On Being Canadian

Last night, as per my date plans, I attended a “lecture” On Being Canadian by John Ralston Saul with my hubby (after a delicious and wonderfully uninterrupted, if slightly rushed, sushi dinner).  I say “lecture” because his style isn’t at all professorial, preachy, or read-y… but more on that later.

It must be mentioned that before he took the stage, there was also music by Kevin Breit and Russ Boswell – which was beautiful and interspersed with appealingly ingenuous comments from Kevin.  Author Sandra Birdsell also did a reading, which I enjoyed but probably would have enjoyed more had it been read by me, silently.

I shall also mention that in the lobby there was a display by Dodolab, a group from the University of Waterloo that is trying to determine some things about Canadians and what they identify as being Canadian.  We somewhat enjoyed doing their icon survey (see www.dodolab.ca), but were unimpressed with their display blurb (first sentence being so full of jargon that we were immediately put off) and the display survey (consisting of a series of photos of Canadian scenes that we were asked to rate according to an x-y scale where x was between natural and unnatural and y was between iconic and mundane – we felt that with photos of countryside, unnatural is not the opposite of natural… and there are many examples of things that are both iconic and mundane.  Again, this part of the endeavour smacked of pretension).

Back to JRS.  As I said, despite being a great Canadian thinker, author, and speaker, he was not lecturey.  Rather, he was chatty – he asked us questions he actually wanted us to answer by raising our hands, and he teased us when not enough of us knew certain things.  His demeanor is modest.  His French accent is good.  I’m pretty sure he has a short ponytail.  He made us laugh several times.  More importantly, he made us think – and for me, he made a light bulb go on.

The main points I will take away are these:

  • “We are talking ourselves out of existence” as Canadians.  He used this phrase with regard to several things – how Canadians often identify themselves as being “not American”, or “not” other things; how we liken our culture to cultures, especially European ones, that we are actually not like at all; how in our universities we don’t root our studies in Canadianness… the majority of English literature studied is from the UK or US, the majority of French literature studied is from Europe also, oral literature is basically ignored, practically all the philosophy comes from Europe… you get the idea.
  • Canada is different, unique.  We embrace our complicated, diverse culture, and have the courage not to seek black-and-white, “monolithic” clarity.  On the whole, we are proud of our coexistence and our ability to function with immigration out (or rather in) the wazoo.  (No, JRS didn’t use the word wazoo.)
  • We are different for good reason.  Although our supposedly dominant cultures are from Europe, our culture works in very different ways.  Before the English and French cultures took over in the 1800s, aboriginal peoples were dominant – though not necessarily domineering.  Métis families flourished because lads from the UK who went on expeditions to the New World were told to negotiate marriage with a native Chief’s daughter, thus marrying “up” in that world.  The founding pillar of Canada is made up of aboriginal cultures which, although many and varied, have certain characteristics that have defined us.  The idea not of a melting pot but of a circle, and within that circle, a celebration of individuals.  Our ways of life have been deeply influenced by Native ways of respectful coexistence with other groups and with Nature, consensus, hospitality, community, and of course, making a living in harsh conditions.
  • This part was the light bulb for me.  As a Canadian born of American parents with a mish-mash of roots, I suddenly related to what he was saying – that we as Canadians automatically have roots in aboriginal culture.  I am the last person who would presume to appropriate a culture that isn’t mine, but I loved the idea that each of us, spending our lives in Canada, could grow individual  roots that would intertwine with the deep aboriginal mesh already in place.  This is exciting to me, because I am a Quaker.  My spiritual attitude has a lot in common with a Native outlook.  I have always felt that Canadian is just… the right nationality for me, and now I see why.

There is more, and perhaps I will find time to write about it… but right now it’s way past my bedtime and I can’t make more sentences.  Let’s just say, I really enjoyed the talk.  La fin.

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0 thoughts on “On Being Canadian

  1. bev says:

    Woo, hoo! This is wonderful! Your papa and I put some thought into picking the right nationality for our kids. No doubt you’re a much better Canadian than you would have been a Swiss or a Swede.

    Fun to hear more about the “lecture”, especially the parts relating to Native roots, as I’m reading the biography of Pauline Johnson.

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