Feed on

By David Howes


This chapter presents a constitutional interpretation of Canadian culture and a cultural account of the Canadian constitution. It suggests that a constitution is both am emanation of a culture and one of the means by which that culture is envisioned and enforced.

The word “constitution” has a variety of senses. At the most general level, it refers to the “mode in which a State is organized” and to the “body of fundamental principles according to which a State is governed”. At the same time, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, “constitution” can refer to the “mental character” or “disposition” of an individual, and to the “physical character” or “make-up” of the individual’s body in regard to healthiness, strength or vitality. The word “constitution” thus resonates at the level of the social, the mental and the physical, and also hints at a connection between the three.

A constitution is framed, and in turn provides a frame for the minds (and bodies) of those it governs. The mode of organization of the State structures the creative activity of the imaginary, so that in the arrangement of a poem or a painting one may catch a reflection of the maker’s own constitution, and that of his or her society.

The term “culture” also has a variety of senses. The definition employed here derives from the work of anthropologist James Boon. In Other Tribes, Other Scribes, Boon argues that the elements of a culture

represent selections from larger sets of possibilities of which societies keep symbolic track, whether consciously or unconsciously, explicitly or covertly. Societies conceptualize themselves as select (in both senses) arrangements, valued against contrary arrangements that are in some way “objectified” (Boon 1982: 52).

If, as Boon suggests, cultures tend to constitute themselves in contradistinction to each other, then what is unique about a culture is its combination, the pattern to the selections it represents. Put another way, cultures are “conjunctural, not essential” (Clifford 1988: 11), Indeed, the very traits which often seem most “essential” to a country’s character frequently turn out to have pedigrees that are questionable. For example, who could be more American than the silent film star Mary Pickford, “America’s Sweetheart,” or the action movie hero John Rambo? Yet Mary Pickford was, in fact, a native of Toronto, and the creator of Rambo, David Morrell, a native of Kitchener, Ontario (Pevere and Dymond 1996: 98, 176; Fulford 1985). What story could be more Canadian than Anne of Green Gables? Yet the tale of Anne of Green Gables borrows heavily from the American children’s classic, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, which rather compromises its status as a Canadian original (as will be shown in a later chapter). The fact that these cultural elements which seem so “homespun” were actually imported and then made to “fit” underlines the relativity of the very boundaries between cultures which their appropriation and domestication helped to fix.

These examples also underscore an important methodological point: given the relational nature of cultures (the fact that they are best understood as countervailing selections which play off each other), it follows that the best place for taking cognizance of a culture is on its border with some other. As the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss observes: “Cultures are not unaware of one another, they even borrow from one another on occasion; but, in order not to perish, they must, in other connections, remain somewhat impermeable toward one another” (Lévi-Strauss 1985: xiv-xv). The challenge, therefore, is to analyze how cultures render themselves “impermeable” to each other by patterning their contents – including borrowed contents – differently (Angus 1997: 107; Howes 1996)

The structure of the Canadian state is best grasped through comparing its mode of organization to that of the United States of America. The latter arrangement must in turn be compared to the structure of the constitution of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland for its distinctive features to come out. Each of these constitutions refers, overtly or covertly, to the others, and only by comparing all three of them can one reach a proper understanding of the “larger sets of possibilities” (as Boon would say) which they selectively body forth.

Select Arrangements

Once the people of the thirteen North Atlantic colonies which formed the nucleus of the United States of America declared their independence from Great Britain in 1776, they had to frame a constitution for their emergent society or “Nation.” The first such attempt took the form of the Articles of Confederation of 1777, which was in turn replaced by the Constitution of the United States in 1787.

The society which was framed by the United States Constitution represents a “select arrangement” (Boon) which can also be seen as based in a rejection of the “contrary arrangement” embodied in the constitution of the United Kingdom. There are six main points of difference to these two arrangements.

First, the United States Constitution is written whereas the British constitution remains an unwritten one. Second, there is a strict separation between church and state in the U.S. as opposed to the head of state also being the head of an established church or “Defender of the Faith” (as the British Monarch) is called in the case of the U.K..

Third, the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government are clearly demarcated in the United States in accordance with the doctrine of the separation of powers. This contrasts with the fusion of legislative and executive functions that occurs in the British cabinet system of government. Fourth, legislative power in the United States is distributed according to a federal model instead of a unitary model as in Great Britain.

