In the spring of 2006, I was Visiting Professor of Canadian Literature at the Universität Wien and invited to give the opening address at the International Graduate Conference for Canadian Studies in German speaking Countries in the presence, among other dignitaries, of Mme Gervais-Vidricaire, Canadian Ambassador to Austria.
For the past five weeks I have been living in Austria and teaching at the Department for English and North American Studies at the University of Vienna. Through the spring of 1980 I taught Canadian literature in West Berlin. During the early 1960s I spent a lot of time with German sun-worshippers and anarchists on Ibiza, long before it became expensive, and back then I travelled in Germany and Austria through several impoverished seasons by what used to be called ‘auto-stop.’ In Waterloo County, southwestern Ontario, my great grandparents on my mother’s side spoke German, not only at home but in the community. When my Scottish grandmother turned up in the 1880s, moving from nearby Granton, Ontario, she had to learn German to work as the first telegraphist in the local post office. When I was a child and she was very old, she would gleefully evoke her mother-in-law by speaking English with a theatrical German accent.
It has been a while now, living in Vienna, since I first began dreaming in German. Appropriately, in the city of Freud, when I wake up I have no idea what I was dreaming about. The German language has become as familiar to me as my own and yet it remains largely a closed dimension in the parallel worlds of my mind. No matter how carefully I listen, whether to people speaking around me or to my echoing genes, German refuses to make sense. I have no facility with languages at all. Even English often leads me into obscurity and confusion. Therefore it is humbling to stand before a gathering of people who speak not only English but German, and probably French, and perhaps other languages, as well.
I am here as a Canadian. That seems to be my primary credential. Many of you at this conference know more about aspects of Canadian culture and Canada as a geophysical presence, about Canadian politics, history, economics, natural resources, native peoples, bicultural symbiotics, immigrant statistics, multicultural anomalies, postcolonial angst. I know about being as a Canadian, but that only has meaning in the Heideggarian sense. Dasein. My awareness of my own existential condition is from a particular and unique Canadian perspective. This might qualify me to speak as a representative human in the world but not as an exemplary Canadian, a collectivity wherein I exist as a singularity of no great genius or eminence, although with a penchant for the public display of modesty which is a particularly Canadian characteristic.
A good part of my academic career has been devoted to making generalizations about Canada, usually in the disguise of informed opinions; sometimes, especially in more recent years, these opinions are embedded in poetry and fiction. Imagination has been necessary because there is no such thing as Canada. This makes Canada an existential singularity – its non-existance, then, proof that such a thing as Canada exists. Canada in the Heideggarian sense exists in being what it is not.
Samuel Beckett would have understood: Canada is an impossibility. My authority for saying this is that I am Canadian.
“You can write whatever you want about Vienna, it will always be true.” This was written by the Viennese writer Hans Weigel in a marvel of dialectical redundancy, proving by making his statement that his statement, in fact, is the truth. He wrote this, of course, in German and perhaps meant something quite different. What we understand, here, together, in English, might not be what he meant. And if you are quietly translating my English translation of Hans Weigel back into German, you might not even see the Canadian connection.
Perhaps we should take a different approach. Canada is not a blank slate. Just because quite possibly there is no such thing as Canada and just because whatever you say about Canada is true, no matter how contradictory, no matter how contrary, Canada is not tabula rasa. Nor is it a whole that is either more or less than the sum of its parts. Nor is it what is left of North America when you take away the United State and Mexico. In fact, if the U.S. ceased to exist, Canada would collapse as a ribbon of desiccated snow along the north bank of the Rio Grande. If you were to arrange what each of you knows about, believes in, desires from Canada, the result would not be a mosaic signifying Canada from a Germanic perspective. It would be more like the proverbial elephant, described by a cohort of the blind from a variety of perspectives. Each of you might be correct; the chances of assembling your separate visions into an elephant, however, or a mosaic representing an elephant is infinitesimal.
In Austria, history and geography converge. The same might be said of all the nations in what we peremptorily call ‘the old world.’ ‘The old world’ is a term that seems to mean those parts of the planet wherein historical texts were devised to record the progress of what is determined by textual analysis to be ‘civilized.’ Given that the indigenous people of Australia settled there some fifty-thousand years ago, long before the endangered cave drawings were inscribed at Les Escaux, long before Europeans exterminated their Neanderthal cousins, given that the native peoples of America were there for at least twenty thousand years before the Vikings landed at L’Anse aux Meadows in New-found-land, it seems odd to call their worlds ‘new.’ Yet, we name those people aboriginals as if they were a geographical feature of the landscape, with a past but no story. And if history is text, not heritage, then perhaps that is true. In real nations, such as Austria and Scotland, history and geography are virtually inseparable, the shifting boundaries and diverse causes of generations indelibly inscribed on the bruised and battered surface of the earth.
