www.gg.ca Archives - Archives du www.gg.ca
Governor General of Canada / Gouverneur général du Canadaa
Print

 


Media

 

His Excellency John Ralston Saul
Opening Address to the International Council for Canadian Studies Conference

University of Ottawa
Thursday, May 18, 2000

I arrived very late yesterday from Australia, which has the advantage and disadvantage of being on the other side of the world. I am standing, but just barely.

I have been to Australia four times. Each time, I am struck by the fact that it is the only country where, when I begin speaking, people do not necessarily agree or disagree, but they understand me. There are many other countries where English and French are spoken, and where I spend a good part of my time explaining myself. For each sentence or statement, five sentences are required as an explanation. These five sentences are not necessary in Australia. All of this to say that Australia does not play a large enough role in our thoughts on what life is, or could be, in this country.

Next week, David Malouf, possibly Australia's greatest writer, and I will discuss Canadian and Australian mythologies at the National Library. We do not know what we are going to say, but David is very intelligent and I will do what I can, and we will see. ________ _________ _________

At this time, all of us – just about everywhere in the world, especially in democracies or countries where the free market prevails – are victims of what could be called the Tristan and Isolde syndrome. What is the Tristan and Isolde syndrome? It is what has been taught in schools of economics for about 25 years. It says that if we all drink a magic potion – a love potion – we will suddenly lose our sense of responsibility as citizens, and it will be replaced by inevitable, passionate, romantic forces that will determine the direction of the world. This sense of responsibility will also be replaced by the dominance of what is called "self-interest." The French term is less descriptive: amour propre, or intérêt personnel. Prince Hassan has suggested narcissisme économique, which is an interesting translation.

This syndrome has lasted for a quarter century. But we have been seeing the beginning of a change of direction over the past two years or so. In various places around the globe, we sense that the magic potion has worn off a little bit. People no longer really believe in inevitable forces. They are beginning to remember the fact that while self-interest is necessary, absolutely necessary, it is too mediocre a concept to guide a civilization. And embrace inevitable forces? That is far too romantic, too emotional an idea for citizens who, over the past 2 500 years, have become accustomed to feeling responsible for their actions and the directions of their society.

This does not mean that because we taught Tristan and Isolde in schools of economics for a quarter century, we are now going to lapse into the opposite – idiotic protectionism or whatever. It does not mean that the nation-state of the 19th century will return. Or that it must return. I hope that it will not. That kind of nation-state has already given us two world wars. This is not the time to revisit all of that again.

But it does mean that the great syndrome of inevitability will not appear either. And that we are looking for something between the two, a kind of reasonable globalization where citizens in nation-states will play a very important role. After all, you can't say in the same text, as many people do, "Thank God democracy won ten years ago, democracy won throughout the world," and then three sentences later, "how wonderful, the nation-state is dead." Because democracy was created and exists only within nation-states. Therefore, if nation-states are dead, democracy is dead, because we have not done what is necessary to transfer democracy to other regional or global levels.

So at this time, individuals and citizens just about everywhere in the West are looking for ways to become involved, or rather to become re-involved, in the debates on the major questions of the day – all kinds of major questions. The way we see ourselves as citizens, in whatever territory or country we may live, is therefore very important; the way we see ourselves within our civilization, the way we see other citizens in other civilizations. Carlos Fuentes said: [TRANSLATION] "Culture comes before the nation, and culture can organize itself in many ways." And you know that when Carlos Fuentes uses the word culture – rather in the same way as Robin Blaser of British Columbia when he said that "poetry comes first" – we are not talking about culture in the strict sense of the term, but culture in the sense of great concepts of civilization. This is what comes first in a nation. Not interests, but how citizens see themselves, that is, culture.

