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The Lines that Bind Us

November 15, 2008

I like maps.  I like knowing where I am and what’s around me.  I like to imagine the places I’ve never been.  I like the way they make you think.

Which is why I often wonder why the lines on a map are drawn where they are drawn.  Those lines that represent environmental features are obvious enough, but what about all those political lines?  The national, provincial, state, county, municipal, and other lines that we take for granted as having real meaning and purpose behind them.

In the age of globalization, these lines are losing more and more of their relevance each day.  The EU, NAFTA and other economic unions are dissolving boundaries for all things economic faster than you can say “Made in China”.  As goes economic control, so too goes political power.  Although the nation state remains the base unit for United Nations authority and OECD statistics, national sovereignty is under attack from all sides as cities, regions, companies, NGOs, and various international conglomerations of the above take on a greater political presence in the minds of citizens.  As these meanings fall away, it is becoming harder to discern exactly what the purpose and value of the lines on most maps really represent.

One meaning these lines are still holding on to is the portrayal of people who share a culture.  This can be seen by the proliferation of new map lines that have been created over the past few decades.  The break-ups of Yugoslavia, the Soviet Union, Indonesia, and other large countries have created new nations based largely on cultural distinctions (ethnicity, language and religion all being part and parcel of the cultural character of a place).  But what does this mean for the lines that define the place we call Canada?
At a time when borders mainly demarcate distinct cultural identities, Canada remains an anomalous collection of diverse interests and beliefs.  Trying to define Canadian culture has become something of a national pastime with no clear winner in sight.  We may know who we are not, but still struggle to express who we are.

Canadian values, on the other hand, are somewhat more tangible.  It is fair to say that most, if not all, Canadians are bound together by a shared respect and belief in certain core values.  Democracy. Equality.  Tolerance.  Peace.  Excessive politeness (sorry).  What I find interesting in this list is that what may be classified as Canadian values could just as easily be classified as universal values.

Maybe this explains the paradox of Canada’s borders.  They define a place where people share a certain view of the world.  And who yearn for a time when these borders won’t matter.


9 Comments leave one →
  1. masoud shahsavari farjad permalink
    July 24, 2009 1:04 am

    I love your country , and I like to visit that, but sorrily I have no relative there to invite me, how can I see there? as you know we Iranian unfortunately because of our governers cannot easily get visa from other countries, please guide me how can I get visa?

  2. adamfritz permalink*
    December 16, 2008 6:05 pm

    I think we do agree. That’s part of the problem with having the tough conversations. The people who turn up are the ones who think alike. New technologies let us access the world, but usually end up just enabling us to build bubbles around ourselves of what we want to hear and believe.

    So now what? If we were designing the perfect dialogue we would figure out who should be part of this conversation and how best to get people up to speed and bring them together. Since it appears to just be the two of us at the moment, maybe we can figure out where we differ in our views on Canada.

    When I think of Canada I usually end up in the la-la-multicultural-fairyland end of the spectrum. I get the warm fuzzy images and slogans that try to capture the national identity. Shane Koyczan does a great job at summing this up on YouTube:

    But I also see the wear and tear on the multicultural tapestry. Part of it is just the normal confusion over changing demographics, but there are some serious divides that are threatening to split ever wider. The two largest from my view are the East-West divide and the rural-urban split. Since I grew up in rural and small city New Brunswick compared to your Vancouver experience, maybe this is where we can find insight?

    The traditional urban-rural split is easy to understand. Different economies. Different expectations. Different speeds. This is a long-standing dichotomy that may be getting more complex, but I think will eventually find balance simply because the two rely on each other. What is changing is the fact that some urban areas are becoming way more powerful than their smaller cousins. The big three of TO, Van and Mtl are really different beasts than most of urban Canada based on ethnic diversity and economic opportunity.
    Do they deserve to be treated differently than the rest of Canada? Can someone who moves to or grows up in one of them truly relate to the rest of Canada (as opposed to the other mega-cities of the world like NY and Sao Paolo)? Should Vancouver really have to impose bilingualism on its residents when French is only the 14th most spoken language?

    The east-west divide I understand less. What are you guys thinking? As a Maritimer, I just like to get along with people, laugh a little and move to where the jobs are. My home is both where I live and where I grew up, and I am fine with that. Both of these places happen to be in Canada at the moment, but that could change. I know many people who consider themselves Canadian citizens but EU or American passport holders. Maybe the differences between these countries are not such that one becomes a drain on the other, but they are still different countries with different citizenship rights.

