Constructing the Canadian Citizen

By Chakraborty, Mridula Nath | Herizons, Fall 2008 | Go to article overview

Constructing the Canadian Citizen


Chakraborty, Mridula Nath, Herizons


Sunera Thobani teaches women's studies at the University of British Columbia. Her areas of research include globalization, migration and violence, and race and gender relations. She is also past president of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women, the first woman of colour elected to this position.

Here, Herizons talks to Thobani about her recent book, Exalted Subjects: Studies in the Making of Race and Nation in Canada (University of Toronto Press, 2007). Thobani is currently writing a book on race and gender in the War on Terror.

Henzons: Let's talk about your book cover. It is a striking image by Kurdish artist Arax Nazari, titled Despair and Determination II. How did you come to choose it?

SUNERA THOBANI: I have had this painting on my wall for 15 years. I had seen it on a postcard and then, serendipitously, my sister went to a fundraiser for a shelter in London and bought it for me. When Exalted Subjects came about, the University of Toronto Press gave me the freedom of any image of my choice and a friend suggested I use it. It is such a powerful image of strength and quietness and spoke to me about where the book was grounded. Once I decided, I had to find the artist! I inquired at the National Art Gallery in London - nothing in their records. The next day, I was having lunch with a friend who asked me to describe the painting, and the moment I did, she exclaimed, "That's Arax!" So it has been a series of really wonderful coincidences that led to the image.

Could you talk about this concept of exaltation?

SUNERA THOBANI: I am interested in how the "Canadian subject" is constructed in the national imaginary as well as in the global context. The Canadian is characterized as compassionate, caring and humanitarian. I wanted a word that described how Canadians are given certain attributes that are valued as legal and laudable and integral aspects of their humanity.

There is an aggregation that occurs, a summing up of all individual characteristics in the body of this "Canadian subject" who is then recognized by the self and the state as elevated above the ordinary individual. Through a process of historical and systematic exaltation or elevation, the characteristics of the "Canadian" stick to him or her.

So how does this humanity get constructed in this particular way, despite all the individual foibles, characteristics and exceptions that mark it? How do Canadians identify their humanity, and how does it get reflected back to other Canadians and get recognized by the state? What is so particular about the Canadian that makes him or her amenable to being compassionate, or humanitarian, or peacekeeping? At what point does this Canadian become defined as a law-abiding subject? Who is constructed as not being a law-abiding subject?

One of the ways to understand this is to trace how the discourse of citizenship within the Canadian national context is used to identify, define and classify different kinds of human beings. This discourse functions to differentiate between individuals, that is to say, human beings as deserving of different rights and entitlements under the mantle of citizenship and nationality. And therefore they have to be governed in different ways.

My contention is that it is the Aboriginal who gets constructed at the originary moment of Canadian national history as the lawless one. There has been a tremendous history of violence against this Aboriginal who was constructed as the savage, the uncivilized being against which the Canadian was defined as deserving of the fruits of enlightenment and civilization. This was a justification of colonial governance.

Subsequently, it is the non-preferred-race immigrant who came to be defined as posing a threat to the legitimate nation, as "Canadians" become endangered by what used to be called "non-preferred races."

Today, instead of being compassionate, the Canadian is seen as terrorized by the racialized Muslim subject, and there have been enormous policy changes to the rights of those being constructed as Muslim subjects as opposed to Canadian subjects.

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