As I considered the prospect of writing to a Canadian 50 years into the future, one question (if I am indeed allowed one) kept returning to me, which I feel obligated to ask: What does national identity mean in the year 2067? What is our story, the overarching narrative that guides how we communally think and act, both at a local and national level? I ask this because I feel that this is something that remains very much in flux at the time of writing this reflection.
Whether this is entirely historically accurate or not, I have come to think of Canada’s story to so far consist of two parts: the story of the first one hundred years or so, was, in my mind, dominated by a triumphalist anglo-western perspective. It was a perspective that was oblivious to any other, and would go on to establish a narrative wherein the first Canadians, when confronted by the headwinds of harsh climate, vast geographic distances and an increasingly confident and energetic southern neighbour, seemingly, through sheer act of will, managed to carve out a nation.
This nation was a beacon of civilization in the desolate north, firmly rooted in the culture and traditions of Great Britain and the Empire, eager to perform the duties expected of membership and proud to share in its present and future glory, or so the story goes.
This was a narrative which, while undoubtedly problematic, and not at all representative of the whole of reality, was not without its romantic appeal, and consequently, it became the narrative upon which our supposed national identity was seemingly based.
Yet it was around fifty years ago when reality managed to catch up, and the Canada of old started to become the Canada of today. The previously dominant British narrative was rocked by a vigorous reawakening of a starkly different French-Canadian narrative. And then, suddenly, our nation became nations and our story became stories. We began to become aware that our own reality had been much more complex all along, and rather remarkably, we chose to accept it.
This narrative would eventually be joined by many others: feminist narratives, indigenous narratives, gender and sexual narratives and of course, countless immigrant narratives from just about every corner of the world. These stories have not just been received, but have been allowed to interact with one another, yielding dynamic results that surely could not have been anticipated.
Consequently, astonishing change has occurred in the makeup of Canadian society over fifty relatively short years as we attempt to - albeit imperfectly - embrace and celebrate these new narratives and integrate them into the greater story of Canada.
Canada took a great risk by shedding the parochial safety of its Imperial narrative and anchoring itself in its own concrete realities. Yet, in spite of the possible risks that could have come with taking such a step into the unknown, we have not just survived, but indeed have been thriving as a people. We are renowned for our high level of tolerance, inclusiveness, and a basic live-and-let-live attitude to life. This is all well and good, but for me the question remains, what now is our story? I’m not very sure.
While not much argument would be needed to demonstrate that our previous narrative had been antiquated and insensitive, it nevertheless offered a certain clarity and sense of purpose, capable of provoking a strong reaction of either assent or dissent (as was often the case). In contrast, it seems to me that the principal theme of our new Canadian story has been the bold affirmation of the principles of inclusivity and tolerance, and the embracing of its effects.
However, as a consequence of adopting a narrative that is inclusive of all narratives, the above characteristics of our former narrative seem to have become diluted. In other words, there no longer appears to be a singular line or trajectory guiding our collective sense of history or destiny.
We simply no longer have a single story to tell, but rather a complex web of parallel stories, sometimes harmonious and sometimes not.
Admittedly, there are some who find this lack of certitude unsettling. Yet, on the other hand, without any obvious direction to follow, our future is wide open. A web can grow in many directions, and can be filled-in with an almost infinite number of patterns of intricate and astonishing beauty.
So while I am confident that in fifty years our narrative web will have indeed maintained its beauty, I do wonder what it will ultimately look like when we finally get there. What shape will it take? Out of all of our stories, what patterns have emerged to wind the most prominent threads? That is what I would like to know when we, as a country, celebrate our bicentennial fifty years from now.