Our Olympic Anniversary

The reason the modern world has festivals and anniversaries is that, long ago, primitive peoples had such short, brutal lives that, every once in a while, they had to stop working themselves to death and have some fun.  In the days when people still toiled, these quick breaks were important to regenerate the emotional batteries.  It was an excuse to take the day off, get together with the tribe, get drunk and eat all the food that was going to go rotten anyway.  These events were usually local and also served to strengthen the common bonds of a town or village.  Today, February 11th, we celebrate the one year anniversary of one of the best festivals Canada ever had.  One year ago, Wayne Gretzky lit the Olympic Torch and we partied like it was 2010.  Essentially, for 17 days, we forgot we were Canadians and became a primitive tribe marking out our territory in the world of winter sports — although it could just as easily have been a buffalo hunt or a successful raid for ponies.  For one brief, shining moment, we were citizens of our country — and we liked it.

It’s difficult for Canadians to be Canadian, simply because we have no single imperative to hang our toques on.  In case you haven’t been watching, Canada doesn’t work the same way as most countries.  We really don’t have a defining moment that stamps us out as Canadians.  There was no war of liberation nor a revolution that gave birth to our nation.  We negotiated our country into existence as an extra-territorial Britain, and then bought the rest of it — including a very confused native population — from the Hudson’s Bay Company.   Once a year, journalists try to shoehorn Vimy Ridge into our national consciousness, but somehow, it never rings as true with us as Bunker Hill does with Americans or the Storming of the Bastille does with the French.  Nor do we have an historical persona that identifies us; we were never Vikings or Cossacks or philosopher kings.  Our best effort was the Coureur de Bois (who was, in reality, a petty crook, trying to trade furs without a license.)  Besides, the plaid shirt and red toque has always been an object of fun — on both sides of the Two Solitudes.  Furthermore, we do not produce larger than life leaders, like Churchill or Gandhi — at least not since Sir John A. discovered single malt.  Nor do we lionize our military.  We have no collective cultural memory that leads us to exalt the art and architecture of our Golden Age.  Nor do we depend on cheese or cuckoo clocks to distinguish us from our neighbours.  Our cuisine consists of everybody else’s, and our national dress is probably a parka.

There is no single overwhelming ideal that guides us, no event that names us, no crisis that forged us.  Yet we are the people called Canadians, and for a brief moment last February, we knew why.

So what the hell happened last year?  The answer is easy.  We had something to believe in.  As our young people chased their young people up and down the ice and snow, we believed in them.  We wanted to win.  Yeah, yeah, yeah, fair play, good sportsmanship and camaraderie, but in the end we wanted the podium.  We want to stand one head taller than everybody else and hear our music being played.  We wanted to prevail.  And when we did (and even when we didn’t) we gathered around our totem – the red maple leaf – and celebrated our accomplishments.  We were no longer Canadians by accident of birth or immigration record, we were Canadians by the power of our deeds — a great northern tribe, jubilant in our triumph, dancing by our fires, far into the night.

Multiculturalism: an old-fashioned idea

Way back in the 70s, when Trudeau ruled the Earth and Canadians were purging themselves of all human imperfections, some of the bright boys in Ottawa decided it was time to give up trying to squeeze Canada into a bilingual, bicultural straitjacket and, in the parlance of that time, “tell it like it is.”  The result was multiculturalism which was immediately enshrined in our document de jour, The Charter of Rights and Freedoms.  (Honestly, I think the idea had more to do with watering down Quebec nationalism than recognizing Ed Wong’s Golden Dragon restaurant, but that’s for another time.)  Multiculturalism has been the law of the land ever since.  Recently, however, our European cousins (notably, Angela Merkel and David Cameron) have decided that multiculturalism doesn’t work and there need to be some national standards all citizens should adhere to.  Surprisingly, this has not sparked the CBC (or anybody else) to raise the alarm in Canada over rightwing racists reaching for their copies of Mein Kampf.  This proves, once again, that Canadians are smarter than journalists and politicians combined and don’t really care about multiculturalism. It was a stupid idea in the first place.

Legislating multiculturalism in Canada is like trying to teach a sea otter to swim.  It doesn’t do any good but it really annoys the otter.  Canadians are multicultural by definition.  We can’t help it; it’s in our collective DNA.  Ask any Canadian what it means to be Canadian, and it might take them a while, but eventually they’ll get around to “We’re not Americans.”  This is exactly what Canadians are: we’re not Americans.  It’s the standard by which we judge ourselves, and after that nobody cares.  It’s the only question on the Citizenship Test (if we even have one.)  Ordinary Canadians don’t give a damn who, what or where a person is from.  We figure, if you’re willing to put up with the weather, you’re in.  Canada could take the Pepsi Challenge on Racism with any other country in the world and win.  It wouldn’t even be close.  Canadians care more about hockey than they do race, creed, colour or religion.

Multiculturalism was conceived in the olden days (the 60s-going-on-70s) when modern travel, information and immigration first brought Canada’s Chattering Class in contact with a few cultures other than their own.  Seduced by the American media’s addiction to race relations, and unable to control our enthusiasm and ignorance, we fell all over ourselves trying to prove our benevolence.  In short order, it became accepted wisdom in Canada that the quaint peoples of the world (who didn’t have modern conveniences like cars) were simply not strong enough to withstand the Anglo-American cultural juggernaut.  In other words, KFC was going to overwhelm tandoori chicken — whether 800 million South Asians liked it or not.  A bold statement from a couple of million Canadians but so be it.  This was called tolerance.  In actual fact, it was a blatant display of soft prejudice.  To naturally assume one culture’s inherent strength compared to another’s is nothing short of racism, no matter what you call it.  However, Canadians decided to take their patriarchal responsibilities seriously and protect these unfortunate people.   Multiculturalism was born.  The vertical mosaic was alive, and all was well with the world. 

Today, we understand that the vertical mosaic has actually become an ethnic archipelago.  Ethnic communities flourish in our major cities without ever having any contact with other ethnic communities flourishing just two or three blocks away.  Our inclusive society is more segregated now than it’s ever been — because we are rapidly losing the group identity that makes people wish to be included.  There is no real advantage to being a Canadian anymore — even in Canada — aside from financial gain and territorial location.  One might just as well remain Filipino, Somali — or Martian — for all it matters.

We also discovered that cultures come with a lot more than just odd hats and different spices in their food.  Sometimes, they have nasty little by-products like polygamy, honour killings, Sharia law and female circumcision, to name just a few.  If all cultures are equal (which by the way they are) in a legislated multicultural society, they must all be tolerated in their entirety.   There’s no third choice on this.  State-sponsored multiculturalism does not allow us to rummage through another person’s values and discard what we feel is inappropriate.  Without a set of core moral judgements, right and wrong become a matter of academic debate – and nothing more.

Canadians are a tolerant people (nutbars don’t count.)  Even though we are all different, historically we’ve had to work together to survive the climate and geography of our country.  Diversity is the natural state in which we exist.  However, as we continue to cling to the old-fashioned model of multiculturalism, many Canadians are beginning to wonder what advantage we gain by emphasising our differences — especially at the expense of all the things that should make us the same.