The real strength of Canadian nationalism might be its relative weakness

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I write as a Canadian nationalist. Along with others, I've done what I could to build a national sense here: culturally, politically, economically. We excavated and created heroes and celebrated resistance to imperial forces, British or American. I won't say we failed but success was limited. That truncated level of success may be an asset now. The weakness of our nationalism could even be its strength. I say this in light of the last election, and the global refugee crisis.

In terms of typical nationalist reactions to the Mideast refugee crisis, it's as though we're running in the opposite direction from the rest of the west. Not xenophobic and restrictive, like the U.K., U.S., Hungary et al. Yet our contrary, tolerant, welcoming reaction is seen here as nationalist.

The Anglo-Irish scholar, Benedict Anderson, who died last month aged 78, wrote a book on nationalism with a title that can rearrange your sense of reality: Imagined Communities. Unlike religious identities, which are ancient, he said, national identities are recent and modern. But they imagine they're ancient and discover roots of all sorts to prove it. Then people live and willingly die based on their passionate identification with those imaginary communities.

Anderson felt this could be for good or ill. He knew it had ugly potential on the racism spectrum. But he wrote at a time (1983) when nationalism was also used to mobilize people against domination -- as, say, nationalism in Vietnam built resistance to colonialism. Since this nationalism thing couldn't be "patented," it was "available for pirating" in numerous versions.

That included Canada which pirated a pretty modest form. Margaret Atwood, for instance, proved Canada existed by proving it had its own literature which was proved by a common (and highly minimalist) theme: Survival. Pierre Berton tried to show we not only had a history to be proud of, but it was also "colourful" versus dull -- just like other nations.

These efforts had effects and still do (Oh look, Justin Bieber won a People's Choice award). They won some victories outside the cultural realm but tended to fall short economically and politically, in battles like Canada-U.S. free trade.

Here's where it starts to get paradoxical. Stephen Harper, during his reign, tried to become the voice of Canadian nationalism in the traditional, exclusivist sense. He promoted militarism, including symbols like the Highway of Heroes, and shopworn imperial imagery like the Royal Family. He promoted undercurrents of xenophobia, nativism and racism in his policies toward immigrants and especially refugees, who were despicably treated. These became overcurrents during the election, with his attacks on Muslim headgear, the "barbaric cultural practices" snitch line and revocable citizenship.

What's fascinating is that Justin Trudeau didn't oppose him by declaring he was anti-nationalist, as you'd have to in, say, Serbia or Hungary. He fought back as a Canadian nationalist, defining it in terms of tolerance or even, the glory of diversity -- a sharp rebuttal to most contemporary nationalism. It also had weird echoes. Justin's dad, Pierre, rejected Quebec nationalism as parochial but embraced Canadian nationalism as a way to fight it. When he ran against Tory leader Joe Clark in 1979, Trudeau père scorned Clark's notion that Canada was just a "community of communities," for being wishy-washy and contentless.

Yet that's essentially what his son endorsed. Now picture Harper: beaten not only by the son of his most reviled Canadian predecessor; but by the son's embrace of the vision of Harper's most loathed Conservative antecedent, Joe Clark. It's beyond Shakespearean. Who says we don't have a colourful history?

If we'd been more successful in creating a robust, conventional Canadian nationalism, who knows -- the country mightn't have as handily beaten back the nasty nativism cultivated by Harper. It could have provided unintended grist for his mill. So the real strength of Canadian nationalism might turn out to be its relative weakness. We're the land that nationalism side-swiped. Lucky us.

In his book, Benedict Anderson quoted Walter Benjamin's passage on the angel of history -- based on a Paul Klee print. The angel stands looking backward sadly as history's failures and disasters pile up at his feet. So, as history's wind blows him into the future, he can't see, behind him, the progress that may be about to arrive. You could call it, back to the future, in a literal sense.

This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: Zhu/flickr

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