Back in 2016, just as Donald Trump was putting together his plans to “Make America Great Again,” north of the border, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made his bold declaration: “Canada has no core identity.” Many found it imaginative, evocative, even dangerous, but it was, in effect, telling the world that the Canada everyone thought they knew was going through a transformation.
It’s clear we are in a seminal moment, one where a new direction is entirely possible and where going back to the past seems unacceptable. Yet, when Trudeau informed the New York Times that this “new” country is no longer defined by our history or European national origins but by a “pan-cultural heritage,” he ran the risk of overlooking much of what made this country one of the most respected in the world. We might be heading in a new direction, but where we have come from, despite our many failures, has helped prepare us for that change. We have been more open than closed and more accommodating than militant. The world knows that and respects it.
The term “identity” has morphed into numerous meanings, including “identity politics,” and the outcome is more murky than defined. The hegemony that once held this country together is now under increased strain. It’s not wrong or unpatriotic to ask how Canada will fare with so many groups seeking recognition and redress, all seeking action in the same moment. Put another way, might the polarizing qualities of this new identity politics push us past the national breaking point.
There is a general acknowledgement that the travesties surrounding residential schools, the gender inequities, the casual acceptance of racism, even the trivial manner in which we handle the nation’s poor can no longer be tolerated and have tainted the very history with which we have come to accept. All of these injustices actually give support to Trudeau’s claim that Canada is now a “post-national” state, one seeking to transcend its history and supersede the nation-states. But that sounds more like we are running away from our history rather than accommodating these new directions with our abiding resiliencies.
Until recently, our political world was viewed as a giant struggle between the left and the right. The left concentrated on wealth disbursal, meaningful work, equity and equality, and democratic reform. The right rallied around smaller government, fewer restrictions in the marketplace and moral rigour in decision-making.
Suddenly, a new paradigm has entered the picture, seeking to transcend what preceded it. Identity is now the great pursuit of the moment and dominates the thoughts of millions seeking something different, something more equal. It makes sense, given that all these identity-driven forces were most often ignored in our past pursuits of prosperity and respect. The confluence of greater indigenous experience and wisdom can only be a good thing since they were this nation’s first occupants. Greater recognition of women’s rights and proper place in the workforce is long overdue, as is the acknowledgement that the racism that had been present in our past need not be embedded in our future.
But the fact remains that we are a nation. We have a story to tell and a world in which to tell it. We are a country where all the puzzle pieces require their proper place for the complete picture to be seen. Should we become a land of opposing parts seeking recognition, we can risk being motivated more by anger and pride than reason and compromise. The great Canadian comity and plurality, while never complete, can be torn apart in a time of the eruption. It will require both delicate but intelligent management from our leaders and paying due respect from all Canadians towards each other if we are to navigate the unchartered waters ahead.
Contemporary identity politics is a confounding complex riddle to solve, especially in a democracy with its competing parts. It remains every group’s right to seek equal recognition for the groups that have been isolated in our history. But great care must be taken that such a desire not morph into a sense of superiority. This is what nationalism is at its base, and at times it can ruin the democratic impulses of a nation.
Democracy has been enhanced and empowered the more egalitarian it became. It required those in privilege and power to open the access to such things to the marginalized. But it can become toxic when those seeking inclusion then seek power to delegitimize the state.
It remains uncertain whether modern democracy, struggling with climate change, authoritarianism, and even poverty, can meet these competing demands at once. It will require skillful economic management, principled politics and a patient and understanding citizenry.
For all of the potential of this moment in time, it can quickly become one of the most dangerous moments in our country’s journey, where our hegemony declines and our divisions rule our actions.