THIS COUNTRY WHICH IS NOT ONE
What does it take to become an icon? You have to be true to your constitution. That was the way of Glenn Gould — “Canada’s most famous cultural son.” It has also been the way of other “Extraordinary Canadians” — to borrow the title of the recent series of books edited by John Ralston Saul and published by Penguin Canada — such as Margaret Atwood, and Norman Bethune. But unlike John Ralston Saul and his co-writers, who have so far produced biographies of figures ranging from Lord Beaverbrook to Big Bear, and Stephen Leacock to Emily Carr, my aim is not to heroize anyone, or pretend (in an essentialist fashion) that such individuals somehow embody “our Canadian values.” As Northrop Frye once remarked, “Canada has always been a cool climate for heroes,” and there are no essentially Canadian values. My aim is rather to contextualize the cultural contributions of a range of personages who have come to be regarded as “Canadian icons” through constitutionalizing their lives and works.
My starting point is the observation that cultures tend to elaborate themselves in contradistinction to each other. This project accordingly takes a relational approach to the study of Canadian cultural production and identity. Canada’s relationship to the United States is the relationship which looms largest in the chapters which follow. The first way in which this relationship is explored is by comparing the constitutions of Canada and the United States of America. The Preamble to the American Constitution speaks of “We, the People” forming a “perfect Union”. In this “unity of we” all the diverse citizens of the United States are blended into a single body, a single whole, with a unitary identity. The peoples of Canada, in contrast, can never achieve such a unitary identity because the Canadian Constitution Act (formerly the British North America Act) is instead concerned with preserving the pact between the two so-called “founding peoples” – the English and the French – on whose alliance the survival of the country is supposed to rest. In the absence of union, there can be only juxtaposition, or what could be styled a “unity of you and I.” This distinction between union and juxtaposition — or “concentrism” and “bicentrism” — is further promoted by the fact that the United States is an independent nation, a republic, with no governing body outside itself; while Canada is (still) a dominion, always potentially subject to government by an external power – the Queen and the British Parliament. Canada is a country which is not one.
Following from the concentric structure of the American constitution and the bicentric structure of the Canadian constitution, the characteristic mode of operation of the American imaginary is synthetic, whereas the Canadian imaginary tends to work “diathetically”. Diathetical is a term I use to refer to the remarkable Canadian propensity to embrace two — typically opposed — points of view (or “theses”) at once. For example, “Progressive Conservative” — an unlikely name for a political party to anyone but a Canadian, or the peculiar situation which obtained in Ottawa through the 1990s whereby the leader of “Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition” was the head of a party, the Bloc québecois, dedicated to removing Quebec from Canada. Such a state of affairs is simply unthinkable in the nation south of the border, where the Civil War put an end to any dreams of secession from the Union once and for all.
Ideally, when one enters the United States, one is completely reborn as an American. Take the case of Paul Bunyan, the legendary French Canadian lumberjack who became an American folk hero. In Canada, Paul Bunyon was a Patriote, participating in the 1837 Papineau rebellion against British rule. What happened when he crossed the border? Here is an account from an American collection of Paul Bunyan legends from the 1920s.
So one fine day Paul Bunyon and Bebé [his blue ox] came down to the Border…. Now Paul Bunyon lifted his hands solemnly and spoke in the rightful language [i.e. English] of Real America. “In becoming a Real American, I become Paul Bunyan,” he declared. “I am Paul Bunyon no more. Even so shall my blue ox calf be called Babe, and Bebé no longer…”
He felt amazed beyond words that the simple fact of entering Real America and becoming a Real American could make him seem so exalted, so pure, so noble, so good. And an indomitable conquering spirit had come to him also. He now felt that he could whip his weight in wildcats, that he could pull clouds out of the sky, or chew up stones, or tell the whole world anything (Stevens 1925: 27-8).
Bunyon/Bunyan cannot retain his French identity in the United States because such dualism would prevent him from being a “real American”. What he loses in ethnicity, however, he gains in being able to “tell the whole world anything”.
It is telling that most Canadians know the answer to: “As American as_____ ?” But when asked to complete the sentence: “As Canadian as ______?” they falter. Canadians have no pat phrases by which they can comfortably define themselves as members of a unique people. Perhaps the best ending is the one provided by a woman responding to a Maclean’s survey on the subject: “As Canadian as possible under the circumstances.” As this response suggests, the common understanding Canadians possess of their identity as Canadians is contingent and fragmented. It is this fact of having an identity which is not one that constitutes the most fundamental difference between being a Canadian and being an American.
The present work investigates how the social structures embedded in the constitutions of the United States and Canada shape cognitive structures and in turn find expression in cultural forms, such as music, literature, and art. In the first chapter of Part II, the contrapuntal texture of the life and works of Glenn Gould, “Canada’s most famous cultural son,” are explored as expressions of the bicentric structure of the Canadian constitution. Gould’s bicentricity becomes particularly apparent when his biography and style of playing the piano are compared to that of his American double, the Texan Van Kliburn. The paintings of Alex Colville, “Canada’s painter laureate” are analyzed while looking over the shoulder at the paintings of Norman Rockwell, America’s most famous artist. Interestingly, Rockwell’s illustrations inspired Colville to become a painter in the first place, which makes the differences between their mature styles all the more illuminating. In the third chapter, the life and writings of the prominent conservationist Grey Owl are used as a basis for examining the Canadian dualisms of native/white and nature/culture. At a popular culture level, the best-known figure of Canadian literature — Anne of Green Gables — discovers her American roots asRebecca of Sunnybrook Farm in the fourth chapter, and the 1980’s American song in aid of famine relief We Are the World plays a duet with its Canadian counterpart Tears Are Not Enough in the second chapter of Part I. In the concluding chapter of Part II, Margaret Atwood’s poems, novels, and writings on Canada, provide a basis for examining how “this country which is not one” may also represent, to use the title of the influential feminist work by Luce Irirgaray “this sex which is not one” and, ultimately, “this self which is not one”.
The chapters in Parts I and II show how the Canadian constitution orders not just the political life of Canada, but the life of the mind (or “imaginary”) as well. Several domains of art – painting, music, literature – are explored in order to bring out the parallel ways in which the Canadian constitution expresses itself in different media. The particular artists and works studied were chosen because they all occupy an important place in the Canadian imaginary. They are icons, if you will. They are not just Canadians who happen to be famous (like Pamela Lee Anderson), but Canadians who have become “symbolic.”
Part III extends the analytic framework sketched in Part I to the study of Canadian material culture. It asks: what is distinctive about Canadian design? This part is inspired by certain recent developments in material culture theory. Some of the projected case studies include Habitat ’67 and the Canadian Museum of Civilization, while the objects to be considered range from the clairphone to the zipper. (It should be noted that this part is still under construction.)
Part IV is dedicated to an exploration of the constitution of knowledge in two social science disciplines: law and anthropology. It brings a constitutional perspective to bear on the “tradition” of Canadian anthropology and uses an anthropological approach to explore the workings of the Canadian legal imaginary, past and present. Part IV is dedicated to an exploration of the constitution of knowledge in two social science disciplines: law and anthropology. It brings a constitutional perspective to bear on the “tradition” of Canadian anthropology and uses an anthropological approach to explore the workings of the Canadian legal imaginary, past and present.