What Is Canadian? (Book Review)

What is it about Canada that makes it so fascinating? No, wait, that's not right. What is it about Canada that makes it fascinating to people who begin sentences with, "What is it about Canada ..."? No, wait.

What Is Canadian? (Book Review)

What is it about Canada that makes it so fascinating? No, wait, that's not right. What is it about Canada that makes it fascinating to people who begin sentences with, "What is it about Canada ..."? No, wait. What is it about Canada that makes publishers assume the question will attract readers shopping for beach books? No, wait ...

We seem to be developing two book seasons in Canada. Christmas is the big one, the high season for thoughtful tomes, coffee-table books, and the latest six or eight retellings of Pierre Trudeau's story. But Canada Day has begun to develop its own specific gravity, and the books pulled into its orbit are fuelled by angst. Angst about what? About Canada. Its soul, its people, its place in the world.

This summer we have a bumper crop, thanks to the simultaneous eruption of the two events that have always been likeliest to provoke nationalist introspection: tense relations with the United States and the election of a Canadian federal government that is not Liberal. The book that draws the straightest line between the two is Linda McQuaig's Holding the Bully's Coat: Canada and the U.S. Empire (Doubleday). But I decided to reach instead for books that leave at least a bit of mystery after you're done reading the title.

Three came readily to hand. Roy MacGregor, the almost comically prolific Globe and Mail columnist and hockey author, reaches for a sense of timelessness with Canadians: A Portrait of the Country and Its People (Viking). Andrew Cohen, a Globe alumnus who lamented the weaknesses of Canadian foreign policy four years ago with While Canada Slept, now laments everything else in The Unfinished Canadian: The People We Are (McLelland and Stewart). And Michael Byers, an international law prof at the University of British Columbia, offers Intent for a Nation: What is Canada For? Byers gets a jump-start on the competition by sneaking in a second subtitle, A Relentlessly Optimistic Manifesto for Canada's Role in the World. At times, reading him, I thought Byers might be kidding about the "relentlessly optimistic" bit. He writes, after all, that Canada is "in danger of allowing itself to be suffocated in America's militaristic embrace," which doesn't sound very chipper. But one thing that comes through clearly in Intent for a Nation is that Byers is not a kidder.

But I get ahead of myself. The most ambitious of these books, or at least the one that urges Canadians to the greatest ambition, is Cohen's. We have mightily let him down. Promising to set aside the usual "purée of platitudes and consommé of clichés" - yet holding fast to the aioli of alliteration - Cohen chronicles "prominent elements of national character: envy, resentment, and pettiness; ambiguity and vagueness; moderation and compromise; and generosity and incivility." He means some of those adjectives as compliments, but as you might guess, not most.

Cohen worries that Canada is not a great country because it does not act like the great countries you usually hear about - Britain, France, sometimes Germany and Italy, especially the United States. He is vexed by any sign that Canadians might be modest, smug, insufficiently historically literate or shoddy in their building practices. He notes that Don Cherry got upset at the Canadian Olympic women's hockey team for winning by lopsided scores in Turin in 2006. "Success had made the critics uncomfortable, suggesting that the only thing worse than losing in Canada is winning." He reminds us of Canadians' annual embarrassing score on the Dominion Institute's Canada Day history quiz.

There is truth to much of it, and Cohen is such a gifted complainer that he is great fun to read whether you agree with a given point or not. His finest moment is his magnificent chapter-long rant about Ottawa, a city from which Cohen, no fool, is preparing to flee for Berlin. Canada's capital is "a trucker's paradise," Bank Street "a varicose vein," the Queensway "cuts through the city like a rusting hacksaw." Yet here already Cohen runs into trouble: could somebody remind me where the world's pretty expressways are? Oh, that's right, nowhere.

More generally, in his rush to tell us everything in Canada is either not good enough (such as its politicians) or insufficiently revered (such as its retired politicians), Cohen runs into contradictions. Is it Canadians who are uncomfortable with success, as he says, or is it Brits who are "wretched with embarrassment" at winning, as he quotes Bill Bryson saying? Should we imitate the Brits, whose "national character is shaped by centuries of history" - or the Americans, in whom Winston Churchill was delighted to find "no such thing as reverence or tradition"?

If "examples abound" about Canadian pettiness and jealousy in the face of success, there should be more examples of resentment after Lester Pearson won the Nobel Prize than John Diefenbaker begrudging his rival and "one outspoken woman at a cocktail party in Vancouver" exclaiming, "Well, who does he think he is!"

There is, after all, a Pearson Airport and a Pearson Centre and a Pearson School Board in Quebec and a Pearson School for the Performing Arts in London, Ont. Flip it around: if there was a Pearson Sucks Airport and a Pearson Was Overrated School Board and a Don't Study The Arts Here Because You'll Wind Up As Bad At Music As Pearson Was At Diplomacy School in London, but one lone woman at a cocktail party had been overheard saying, "Well, I kind of liked him" - then you could argue Canada has a problem with success.

Even when Canada is different, and seemingly inferior by some measures, to the greats of this world, I'm more willing than Andrew to make excuses. Ottawa is less majestic than Paris, London or Rome because Ottawa was never an imperial capital in need of grand boulevards down which its conquering armies could march. I routinely ace the Dominion Institute history quiz, but I'm a bit of a freak; real people don't know Canadian history because Canadian history is light on the one ingredient that is guaranteed to make history memorable, which is mass slaughter perpretrated on our soil or in our name. Americans do well on Pearl Harbor and Abe Lincoln because those are easy questions. If they had only Homer Plessy and the Smoot Hawley Tariff to bone up on, they might seem ahistorical. But I'm not sure they would be a sadder country.