And I will add two things that must be repeated again and again in order to understand a country, countries, nations, peoples. First, as many other people have said, history is the past moving through the present into the future. It does not consist of three chapters or periods. It is a single event. Second, nations, countries, peoples do not really change that much over time. In our civilizations we have deep memories. And I use the word "memories" in its broadest sense – those memories that exist at many levels. Over time, those memories are lost and then, curiously, from out of nowhere, they are rediscovered, often 5, 50, 100, 200 years later. It is amazing how deep are the memories that exist in human cultures, memories which are often there, hidden, slumbering, asleep, but which will always resurface. The memories of civilizations are not wiped out. They will always appear in different or similar combinations, new or old interpretations, or a combination of both. It is interesting to note – the Ambassador of France is here, and I believe he will agree with me – that the peoples of Europe, we could say the states or nations of Europe, are in the process of rebuilding themselves, of finding themselves once again within a framework that they previously used in another way, more or less during the Middle Ages. And this is a compliment. They are rediscovering the continent, the continental concept as it existed before the advent of the nation-state in the 18th and 19th centuries. But they are rediscovering the Middle Ages, with the advantages and without the disadvantages of the late 19th century and the 20th century.

They are memories that are constantly acting within civilizations. In these memories, there are, however, key moments, events, crises that signal changes, that slightly alter the direction of various developments, that fix memories or certain interpretations of memories. I do not believe that there are that many "wild cards" in history. They turn up from time to time, but not as often as people say. Today, we talk as if, I don't know, e-mail is something that came at us out of nowhere and will change our history. In 20 years, we will surely laugh at this kind of small, amusing event, this small technology.

As for key events, aren't there two kinds – the worst and the best? Half a century ago, we murdered seven million Jews. That was a key moment in the history of the West. In our memory, it changed everything, but at the same time it is part of the catastrophic continuation of a certain part of our memory. There are also some extremely positive events. It is incredible that these two things can coexist. But experienced memory and real memory make up real experience. ________ _________ _________

I want to talk to you a little bit about some of these moments in Canada's past and also in the present and future. They are tools we have right now for discussion and for change.

Let me begin with the questions of murder or political death. Whenever I mention this subject, I'm amazed by the reaction. There is either an embarrassed silence, or a look of surprise, as if to say, 'why would you think that was important?', or 'what possible importance could that have?' or 'what's that got to do with the characteristics of a civilization?'

Confederation represents an artificial kick-off date, but let's use it. Since 1867 this country has killed in the course of internal political strife, in various ways, by hanging, battle, riots and so on, depending on how you do the numbers, approximately 85 people. With all due respect to other cultures, many of whom may be represented here today, this is an extremely unusual characteristic for a nation-state. At this moment, in New York, there's an enormous discussion going on about the fact that 3,000 American blacks were lynched, in the late 19th century and the 20th century. That's just one form of political murder for one group. There have also been various riots during which hundreds of blacks were killed. And, as I said, that is only one category of citizen. Think of the British in Ireland and the deaths over the last quarter century alone. The French in Corsica and in the Basque region. The Spanish and the Basques. And so on and so on and so on.

This country is constructed with all the elements which should have led to internal violence in the late 19th and 20th centuries – religions which oppose each other, racial, cultural groups which in other places opposed each other, enormous differences of richness and poverty. All of those things elsewhere led automatically to violence in the 19th century nation-state. Somehow, we avoided the worst of it in Canada. I don't think it's because we're more intelligent or nicer. I think it has to do with all sorts of circumstances which shape society and events - distance, the North, marginality, poverty. Of course, some choices have been made; there have been some clever moments. But you know, one shouldn't take credit for these things. And of course we must not forget all the catastrophic things that happened. I could spend the entire morning listing them. The stupid things. The scandalous things. The people whose lives we have ruined. In spite of this, the casualties have only crept up to about 85, and we can name them all. It's an astonishing thing to say that in 133 years we can actually name everybody who has died as a result of civil strife.

My feeling is that if you want to understand a nation-state, you begin by asking: "How many of its own citizens has it killed?" Then you can move on to other matters - Were good paintings painted? Very good paintings? Is there wonderful architecture? In other words, you begin not with glory but with modesty. And modesty means believing that you don't have the right to kill your own citizens.

