I took a look at my Canadian passport the other day, and what I saw was a very telling document for understanding this nationalism and its foundations, and especially of how it was shaped as a matter of policy under the Harper government.
Outline of the document
The Canadian passport has 36 pages, not including the covers. Pages 1-4, 36 and the covers are mostly filled with administrative things (personal data, instructions and so forth) with a plain background, or with gratuitous maple leafs here and there. There isn’t much to say here, except that everything is bilingual, with English always first and French always second.
Pages 5-35 are for stamping visas and contains representations of important Canadian symbols. This is where the ideology starts. And perhaps as a sign of the more ideological and less functional nature of this section, the bilingualism scheme changes: here, the first language (French or English) changes in alternance.
This is the full list of what is represented:
- 5: I can’t read the description on mine because it’s obscured by an observation on the whole page, but the image seems to be a feather an inukshuk, probably meant as an acknowledgement of First Nations.
- 6-7 : “Samuel de Champlain, Father of New France”, with a boat, a map of New France and a statue of Champlain.
- 8-9 : “The Fathers of Confederation”, with a picture of the Conference of Quebec (or Charlottetown?). It also contains two quotes, neither of which is translated, but they’re equivalent: “… a great nation – great in thought, great in action, great in hope, and great in position. Rt. Hon. Sir John A. Macdonald” on p. 8, “le temps est venu pour nous de former une grande nation. L’hon. Sir George-Étienne Cartier” on p. 9.
- 10-11 : “The Last Spike, 1885”, with two pictures of the Canadian Pacific railway being completed.
- 12-13 : “Canada’s North”, with a map of the Canadian North, including dots for the cities of Whitehorse, Yellowknife, Iqaluit and Alert, and with the path of the expeditions of “Joseph-Elzéar Bernier, explorer” from 1906 to 1913.
- 14-15 : “Canada’s Prairies”, with corn on the foreground, then a big train, a silo and several oil rigs.
- 16-17 : “Pier 21, Halifax—historic gateway to Canada”, with a picture of said pier and ships.
- 18-19 : “Centre Block of Parliament, Ottawa”, which is self-descriptive, with the quote : “Parliament is more than procedure; it is the custodian of the nation’s freedom. Rt. Hon. John Diefenbaker“
- 20-21 : “Niagara Falls”, self-descriptive.
- 22-23 : “Canadian National Vimy Memorial, France”, with said monument and a close shot on Mother Canada crying, with the quote : “… in those few minutes I witnessed the birth of a nation. Brigadier-General A.E. Ross“
- 24-25 : “The City of Quebec, founded in 1608”, with Quebec City’s historic centre.
- 26-27 : On the left, “North-West Mounted Police, 1873-1904”, with an old picture of the latter, and on the right, “Royal Canadian Mounted Police”, with a modern picture.
- 28-29 : Respectively “The Grey Cup” and “The Stanley Cup”, with said cup and kids playing football and hockey.
- 30 : “Nellie McClung, from the statue of the Famous Five”, with said statue, pictures of the Famous Five in the background and McClung’s We Are Persons.
- 31 : “Statue of Terry Fox, Marathon of Hope”, with the statue and a car in the background.
- 32-33 : “Billy Bishop, V.C., First World War flying ace”, “HMCS Sackville, Second World War”, “Canadian infantry, Korean war” and “National War Memorial”, self-descriptive.
- 34-35 : “Cape Spear, Newfoundland and Labrador”, and “Bluenose”, self-descriptive.
And as the quotes show, given that they all use the word “nation”, the images are chosen to evoke a sense of nationalism. Some of them are, on the whole, fairly benign (Niagara Falls and children playing hockey come to mind), but some are not. Let’s unravel them, and Canadian nationalism under Harper at the same time.
Let’s build Canada, by Jingo!
Canadian nationalism is militaristic. And why wouldn’t it be?
The First World War, and especially the battle of Vimy, is one of the most important founding moments of Canadian nationalism, and one that most contributed to define it as something different from just a province of the great British Empire or something like that in the very minds of British Canadians. So let’s talk about this.
