Toronto Western Hospital. Image: Flickr/Grant MacDonald

I spent part of the run-up to Canada Day in the atrium of my local hospital, Toronto Western. I used to think all citizens should be required to spend a day each year in criminal court, to remind you of how our society really works. But a few hours in the atrium or the ER would also suffice.

What unites people there, waiting for their appointments, or for those they’ve brought to appointments? Neither health nor sickness, though most don’t look too fit. It’s something else: none is worried about how they’ll pay for it.

Absence of money anxieties is the unifying factor. Could this also be what unifies the country, as it does the atrium? Frank Graves of EKOS research found it so recently: far atop a list of sources of Canadian identity, leaving the anthem, the flag, and Mounties in the shade, was medicare.

That may be a little embarrassing, especially when we admit it to nationals from elsewhere — it’s so unpoetic — but embarrassment is often good for you.

Why can’t the U.S. get to public health care? Basically, because they don’t already have it. The thing itself is what makes you realize it’s feasible. They find it hard to picture a whole society taking responsibility for each other via public institutions, like government, because what surrounds them is often desperation, luck and dependence on benevolent individuals or family. If you lack experience of social solidarity, it sounds suspect. Somehow we lucked in.

We’ve never been very good at standard-issue national symbols, starting with our “birthday” on July 1, 1867. It was half-assed. We didn’t fight for our independence and consequently what we got wasn’t independence. It was an attenuated form of dependence on the British Empire. We had “Confederation poets” who tried to memorialize us in the manner of German or Italian unification but it was a pretty thankless task and a largely contradictory one.

The decline, in conventional terms, continues. Graves’ research found this year that “shifts in our symbol system” show “a generally lower sense of symbolic identification than…1995.”

He sounds glum, and also perplexed that the “most resilient” symbols “have to do with the role of government and public institutions.” Medicare is No. 1, as it was in ’95. Behind it is national parks — an odd category, but who can be against them — followed by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Where’s George Washington? Where’s Liberty storming the barricades?

The symbols that would have the right to hang out proudly with other national symbols are all in decline. “O Canada” and the Maple Leaf are down, the Mounties and beaver, way down. Graves frets that “collectively, all sources of belonging are considerably lower than in 1995,” although medicare has hung in.

On the other hand, you could see this as diminishing the mythical and delusional elements of national identity in favour of the concrete components by virtue of which a society actually — versus theoretically and abstractly — exists.

Nation states were always at their best a way for humans to embrace their common destiny: that we are social beings despite pretensions to splendid individualism (“I’m a loner, eh?”). Boiling the solution down till little but medicare remains at the bottom of the pan, reduces the concoction to a bold, unique minimum.

Graves is also intrigued because “ethnic attachment” has “plummeted” during the “greatest influx of immigration in our history.” These were mostly visibly different people, yet they identify with Canada, not their own groups. What’s with that? It’s unmistakable how ardent the attachment to Canada of most recent immigrants is, and would’ve been even greater if Stephen Harper and his posse hadn’t done their best to isolate and alienate Muslims.

Which brings me back to the people hanging in the atrium at the Western, looking ethnically and multiculturally diverse but not particularly feeling the diversity because they’re all Canadians brought together by the Canadian way of dealing with the basic stuff of life and death, and forestalling the latter, as much as possible, for the former: Not through some abstraction like Canadian niceness, but by their commitment to pay their taxes, assuring that everyone else there needn’t worry about money while awaiting the good, or bad, news.

If you could raise the Canada Health Act up a flagpole and sing it to the (so called) tune of “O Canada,” wouldn’t that just be the ultimate patriotic act?

This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

Image: Flickr/Grant MacDonald

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Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.