In the United States, history has subdued geography, drawn it into submission through grand schemes like the Hoover Dam and a manifest destiny in which conquest was not of other nations but of the land itself. With armies and engineers, farmers and entrepreneurs, Americans staked out the heart of a continent and imposed a revolutionary history upon everything within its grasp. In parts of Central and South America, history has yet to bring the natural world into submission, but not for want of trying. There are vast areas of rainforest that will not surrender, yet they, too, will finally dwindle to dust in the face of global atrocities. History, like cancer, will eventually kill off what it cannot control.
Canada, subject to the same threats, is different. History is one thing; geography another. If, in the U.S., geography was subdued by history, and in the Old World, from Ireland to Israel, Japan to Viet Nam, geography has been subsumed by history, in Canada it was the imposition of geography as a system of measurement, of incising distance and direction upon the land, that made history possible. If elsewhere, history and geography ultimately converge, in Canada they refuse to do so. We have history, yes. Much of it was written by surveyors as they superimposed new names over old, making every map of Canada a palimpsest – native names that endured five hundred generations suddenly over-written by strangers with an alien tongue. Some of it was written in the ledgers that trading post storekeepers sent ‘home,’ with notes on market conditions; some was scripted by permanent tourists like the Strickland sisters, or by subversives like Anna Jameson and Mina Hubbard. And much of our history happened somewhere else, on the battlefields of Europe, in South Africa, in Singapore, among foreign diplomats at Paris and Ghent.
Attempts have been made to trace our national narrative, most famously through the fur trade, and in popular accounts through the building of the railroads, or the distribution and ultimate uses of Eaton’s Catalogue. But a cursory survey of Canada today reveals how inadequate these historiographic paradigms actually are. For a story to become history, it must make the collective enterprise seem its inevitable outcome. One can believe the United States would be otherwise, but for the Wild West. Yet millions of amphibious rodents slaughtered to make hats for European gentry are nothing in romance or myth upon which to found a nation, and their sacrifice bears little on the minds of contemporary Canadians. It is the difference between metaphor and metonym. Beavers no more embody the story of our past than the seal hunt does of our present, or the slaughter houses of Chicago do of the American dream.
History and geography in Canada form an uneasy alliance. One of the reasons is time. In Canada we are never far from reminders of how ancient is the universe and our human place within it. We are aware, even from the city’s edge, of the vast excoriated surface of the Earth gleaming under the sun through five and a half times zones (Newfoundland declaring its difference on the half hour); we talk endlessly in Tim Hortons over coffee, in offices and schools, over neighbourhood fences and to complete strangers, of weather systems rolling for days, even weeks, across our sovereign landscape; we are aware of how fragile is our tenure on the planet, by virtue of our vast wilderness, which the native peoples call home. We are a very old country, geographically. Yet our history has no roots. It is like lichen on Arctic boulders, a mixture of algae and fungus, but with no reality of its own, clinging to the surface of the rock.
Ask Canadians about history. They will tell you about the Greeks and the Persians. Hebrews and Egyptians are pushed a little to the side as religion and myth. They might tell you about Rome, or the interminable quarrels of Europe, or the European imperial project abroad; or inform you that the Gettysburg address was Abraham Lincoln’ postal code during the Revolution. We sometimes get confused. You might hear of Chinese dynasties or Mogul empires. Or of conquistadores and buccaneers. Ask Canadians about history: you will hear almost nothing of Canada. For a few minutes on November 11th every year, we celebrate our valiant warriors, but this is nostalgia, not history. We make other gestures, we celebrate Queen Victoria’s birthday, we celebrate our hockey victory over the Soviets in 1972, we celebrate the brief life of a one-legged runner, Terry Fox. It is not that things did not happen in Canada, but rather that, for the most part, we choose to forget.
This is in part our colonial legacy; by definition, history happened elsewhere. In part, it is due to our evolutionary progress toward democratic sovereignty, such as it is; there were no signal events, only significant dates. Partly, it is because we live so close to ‘concept America’; it is difficult to see our reflection mirrored in the rocket’s red glare. And finally, perhaps for these other reasons, we now erase ourselves in a bland mixture of humility and arrogance under the aegis of multiculturalism: do not fear assimilation for we are so empty as to be infinitely accommodating.
Is there such a thing as culture if no-one knows about it? As a postmodernist, I’m used to telling jokes no-one gets. It is almost a measure of my humour’s success that it goes unappreciated, and I tend to feel a vague sense of disappointment when someone smiles. But if an entire culture goes unrecognized, perhaps it is more than a quirkiness to be overlooked or admired. This is not my judgement, that Canadian culture does not exist, that the term itself, ‘Canadian culture,’ is apparently an oxymoron. It is probably not the judgement of people working for the National Film Board or activists funded by the Canada Council in one or another of its various guises; it is probably not the judgement of Canadian Studies specialists, such as yourselves, each of whom has a different notion of what Canadian culture is and why it is difficult to grasp; nor the judgement of professional Canadians working for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Otherwise, you will be hard pressed to find someone who admits to Canadian culture as an empirical fact.