The period leading up to the First World War was dominated by the most dangerously militaristic ideology that can be thought of. Every state is Europe was built as a war machine. Every. Single. One. Germany often gets the most flak for this, but it’s kind of unjustified, because no one was any better. This general climate, more than the anecdotes of the summer of 1914, caused the disaster we know. The military was a major institution of this time, and so most nations that defined themselves (that is, all nations, because nations are in constant redefinition) brought forward their military successes (or dead generals) to define themselves, to say something about who they were. Now, extracting national/protonational pride from military history is nothing new, but the intense emphasis we see in the Belle Époque on military achievements was symptomatic of how insane this period was under the surface, and this has lasting consequences.
- In France, schools in the age of revanchism (and still later) would have a word to say about any moment when saying they were fighting Germans in some way or other sounded vaguely plausible, even if that wasn’t meaningful in context (battle of Bouvines) or if they weren’t really fighting Germans at all (wars against Charles V: He himself was Flemish, ruled from Spain and mostly fought France in Italy, but hey, he was also Holy Roman Emperor and Archduke of Austria, so it counts, now be mad that we lost Alsace-Lorraine). From 1871 to Vichy and beyond, “historic” hostility towards Germany was one of the foremost defining feature of French nationalism, one that deeply influenced foreign policy, education, economy and armed forces (and really, that’s pretty much everything government did then, that and managing colonies). They kind of shifted emphasis eventually, I guess they found out that teaching their children to hate their most important EU partner wasn’t good policy.
- In the United States of America, the War of Independence is obviously a defining moment. It is used constantly as part of the USA’s founding myth, in which General Washington (who named a city and a state) plays an important part. For instance, the fact that he didn’t somehow name himself king after the war (a fairly low standard of exceptional moral conduct, if you ask me) led to building him as a Cincinatus-like figure that fed the idea that America was supposedly not militaristic and full of freedom and doves or something. It is true that they didn’t have a huge peacetime standing army like all Europe did (mostly by lack of need), but look at the regularity they showed at naming their victorious generals as presidents just after their most important wars (Washington after independence, Grant after the Civil War, Eisenhower after WW2) and tell me they were so peace-loving.
Take any country, it’ll be mostly the same thing, with variations. One example would be the British with Trafalgar and Admiral Nelson — the British like thinking of themselves as a naval power and a free country, so they emphasized a naval leader who defeated the “tyrant” Napoleon.
In truth, the Great War was a defining moment for most colonies, and one that accelerated the process that would lead to decolonization after WW2. Colonies expected something out of the effort to put into fighting for their overlord. So it isn’t surprising that colonial nationalisms said a lot about the nation’s achievements in that war. Australia and New Zeeland used the ANZAC landings at Gallipoli for this, Canada has… Vimy Ridge.
While most nationalisms get some fuel from military history, the fact that Canadian nationalism first started to define itself in this very militaristic era has consequences. It means that any vaguely signficant military action instantly became a “founding moment” of some sort. And since British Canadian nationalism was, in this era, highly tied to the British Empire, Vimy Ridge is one of the few moments that fueled this nationalism from the start and that don’t sound completely anachronistic nowadays (a monument to the Boer War in South Africa would not sound right, for instance). While nationalisms are constant plays on memory and forgetfulness, this does mean that this military image will always come quickly to anyone wanting to push forward Canadian nationalism, and it does something to make this nationalism very militaristic.
This is how we got two pages and a quote for the Vimy Ridge Memorial, and why we also have 6 more pages containing military messages, obvious or not. The most obvious ones are those without the war memorial and the assorted military things (a single man, a naval vessel, the whole army) from three wars (WWI, WWII and Korea) and three branches of the armed forces (air, army, navy) and I’ll get to the Mounted Police later, but I fill I need to justify the last two: “Canada’s North”.
Sure, this one also counts as a general “yay we’re a big country let’s include all of it!” thing, but it also contains several messages that are not so harmless.
First, of the four cities that get to be mentioned, only one, Alert, is not the capital of a territory. It’s Cold War military base set up as far North as possible in order to detect potential incoming missiles and planes from the USSR. It’s why it’s called “Alert”. Putting a military base alongside territorial capitals as one of four signficant locations in the entire North is telling.