    I think my point is that people identify in many different ways. Not in exclusion, but all at once. I guess my question is how important is the Canadian identity to those in the west? In the east it is pretty strong.

    (Note: I am leaving Quebec out of this entire conversation. We know where they stand, and we seem to have come to an understanding on this issue for the time being.)

  3. Scott Y permalink
    December 16, 2008 1:55 am


    Firstly, I’m the kind of person who would rather rip off a band-aid than slowly and excruciatingly.

    So, it seems (ha!) that we actually agree Adam? We both seem to concur that a new national conversation is needed. Isn’t this what Canada’s World is taking the first step toward?

    We’ve identified the issue, but then….now what?

    Secondly, I actually think your comment that Canada is becoming more of a safety net than a provider is devastatingly accurate. Let me give you one micro example. I know of an elderly Mexican man who lives 8 months of the year in Guadalajara. He has cornered the Guadalajara Toyota market and is a multi-millionaire several times over. The only reason he comes to Vancouver is because his son and wife have cancer, and having obtained Canadian citizenship in the late 1990s, they are entitled to our medicare system. They are lovely people, but I have…nagging unease over this manipulation of our health care system, particularly because this gentleman is not obligated to pay Canadian taxes while he resides in Mexico.

    The other example that comes to mind are the Lebanese citizens with Canadian passports (who identify as Canadian passport holders, not Canadian citizens) in the summer of 2006, who (rightfully) asked for the Canadian government to remove them from a dangerous situation. But I found it pertubing that they immediately returned to Lebanon after the conflict had settled down, leaving the implication that they will expect the Canadian government to bail them out again in the event of an emergency. I do not begrudge the extrication, but rather the implications of having Canadian passport holders who do not see Canada as more than a bail-out mechanism.

    Hong Kong has over a quarter million Canadian expats, which makes it larger than PEI, or the majority of small-to-mid-size Canadian towns. In a recent survey in the Vancouver Sun (March 2007?), the majority of them identified as Chinese residents, but as Canadian passport holders. I thought that was a rather revealing word choice.

    Is this the sort of Canada we want to see in the 21st century? – what McGill’s Stephen Gallagher calls a “a global suburb; a comfortable, secure and tolerant bedroom community.”

    I don’t know…

  4. adamfritz permalink*
    December 15, 2008 6:39 pm

    So much to comment on. Where to begin?

    The key to holding a meaningful dialogue is in knowing what the question really is. Otherwise the discussion goes off in too many directions. This is often harder than we think. So far the question posed here has gone from “What is Canada?” to “Is Canada really working?” I’m not sure if either of these captures what we are trying to get at here, so allow me to go off in a few directions until the question settles out.

    Perhaps the question could be: “Why do some people think that Canada works?” Is it just a comparison between the extremes of impoverished countries and powerful countries, where Canada fits nicely in the middle along with Scandinavia and Australia? Maybe. But I think there is more to it. I think that there is a Canadian Dream that is very different from the American version. Rather than focusing on individual success, our dream focuses on a less sexy and ambitious driving force: the quest for balance. Trying to make everyone happy, but not too happy. Enjoy the sunshine when it comes, but always know that winter is on its way.

    Or maybe the question is: “Has the Canadian Golden Age passed us by, and if so how can we reclaim it?” I, for one, am getting a little tired of Lester Pearson references every time someone tries to hold Canada up high. Where have all our statesmen and women gone? If Canada is supposed to be leading the way for others, where are all our leaders? I see two potential answers. Either we have drifted too far down someone else’s path to be leading anyone, or we have seconded our leaders to so many other needy interests that we have forgotten to keep some for ourselves.

    Or is it: “Are those weird/ignorant/different people really Canadians too?” The world is changing very fast, and Canada is changing along with it. Urbanization and the concentration of recent immigrants to the big three cities have contributed to most of the divides that you mention. I believe that Canadians have had some big conversations throughout our history (WWII? October crisis? QC referendum?), but the time has come for a new one. La-la-multicultural-happy-fairyland plays well in the brochures and Heritage moments, but it presents some serious challenges that we are only now coming to grips with. I agree that we will have to shed our protective PC shells to allow us to come to terms with the sometimes conflicting doubts, assumptions and biases that we all harbour within. And, as your Stratford story suggests, this will hurt and we will feel stupid for voicing our internal insecurities. But it will hurt even worse if we keep them bottled up inside and resort to blaming the others.

