Canadian Culture and National Identity

The School’s Role in Debating and Discussing the Roots of our National Identity

Scientific Essay, 2011

34 Pages




How Cultures Have Traditionally Transmitted Their Values

Revisioning the Traditional Culture

Why Culture and Identity Need to Be Addressed in the Schools

Commonplaces of Canadian Culture and Identity
1. Canada: A wilderness nation, a land of awesome size and grandeur, with savage beauty and incredible obstacles.
2. A northern nation the “true north strong and free”
3. Canada: Home of our First Nations. Our Native roots are deeply entwined in our Canadian way.
4 Canada: A nation state founded on European traditions by the English and the French.
5. Canada: A nation of Immigrants. We have been a multicultural land mass even before the European colonization and has been ever since.
6. Canada: A country of diverse and distinctive regions with powerful regional identities - Quebec, the Maritimes, the Prairies, for example.
7. Canada: A nation with a strong sense of social welfare, committed to providing a social safety net for all.
8. Canada: A land of remarkable freedoms with a goal of equity for all, regardless of sex, race, age, color, creed or disability enshrined in our Charter of Rights and Freedoms
9. Canada: A land of adventurers, innovators and entrepreneurs
10. Canada: A land of rich cultural traditions
11. Canada: Peace-keepers for the world and a partner with all nations.
12. Canada: Not American!

Conclusion: Keeping the conversation going



For the first time in long history of the influx of immigrants into Canada, the process of becoming Canadian is not working as it has in the past. For centuries while each new immigrant group held on to their own birthplace identity and values, as they slowly assimilated, their children, playing and learning together in mixed cultural and educational settings, assimilated at a much faster rate than their parents, often creating tension in the family over conflicting values. Second generation children of colour now feel less Canadian than their white immigrant counterparts. . . . AND even their parents! Even white, third generation immigrant children feel less Canadian than their second generation counterparts! (Globe and Mail, Jan. 2007)

The study, (Statscan) based on an analysis of 2002 Statistics Canada data, found that the children of visible-minority immigrants exhibited a more profound sense of exclusion than their parents. . . . . It is also a warning that Canada, long considered a model of integration, won't be forever immune from the kind of social disruption that has plagued Europe. (Jimenez, Globe and Mail, 2007)

This is a perplexing and continuing dilemma as we welcome 200,000-300,000 immigrants each year, over 80% of whom are people of colour. It is an issue of both individual identity and national identity and as stated in our policy of multiculturalism, ”National unity, if it is to mean anything in the deeply personal sense, must be founded on one confidence in one own individual identity” (1971).

I argue here that it is in our schools where this issue can best addressed and resolved over time and it must be through a process of debating and discussing our Canadian culture and identity in a systematic way in order “to keep the conversation going”

The argument that our Canadian identity is impossible to define remains a dominant theme with contemporary commentators and historians (Gwyn (1995); Resnick (2005); Bliss (2006). ).” Based on extensive research data Raney posits “that most Canadians have a strong national identity rooted in universal conceptions that everyone can share, such as citizenship. Data also show, however, that a growing number of Canadians define their national identity narrowly, such as through birthplace and religion. “ (2009)

Yet Resnick views Canada as a country without an identity, a nation in "perpetual self-doubt" (2005). Bliss describes Canada's nationalist project as a series of "failed identity experiments" (2005) and suggests that today's multicultural Canada is "no more sure of its role in the world than it is of its identity". (2006) Most of these condemnations center around Canada’s remarkable approach to multiculturalism, coupled with the degree of national decentralization. It is widely believed that there is so much regional, cultural, ethnic, linguistic and religious diversity in this country that we do not, in fact, have a distinctive culture or identity.

However, even those who express this belief are quick to distance ourselves from our American neighbours and from our British and French roots. I argue that there are in fact powerful commonplaces in our culture and identity, -- shared values and characteristics that most Canadians can identify with regardless of racial, ethnic, and linguistic backgrounds, faiths, and regions. I also argue that the school is the most important place to explore, discuss and debate these commonplaces. They are not a written in stone but are offered here as a basis for generating debate and discussion about what makes us all Canadians and, as Richard Rorty argues it is not so important to find the objective truth of anything, as it is “to keep the conversation going” (Rorty, R., Philosophy and the Mirror of Man, 1979)

In fact, as I will point out, historically, in country after country, it has always been the school where a national culture has been promulgated. I will also explore how in most cultures it is in the pre-teenage, intermediate school years where the culture is infused and inculcated, not in post-adolescence. It is also my contention that it is not more Canadian history that we need but a broader inter-disciplinary cultural studies program that is needed, not more politics and history. Nor is it just a matter of including Canadian literature at the secondary school level, since historically it has been shown that it is in the early years that who we are, really comes into focus.

