New immigrants who come to Canada from countries with cultures that are more like huge extended families - same language, same customs, same religion, same skin color - often have a rough ride. The loss of traditional comfort levels can give rise to a bad case of culture shock.
It takes time to adapt to a new country. Some immigrants who have lived in Canada for decades, still manage to avoid making the psychological passage from the old world to the new. They live amongst us, haunted by a past they can never return to and a present they can never quite realize to its fullest.
Some newcomers complain that they can't relate to Canadian culture. Some complain that Canadian culture is impersonal and non-inclusive. Some feel misunderstood and even stigmatized. Those who look deeper know this isn't true. They can see that Canadians have forged a unique way of living that allows space for the new. They understand that Canadian culture is complex precisely because it is diverse. But despite the mix of races and cultures, there are in fact defining Canadian characteristics.
I would say decency is a basic Canadian trait, along with a willingness to tolerate differences. It's sometimes been said that the Canadian genius is the art-of-the-compromise, and I think that is very true. Canadians are shrewd deal makers, and even though they push hard for a bargain, they are fair for the most part. Of course such descriptions deal in broad generalities, but I think generally speaking these observations have truth to them.
I occasionally read a column by a Toronto based journalist who like me has Irish roots. He has a cool, rational way of viewing life, a wicked eye for the absurd and a wry sense of humor. He comes across as a guy who takes the broad view of things and who doesn't sweat the details. That's quintessentially Canadian to my way of thinking. Laid back, insightful, shrewd and slow with the judgments unless someone is being a class A jerk.
Canadians are civilized in the sense that they know how to give space to the people around them. I don't mean civilized in that put-on phony way, I mean bred-in-the-bone decent. I've come across that trait often in people I have encountered in the normal run of things. It's part of the “nice Canadian" stereotype for sure, but it shouldn't be mistaken for softness or a lack of an ability to party, or even a reluctance to swing a fist when required. Canadians are nothing if not tough. They have had to be tough as nails because beautiful though this country is, she is a harsh mistress. Big spaces, big silences . . . that must have seemed like a huge abstract canvas to the early immigrants accustomed as they were to more homely landscapes. Britons who stepped out of a land of drumlins and dales were faced with an awesome challenge that forced them to define themselves, even as they tried to tame the nature around them.
The spirit of Canada isn't so much that of the transplanted French or English - although these immigrant peoples have helped forge the contemporary Canadian identity. The spirit of Canada belongs to the native people who formed the earliest and most intimate relationship with the land when it was still untamed. If a country can be said to possess a soul, then the soul of this nation belongs to the First Nations.
I don't relate to the window dressing that governments and their agencies present to the world as a reflection of all things Canadian. I don't relate to the cultural games that attempt to finesse the elusive Canadian identity. I don't like official exertions in the area of culture that get in the way of spontaneity - be it “official" multiculturalism or self-conscious Canadian content, or cross-cultural meet and greet fests at Harborfront. The culture that arises from such efforts is bound to be an artificial one. Who wants some official rock icon, or official poet, or other anointed standard bearer of what Canada is supposed to represent. That only creates a culture distinguished by its symbolism, and worse a culture that is boring and even static.
In the past I have been critical of this manufactured Canadian identity because I think Canada is bigger than that. There are many in the Tory camp who have reacted against the Federal ideals of Trudeau and who see a different Canada in which power is devolved to the provinces. Well I don't want to see Canada reduced to provincial “duchies" with the Quebecois fortress to the east and the bastion of Alberta to the west. If Canada is going to avoid being downsized and come into its own as a nation we have to cut the hype and dig deep for our collective soul. That's the Canada I believe in, not in a manufactured facade that is supposed to make us all feel good about ourselves.
The measure of a nation's confidence in its culture and identity, is the extent to which it can absorb criticism and even ridicule. Some Canadians are very brittle on that score. They take offense easily, even when none is meant. The British have been around a lot longer and they have developed a sense of humor that's hard to shake. Comedy routines like Monty Python's Flying Circus and Spitting Image routinely did a hatchet job on royalty and every sacred cow in the kingdom without any howls of protest. Brits like to laugh at themselves and no slam or slight is ever too much, so long as it hits the target and gets a laugh or a groan, as the case may be.
If you try to stage manage culture, it will always have a phony ring to it. Obviously you have to facilitate it - government grants help. But rather than have people emerge from their respective tiles on the mosaic in order to represent the Indo-Canadian, Afro-Canadian or whatever other hyphenated voice you care to mention, we need instead to focus on ways of getting rid of the mosaic altogether and taking down the barriers that divide us. There are risks with this approach, but the reward will be a dynamic culture with competitive edge.
The only way any culture worth its salt has ever evolved into a force to be reckoned with has been through struggle. Countries that have been through wars and revolutions, produce cultures that are vibrant and defined from within. In the absence of such upheavals Canada needs to loosen up the red tape. All this paranoia for example about city crime (even though some of the stats have been improving), and the noises the Tories are making about police crackdowns need to be weighed very carefully against the loss of freedoms. Along with enforcement, we should be working equally hard at opening up space and opportunity for people to hang out, or we risk destroying the potential for genuine community.
Across the cultural divides we are more times than not strangers speaking with strangers, attempting to communicate internal experiences for which we lack a common syntax. This is one of the greatest challenges for Canada . . . to discover a way of relating that transcends ethnic and cultural definitions, so that we are relating to one and other as Canadians, rather than as hyphenated Canadians. That involves sacrifice and risk, but Canadians know all about that. It also involves courage and that is one quality they have never lacked.
Aidan Maconachy is a freelance writer and artist based in Ontario. His blog can be viewed at http://aidanmaconachyblog.blogspot.com/