    Or maybe the question is simply: “What do I need a country for anyway?” Few people are more globalized than Canadians. As we become more educated and well travelled, we find ourselves relating to ideas, places and people outside of our homeland. Canada becomes more of a safety net than a provider. It brought us up, but we have left home to explore the world. The risk in this is that if we take it for granted that Canada will always be there for us when we need it, we may come home one day and realise that no one has been around to mow the lawn and take out the trash.

  5. Scott Y permalink
    December 14, 2008 12:01 am

    Alright Adam, I’ll bite – because I can.

    Is Canada really working? I’ve always been cautious of the idea of Canadian exceptionalism. Are we really exceptional in some indeterminable way, or is it some narcissistic schadenfraude socio-psychological national disorder?

    I’m not convinced that we are meaningfully exceptional in any way. That’s not to admit that Canada isn’t somehow a terrible place to live. In the grand scheme of things, being in the top ten places in the world in terms of livability, education, income, etc etc, is not necessarily a bad thing. So we ranked lower than Iceland, Denmark and Luxembourg on . That doesn’t mean we’re a failure as a country, but it also doesn’t necessarily mean we are exceptional.

    Adam, the other point I want to address is your comments on regionalism in Canada. This is one area that I do find particularly concerning, because I’m less optimistic about Canadian cohesion. When I look at Canada, I’m seeing ever-strengthening regional cleavages (or even intra-regional fragmentation) – ideologically, economically, politically, socially, ethnically. By nearly every measure, Canadians are becoming increasingly ‘unlike’. The most formalized of these fractures is TILMA, the BC-Alberta internal trade agreement that will eventually create Canada’s second largest economy.

    Why am I concerned? Because, unlike most other countries, we haven’t yet had a conversation about what it means to be authentically Canadians. The Americans, Australians and British have had similar painful dialogues, but we Canadians haven’t. So, if British Columbians can’t identify

    I’m a born-and-raised Vancouverite. I’ve felt more culture shock going to Vieux Montreal (QC), Lunenberg (NS), Haida Gwaii (BC), Stratford, (ON), than I ever did in New York, London, Auckland or Sao Paulo. For example, I was asked in Stratford whether I, as an Oriental, had better peripheral vision than Caucasians. My good Newfie friend Jeff felt very uncomfortable in downtown Vancouver, because he was surrounded by Cantonese-speaking, sushi-swilling ESL students. Hongcouver is a very scary prospect for WASP Jeff.

    I’m not intending to sound alarmist. I don’t think Canada will shatter into tinpot principalities tomorrow. But, the truth is that I am concerned about the fact that Canadians don’t have a meaningful national coagulant to bind us together.

    (PS: And the recent divisive partisan bullshit in Ottawa sure hasn’t helped!)

    Like I said before, I really really want to believe in the Canadian dream. I also think that it is eventually achievable.
    I don’t think we’re going to do it without some hard, painful, honest and serious politically incorrect dialogue. Until then, we’re going to keep living in la-la-multicultural-happy fairyland.

  6. adamfritz permalink*
    December 13, 2008 9:14 am

    Just the conversation I’ve been looking for! What is Canada?

    As any brand marketer will tell you, it is both a concrete place with real people and a concept in our heads. Perception is reality. The question is do the real people who live in this concrete place all share the same perception of our country?

    As our federal leadership took a beating from all sides over the past few weeks, I was struck by how different parts of our immense country responded. Some parts are fed up with anyone trying to represent them at a federal level. Some parts are longing to put our differences aside for the greater good. Some parts are already detached from the national identity and just find it amusing. All of this points to some serious regional challenges to keeping our federation together. Throw in high immigration rates and globalization and you can see how the perception of “Canada” as our collective home may be creeping away.

    It’s not that I think that our country will break apart. I don’t. It is more that I think the concept of Canada will deteriorate.

    Whether it is deserved or not, Canada is held up by people around the world as a special place to be emulated and yearned for. It is sometimes hard for us Canadians to really appreciate this from within, because we are too close to the obvious imperfections around us. But when compared to the other concrete places that real people live in around the world it becomes much more obvious that we have hit on something special here. We can’t put our finger on what that special something is, but we believe in it anyway. What I am afraid of is that we will lose our belief in this something special that is the perceived Canada.