Schools in Canada and elsewhere have always conveyed cultural and political views, and they will continue to do so whether we like it or not. In the past, of course, these views were dominated largely by the white male European perspective of the most dominant powers in society; this is no longer true. The culture and identity we all share has become multi-faceted, multi-layered, constantly shifting and not dominated by any one group. Some have described it as the first postmodern state. It is complex and perpetually shifting. With each decade we morph into a more layered perspective and understanding of what is Canadian. The difficult task schools now face, therefore, is determining how to convey our culture and identity in a way that is inclusive of all Canadians, so that justice and equity are underlying principles of the curriculum.

How Cultures Have Traditionally Transmitted Their Values

In most culturally homogeneous countries or regions children grow up hearing and learning the stories that define their culture: myths, legends, folklore, historic tidbits, tales of heroes and villains, miraculous tales and tales of courage and achievement. These shared stories lie at the heart of a culture's identity. Literature, arts and crafts, music, dance, film TV, and poetry blend together over time to crystallize an image that says, "This is who we are." Countries with a common religion, language and history are defined as ethnic national identities”

(Raney, 2009).The shared stories provide a culture with its values and beliefs, its goals and traditions. The myths, legends, folk tales, histories, and experiences of any cultural group bind the individuals together to form a cohesive society which allows people to communicate with each other and to work together with a shared purpose. These common stories become the foundation of public discourse, and they are a source of pride in their community.

The education of children is central to this process. According to E.D. Hirsch Jr.:

The weight of human tradition across many cultures supports the view that basic acculturation should largely be completed by age thirteen. At that age Catholics are confirmed, Jews bar or bat mitzvahed, and tribal boys and girls undergo the rites of passage into the tribe (1987).

Hirsch traces how Korean children traditionally memorize the five Kyung and the four Su. In Tibet, boys from eight to ten read aloud and learn the scriptures; in Chile the Araucanian Indians use songs to learn the customs and traditions of their tribe. The Bushmen children of South Africa listen to hours of discussion until they know the history of every aspect of their culture.

Hirsch also traces how the education system has been used to convey a national culture in modem nations. Traditionally on any particular day in France, for example, each child in each grade would be reading the same page in the same textbook. In the history of American education, the text book has been a constant source of debate over attempts to control the culture transmitted through the schools.

Hirsch cites an example of the influence of one particular document in defining a culture. This one document was also central to the development of Canadian education as it was widely adopted across Canada. In 1783, Hugh Blair, a Scot from the University of Edinburgh published Lectures on Rhetoric and Belle Lettres, intended as a compendium of what every Scot needed to know if he or she were to read and write well in English. This book had enormous impact on curriculum in school systems throughout the English-speaking world. Widely used in Great Britain, US and Canada between 1783 and 1911, the book went through 130 editions! Blair defined English literary culture for use initially by the Scots, later by colonials like Canadians and Americans; and eventually it became the standard for educating Englishmen and women.

In Nations & Nationalism (1983), Ernest Gellner argues that, viewed from a historical perspective, it has been the school and not the home that has been the decisive factor in creating national cultures in modern nations. Literate national cultures, he maintains, are school-transmitted cultures. He asserts that the chief creators of the modern nation have been school teachers; they helped create the modern nation state. They perpetuate it and make it thrive. The history of Europe has shown that the schools play a major role in the creation of a national culture. Even in the United States with its many disparate groups, the schools have done much to create a national culture through such common shared stories, both real and imagined, as George Washington, Daniel Boone, Tom Sawyer, and Casey at the Bat, as well as through the promotion of strong central shared values and symbols of patriotism.

The history of the evolution of nationalism in country after country indicates clearly that a national culture is an artificially created construct. Gellner says, nation builders use a patchwork of folk materials, stories of heroes, old songs, legends, and historical tidbits, which are selected and re-interpreted by intellectuals to create a national culture,

The cultural shreds and patches used by nationalism are often arbitrary inventions, any old shred or patch would have served as well Nationalism is not what it seems and above all, not what it seems to itself. The culture it claims to defend is often its own invention (56).

While these authors have illuminated for me how culture has been transmitted throughout history, including more recent periods of colonialism and the creation of the nation states, they also have unsettling implications. Hirsch, for instance, laments what he sees as the disintegration of central core values and a shared common knowledge in recent years. He argues for the need to identify what every American needs to know, and works to promote a return to a narrowly Eurocentric curriculum based on the glories of Greek civilization, the British Empire, and the Bible. While the European civilizations, and in particular, British and French traditions, are an integral part of our own Canadian identity, they are but one significant facet among many.

Yes the school is, and always has been a major purveyor of a national viewpoint. But what kind of a viewpoint do we want to promote for the future? Any examination of the curricula of the past reveals a program of indoctrination into the culture and mores of those in power. The old African proverb is still true: "Until lions have their own historians, tales of bravery and courage will be told about the hunter." Or, as Napoleon put it more bluntly, "History is a set of lies agreed upon"(cited in Wright, 1992). History is written by winners (Wright, 1992). The winners write the school curriculum and decide what stories will be told and what literature will be read.