Fifth, in America sovereignty is undivided – “We, the People” are sovereign – in place of the tripartite and hierarchized division of sovereignty in Great Britain, as between the Queen, the House of Lords and Parliament (only the last of which consists of elected representatives). Sixth (and finally), the United States Constitution has a Bill of Rights attached to it which was designed to guard the individual against government encroachments. No such arrangement exists in the United Kingdom: to adopt such a lawl would be in violation of the longstanding tradition of parliamentary sovereignty in England.

When, in 1867, certain representatives of the three provinces of British North America which formed the nucleus of the country now known as Canada expressed the desire to be federally united yet remain under the British Crown, the Imperial Parliament at Westminster duly passed the British North Amercia Act. The terms of this Act had been worked out in advance in conferences at Charlottetown, Quebec and London. In framing a constitution for Canada, the “Fathers of Confederation” were especially conscious of the turmoil south of the border. They attributed the strife between the Northern and Southern states to certain weaknesses in the United States Constitution, which they sought to avoid. They also had to accommodate the fact that the canadiens or French-speaking population of Lower Canada (Quebec) wished to preserve their language, religion, and civil law tradition, as did the English-speaking population of that province, and that the Maritime provinces also held to their own traditions.

These concerns dictated the ways in which the British North America Act, as a “select arrangement,” came to differ from the “contrary arrangement” of the United States Constitution. For instance, comparing the United States Constitution and the British North America Act, one is immediately struck by the fact that the latter contains no provisions for the protection of individual rights and freedoms, unlike the United States Bill of Rights.

Second, as regards sovereignty, Canada’s Constitution originated as an Act of the British Parliament, and remained that way until 1982 when it was finally patriated and renamed the “Constitution Act” (as it shall also be called henceforth in this work). What is more, the Constitution Act recognizes the Queen as the (titular) head of state, so that sovereignty remains divided in Canada instead of unified – an expression of ‘the People” – as in the United States.

As regards the distribution of legislative power, the Canadian Constitution Act ostensibly creates a strong central government by including among the federal government’s enumerated heads of legislative power several topics left to the states in the United States (e.g. the regulation of “the criminal law,” “trade and commerce,” and so on). It also vests the residue of power with the federal government, instead of leaving residuary power to the provinces or states as under the United States Constitution. A number of the Fathers wanted to go further and make the central government of Canada a legislative union identical in structure to the governing body of the United Kingdom. They believed that providing for a unitary state was the only way to ensure that the whole would not be overwhelmed by its parts, as had occurred in the United States in the context of the Civil War. They were checked, however, by opposition from the Maritime provinces and Lower Canada (Quebec), which rejected union and embraced federation as the only solution that would allow diversity of language, culture, religion and local institutions to persist.
Instead of a unitary state, therefore, Canada became a federal state, albeit a much attenuated one on paper. As constitutional scholar Peter Hogg points out:

Not only did the B.N.A. Act’s distribution of powers contemplate a more centralized system than that of the United States … in several respects, the provinces were actually made subordinate to the centre, in violation of the principle that in a federal state the regions should be coordinate with the centre (Hogg 1977: 36)

Some of the respects in which the provinces were rendered subordinate include the federal government having the power to disallow provincial statutes, to unilaterally bring local works within exclusive federal jurisdiction, and to appoint provincial Lieutenant Governors.

Fourth, as regards the separation of powers, in Canada it is more appropriate to speak of a unification of powers due to the merging of executive and legislative functions in the federal cabinet. Fifth, as regards relations between church and state, the Constitution Act explicitly recognizes the Roman Catholic and Protestant religions in a section guaranteeing the right to state-supported denominational schools, and therefore in a sense “establishes” these religions. This arrangement contrasts with the First Amendment to the United States Constitution which declares that “Congress shall make no laws respecting an establishment of religion.” In a related vein, the Constitution Act recognizes both the English and French languages for certain legislative and judicial purposes both at the national level and in Quebec, whereas the United States Constitution has no provisions regarding language.