Second, while Stephen Harper’s Canada is climate sceptic when oil is involved (we’ll come back to that), he’s suddenly very aware of it when you tell him of a potential Northwest Passage. “Sovereignty of the Arctic” is one of Harper’s catchphrases. He uses it to justify increased military funding and beef up nationalism. So this message is actually very present. Like post-’71 French school maps giving special status Alsace-Lorraine, forcing children not to forget it, the passport contains a reminder to defend the Arctic. And no, I don’t think that it is a coincidence to see Alert and the Arctic in there while our foreign policy in Ukraine is as aggressive as it is and while the only thing that moves Harper to do anything even mildly pro-LGBT was the fact that it would insult Putin.
Third, the very idea of showing a Canadian “exploring” the area is anything but benign. It’s a reminder that this area is Canadian. Especially given that the history of “exploration” of the world is, in fact, that of European colonialism. But once again, I’ll say more later.
The global focus on the military is hardly surprising, given that Canada is has lived for almost ten years under a starkly conservative government that kept to the right-wing orthodoxy of austerity and military spending. Harper’s understanding of public history is that it should promote the state and its military success. The “War of 1812” saga of bizarre, overfunded commemorations is as much a testimony of this as is the cuts to Park Canada’s other historical sites.
And sure, not everyone agrees with the effort by Conservatives to tie Canada to the military, and we have our “Canada is peaceful” pride fueled by how Pearson championed the creation of UN peacekeeping, for instance. But the strand of Canadian nationalism that was founded on violence and war for the glory of the Empire (since then replaced by “democracy” or something) is older yet, and far from dead.
Better of Both Worlds: Bilingual, Multicultural, and White
Bilingualism and multiculturalism are two very significant values that found Canadian identity, especially since the Trudeau era. Which is interesting, because they’re quite contradictory ideas, but anyway.
1) The idea of Canada as country founded by two peoples, French and British, is a very old myth of French Canadian nationalism. British Canadians didn’t quite see Canada like that after Confederation (to them, the right to speak French was more a privilege extended to existing minorities than a principle they wanted to extend), but it filtered through, especially under PE Trudeau, just as French Canadian nationalism partly morphed into Quebec nationalism and started to feel less fond of Canada, bicultural or not. The representation of Champlain and Quebec city (4 pages no less for New France!), the parallel quotes from George-Étienne Cartier and John A Macdonald are obvious symbols of how the idea of “two founding peoples” and integrated into the ideology of Canadian nationalism. And the Canadian coat of arms on the first cover reinforce this message.
2) Still, biculturalism and bilingualism are not so obviously accepted as such. A first criticism is the fact that Canada, French or English, didn’t spring up ex nihilo: even European racists know that it was founded by the dispossession of Native peoples. So this forces Canada to awkwardly add a third “founding” nation, First Nations.
I say “awkwardly” because that’s there’s no other way to describe it. It’s a very obvious failure at basic respect. It’s whitewashing, pure and simple.
Sure, the first visa page is a symbol of First Nations. Okay. I mean, Niagara Falls gets a full two pages, but First Nations are first I guess. So that’s something. And people like me who have limitations on their passport have a huge sticker hiding everything. Yeah. That’s super inclusive.
But past that stereotype of a message? Nothing. Or possibly worse that nothing.
Because not only do you get very little about First Nations (to be precise, there is actually not a single First Nation person in the whole document, only these two generic “symbols” cramed in one page), several other pages are dedicated to… how we oppressed them.
I already mentioned “Canada’s North” above, but I think I need to expand, because “exploration” and “discovery” have always between colonialist words. And I don’t even need to go back to Spanish so-called “explorers” like Colombus, Pizzaro and Cortes, who “explored” and plundered the West Indies, Peru and Mexico, or to Portuguese slavers that took Black people from newly “explored” Africa to “explored” Madeira and, later, to “explored” Brazil, just as Portuguese pirates went into the just “explored” Indian Ocean. I mean, I could, the passport clearly points in that direction with no less than four pages on the first time we stole Native lands (first Samuel de Champlain, then Quebec City), but I feel that’s too easy. Let’s follow a more recent explanation.