I believe very strongly that the key historic moment, when it was decided formally that we would go down this relatively non-violent road (because it was not automatic), came on the 27th of April 1849, two days after the elite of Canada burnt down our Parliament Buildings because they didn't want to lose power (I am grossly simplifying the way it's normally taught but I think it's an accurate interpretation.) They came out of their houses in Montreal, burnt down the Parliament Buildings and then tried to stone the Governor General and assassinate the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister. Just a minor event. We tend not to talk about it. Two days later, on the 27th, in the midst of ongoing civil disorder, the Cabinet met. This was at a time when, throughout Europe and the United States, there was enormous disorder in the streets, cavalry was charging down main avenues everywhere on a regular basis, opening fire to clear the streets. And they were not simply firing on working class citizens, they were firing on the middle class and the upper middle class and the minor aristocracy, many of whom were the leaders of the reform movements of the day.

The Canadian Cabinet met on the 27th and decided to justify their non-violent actions over the preceding 36 hours and, as it turns out, to justify their non-violent actions of the next several months. When I say decided, I mean consciously, intellectually, decided to adopt an extremely unusual approach. There it is, carefully transcribed in the Cabinet minutes, which to my astonishment I've never seen quoted in any book of Canadian history. I just don't know why. This is the sort of document which indicates the trajectory of a very unusual civilization. It contains such phrases as: "the proper mode of preserving order is by strengthening the civil authorities." This is a remarkable statement for a government to make in the middle of the 19th century; this is not what the British Government was doing at that time; in fact, the British Government sent angry messages over the next few months to the Prime Minister through the Governor, furious that he had not sent troops into the streets in order to do what was done in London, which was to shoot down the people who were causing trouble. It's very interesting to go back and read that correspondence. The great western historian W. L. Morton said that "the Canadian leaders had decided not to answer defiance with defiance but to have moderate combat shame arrogant violence."

What they had done was introduce a clear notion of how any government should behave in a constituted Canadian nation-state. What I am suggesting is that our present constitution was actually born between 1848 and 1849, and that afterwards we fiddled with it as we went along. Indeed we continue to fiddle with it. What do I mean? Well, each civilization defines how it will imagine citizenship. They conceive of a notion which encapsulates their society. Our notion was built around restraint. In other words, restraint was the element which would allow a place as complicated and as unusual as this to survive the catastrophes which were striking the nation-states of Europe and our neighbour to the South.

Our relatively successful addiction to restraint is tied to a shared sense of ourselves as a profoundly egalitarian civilization, one could say a profoundly middle class civilization. It doesn't really matter what the class is if everybody imagines themselves belonging to it. The concept of this structure is that as many people as possible should belong to that single group, in our case, the middle class.

You will find these egalitarian assumptions built into the fundamental structures of this NOT new country. This old country.

I keep saying ours is an old country in the hope that ministerial speech writers will notice and drop their almost automatic use of that terrible phrase: "in this new country where all is possible". The truth is we are in an old country where a certain number of things are possible precisely because we have at least 400 years of experience of working together here; at least 400 years of operating inside what I would call the fundamental triangle, the fundamental three-part foundation of the country: the Aboriginals, the Francophones and the Anglophones. If you convert that triangle into modern terms, it means that long before anybody conceived of Upper or Lower Canada or the Dominion of Canada, this place was already functioning as a society of minorities. There has never been a majority in this country. It has always been a country made up of minorities. Even the concept of English Canada is a preposterous idea because it was essentially Scottish and Irish. And when you look at the Loyalists, who are usually thought of as English Loyalists, you discover that the percentage of English was very small. There were probably as many if not more Germans. And there were Jews, a sizeable group of blacks, large groups of Irish and Scots and so on. So from the very beginning, the reality of even the English minority was an unusual grouping of smaller minorities.

Think of the country in architectural terms: a foundation of three pillars, Aboriginal, Francophone and Anglophone, cemented together if you like by the Métis – which is in a sense the only original thing the three groups did together, to our great and good fortune. Why good fortune? Because the Métis were absolutely key in the shaping of enormous parts of the country. They settled, through their military victories, a large part of the southern border of the Prairies for example. And then we constructed on top of that triangular foundation, floor after floor after floor after floor, of additional minorities from around the world.