Finally, the British North America Act is a written document like the Constitution of the United States, and unlike that of the United Kingdom.
Summing up, the Canadian Constitution was patterned after, rather than against, the model of the British constitution, and yet significantly differs from it in the concessions that were made to the dualistic nature (i.e. French/English, Roman Catholic/ Protestant) of Canadian culture. At the same time, the Canadian Constitution represents a rejection of many of the defining features of the American Constitution.


Constitutional Dynamics

The words of a constitutional instrument are one thing, the dynamics of its interpretation quite another. In this section an account is given of the ways in which some of the defining characteristics of the Canadian and American constitutions have shifted over time. The aim throughout is to disengage the principles which inform the textual and extratextual rules of the two constitutions as written, re-written by the courts – and in some cases never committed to paper.

The balance of powers between the federal and state or provincial legislatures has shifted dramatically in the case of both Canada and the United States since these two countries were founded. The United States was framed as a system of coordinate federalism (an alliance among equal centres of power) and Canada was framed as a system of subordinate federalism (the regions being subject to considerable control by the centre), but the two countries have been evolving in opposite directions – both from themselves (as originally constituted) and from each other – since their creation. The United States has moved toward a quasi-unitary system of subordinate federalism and Canada has shifted toward a hyper-federal system of coordinate federalism. There have of course been many vicissitudes to this process of constitutional involution (see Holland 1993), but the overall lines are clear. The transformation was managed by the courts actively interpreting – or as some would say, misinterpreting – the intentions of the framers.

In Canada, it was the narrow interpretation of the principal federal powers and the expansive interpretation given to certain provincial heads of power (such as “property and civil rights in the province”) by the Privy Council beginning in the 1880s that tipped the scales in favour of increased provincial jurisdiction (Greenwood 1974; Howes 1990). Another contributing factor was that the federal government used its disallowance power over provincial legislation quite frequently in the early years of confederation, but then let it fall into disuse, such that it has come to be regarded as obsolete (Hogg 1977: 39). In the United States, it was the Supreme Court giving an expansive interpretation to the central government’s power to regulate “commerce … among the several states” – an interpretation so expansive that it came to take in most intrastate commerce as well – that first tipped the balance in favour of increased federal jurisdiction (Smith 1963; Tribe 1988).

This section was mainly designed to prevent the (mostly Southern) states from denying equal rights to their newly naturalized African-American citizens, who had formerly been slaves. In time, the judicial interpretation of this clause would result in all of the provisions of the Bill of Rights being held to be applicable to the states. The Fifth Amendment already ensured that the federal government was subject to these provisions.

The Fourteenth Amendment gave formal constitutional standing to the principles of equality and liberty first articulated in the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

In other words, the Fourteenth Amendment translated the principle of equality into the equal protection clause, and the principle of liberty into the due process clause. By so doing, the Fourteenth Amendment also gave substance to what could be called the “unity of we” first spoken in the Declaration of Independence, and then reiterated in the Preamble to the United States Constitution:

We, the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, … and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution.

The novel character of the American use of the term “we” in the Declaration and in the Preamble to the Constitution is aptly glossed by James White:

The `one people’ the Declaration seeks to create is not a diverse people, different in talents and interests, in mode of life, in character and manners – not a nation as [the English political philosopher Edmund] Burke has taught us to conceive it. It is a single whole, a single person, as it were, with a single set of sentiments and determinations. … `We’ are blended into a single `one’, the stated ideal of equality among people becomes an ideal of a very different sort, of merger into a common identity (White 1984: 238-9).

Various other features of the United States Constitution may be seen as contributing to the formation of this “single whole” or “unity of we”, such as the absence of any provisions regarding language, which assumes that English will be the universal language.

The American “unity of we” can be studied in isolation but it is best understood by way of contrast with the “dual whole” or “unity of you and I” which the Canadian Constitution set in place. According to the “two nations” or “compact” theory of confederation:

the Canadian federation was inspired by a purpose altogether different from that which animated the American union. The purpose … was to safeguard the permanence and to promote the expansion of two national cultures. It is here, in the essential partnership of two linguistic and cultural groups that one finds the dominant fact of Canadian nationhood. Here too, says the historian Arthur Lower, “is the most resounding note in our history, the juxtaposition of two civilizations, two philosophies, two contradictory views of the fundamental nature of man” (Black 1975: 173).

