How I Understand Canada

We owe the Americans much, – it’s hard to imagine we could have remained either free or independent had they not been a free and independent people.

But our freedom is different, both in general and in detail: no right to bear arms north of the 49th, and no capital punishment either. They had the Wild West. We had the Mounties. Rights that are still being fought for south of the border, – public health care, for example, have been ours for a generation. A woman’s right to choose is secure here; there it remains contested ground. These differences are major, and the struggle to maintain them, while pursuing ever deeper integration with their richer economy, is the enduring challenge, not just of our identity, but of our statecraft.

Establishing a uniting national myth beside a nation as powerful and as supremely gifted at myth-making as the United States is never going to be easy. The country that gave us Hollywood and Disneyland casts a glare that makes it hard to see the Canadian shape in the snow.

Besides, we cannot create a single myth, like the United States, because we have three competing ones, English Canadian, French Canadian, and aboriginal. Three peoples share a state without sharing the same sense of the country at all. It is a small wonder then, that we have never been sure we can continue to imagine a common future. Nearly 20% of our citizens are also foreign-born, from every country under the sun.

We all have to understand, if not respect, the dream they live for. To be a citizen of Canada is to imagine the feelings of those who do not believe what we believe.

In Canada, empathy has to encompass 33 million people, with competing and conflicting myths of origin, spread across four time zones, in five distinct economic regions, speaking, at least at home, almost every language spoken in the world and, in public, two official languages. In spite of everything, we have managed to keep this project in being for one hundred and forty years. This is no mean feat and , in a world ravaged by difference, it is our example to the world.

Michael Ignatieff
True Patriot Love – Four generations in search of Canada
Excerpt first published by the National Post
2009.14.23