In the 19th century, as Canada was founded, the Royal Geographic Society was the institution that recorded the “exploring” that happened in the name of British science in British colonies, because white spaces were horrible. (The fact that people already lived in these “white spaces” and doing fine was irrelevant to the Royal Geographic Society.) In “exploring” expeditions, usually, one or few white people who did nothing but hold knowledge or something were accompanied by huge numbers of not-white people who took measures, guided them in areas that they knew by heart (as I said, people lived in these places, explored or not), carried their lunch, etc. Yet weirdly, the White person always got the credit. Sometimes, the local people didn’t want strangers coming in, so the explorer went all the same, but illegally, only white laws matter anyway. Sometimes, the explorer found various “archeological” treasures in the explored areas, so he stole them and they ended up in the British Museum. And, surprise of surprises, the Colonial Office and the Army, well, they were very interested in the information explorers brought back, so they took notes. And don’t you know? They tended to follow “explorers” on their heels.
But much more directly clueless-to-horrible are representations of the history of the Canadian West.
First, you have the North-West Mounted Police/RCMP, which was founded in the aftermath of the Metis rebellion because Canada wanted to be able to answer any threat from the people who lived in the territory they recently acquired and were starting to colonize. And answer they did, with force, little more than a decade later, as they quelled the North-West rebellion.
Second, there is the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway. Not only did this railway help send troops to quell said North-West rebellion, but it was built in order to better colonize the West. Colonization wasn’t a thing that “happened” by itself, it wasn’t an “accident” of Canada either. It was, from day 1, the entire point of Canada as a project of the British Empire. The constitution planned for Canada to buy what would become Rupert’s Land and the North-West Territory, and one of the reason the main proponents of Confederation, Ontario and Quebec, wanted it was to expand their territories and take control of what had been Hudson Bay Company land. And that’s what they did, to the northwest for Ontario and straight north for Quebec, as the Federal government forced First Nations to cede their lands in unfair treaties.
Big, state-championed infrastructure projects like the Canadian Pacific railway (or, in Quebec nationalism, hydroelectric projects like the Manicouagan complex) were nationalistic and colonialist symbols of how we appropriated territories, of how we colonized them – and, on the flip side, of how we dispossessed Native peoples. And no, I don’t think they’re gonna take a feather and an inukshuk as compensation.
History isn’t your thing? Maybe you’ll prefer recent news. There are two pages on that, called “Canadian Prairies”, with not only the corn that was grown on the land Canada took from First Nations, and not only the aforementioned railway (or another, similar one), but with what looks like an oil train on that railway and with oil rigs. Oil rigs! If anything is typical of Harper, it’s oil. “Let’s be proud of our natural resouces” is a not an atypical nationalistic message in general, but the choice of oil instead of maple syrup or whatever is significant of the Conservatives’ emphasis on exploiting Alberta’s oil deposits, especially the very polluting tar sands.
And who’s fighting on the front line against exploiting this oil because of environmental consequences?
And who is on the receiving end of massive political retaliations from the Federal government because of this?
So much for feathers and inukshuks.
3) At the same time, Canada is also multicultural because of immigration, because of colonizers who came later than other colonizers. That corn we grew on stolen land, it was grown by recent immigrants that were not necessarily British or French. And throughout the 20th-century, Canada got quite a variety of immigrants. Multiculturalism is official policy and national pride. Hurray us! And there are two pages to celebrate that history: “Pier 21, Halifax — historic gateway to Canada”.
Yet how did we succeed, in our multicultural nationalism, not to include a single person of colour? Not one? Nope. Not one.
(Okay, maybe one of the kids playing football is black and has white gloves, and maybe he’s white and has black sleeves, but it’s not clear, and anyway “black people can play sports in Canada” is fairly mediocre.)
Let’s go back to the railway.
As Canada built the Canadian Pacific, it received a large influx of immigrants from Asia who worked on said railway. As the railway was finished, they stayed in Canada, especially in British Columbia, were they were met by racism. The same pattern repeated itself with later railway projects, and just… in general, because people in China and in Japan, especially, wanted to come to Canada (maybe they weren’t briefed on how racist we were), and some people welcomed them as cheap labour. But most were just, just racist. As a result of the racist pressure of White people fearing the “Yellow Peril”, Canada set up racist immigration against China. In the early 20th-century, the reason the Federal government didn’t extend the courtesy to Japan was that the British Empire was actually allied to Japan (oops), and besides, Japan was actively going to the school of the West, so it wasn’t as “uncivilized” as China, or something like that. Didn’t stop BC from being racist though. And when Japanese foreign policy went against Canada’s in 1941, well, we interned all Japanese immigrants and took their stuff.