Culture has enlivened the Canadian sensibility from the beginning, of course, when, following the arrival of Europeans to our illimitable shores, we first conceived ourselves a separable place in the world. Culture washed across us in waves – from France, the British Isles, Germany, from Eastern Europe, from Japan, China, Southeast Asia, from what we awkwardly know as the Indian subcontinent, and always from the south, where Americans commodified populist culture as a major export, and increasingly, rising like springwater from below, from the people, the First Nations, who were here when the others arrived; culture washing over us seems only to have worn us away. Perhaps, the only thing distinguishing our culture is that, like Atlantis beneath the sea, it haunts by its absence and is under constant erasure.
Only a few years ago, a minister for cultural affairs in the federal government declared there is no such thing as Canadian culture. I cannot remember who she was – to do so is like remembering an assassin’s name while forgetting the victims – but I documented her precise words in a book called The Paradox of Meaning. In any case, so many other politicians have urged upon us the same facile and cowardly denial of Canada as a cultural entity that there is nothing extraordinary in the minister’s unseemly effacement. It seems a characteristic of the political profession, in Canada, to cast no shadow. This happens, of course, either when there is wondrous illumination or there is absolute darkness.
Do not think it is only federal politicians who stand shadowless and gaze into mirrors in an inversion of vampires, seeing only their own reflection, the background being utterly void. Last year the Government of Ontario considered granting, ex cathedra, legal jurisdiction to Sharia Law within a self-defining community throughout the province.
Quebec, of course, for all its sad legal battles over language, has a culture. Only a few years ago we almost tore the country apart, and left indelible scars, by refusing to allow Quebec the constitutional designation, ‘distinct.’ We would be damned if Quebec is a distinct society, we would be damned if it is not! And the rest of Canada, each region, each federal riding, is for electoral purposes distinct, emphatically so, so long as that appellation is not donned as a mantle of disaffection. You can see what I mean about the paradox of meaning: cultural distinctiveness is not to be confused with political difference. Politicians might allow Quebec its undeniable personality, based on the confluence of time, space, and being, or, to put it less grandly, on the coming together of history, geography, and culture over an extended period, sufficient to make it distinct. But Canada as a whole, which paradoxically includes Quebec, is simply – not family, not community, not alliance – Canada is simply a consensus.
Now let me clarify. We are a very cultured people. Well no, we are not a people. Let me say that again: we are very cultured, notwithstanding our lack of peopleness. ‘Notwithstanding’ is a very Canadian word. Those familiar with our constitutional documents will vouch for that. Perhaps, if we are to uncover evidence for Canadian culture we should start with the word, ‘notwithstanding.’ There must be some idea of Canada that can stand for the whole. We are highly educated, we are well informed, we are relatively open-minded. But if we cannot imagine ourselves in the world, how can we expect the world to imagine us?
I think it would be safe, even in such a cultural treasury as Vienna, to say that the term ‘culture’ in relation to national being does not refer to the arts, to enlightenment and the refined sensibility. Rather, it describes the depth of shared values and social behavior by which a particular people experience their collective existence. In the past, such values and behavior have been determined by racial or ethnic homogeneity, religion, language, common laws, continuity of customs – all usually, but not always, circumscribed by geographic limits and historical continuity. Quebec, by these cultural measures, is certainly a nation. Each tribal unit of native peoples in Canada, as determined by negotiated or imposed boundaries, is known as a First Nation. Some of these consist of thousands, others of only a handful of people. The Inuit of Canada, who participate in a circumpolar genealogy, are not a nation, since their borders for convenience are the same as those of the country to which they are host. Most Inuit would probably refuse the contained and limiting implications of the term. They are free people upon the land, ownership of which is a logical absurdity. They are proof, perhaps, that while a nation must certainly have or be a culture, a coherent culture is not necessarily a nation.
What, then, is Canada, if not impossible. Austria is an idea that can be held in the mind, without knowing exactly what that means. If someone were to challenge the notion, our several definitions would inevitably overlap. One can have an idea of Austria, and Mozart and Freud, the Habsburg dynasty, World Wars, alpine scenery, the governor of California, these will all be there. An idea of the United States, diverse as it may be, and often idealized as ’the American dream,’ will include Washington and the Constitution, Lincoln and the Civil War, the Kennedys, cowboys, gangsters, Marilyn, the Mississippi, James Dean, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and probably the governor of California, as well.