The textual support for the “two nations” principle in the Constitution Act itself is confined to the provisions regarding religion and language, which have mainly to do with Quebec. This has led some to regard its salience as a “fact of Canadian nationhood” as out of proportion to its source (McRoberts 1997)
The “two nations” principle also seems to contradict the principle of the equality of the provinces. Indeed, the apparent contradiction between dualism (in the form of the “two nations” theory) and (coordinate) federalism has become the driving force of Canadian political life. When the homeland of one of the “two nations” is in one of the ten provinces, then how can that province be the same as all the others? Various strategies have been tried in an attempt to resolve this apparent contradiction in recent years, from the Trudeau strategy of official bilingualism and interprovincial equality to the Mulrooney strategy of declaring one province to be a “distinct society.” None has met with complete success (Webber 1994; McRoberts 1997; Saul 1997), not even Stephen Harper’s ploy of declaring Quebec a “nation.”

There is a contradiction at the core of the United States Constitution as well, but instead of being between the principles of dualism and federalism it is between individualism and the holism of the “unity of we”. Within the framework of the Constitution itself, provision was made for individuals combining in groups to pursue their interests. It was felt that the dangers of factionalism which this presented could be neutralized through breaking the society up into so many parts that sheer numbers would militate against any particular faction seizing control of the country as a whole, or any significant part thereof. In the words of Alexander Hamilton in Federalist Paper No. 51,

Whilst all authority in [the United States] will be derived from and dependent on the society, the society itself will be broken into so many parts, interests and classes of citizens, that the rights of individuals or of the minority will be in little danger from interested combinations of the majority (Sargent 1997: 128).

This strategy of containing dissension and the pursuit of self-interest can work as long as citizens combine in ways that are recognized by the Constitution.
However, by amending the Constitution to include a Bill of Rights the framers not only managed to protect the individual from encroachments by the State (by guaranteeing the fundamental freedoms of religion and association, the right to property, and the right to keep and bear arms), but also created the possibility for alienation from the State. This point can be illustrated by taking the example of the patriot movement.


The patriot movement combines individuals in other ways than those recognized by the United States Constitution. For instance, in the latter part of the twentieth century, diverse right-wing groups which identify with this movement formed “unorganized militia” so as to circumvent the constitutional prohibition to form military units outside of government control. Many of these groups see themselves as reacting against a new global order and its perceived instrument, the federal government, which is suspected of working towards the establishment of a unified world government, organized in institutions such as the United Nations, the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund, and the G-7 meetings. To this cosmopolitan threat, [the patriots] oppose the American Constitution, the sovereignty of the people and its most direct political expression in county governments [understood to be composed of elected officials who can be known and controlled on a personal basis], the people’s right to bear arms to defend their freedom, and the respect of God’s will and traditional family values (Castells, Yazawa and Kiselyova 1995-6: 32)
The normal structure of political affiliation in the United States is a concentric one. This structure takes the voting individual as its fulcrum, and extends outward to the municipal government which is in turn subsumed by the county government which is in turn subsumed by the state government which is in turn subsumed by the federal, national government. The patriot movement subverts this concentric structure. From the standpoint of the patriot movement, the synthesis that is normally effected by the outer circles does not hold, and a lesser “unity of we” (that of county governments) has emerged in its place.


Individual Rights in Canada

Historically, there was no protection of individual rights as such under the Canadian Constitution. In keeping with the principle of parliamentary sovereignty, the Federal Parliament or a Provincial Legislature could discriminate against certain categories of people however it saw fit providing the legislation it enacted was otherwise competent – that is, pertained to a head of power which fell within its jurisdiction. However, there was some scope for the courts to review discriminatory laws, and strike them down if they were ultra vires the constitutional division of powers. For example,

The existence of federal power over “naturalization and aliens” (s. 91(25)) led the Privy Council in Union Colliery v. Bryden (1899) to strike down a British Columbia law which prohibited the employment of Chinese in mines; their lordships reasoned that the pith and substance of the law was the imposition of a disability on aliens and naturalized subjects [which was something no provincial government, only the federal government would be entitled to do, under s. 91(25)] (Hogg 1977: 423-24)