I'll come back to this architectural image in a moment. But first, I want to point out that the idea that multiculturalism was invented by the Trudeau government – the classic view – is false. This was a multicultural country from the 17th century on and has never been anything except a multicultural country. Even if you go back and look at the way in which they conceived a mythological view of Confederation in 1867, you'll see that in their own minds, even if they were trying to wipe out the essential memory of the Aboriginal role, they were nevertheless talking about four major groups, not two major groups. Perhaps the word "multicultural" has been too intensely defined over the last few decades to be recuperated for general historical use. Well then, let's say that Canada has been a country of minorities since the 17th century.

A further point: What I'm describing when I speak of egalitarianism, a minority- based culture and an architectural structure is a very unusual model for a nation-state. A non-monolithic model. Anybody who's here from Europe, or the United States, would agree that the 18th/19th century concept of a nation-state was at its heart monolithic, centralizing, designed to remove, for all sorts of reasons, the power of the barons and the regions. One of the basic assumptions was that a nation-state could only be properly administered by the centre if the civilization was reduced to a single language and if all dialects were eliminated. Often these languages marked for elimination were first denigrated as dialects in order to make such linguistic cleansing seem less shocking.

The result was a mono-linguistic dictatorship of the centre. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, until the Second World War, almost all Western nation-states were constructed around that model. That's what built the United States, which is a profoundly 18th and 19th century European monolithic nation.

You could argue that the United States is not monolithic. On the ground that is true. But its conception, its religious texts - the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, Bill of Rights – its mythology are all profoundly monolithic. As an imagined place, it is monolithic. And the way in which it does things is monolithic.

What I'm saying is that in the middle of the 19th century, in this marginal, northern, poor, second- or third-rate little group of colonies, which gradually became Canada, we were already in the process of inventing a new concept, an incredibly post-modern concept – almost by mistake – as a way of living together, as a way of dealing with the impossibility of anybody dominating. We – or rather our predecessors – invented a new kind of nation-state. You could call it a country of minorities. You could call it a decentralized country or, as I've often said, a country based on complexity. You can call it anything you want, but the point is it was a rejection, from the 1840s on, of the dominance of the 18th//19th century idea of the monolithic nation-state. All of our subsequent problems – those which have overwhelmed us from time to time over the last 150 years, as they do in every country – can be attributed to attempts by our elites to import ideologies from Europe. That is, by virtue of their own insecurities, they attempted to impose on this country 18th and 19th century European ideas of the monolithic nation-state. This resulted in unpleasantness, violence, discord. In each case the people eventually found a way to restrain their elites, either by throwing them out or by convincing them that complexity, slowness, a lack of clear priorities, obscurity, wasting time, all of these, are essential elements in the success of this country. And that glorious, romantic, heroic leadership may fit just fine into a monolithic nation-state, but it doesn't work here.

Now let me come back to the idea of an architectural image as the best way to describe our civilization. I've thought about this for years. Somehow we have slipped once again into a European approach, a sort of linear view of how the country was created and evolved. This begins with the Manichean idea of two founding peoples. The two are simply the monolithic idea divided into two halves. Immediately, in a world obsessed by measurement - more often than not, artificial measurement – this approach provokes the question – well, how many of each? What are the numbers? Who has the power? How does it all add up statistically? In other words, this is a linear view which leads to a monolithic view. It is a very social science-like view of society. But Canada is not a linear, rational, European monolithic country. It never has been. Which is why I feel an architectural approach is more appropriate, more accurate, being multi-dimensional, spatial. And this country is essentially spatial.

This is an approach which allows us to understand the central role of Francophones without obsessing over birth rates. It also allows us to re-imagine the reality of the Aboriginal role without becoming obsessed by population statistics. This is not, as some cynical people have said whenever I or other people bring this up, an attempt to reintroduce a romantic idea of the past. Nor is it political correctness in any way, shape or form. Remember, out of 400 years of Canadian history – that is since the meeting of the three groups – the first 250 years were dominated by the Aboriginals or they had equal power. Then, for approximately 100 years the European immigrants reneged on their treaty obligations or a large part of them. Then over the last 50 odd years, we have begun trying to act like civilized people again and have begun putting back together the original arrangements. Slowly but surely we've been re-remembering that original triangular foundation.

