, the lawbooks, and what passes for the constitution.
My early sense of being Canadian worked in much the same way. People told me Canadians loved hockey, ate doughnuts, said “eh?” And it didn’t matter that my parents played golf, ate “English pancakes” (i.e. crepes), and used that vowel sound with no more frequency than any other. In my mind, those traits didn’t make us less Canadian—although now I can see how, say, a first-generation child of immigrants could feel isolated because of those sorts of differences. For me, it just meant I hadn’t met enough Canadians yet. Maybe the right Canadians—the truly Canadian Canadians—were just around the corner.
At university, I learned that “Canada” was a fluid concept, not a hard fact (Public education had only taught me that, once upon a time, Iroquois lived in longhouses. There was no talk of sovereignty disputes, or struggles for equal rights, or the fact that Newfoundland was its own nation until 1949, and Quebec almost separated twice). I learned that, when I was born in the ‘70s, Canada technically didn’t even have its own patriated constitution. (Great Britain tried to cut its ties with Canada as early as 1931, but we waffled for over 50 years before signing the 1982 Constitution Act).
Eventually, I settled on a personal understanding of Canada derived chiefly from John Ralston Saul’s A Fair Country, which emphasizes the nation’s roots as a hybrid culture, or “A Métis Civilization.” According to Saul, Canadian identity was originally triangular, combining English, French, and Aboriginal ideas about welfare and good government. He condemns post-centennial revisions about what makes Canada Canada, blaming academics, corporations (plus their government stooges), and U.S. cultural osmosis for flattening our sense of self.
Today, that sense of productive hybridity—the first metaphor I heard for it was “cultural mosaic”—seems further away than ever. We are celebrating our first Canada Day following the body blow of COVID-19, and we should be celebrating for making it as far as we have… but there’s a cognitive dissonance it trying to celebrate unity during the #Wexit movement, or the anti-government, pro-gun movement, or the evident systemic racism in law enforcement.
To linger on that last point for a minute: last week, the only POC party leader in the House proposed concrete steps to identify and address racism in the RCMP, but the vote was struck down my Alain Therrien, a Bloc Quebecois MP. He emphasized his “nay” with a dismissive, “fly-swatting” gesture that provoked Jagmeet Singh (surely no stranger to dismissal based on his colour) to call Therrien a racist. Guess who got removed from Parliament? Singh, when he refused to apologize to Therrien.
This might seem like a lot of liberal hand-wringing. In a way, it is; but I think the liberal mistake is dismissing it all as a recent blip in cultural mores. The same liberals who think America was mostly fine until Trump got elected perceive Canada as a terrific nation—friendly, accepting, fair—that merely has a few bad apples.
I’m afraid it runs much deeper. Since becoming involved with the climate movement, I see the purpose of Canada more clearly. When Saul frames our early attempts of nation-making as a triad between English, French, and Aboriginal ideologies, he overlooks the obvious imbalance of power. How can three (or multitudinous) nations create a fair country when two of them have all the guns?
In fact, the policymakers coming from Europe were far less interested in making a country than exploiting a colony. The original schism in Canada’s purpose wasn’t French vs. English, or Catholics vs. Protestants; it was between those who saw the land as somewhere to be and those for whom land was something to use. For the Huron, “Kanata” was a seasonal village, part of a much larger, shared environment. For Cartier, “Canada” was a place with borders to extend, furs to export—and, flashing forward half a millennium, fossil fuels to extract, and damn the cost. Damn the cost!
Fellow white Canadians: we got it wrong. Right from the get-go, we were a nation lost in translation. We heard what we wanted to hear. In recent years, other voices have been trying to correct us—gently at first, but with growing desperation and rage. Like a character trapped in our own Heritage Minute, we follow the only script we know, and double down: Canada is ours. The land is ours. The oil is ours.
Three years ago, on July 1, my Facebook status read: “Happy birthday, abstract political construct that I love. You can do better, but you’re better than most,” followed by a link to “The Log Driver’s Waltz.” Today, I have to accept that, while we could do better, we probably won’t—not so long as we maintain the fundamental misunderstanding that, in the age of climate collapse, drives us towards our own extinction. If we perpetuate the liberal delusion that we suck the land dry and not face any consequences, we won’t remain a nation for much longer. Canada can no longer sustain itself.
An alternative—albeit one coming from a white, middle-aged dude—would be to stay unified but revise our purpose. To think of ourselves not as a monoculture with a capitalist sense of resource use, but instead as a collection of cultural endeavours that need balance and mutual respect. To stop trying to cram a 10 million square kilometre doughnut down our throats, and start re-learning how to share bannock. To replace nationhood with alliance—a conglomerate of small, versatile villages designed to help each other, not fight over scraps.
Canada should be Kanata. I’m going to start thinking, writing, and talking about Kanata. I loved being Canadian, but if we’re going to survive as a species, much less a nation, then we need to think about what we can afford to give up. I can let go of a “C” and a “d.” Join me, not for one day, but from now on, until we really can make ourselves into a fair country.