It’s already kind of awkward to choose two pictures with only white men to represent the railway which so many Chinese immigrants died building. I guess tombs don’t make good photo ops as railway executives? Yet the fact that they couldn’t think of any instance of Canadian history that wasn’t all about white dudes is absolutely symptomatic of how “multicultural” our country is.
Like the Ford T, in Canada, you can have any culture you want – so long as it’s white. Or at least whitewashed.
Only Token Feminists Allowed
I talked about “white”, now let’s talk about “dudes”.
On the bright side, there ARE women in the passport. Wow! And even feminist achievements.
On the less bright side… I probably shouldn’t have used a plural.
The passport has a page with the statue of Nellie McClung, with, in the back, pictures of her “We Are Persons” and of the Famous Five. Yay! Feminism! This is a reference to the person’s case, in which the Privy Council ruled that women were, in fact, persons, and thus allowed to occupy public office.
Still, I don’t think that putting feminists (or a feminist) from a century ago who obtained victories for women’s rights is perfect. It’s a step ahead of what the passport does to First Nations (i.e. we’re recognizing that we were wrong at some point), but it feels like the message is less “look at the thriving feminist movement we have in Canada” than “here, we have achieved equal rights for women”.
(Arguably, there is another woman, the allegory of Canada crying her sons who died in Vimy Ridge. It’s pretty thin though. Being an allegory is probably the best way of being represented in public art, by the way. Until fairly recently, any woman in an official sculpture or painting was either an allegory, a Greek goddess or the Virgin Mary.)
See, Canada, when we say we want more women in history, we don’t necessarily mean that you should look at the few women who did History-worthy things despite living under patriarchy and make tokens out of them. I mean, yes, do that too, past women are erased by later male historians because they think they’re not important, and it’s part of the problem. But it’s not all the problem. What we mean is that not only did women have a hard time achieving notoriety in a patriarchal society, not only were past historian sort of misogynistic, but the entire field of was is worthy of being part of History and of Nation is twisted by patriarchy, that the experiences of women are excluded of these constructs because of how they are defined and by whom. So finding women who did historical things is only part of the solution (and it’s tokenizing at best). The other part, the important part, is to change how we look at the past, and what we look for in the past. And, in this case, of what we represent of the nation.
Because yeah, manly men building trains, manly talking about liberty in Parliament or founding Canada in conference rooms, manly men defeating Germans, Communist and Metis (oops), manly men discovering New France and the North, manly boys playing sports, and so on… Do you see that the pattern is not just that these men are men, but that the activities that these men do (sports, wars, politics, building railways, whatever) are or were done in majority by men? That even your single non-allegorical woman is in there because of how her record can be oriented towards traditionally male activities? That this is because we are at least socially framing these activities as masculine, and sometimes economically, politically and legally as well, and that this creates enormous barriers for women who want to take part in these activities? And can you see that coding these activities as masculine is also why we care about them as we build our national values and histories? And that if we only care about activities that are coded masculine, well it’s no surprise that we only end up with men in our history books?
Sure, Nellie McClung, okay, fair enough. That’s a start. But we could still do better than giving only one of 40 pages to a woman. We should be able to go beyond this.
Use your imagination. You can show girls playing hockey, and you can show girls doing stereotypical girls things too, because girls do that in Canada. You can show families of settlers in the Prairies instead just corn and oil, because most families have women. If you need dudes, you can show Dr Morgentaler with women (your pro-life party base might be upset, but it’s for a good cause). You can even put pictures of nurses in your endless war commemorations for all I care. I mean, it’d be super nationalistic, it wouldn’t correct the other oppressive nonsense I mentioned above, but at least it would start correcting that patriarchal bias of yours, and it wouldn’t be worse than whatever other bullshit ideology you’re giving us now already.
Now, given that I live in Quebec, I’m also exposed to another ridiculous nationalism. I don’t think that either is better than the other, but I do feel Canadian nationalism is not viewed in the same light, at least in Quebec — that we fail to recognize various elements like these as parts of the same nation-building project as was started in 1867, with only superficial additions (like recognizing First Nations and women) that don’t quite fit the overall mix. I hope this will help correct the score a bit.