Ruling in this way, the courts were not so much guarding individual rights as policing the divisions of the federal/provincial distribution of legislative power.
The situation regarding protection of individual rights in Canada was altered first by the adoption of the Canadian Bill of Rights in 1960, and more lastingly by the promulgation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982. Some regard these instruments as precipitating an “Americanization” of Canadian constitutionalism. However, the Charter is best read as continuing a Canadian tradition of illiberalism, and as enforcing individual rights only in the most contingent conceivable fashion. For example, the Charter “guarantees” the “fundamental rights and freedoms” set out in it, but at the same time subjects them to “such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.” No such explicit limitation clause is to be found in the United States Constitution (Stone and Walpole 1983: 2). Similarly, section 15 of the Canadian Charter recognizes a “right to equality before and under the law” but qualifies this right by at the same time sanctioning affirmative action programs, which are designed to treat some people differently from others.


Other aspects of the Charter which stand out include the recognition it gives to rights of a collective nature (minority language educational rights, aboriginal rights), and the rule in section 27 that the Charter be interpreted in a manner consistent with the “multicultural heritage of Canadians”. All these provisions having to do with collective identities strongly differentiate the Charter from the United States Bill of Rights. As Allan Bloom states, “the [United States] Constitution does not promise respect for blacks, whites, yellows, Catholics, Protestants or Jews. It guarantees the protection of the rights of individual human beings” (Bloom 1986: 33-4). The Canadian Constitution does promise differential respect for Protestants and Roman Catholics, French and English-speakers, compared to all other members of Canadian society, and so may be said to contemplate a regime of proportionality before the law, rather than simple equality or sameness.


In conclusion, the U.S. Constitution does not permit one to affirm any sort of intrinsic group identity, only one’s individuality or one’s nationality (read: U.S. citizenship), while the Canadian constitution downplays individuality and nationality in order to preserve the pact between the two so-called “founding peoples” – the English and the French – on whose alliance as opposed to “perfect Union” the survival of the country was supposed to rest. This may explain why neither “American individualism” nor “American nationalism” has any real counterpart in Canada. “Canadian individualism” simply makes no sense, and there can be no such thing as “Canadian nationalism” because it is always balanced by “Quebec nationalism” and the various “regionalisms” – Western, Maritime – in accordance with the principle that the whole is not greater than its parts but on a par with them.

The idea of a whole being on a par with its parts is the simplest way to describe the division of powers and arrangement of units in a system of coordinate federalism, as opposed to a system of subordinate federalism. As shown above, Canada has evolved into a system of coordinate federalism out of one of subordinate federalism, and in the United States the reverse process has transpired. It is for this reason that nowadays in the United States, the whole or centre (as represented by Washington) is greater than its parts (the states), while in Canada, the whole (as represented by Ottawa) is on a par with them. This contrast helps to explain why the American identity is commonly perceived to be strong and united while the Canadian identity can appear weak or fragmented. Canada lacks a centre and an integrated conception of the country as a whole. Put another way, Canada is multicentric and open to other wholes. The painter Alex Colville depicted this fact very well when he wrote in an essay “On Being a Canadian”:

Canada is, I think, less coherent than the U.S., less of a melting pot, more a “community of communities” …. Thus in Canada it is possible to belong both to the country as a whole and at the same time to a unique segment of it, as I belong to the Maritimes (Colville 1984).

As this quotation suggests, in Canada the whole is not perceived as subsuming its parts but rather as existing on a par with them.

Mode of Organization of the Imaginary

The constitution of American society is reflected in the organization of the American imaginary just as the Canadian imaginary reflects the mode of organization of the Canadian State. How so? It would seem that in the United States, monolingualism, the emphasis on equality (or sameness), and the accent on individualism (as opposed to ethnic or other collectivities) all contribute to the making of a synthetic imaginary.

As an example of this synthetic or “melting pot” imaginary at work, consider 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. When he (or his tale) crossed the border, however, he was completely reborn as an American. The following excerpt is 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). Bunyan cannot retain his French Canadian 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”. In effect, Bunyon’s French Canadian identity is negated and he is exalted the moment he steps across the border and becomes a “Real American” speaking the “rightful language.”