What about the idea of Canada? What are the iconic names, images, conditions or events that converge in our collective awareness of ourselves, in your conception of us as a singular entity? Superman and Austin Powers originated in Canada, but we don’t think of them. Mounties and mountains? Many Canadians have seen neither. Maple leaves, Maple Leafs – foliage of trees unknown in most of the country except on a flag designed by a political party; a hockey team as much reviled as revered. The North? North is a direction determined by the Earth’s axis – despite the opinion of many, especially in Canada, it is not a place. Moral vision? We are fiercely polite. Political vision? No. Our federal political system is of accidental design and incidental efficiency. Is there an idea of Canada based on nostalgia – not really, when the past seems vaguely an embarrassment? On a dream? We dream only, in occasional panic, of having no dreams.
Where, then, does an immigrant to Canada arrive? If we seem a nation only by political expediency, and a country by virtue of adjectives describing our size, our diversity, our weather, and we seem culturally transparent, pathologically reticent about our past or future, diffident about the foundations of our laws and values (as if we had none, before our very recent Charter of Rights and Freedoms), then what are newcomers, who are strongly encouraged to maintain the customs and culture they fled, what are they to become? The answer, of course, is Canadian. In a contemporary world, Canada is emerging as a postcolonial multicultural anomaly. We are the first postmodern nation.
In a world where the pride of nations leads to devastating moral righteousness, after twentieth century nationalisms led to imponderable waste, Canada can serve as the model for difference. The terrible clash of historical inevitabilities will be mute if history, itself, ceases to be of importance. Whoever it was who said, those who do not know history are condemned to repeat it, was wrong, dead wrong. It is those who do know history who are its minions, its slaves, who are driven to rewrite it again and again. History is not the repository of virtue but the breeding ground of folly and vice.
Canada breaks all the rules of what it is to be a nation. Of course we have a past, but we choose the present. And of course we have a culture, but we live it, day to day. It is not something we think much about, but just try suggesting we join the United States and see where it gets you. Who cares if we mumble about health care and hockey, the right to ban handguns, bilingual cornflakes. We know who we are. We also know we are not an inviolable chorus or choir, but a lovely cacophony of multiple voices. We are not my mother’s Canada, which was neo-European, nor her mother’s Canada, which was British, nor her mother’s, which was pioneer, nor hers, shaped by land-clearing settler-invaders, nor any other, back nine generations to my earliest forbears who fled the American Revolution, my Mohawk grandmother from the Finger Lakes District of New York State, my Mennonite grandmother from Pennsylvania. Nor is my own fiercely sovereign Canada that of my children, which is multicultural, multiracial, nor of their children, my six grandchildren, which is yet to be determined. We are a community in motion. It is only in stasis we become dangerous to ourselves or to others.
And, of course, we are geography, we’re the empty place on CNN weather maps. In Mercator projections we’re impossibly large; in geography texts, impossibly variegated, absurdly complex. We have the longest ocean coastline in the world. It would be as hard to miss us on maps as to draw our margins from memory. Perhaps because of size and diversity, perhaps because we have learned from the original peoples whose descendents are still among us, we do not possess the land with borders and boundaries, with laws and deeds and government treaties, and certainly not with walls, which are the greatest geographic folly of all. But we are here: understand this, we are an ancient land, a land unlimited by human consciousness. Geography may have conspired with history to give us our present shape and generate the illusion of ownership, but we are merely custodians. And even without maps, we know where we are.
Many of you who are experts in Canadian Studies have been to Canada. Once there, you were in no doubt where you were. From Vancouver to Halifax, Comox to Heart’s Content, there is something about Canada that says you are there. Is it because we drink double-doubles, admire cops, smoke pot, smile a lot, hate winter, love snow, reject -isms and -ologies, and always say thank you? We break the rules of what it means to be a nation. Somehow the word ‘country’ might seem more appropriate, but we break the rules of what it is to be a country, as well. Yet, when you cross from the U.S. into Canada you know you are there; when you get off the plane or the ship from elsewhere, you know you are there.
Imagine dreaming in English, and waking up to realize you only speak German. Imagine me, in Vienna, surrounded by a language I do not understand, immersed in the baroque splendour of a culture steeped in the past, within national boundaries established by armies and alliances, in a world where maps do not make countries but countries make maps. I know from its splendid coffees and pastry, Vienna is empirically real, yet so much is encoded in ineffable diction, I cannot make it quite real in my mind. Like music. Like Haydn and Mozart and Schubert – we know these men as a visceral experience but not who they were. Not who they are. As we listen, sensibility and sense, feelings and reason, reach out and touch each other, even caress, but they do not converge. Music, of course, is impossible. If there were no-one to hear, it would not exist. That is what postmodern Canada is like; that is what it is like to be a Canadian.