    A Frenchman I met in a desert in Jordan once told me he considered Canada to be a great experiment. A place where we discuss and debate our differences rather than fight over them. He figured if it couldn’t work in Canada what was the point of trying anywhere else. I think of him and other people I have met around the world who look up to Canada when I worry about our national unity. It is not just about Canada’s World, but it is about the World’s Canada.

  7. Scott Y permalink
    December 12, 2008 7:57 pm

    I’ve always been conditionally sympathetic to the view that Canada was created to be ‘not American’. Yes, cliche – but think about the circumstances John A MacDonald was in the 1860s. The US had just concluded a devastating Civil War and had always had hopes for Canadian integration into the US (see the US first constitution). For a great synopsis, see Richard Gwyn’s biography ‘John A’.

    But just because I sometimes despair that Canada is just an accident of history doesn’t mean that its our destiny. I think we do need a hard and honest conversation (aka, dialogue) about what Canada really is. I think the Bouchard-Taylor Commission last year in Quebec was a step in actually bringing issues to the table, but I also think we need to throw political correctness out of the window and not be afraid of offending others. In a free democratic society, I have the right to offend you without fear of reprisal (see Maclean’s & Mark Steyn). And vice versa.

    A healthy disagreeable dialogue is necessary for Canada, indeed for any vibrant democracy. And I really really think that’s what Canadians need to do very soon – have a conversation about being Canadian. We need to have the emotional maturity to not be afraid of being offended, or else Canada is nothing more than just arbitrary lines on a map.

  8. corsullivan permalink*
    December 12, 2008 2:04 pm

    You were basically right to doubt the authenticity of that chain e-mail. I remember seeing a very similar one in the aftermath of September 11, 2001 – it was also attributed to that mysterious Australian dentist, but it was about Americans, not Canadians. Someone has rather clumsily tweaked that text, which I found cloying enough in the original, to make it semi-applicable to Canada (do we really have more Muslims than Afghanistan? does our Charter really say anything about the pursuit of happiness?).

    Something close to the version that I saw years ago can be found here, though it doesn’t say anything about the dentist. In my opinion the universalist message of the piece works better for the US than for Canada, to the extent that it works at all. The US was explicitly founded as the practical embodiment of certain political ideas, at least in theory, but I would rather think of Canada as a concrete place inhabited by real people.

  9. adamfritz permalink*
    December 11, 2008 8:21 pm

    I came across this chain email and it reminded me of this post. Not sure about its authenticity, but I like the message:

    “An Australian Definition of a Canadian

    In case anyone asks you who a Canadian is . . .

    You probably missed it in the local news, but there was a report that someone in Pakistan had advertised in a newspaper an offer of a reward to anyone who killed a Canadian – any Canadian.

    An Australian dentist wrote the following editorial to help define what a Canadian is, so they would know one when they found one.

    A Canadian can be English, or French, or Italian, Irish, German, Spanish, Polish, Russian or Greek. A Canadian can be Mexican, African, Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Australian, Iranian, Asian, Arab, Pakistani or Afghan.

    A Canadian may also be a Cree, Métis, Mohawk, Blackfoot, Sioux, or one of the many other tribes known as native Canadians. A Canadian’s religious beliefs range from Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu or none. In fact, there are more Muslims in Canada than in Afghanistan . The key difference is that in Canada they are free to worship as each of them chooses. Whether they have a religion or no religion, each Canadian ultimately answers only to God, not to the government, or to armed thugs claiming to speak for the government and for God.

    A Canadian lives in one of the most prosperous lands in the history of the world. The root of that prosperity can be found in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms which recognize the right of each person to the pursuit of happiness.

    A Canadian is generous and Canadians have helped out just about every other nation in the world in their time of need, never asking a thing in return. Canadians welcome the best of everything, the best products, the best books, the best music, the best food, the best services and the best minds.

    But they also welcome the least – the oppressed, the outcast and the rejected.

    These are the people who built Canada . You can try to kill a Canadian if you must as other blood-thirsty tyrants in the world have tried but in doing so you could just be killing a relative or a neighbour. This is because Canadians are not a particular people from a particular place. They are the embodiment of the human spirit of freedom. Everyone who holds to that spirit, everywhere, can be a Canadian.”

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