This last year has been one of the most exciting for a very long time because with the creation of Nunavut and with the Nisga'a Treaty we have managed, in a brand new way, to introduce into what appear to be Western-oriented legal structures two examples of totally non-linear legal and administrative thought. Both Nunavut and Nisga'a are spatial inventions which do not respond to easy questions about the linear nature of power. And that is good. That is very true to the nature of this place.

Let me go a step further. People often say we have British parliamentary democracy. Well, we don't. Our parliament doesn't work anything like the British parliament. It bears little resemblance to that parliament apart from the names of the roles. The way in which it actually works, the way in which it is conceived is not at all British. We talk about having Anglo-Saxon law or English law and the Civil Code. The reality is that our legal codes are a mix of the two as well as being deeply influenced by our first 250 years, that is, by our experience with the Aboriginals. Our social models, even our negotiating models, for example our approach toward constitutional questions, come out of that first 250 years of experience. Even the fact that we invented peacekeeping and have become experts in it is a reminder of the fact that there is another method, and that method in many ways comes out of those first 250 years.

Let me just go back for a second to the idea of egalitarianism. I'm going to quote you one paragraph from Louis LaFontaine's Address to the Electors of Terrebonne, which I quote in every single speech I give, and I'm going to keep on quoting it until people start quoting it back to me. Because for me this is perhaps the central phrase in the imagining of what Canada would become.

[TRANSLATION] "To prevent us from enjoying it, the social equality that forms the distinctive character of both the people of Upper Canada and those of Lower Canada would have to be destroyed. Because this social equality must necessarily lead to our political freedom. There can be no privileged caste in Canada outside and above the mass of its people."

This is not a speech by a young student filled with idealism. This is the fundamental declaration of policy from the future first democratic Prime Minister of Canada who, with Robert Baldwin, would set the direction of the country.

It isn't surprising that LaFontaine, Baldwin, MacDonald, Cartier, Tupper, McGee, Howe were all obsessed by things such as public education. And their approach toward education did not come out of the British and French traditions. They consciously went and looked for public and egalitarian approaches. They found the basis for Canadian public education in Prussia, Holland, Switzerland and New York. And the first seeds of our universal health system lie in the egalitarian idea which was formally put in place by Louis LaFontaine.

I'm perfectly conscious of the fact that a percentage of our elites have never accepted this interpretation of Canada. After all, as I mentioned a moment ago, they began their explanation of themselves by burning down the Parliament Buildings in 1849. Theirs was and remains the point of view of the classic colonial elite which believes that reality exists elsewhere. Not here. An essay which might help you to understand their point of view is V.S. Naipaul's "The Return of Eva Peron". In his description of what went wrong in Argentina, I think you'll find many echoes of the Canadian situation and of the choices by which we are constantly faced. Let me summarize the argument which they reject. This is an old civilization constructed upon a non-linear, tripartite foundation. This is a minority-based intellectual idea, the opposite of a monolithic society, and has been for 150 years. Canada was the model of the European Union 100 years before anybody thought about the modern idea of Europe. ________ _________ _________

Let me finish with a few details.

First of all, there is the concept of rivers. In most classic nation-states, including the monolithic 19th century nation-state, a river was and remains a barrier, a border. It was where wars ended. It was where you separated people. One of the fascinating things about Canada is that rivers have never been barriers. As Harold Innis and many others have explained, rivers were the highways leading to the centre of the country. Until very recently, they were the mode of transportation,. They were replaced by other modes of transportation such as railways and now high technology. In our history, rivers were like the hinges of a door – meaning "a joint consisting of two interlocking pieces of metal connected by a common axis around which one or both pieces can turn freely." What is bizarre in Canada's case is that this joint turns in both directions. You are here in a city, Ottawa, that is a classic example of this idea of a hinge, a river as a hinge in a civilization where, in fact, there are many interlocking pieces turning around one other. This is completely different from the idea of a river as a border.