In Canada, by contrast, bilingualism, the emphasis on proportionality, and the recognition of at least two distinct groups within society (the English and the French), all contribute to the formation of a “mosaic” or diathetical imaginary. North of the 49th parallel, a “unity of we” is legally unthinkable. There can at best be a “unity of you and I” — that is, of French and English, Roman Catholic and Protestant, and so on, with each collectivity preserving its own characteristics intact. Canadians do not strive for “perfect Union” the way Americans do, rather their sights are set on living side-by-side.
What is meant here by a “diathetical imagination” is a mode of thinking that juxtaposes but does not synthesize. By way of illustration, consider the derivation of the title of Hugh MacLennan’s Two Solitudes. As the novel’s epigraph makes clear, MacLennan borrowed the title from a passage in a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke:

Love consists in this,
that two solitudes protect,
and touch, and greet each other

The emphasis in Rilke is firmly on connection, on touching, and how love can unite and protect two individuals. By contrast, MacLennan’s title has been appropriated to serve as a shorthand for separation, for the allegedly unbridgeable gulf between French and English Canadians (see Bessner 1992).
The Bush Garden, Northrop Frye’s suggestive title for his book on Canadian literature, exemplifies a diathetical propensity in that it juxtaposes, and thus forces one to think together, two mutually exclusive categories: wilderness and garden. Another fine example of this mental process is given in the name of a formerly dominant Canadian political party, the “Progressive Conservatives.” This name combines ideas from opposite ends of the political spectrum in an attempt to define a single political point of view. The interesting thing is that, in Canada at least, this mode of linking ideas to each other, which reproduces the relations uniting persons to each other under the Canadian Constitution, is not perceived as anomalous or irrational, “but rather the expression of a condition of being, and hence itself a principle of rationality” in the words of the Canadian poet, Dennis Lee (1977: 59). Canadians are “inescapably, and almost from the first, the bifocal people … [The characteristic prudence of the Canadian] derives from the necessity for taking second thought, for having one foot on each bank of the Ottawa”” (Ross cited in Black 1975: 173).

Being possessed of a diathetical imagination, Canadians rarely assume that any viewpoint they might hold is universal, and are always conscious of other perspectives. The preoccupation with otherness inevitably leads to a concern with borders. Thus, the Canadian imaginary manifests a strong interest in protecting borders – both cultural and physical – as well as in crossing them to explore what lies on the other side. The American imaginary, by contrast, manifests an equally strong interest in pushing back borders, which is why it is perhaps more appropriate to speak of a “frontier” than of a border mentality in the American case. Developing this contrast, Ian Angus describes the American frontier as

a perpetual hurtling outward … [which is] without limit and thus claims all of America for itself. The United States names itself “America” since its outward rush is not self-limiting but would extend as far as the natural limit of the continent. The frontier thus continues itself in the Monroe Doctrine, in which Americans claim the right to interference in all the affairs of the continent (Angus 1997: 128).

To sum up, the concentric scheme of American society, which takes the individual as its starting point and spreads outwards from this unit in ever-expanding circles to the level of the country as a whole (and beyond), is complemented in the Canadian setting by a dualistic or bicentric-cum-federal scheme, which arises out of the contrapuntal relation between the two so-called “founding peoples”, the English and the French. The imaginary structures which go along with these contrasting social structures may be referred to as holistic and synthetic or concentric in the case of the American imaginary and federal and diathetical or bicentric in the case of the Canadian imaginary; that is, the American imaginary tends to unite what the Canadian imaginary tries to keep separate.

Of course, neither of these imaginative or constitutional schemes does complete justice to reality: there are ethnic groups (i.e. collectivities) in America just as there are individuals in Canada. What is more, there were more than two “founding peoples” present in Canada at the time of confederation; that is, the dualistic scheme fails to comprehend the independent existence of the Indian, Inuit and Métis peoples of Canada.

Why this discrepancy between the controlling conceptions and empirical realities of the two societies? The discrepancy could be said to evidence how each national culture, in its effort to distinguish itself from its neighbour, has induced its citizens to represent the social world to themselves in a distorted manner. This distortion, or rather “distinctive relation between contents” (Angus 1997: 107) ensures that the two cultures “remain somewhat impermeable toward one another” (Lévi-Strauss 1985: xv). The system to the differences between the Canadian and American constitutions, and the corresponding system to the differences between the imaginaries of the two countries, is summed up in the following table.


United States
Perfect Union
Unity of We Unity of You and I Equality
Equality Proportionality

Table 1: Contrasting Constitutional Tendencies