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How to Be Patriotic About a Country Built on Diversity

07/01/2014 02:37 EDT | Updated 08/31/2014 05:59 EDT
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Canada is often described as the world's first post-modern democracy. This means it does not rely on a single cohesive sense of nationhood to root its identity. The closest it has ever come to such a thing is the -- to some nostalgic, to others archaic -- dual theme of a truly bilingual nation; the French and English Canada. This theme has its attractions (for one, its Confederation history points to peaceful accommodation over violence), but it is ultimately too simple to form the main arc to Canada's story.

Indigenous nations, diverse immigrant communities, Quebec sovereigntists, moments of East-West and North-South divide, not to mention a federal structure that promotes provincial identities as much as a pan-Canadian one, all wreak havoc on the old French-English tale.

In absence of a single narrative, Canadians by and large cling to a celebration of difference. Accommodating a new culture is the national pastime, while intolerance is the national sin. This, of course, gets tricky when a new culture is intolerant. In such cases, Canadians -- or, to be specific, the Canadian justice system -- firmly defaults to its liberal democratic roots. It prioritizes individual rights over the community in question's right to force its values onto one of their own. But such clear stand-offs between specific rights do not themselves reveal a nascent national identity. Canadians are still left with a vague sense of collective self that is largely held together by a spirit of respecting differences.

This spirit as the main ingredient in the national consciousness is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it promotes a self-reflexive sense of political identity that inhibits the ugliest elements of nationalism. It is difficult to rouse much Us vs. Them fervour when a) there is no clear Us and b) respecting differences is the one value respected by most. On the other hand, it inhibits a feeling of collective pride and care for each other with the capacity to stretch across the entire country.

There is much to be said for such a feeling. A deep sense of national belonging motivates not just the soldier, but the engineer designing bridges, the civil servant writing briefing notes, the small business serving customers, and the politician running for office, to name but a few. Collective identity, curbed before it escalates into ugly nationalism, can fuse civic purpose into all we do in the public sphere. And public actions couched in civic purpose can be the most rewarding societal acknowledgement that Canadians are responsible to, and benefit from, one another.

How can we achieve such a sense of collectiveness in a country so big and diverse? It may be simpler than it appears. We cannot rely on any one cultural marker, because a.) we're too diverse and b.) we know that such markers -- especially ethnic, racial, or religious ones -- as sparkers for national pride can be dangerous. We can, however, invigorate our loyalty to and affection for those Canadian political institutions that keep us accountable to one another; the ones that have stood the test of time even while demonstrating an ability to mould with the ages.

These institutions include the federalism that gives regions control over local policy issues, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms that allow a careful weighting of rights should they conflict, the parliamentary system that allows a responsive government not shackled down by excessive checks and balances, and a healthy respect for the law that ensures our peace, order, and good government.

Are these broad institutions capable of handling our deepest divides? Two apt examples demonstrate that they can. First, much of the grief over indigenous rights stems from a lack of respect for treaties. This is ironic since the only thing that matched this country's first Prime Minister's fondness for Britain was his fondness for the law. It is in Canada's genes to respect laws made until they are democratically changed, and this includes the treaties signed by the Crown and the federal government. Second, the largest threat to the Canadian state since its inception has been Quebec sovereignty. Yet federalism's ability to grant Quebec incredible powers has dampened many a moderate nationalist's spirit, and the Supreme Court has laid out steps for a lawful -- if regrettable -- separation.

Respecting differences is rightfully Canada's claim to fame in the world, but that is not enough to guide this place to its fullest potential. Canadians cannot -- and should not -- embrace any particular race, language, or religion as their national marker, but they can and should embrace their country. Such an embrace constitutes a commitment to the people who share this land and, indeed, to the land itself.

Canadians can put aside the fear that flying the Maple Leaf too high may yield a sudden intolerance in the ship's hull. It won't. This country deserves its fair share of patriots. Its unique set of institutions, magnificent landscape, and diverse array of people, constitute a country that is worth living -- and dying -- for.

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