Are We Canadians? an Inside and outside Look [Notable Canadians Give Us Their Views on the Question]

By Howells, Coral A.; Urquhart, Jane et al. | Teach, May/June 1998 | Go to article overview

Are We Canadians? an Inside and outside Look [Notable Canadians Give Us Their Views on the Question]


Howells, Coral A., Urquhart, Jane, Saul, John R., Beach, Richard, Manji, Irshad, Jamieson, Roberta, Sweeney, Sylvia, Ohama, Linda, Teach


Canadians have difficulty articulating who they are. This question of identity is both elusive and puzzling.

In an attempt to come to grips with it, we've asked some notable Canadians and others to give us their views on the question.

What makes us? What binds us?

What makes us different?

In many cases, the individuals were interviewed and responded to specific questions. Some wrote their own responses. What they have provided, either verbally or in writing, provides for stimulating insight.

Many classroom discussions should ensue.

John Ralston Saul, Author and Essayist This is a snippet of a lengthy interview conducted with the noted author and essayist.

For the comprehensive version of the interview, cast forward to the September/October'98 issue of TEACH Magazine where it will be featured.

Introduction to John Ralston Saul's new book:

REFLECTIONS OF A SIAMESE TWIN: CANADA AT THE END OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY

Reflections of a Siamese Twin, as indeed its title might imply, is not just another book about the Canadian identity. Against a background of history, politics, philosophy, and art, John Ralston Saul takes some of our most cherished notions about ourselves and the country and turns them on their head - for instance, the idea that Canada is a young country, or that we are more European than the United States, or that British Columbia is its own creation, with few links to the rest of the country, or that we would be more successful if only we were more efficient.

Nor does Saul believe that Canada came about by accident, caught between the Scylla of Great Britain and the Charybdis of the United States. Instead, he argues that Canada is "above all an idea of what a country could be, a place of imagination," a highly intellectual, original, conscious, ongoing project, based on a social contract. Saul pinpoints 1848 as the most crucial date in the Canadian experience - the year in which Louis LaFontaine and Robert Baldwin formed the first responsible government of the two united Canadas - not 1867 as most historians would claim.

The title of the book comes from Jacques Godbout's novel in which Siamese twins, who together make an interesting whole, are destroyed by agreeing to be separated. Saul contends that we Canadians have a desperate desire to conform, to present ourselves as just another nation-state, and he uses the analogy of the Siamese twins to suggest that the complexity of the country is its essence and the very differences that constantly plague us are, in fact, our greatest strength.

WHAT MAKES CANADIANS UNIQUELY CANADIAN? WHAT CAN THE EDUCATION SYSTEM DO TO PROMOTE THIS CONCEPT?

I think there's a lot of cleaning up to be done. I think that the country was put together - and when I say that I don't mean constitutionally, which is the least important part of the process, but put together intellectually and in reality, finding something that would work, what we should be doing here, and how we should be doing it - really between 1830 and 1885, more or less, in a kind of unbroken manner that was essentially reform-based, using the word to mean what it really means in Canada, which is humanist and left of centre. It was highly unusual, highly original to the place, invented by the people here, of whom the most famous are obviously LaFontaine and Baldwin. But a lot of other people around then and the people who came after them, like D'Alton, Cartier, etc. were always referring back in their imaginations to this understanding of what the country would be, the Lafontaine-Baldwin idea of what the country would be. Even Laurier, when you actually read his speeches, was always referring back to 1840, Lafontaine-Baldwin, etc. So that that's really what the country is and what the country is built on - the truth of the country. We'll come back to that in terms of what people should be teaching.

I think that gradually, as the Orange Order got stronger and stronger and the Ultramontane movement got stronger and stronger, these two imports from England and France, which had nothing to do with what was the idea of this country and what was put together here, carried the European disease into the Canadian experiment and first set the country off-track. …

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