The idea might seem ludicrous, but two recent articles have appeared that argue that the time has come to dismantle the country from the top down. What does that even mean? Let’s explore.
Alicia Elliott, over at Open Letter, argues that there is a crisis in Canadian literature that has been triggered by the Steven Galloway affair. You might or might not remember Galloway as the story of the UBC creative writing professor who was fired with cause because of inappropriate behaviour with a student. Bad prof fired for bad behaviour. Good, right? A nice symbol of the changing behavioural standards on campus.
So what does that have to do with Canada? UBC’s awkward public statements about the case led a group of prominent Canadian authors (Ondaatje, Atwood, Boyden, etc) to ask UBC to review the internal process by which the professor was dismissed.
For Elliott, the famous authors’ attempt to hold the institution accountable meant invalidating and erasing the victims’ complaints (which had already been accepted by UBC and directly led to the firing of Galloway) and, thereby, amounts to a wholesale disavowal of the “left-leaning and progressive” status of CanLit.
Furthermore, she argues, the incident reveals a systemic misogyny and racism at the heart of the nation’s literary culture that is no longer tolerable. The link is a little tenuous, given that the institution sided with the students, but Margaret Atwood made some snide, unsympathetic comments on Twitter, so.
Elliott is not alone, of course. Many left-leaning and progressive authors and English professors from across the country expressed outrage at the prominent authors, especially Atwood, for not siding with the female students at UBC. The uproar over the UBC affair led to the angry outing of Joseph Boyden as not truly Indigenous (leading to a broader discussion about what determines true Indigeneity, whether culture or blood).
Elliott connects the Galloway affair with Jian Ghomeshi, police disregard for Black lives, Sir. John A. MacDonald, residential schools, and concludes, “I believe that this sudden anger at CanLit is the inevitable result of Canada’s own national identity crumbling.” What makes “Indigenous” has become what makes “Canadian”?
But are we really in the grips of (yet) a(nother) national identity crisis? It seems incongruous with the broader state of the country. People in Canada have never been happier, richer, healthier, or more powerful in the world. The existential crises in Quebec, and to a lesser extent Alberta and Newfoundland have effectively disappeared. The crime rate is down (but inequality is up, so crime might well rise). Even the Leafs sort of don’t suck. Even the Oilers.
Obviously, there are massive problems to solve, deserving our most serious minds, starting with water quality on reservations, the general quality of life on those reservations, rising sea levels, and the broader menace of climate change. The opioid crisis, housing affordability, emboldened racists, and more, and yes, so much more,—there is a great deal of work that needs to be done. Our continental roommate has also gone crazy. There’s definitely that.
Our response to Trump has been an interesting reversal of the typical knee-jerk Canadian smugness. Usually, when America goes crazy and does something stupid (Vietnam, civil war, Iraq, and now el cheeto in chief), Canadians take pride at our relative stability, and the always slightly less blood on our hands. In this case, though, the impact of the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the Idle No More movement and Trudeau’s call to confront the brutal legacy of the cultural genocide has led Canadians en masse to reject the status quo. The rise of Indigenous consciousness across the society is fascinating and significant. Things are changing, and it is fair to ask if Canada itself is at stake.
Stephen Marche, writing in the New Yorker, notes the arrival of Canada’s new “accidental pledge of allegiance” in the form of the formal acknowledgement of traditional Indigenous territory that now appears at the beginning of almost every official event. He worries that the exercise is a hollow gesture, part of our habitual routine of “overpromising and underdelivering.”
He notes that decolonizing, or ending Canada’s unfair profiting from Indigenous land, is an overwhelming problem, because the cost of true justice and fair play is breathtaking and could break the nation. Ottawa, for instance, and Vancouver are built on unceded land. We just took them, never even paused to negotiate. These are both before the courts. The government is doing everything it can to prevent decisions on such matters coming from the judicial system, knowing they could well lose.
There is a lot at stake in wrestling with decolonization, to the point that it is hard to imagine the country emerging without fundamental, revolutionary change. Marche makes a good point: if we can end our function as a colony (Head of State, anybody?), and from profiting by colonialism, Canada will become more itself. Given how deep colonialism runs in our blood and bones, though, Canada will also be unrecognizable from its present form.
Maybe “Canada” doesn’t need to be dumped entirely. We can talk about colonial Canada, the Dominion of Canada, and other phases in the relationship of Indigenous peoples and settlers from abroad. If reconciliation and decolonization take hold — and they well might — then the structure of governance in this land will have to change. It will mean reimaging Canada, not as a Euro-American nation with a British and French heritage, but as the land upon which settlers and Indigenous peoples make contact and build a sustainable relationship. What happens in that potential moment of genuine contact is being negotiated across the country right now. Instead of dumping it, it might be time to deal with the mess we have inherited and too often replicated. [This is, Mr. Downie included, exactly what the poets are doing.]