To be Canadian is to feel free to switch identities
When I took the train to British Columbia in 1968, my concept of this part of the country was somewhat underdeveloped. In
fact—this is embarrassing—at the time, I was under the impression that Vancouver was on Vancouver Island. No matter. The point was to get as far away as possible from my home town of Truro, N.S., and still remain in Canada.
One reason for our much-admired social stability is that Canada traditionally provides zones of refuge for disgruntled citizens who have had it up to here with some facet of the country. For example, if you are fed up with a certain, shall we say, analretentive quality to the English-Canadian lifestyle, then Montreal is the place for you—an island of European cosmopolitanism two hours from Ottawa. On the other hand, if you can’t face another endless winter in that ancestral seat where everyone knows when you last changed your underwear, off you go to the West Coast.
Responding to a variety of geographical and historical forces, Canadian culture has developed in a way that is neither American nor European: to be Canadian is to feel free to switch from one identity to another—regional, ethnic, linguistic, cultural—and still remain in Canada. This degree of personal liberty is not easy to maintain.
Shamed by our lack of a monolithic, in-your-face personality compared to, say, an American hero on television,
Canadians are intermittently tempted by regional or ethnic leaders to vali-
date only one aspect of ourselves, as though it were the whole thing.
Thus, separatist leaders urge Quebecers to reject the Canadian side of the French-Canadian equation as an alien presence, claiming that its elimination will produce something more pure laine. Never mind the defining role Quebec has played in Ottawa; never mind that the only non-Québécois signature on our repatriated Constitution is that of Elizabeth II.
Aping Quebec’s tactics, if not her style, western politicians indulge in periodic rounds of chest-thumping about parlaying an economy not much bigger than that of New Zealand and a collection of irritants on the level of the milk quota into some sort of sovereignty. Western separatism provides a handy stick to wave during federal-provincial negotiations, and a stimulating topic at cocktail parties. But few British Columbians really think about it seriously—if only because most of us have relatives elsewhere in Canada, and blood is thicker than ink.
Even putting aside our personal ties to the rest of Canada, British Columbians value Ottawa’s role as a pragmatic stabilizing force, a counterweight to the excesses of local leaders in this volatile, polarized region. On the whole, we feel it is a good thing that negotiating aboriginal
land claims is not entirely a local matter, just as it was probably good that Premier Bill Vander Zalm didn’t have troops.
Families with roots in British Columbia remember the queue of Italian-style coalitions that passed for government until W. A. C. Bennett (a Conservative from New Brunswick) paved his way to power in 1952. Similarly, recent immigrants from other parts of the world remember what dark forces crouch beneath the surface of any society, waiting to pounce. Old-timers and newcomers agree that, on the whole, an imperfect stability is better than none.
And while the rest of us may have ventured to the coast to escape the winters, or our relatives Back East (land of the sucked intake of breath), we didn’t come here because we wanted to leave Canada. On the contrary, the fact that we were able to come here in the first place is one of the reasons we like Canada.
Western separatists, like the Parti Québécois, offer no vision of what the newly created designer nationette would be like. Rather, theirs is an up-yours reaction to a federal government whose own vision stops at the bottom line of a ledger, and whose idea of Getting in Touch with the West is a symbolic junket to the Vancouver Hyatt—as the federal Liberals did last week.
Regional gripes may generate votes for politicians and advertising revenue for radio hosts—who doesn’t want to think of himself as unique? But frankly, after 25 years on the West Coast I sense a wider cultural gap between Vancouver and Prince George than between British Columbia and Nova Scotia. In fact, the one thing all these places seem to have in common is Canada—that complex web of experience that has spun itself across the northern half of the continent over the past century and a half.
That’s not something you can make disappear by putting an X on a referendum ballot, in Quebec or anywhere else. The arguments may vary, but the context remains the same. British Columbians are as Canadian as anyone else, in our history, our heritage—and our complaints. □
John MacLachlan Gray, 49, is a writer-composer-broadcaster in Vancouver who is responsible for several musicals, including Billy Bishop Goes to War. His latest book is Lost in North America: The Imaginary Canadian in the American Dream.
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