My second small idea is that, in general, the idea of civilization is taught, especially in the Western tradition, in the following way: it began with nomads – hunters and gatherers – the hunter-gatherer society. And with "progress," we turned into an agricultural society, and eventually became sedentary. Today, therefore, we have completed this process of "progress," because we are urban, sedentary people. I have heard this taught worldwide. It was progress, wasn't it? The Western idea of progress. I would say that, here, with our three foundations, with our architectural structure, with the untameable nature of most of our territory (90% of our territory is untameable in the European/American sense), we have produced a civilization where there is constant tension between movement; you could say nomads or hunter-gatherers or whatever you like, but between movement on one side and sedentarism on the other. Our civilization is therefore built on constant tension between these two things. Any analyst who tries, for example, to describe our novels as products of the first, second or third stage sadly misunderstands and misconstrues the reality of a civilization. It is permanently founded on this tension between movement and sedentarism. Canada functions as a tension. That is what is interesting.

A third idea: It's not surprising that out of this permanent tension came a school of philosophy. You could call it the Toronto School or the Canadian School, founded by the greatest thinker we have had, Harold Innis. Innis was the first to conceive many of the modern ideas on communications, which were then picked up and developed by people like Marshall McLuhan or, in a completely different way, by Northrop Frye, or in a completely different way by George Woodcock, or in a way by the young Pierre Trudeau when he wrote about balance – his essays on equilibrium were extremely interesting – or by Fernand Dumont or George Grant. Fernand Dumont and George Grant are two very interesting thinkers to put side by side. They were both important thinkers, but they were held back by their attachments to certain earlier European religious ideas, which prevented them from fulfilling their intelligence in the way Innis did. What all of them demonstrated – Innis, McLuhan, Frye, Trudeau, Grant, Dumont – I could add Glenn Gould – is that in this civilization communications is the central theme, communications at every level, even at the most abstract and theoretical levels. Memory is a key element in that concept of communications. Memory has a very important role, here perhaps more important than elsewhere because of the need to communicate. The discussion around the tools of communication, of movement, has always been with us and is still with us. This is in part because of the constant tension between movement and the sedentary. As a result, throughout this century, we have played a central role in the evolution of the philosophy of communications.

I might add that you can tell the country is in crisis when we forget the centrality of communications at every level of our being from the purely philosophical, to the plastic arts, music and the written word; from our mythologies to our practical life. You can tell the country is in crisis when it costs more to fly from Toronto/Montreal to Vancouver than it does from Toronto/Montreal to London/Paris. There you can see, in a very basic sort of way, that Canadians have lost the sense of how absolutely essential the nature of communications is to a place like this. It shows that we have forgotten what Innis said: " that economics must derive its laws from the history of the place rather than deriving the place from a set of all-purpose laws formulated elsewhere". ________ _________ _________

What have I said so far? This has been a civilization of minorities from the beginning; a three-dimensional, architectural structure; profoundly non-monolithic from the beginning: therefore, outside of the classic American/European nation-state structure even in the mid-19th century; the first of the post-modern nation-states; an old civilization with four centuries of stable evolution inside its complexity; a place where rivers – and therefore other forms of communication – are not borders but hinges; a model which does not 'progress' from movement to sedentarism, but is built on the tension between the two; a civilization which thinks in terms of communications and fails to the extent that it ignores the central role of communications; a poor, northern, marginal society which has intellectually constructed its prosperity through an idea of inclusive egalitarianism. A civilization the very essence of which is its complexity.

All of these ideas are tied in some way to the idea of a spatial non-linear non-rational civilization. The opposite of rational is non-rational, not irrational. A spatial idea of civilization is not in any way, shape or form a European/American concept. This is the least European democracy in the world. When I say European, I am referring to the 18th century model of the nation-state. This is the most American state in North America. There are only two of us, and the other one is profoundly European. ________ _________ _________

I'd like to finish with a thought which relates to language. Canadians are extremely comfortable with our own idea of our complexity. Many people in politics, business and academia would like to have a clear view of the place. They would be more comfortable if Canada conformed to a normal model. But Canadians are very comfortable with being incomprehensible by these standards. In a curious way, we know that one of our strongest suits is that half the time the outsiders don't really understand what we're doing. It's a sign of great self-confidence that we can live with this complexity and that we can live on several levels at once. We can be several things at once.

