Oh! No Canada! The Cultural Identity Crisis
Why have we as a people been able to continue to exist? Because we know where we come from. By having roots, you can see the direction in which you want to go.
— Joenia Wapixana, attorney, Roraima Indigenous Council, Brazil, quoted in the NY Times
As a taxpayer, writer and parent with a daughter in the Ontario Public School system, the state of the educational system as it relates to literature and the arts has always been a concern for me. I’m also a proud Canadian, aware of the privileges we enjoy through our constitutional freedoms and the vast diversity of our population.
But as our schools teach our children what they need to become contributing members of our society, how much of that information relates to the rich roots in history and the arts that is their homeland? Nothing captures a culture’s essence better than its poets, writers, musicians and artists. Aside from the facts and figures taught in history classes, our literature and arts capture the very soul of what it means to be Canadian.
Unless these are nurtured and allowed to flourish, however, the rich tapestry of our heritage begins to unravel. Can we allow it to become a threadbare remnant of the greatest gift our forbearers have given us?
Many countries and governments around the world repress the creative spark of its artists and yet the artists fight (sometimes at the cost of their lives) to have their voices heard. Then there’s Canada, where our freedom to express ourselves is constitutionally protected. Despite this, we, as a nation, fail to honour the work of our writers and artists by supporting them within our school systems. Many blame this on our colonial origins and the daily bombardment we Canadians receive from media and marketing of everything that is not Canadian.
The Colonial Mindset: Canada’s beginning was as a British colony—a distant branch of one of the most powerful nations of that time in history. Even as a child in the 1960’s, I recall singing “God Save the Queen” at the beginning of our school day before we launched into “Oh, Canada!”, the Canadian national anthem. We spent much of our time in history and social sciences classes learning about Britain and the United States. Precious little study was devoted to the country we call home.
Poet, Dennis Lee, as he struggled with understanding our colonial mindset, wrote in his article, Cadence, Country, Silence: Writing in Colonial Space, “For if you are Canadian, home is the place that is not home to you — it is even less your home than the imperial centre you've dreamt about. Or to say what I really know, the words of home are silent.” It’s a difficult place for a poet to write from: not really understanding your roots—the connecting thread that defines who we are. Add to that the influence from our neighbours to the south and it’s no wonder we are in danger of losing our identity.
The Giant Next Door: As early Canadians struggled to find an identity outside of their British rule, right next door a political giant was being born. The influence of the United States on the Canadian people and our culture is indisputable. Not only do Americans outnumber us ten-to-one, as a market it’s difficult to compete in shear dollars and cents with the media and business opportunities of the giant next door. The impact of our proximity and access to US marketing and media on Canadian children over the years is undeniable. If you were to ask grade-school children in Ontario who the president of the United States is, all would be able to name him. Ask those same children who their current Prime Minister or Member of Parliament is, however, and you’d be lucky to have more than half answer correctly. Short of turning off the television for good, it’s difficult to control the barrage of American media our children are subjected to on a regular basis. What they are introduced to within our school system, however, is easily within our control.
A Cultural Melting Pot: With a fairly open immigration policy over the past few decades, Canada has become a melting pot of race, colour, religion and lifestyle choices. In the Greater Toronto Area, home to five million people, cultural minorities, when grouped together, make up the majority of the population. The result: a nation rich in its diversity. While the inclusiveness that can be achieved within this diverse nation is a positive thing, the multitude of cultural backgrounds and beliefs adds to the growing puzzle of a Canadian identity.
The Distance Between Us: Even with the population crisis in much of the world today, Canada’s population remains relatively sparse in comparison. Thirty million people live in a geographical area similar to the size of the United States—home of three-hundred million people. Except in a few large cities like Toronto, there is a physical distance between Canadians that only recently, with the birth of the internet, has been bridged.
This distance (and the substantial media dollars coming from the US to promote their US counterparts) also limits the ability of many excellent Canadian artists and writers to get their work noticed. Let’s face it, it’s tough to compete without the ability, at the very least, to match the US marketing. Canadian publishers, simply due to the size of the Canadian versus the US market, just don’t have the resources to do so.
The Burning Question: When you brew all of these factors together in the melting pot that has become Canada, the result begs the question: Who are we? What is it that defines us as Canadians? The inability for many to answer what would seem to be a simple question leads me to believe that, if nothing is done to address these issues, Canada is on its way to a cultural identity crisis.
The Canadian School System: Unlike other countries and cultures that honour and remember history and roots in their literature and art, Canada’s educational system has a dismal record of actively providing our children with a foundation in their own origins. Author, Margaret Atwood, while talking about her experiences in the Canadian school system in her article, Nationalism, Limbo and the Canadian Club, wrote, “They (Americans) had been taught that they were the centre of the universe, a huge, healthy apple pie, with other countries and cultures sprinkled round the outside, like raisins. We (Canadians) on the other hand had been taught that we were one of the raisins, in fact, the raisin, and that the other parts of the universe were invariably larger and more interesting than we were.” While recent changes in school curriculum have added more Canadian history into study models, the use of Canadian literature and art—the very things that define a people and its culture—is sorely lacking. This fact became painfully evident when earlier this year the Ontario government finally honoured its 2007 promise to add funding for the flagging libraries in Ontario public schools.
On January 20, 2009, the Ontario government announced that it was releasing $15 million of the promised $80 million in discounts for public school libraries to purchase books to fill their meagerly stocked shelves. Additional funds were allotted for release in September. It sounded like good news all around for students, parents and writers. That is until, on June 17th, the Canadian Coalition of School Libraries issued its media release. The report read: “Only a shocking 13% of the recent funds used to buy books for Ontario school libraries was spent on Canadian authored books.” These are Canadian tax dollars for children in Canadian schools, yet again, our children are being denied the richness of knowing their own identity.
The Identity Crisis: Is it any wonder that Canada is facing an identity crisis? Let me clarify that I’m not against change. People and cultures evolve—that’s the nature of humanity. But a nation that does not honour its roots and the representation of its history and soul through its literature and art does not honour itself. I believe that it is possible to remember and memorialize our historical roots and still embrace the diversity of the wide range of cultures that make up our population. Without this grounding, the evolution of the Canadian culture, as I see it, has two choices: dissolve into a hodgepodge, “everything bagel” with no defining attributes to identify our culture; or, we can segment into cliquish societies, each in search of its own identity.
Let me also point out that there is a lot of exceptional Canadian literature and art available. Those teachers and librarians who aren’t purchasing it are often victim to the gluten of US marketing on this side of the boarder. They fail to order Canadian books, not because US books are better, but because the small amount of advertising that a Canadian publisher can afford is lost in the onslaught of media coming from the US. The end result: our children are continually engulfed in all things not Canadian. If the school system, and government that funds it, would only focus on providing Canadian content to our children, we could begin to reverse this growing problem.
The truth is, our children deserve better. And it’s within our grasp to give it to them. Canada is rich in its literature and art. Getting that into the hands of Canadian school children should be as high on the government’s agenda as is raising their ability to read.
By honouring our history through our literature and art, our children will learn to honour their roots, and in turn, build the ability to honour themselves as Canadians.