If Andrew Cohen worries that Canada is not enough like the great countries, Michael Byers worries that it might become too much like one of them, and there is no prize for guessing which one. "It is difficult to explain Canada's continued independence without referring to Tommy Douglas, Lester B. Pearson, and Pierre Trudeau," Byers writes, but he manages to add extravagant praise for Lloyd Axworthy, Mel Hurtig and anyone else who ever stuck it to the Yankees. Byers is, naturally and eloquently, furious at George W. Bush for the Abu Ghraib prison, the way Maher Arar was whisked off to a Syrian torture cell, and much else. But he seems to believe less odious presidents are simply more insidious. Remember Bill Clinton? Such a charmer. But that's the danger! "Were it not for George W. Bush, Canada might be on its way to becoming the 51st American state," Byers writes.

Much of Byers's book felt like fingernails on chalkboard to me, so I want to be careful to say he makes a big point well. Canada would have better served its interests, its values and the sum total of human happiness over the past six years if its leaders had more often found the guts to call the Bush administration out on its failures and excesses - Abu Ghraib, extraordinary rendition, secret prisons and chartered CIA torture flights, many of which seem to have flown through our airspace and used our airports. Three of our prime ministers have sought easy cross-border virtue on files like softwood lumber and, incredibly, the Kyoto accord, where Canada's credibility is zero, while mumbling shamefully about the genuinely appalling behaviour.

But if George W. Bush did not exist, Byers would be happy to make him up. His omnibus anti-Americanism is breathtaking. He opens the book with a maudlin account of the day he - gasp! - gave up his green card at a U.S. Customs office, wondering how to explain to an American, "especially one with a flag on his shoulder and a gun on his hip," that he no longer wanted to live in the U.S. I'm guessing he would have been fine giving any answer that didn't actually involve reaching for the gun.

In what may now be my favourite sentence in any Canadian book ever, Byers writes: "A life-sized carving of a bald eagle stands in the corner of my office, a beaver clasped in its talons." Byers says he got the carving from his grandfather, proof, I suppose that some forms of mental illness are hereditary. One handy definition of a Canadian is a person who is at all likely to believe the Americans are the worst next-door neighbours you could have. This notion is a hard sell anywhere in Europe, Asia or Africa, where cross-border carnage has never been only a metaphor to comfort the congenitally self-pitying.

More broadly, it would seem to be an occupational hazard of the Canada book business that the genre's authors believe our country to be particularly fragile, or improbable, or endangered. Byers has his mauled beaver. Cohen ventures to hope we will find "the courage, the will and the wisdom to survive." Roy MacGregor goes on and on and on some more about Canada as a country nobody would believe could exist, a "Bumblebee of Nations" that cannot fly yet somehow manages to carry on.

Again, I think this actually does count as a genuine Canadian particularity because I have never found anyone from any other country who finds Canada in any way doomed or hard to believe. Quirky, sure. Perpetually on the edge of the brink? Only because we won't shut up about it, maybe. I once spent lunch explaining our national absurdities to some visiting Belgian journalists. Finally the eldest among them had had enough of me. "You realize," he said, putting his knife and fork down, "that Canada is our dream."

MacGregor's saving grace - or one of them, because this most graceful journalist has many - is that he puts little stock in his own theories or anyone else's. His existential musings and his attempts to ring the sacred Gzowski Bells of high Canuck authenticity ("I have seen flax in bloom; read Sinclair Ross, been to the Quebec Winter Carnival ... ") are his least persuasive moments.

Somebody has clearly told MacGregor a Canada book should be solemn and portentous but he just can't manage it over the long run. So he front-loads the book with failed predictions of catastrophe (Robertson Davies: "This is the worst this country has ever seen") and then loads up the car to go do some reporting. Anecdotes are not inferior to theory, they are the only basis for theory and the best proof of its limits. So MacGregor finds a guy who learned to read after he turned 90, quotes William Faulkner on Maurice Richard's eyes ("the passionate, glittering, fatal alien quality of snakes"), describes the conference in Nunavut where elders came up with a new Inuktitut vocabulary for climate change. It is all wonderfully real, which is not the same as saying it is trivial, quite the contrary. MacGregor is, still, horrified by the unity crisis that attended the Meech Lake accord's last days. It seems to me that beginning with Meech's late decadent period, everyone in Canada was briefly trying to put theory ahead of anecdote - that is, that every Canadian was trying to write a Canada book. It worked out about as well as you might expect.

In his version of the dutiful literature review that each of these three authors carries out before trying to extend the Canada canon, Andrew Cohen finds a 20-year-old book by a New York Times reporter named Andrew Malcolm. Malcolm ventured that if Canadians "ever sat down and relaxed and pretended not to care about it for a moment, they would suddenly find that elusive sense of self-comfort lurking just out of the corners of their eyes." And indeed it is so. Roy MacGregor trusts the corners of his eyes. On our national day, so exquisitely timed for sitting down and relaxing, so might we all.

Maclean's July 9, 2007