Of course language – or rather, languages – is key to this complexity. Anybody who knows me knows that I believe very strongly in the central role, for example, of the two national languages in Canada. One of our most successful innovations over the last 25 years has been the creation of immersion schooling which now educates 317,000 kids, Anglophones in Francophone schools. This would be the equivalent of Germany having about 800,000 kids in French schools, or France about 700,000 kids in German schools. A revolutionary innovation. This and other linguistic innovations are absolutely essential.

But it's also very important not to see our society only through the structures of language. If you do, you are slipping back into the limits of the international structure of English and French. What is the international structure of those languages if not that of the old empires, British, French, American? I'm not criticizing those places per se. But why would we want to lead ourselves back into total dependence on a structure which we didn't put in place ourselves, which could only in the end be defined elsewhere as having a meaning; a meaning centred on the ex-empire. Besides, these are structures in which we can't help, whether in English or French, but play a very small role. Such dependence would lead us back into a structure which has built-in assumptions about the monolithic nation-state, about the denial of complexity, about the elimination of minority cultures. Dependence on a monolithic linguistic structure involves a de facto denial of our geographical marginality in the North.

I say this because I know that in some places where Canadian culture is taught, the central way of coming at it is through the language stream or the linguistic stream. And I think that that is not the right way to go about it, because it deforms the interpretation of what we really are. I think it's very important for all of us to be looking for comparisons. Not those which eliminate the linguistic line, but which complement or counterbalance the linguistic line. Otherwise we won't be able to understand our own mythologies.

When we look at Scandinavia, at Latin America, at Middle Europe, at Russia, we find many elements which have a great deal more to do with us, with the reality of how we live in this place, than an approach through linguistics could offer. You find in some of those civilizations a certain sense of melancholy which is not characteristic of either American or Western European cultures. You find a celebration of the provincial – this is very important to us. I always remember Robertson Davies saying to me, not long before his death, that one of the greatest things about his life, one of the things that made him happiest, was to know that he came from the provinces. It was a great strength for a writer. Historically, many of the great writers do not come from the centre. It gives us and these other civilizations a great sense of contrast and difference within society. It's something to celebrate, not something to be embarrassed about. What else? Well you find a sense of nature, out of control, uncontrollable whether it's in Canada, in Northern Europe or in Latin America. Magic realism is one of the greatest themes of Latin American literature, set in an abiding preoccupation with the nature of time and of historical times. You find the curious contradictions which come from living on the uncontrolled margins of Western democratic civilization. You find countries and civilizations which are able to accept the idea of solitude as a positive, not a negative. As Glenn Gould put it: "the value of life comes from solitude."

What am I saying? I said that the very nature of Canada is complexity. When you go to Montreal – what do you find? A trilingual city. That is to say, language is key, but language cannot necessarily say everything. A European politician visiting Canada said not long ago that all the Francophones in the world, as such, have converging views of the world. That is an interesting idea: people who speak the same language share a set of ethics. It reminds me of the 19th century English politicians who used to talk about the duty of empire; it also reminds me of the old joke about the American who says he is happy to be a Christian because the Bible was written in English.

We do not share values because we speak English or French. We share values because our societies are similar. Experience. The situation. History. Geopolitics. Values. Climates. Geographies. Political systems. Attitudes toward violence. And so on and so on. There may also be a language to share. Maybe not. But why think that it is important to share other things if we share a language? I believe that it is important instead to look for differences within the same languages and similarities outside languages. It is extremely important to think that major differences are possible within the same language, that with effort we will find real, philosophical, political, historical, cultural equivalences, friendships, beyond our own linguistic communities.

In Latin America in particular, I find that there are opportunities for absolutely extraordinary intellectual comparisons.

I began this morning by talking about Australia, an example of a country where one of Canada's languages is spoken. But that is rather an accident, luck. Elsewhere, there are enormous differences within English and French. People who speak English may come from a democratic environment, just as they may come from a dictatorship. They therefore have very different "real language content." I believe that by finding a balance between the strength that differences within languages give us – languages without centres, languages that are real everywhere they exist - and the strength that similarities outside languages give us, we can find a kind of international modus vivendi that Canadians can adopt.

Updated: 2000-05-18
Important Notices
top of page
top of page