As the child of immigrant Ukrainian parents , during grade seven and eight in Toronto in the late 1940s, I vividly remember spending hours memorizing the Kings and Queens of England in chronological order. Later in high school I read the required stories and novels of Rudyard Kipling, Charles Dickens and Jane Austen, and the poetry of Tennyson and Wordsworth. I do not recall ever reading a single Canadian author. The children's books in the local library reflected this Anglo-centric curriculum. I grew up feeling that I was somehow an outsider in Canada despite the fact that I was born in the country. Nor was I alone: My research into the life histories of racial minority teachers in Canada reveals time and again that as students these young Canadians, while at last reading Canadian authors and learning about confederation rather than “1066 and all that” They still did not read about their own culture’s remarkable Canadian history. They did not see themselves reflected in the curriculum of their schools. The experiences of these Asian, South Asian and Black educators, who were schooled in Toronto, illustrate how recently in our history, they clearly saw the transmission of traditional culture as a major function of schools. It was clear who the winners were, and they weren't at the victory party.

Revisioning the Traditional Culture

Since Prime Minister Trudeau proclaimed the policy of Multiculturalism in 1971, there has been a remarkable change in our official notions about our culture. Indeed, Trudeau said, "While we have two official languages we have no official culture, no one culture is more official than another" (italics mine). I have long celebrated Trudeau's statement; but the longer I ponder it the more I have difficulty with the words, "we have no official culture" It seems to imply what many have said for decades, that Canada has no cultural identity at all. The insistence on no official culture has resulted in a backlash against multiculturalism, while multiculturalists struggle to stem the tide of racism and disempowerment.

Education, then, is caught between conflicting demands. As Grossberg 1994) suggests,

“On the one hand, there is the discourse of multiculturalism and liberation which calls for a democratic culture based on social difference and which is usually predicated on a theory of identity and representation. On the other side there is a discourse of conservatism based on canonical notions of general education and a desire to impose what it cannot justify - the existence of an illusory common culture. (10)

Simply, there is a lament over the loss of a culture rooted in Western civilization and values, while there is a cry for a multicultural perspective based on social justice and equity. Must there be a dualism? Is there an alternative to these two positions? Amidst the remarkable diversity of this country are there inclusive commonplaces? Can a patchwork quilt of our stories welcome all Canadians?

It is helpful to review some history surrounding some of these issues. We have been inundated the last few years with critical examinations of the meaning and purpose of multiculturalism and its affects on the curriculum in the school. Popular books like Hirsch's Cultural Literacy(1987), Bibby's Mosaic Madness (1990) and Bissoondath's, Selling Illusions (1994) have promoted a return to a traditionalist view. In Henry Giroux's view (1992), they have "argued that multiculturalism posits a serious threat to the school's traditional task of defending and transmitting an authentic national history, a uniform standard of cultural literacy, and a singular national identity for all citizens to embrace" (1). The heated position of the traditionalists is best demonstrated by Roger Kimbal's (1991) provocative statement:

Implicit in the politicizing mandate of multiculturalism is an attack on the idea of common culture, the idea that despite our many differences, we hold in common an intellectual, artistic, and moral legacy, descending largely from the Greeks and the Bible/supplemented and modified over the centuries by innumerable contributions from diverse hands and peoples. It is this legacy that has given us our science, our political institutions, and the monuments of artistic and cultural achievement that define us as a civilization. Indeed it is this legacy, insofar as we live up to it, that preserves us from chaos and barbarism. And it is precisely this legacy that the multiculturalists wish to dispense with. (6; italics mine)

This position is widely held in Canada as well as we purportedly morph to an idealized, American style common culture. Many commentators already mentioned have argued versions of this notion that our cultural mosaic and regional and ethnic differences can promote "chaos and barbarism" often emanating form our perceived increasingly ghettoized enclaves. It is a form of extremism that is not useful in promoting a constructive dialogue.

The debate carries on, as the current immigration minister urges a move to a more American style “melting Pot” and denying funding to heritage languages that have been traditionally allocated funds (Globe and Mail, March 26, 2009). A more positive alternative is to think of culture as, in Henry Loius Gates' words, "a conversation among different voices" (1991). Is it possible, by identifying a set of commonplaces, to balance the traditionalist objective, and yet incorporate a multicultural, inclusive and liberating perspective? Is it possible for diversity to be a source of cultural identity? Is the idea of multiple loyalties and identities possible within the framework of a national culture and identity?

I personally identify with my Ukrainian heritage, my Toronto and Ontario regional roots, with immigrant cultures, as well as feeling an overriding identity with Canada and even a pervading global outlook. Survey data indicate strong regional loyalties and identities in many parts of Canada, far stronger than any regional loyalties in the United States; yet the evidence shows that the stronger the regional loyalty, the stronger the identity with Canada (S.M. Lipset, 1990).

As individuals we hold a complex set of loyalties and cultural identities, particularly in Canada. We have a strong bond to place - neighbourhood or community; often a strong affinity to our bio-region - the Maritimes or the Prairies, for example; often also a bond to our ethnic and/or our linguistic heritage, and to our religious group; and finally, to our country. For many Canadians there is even a strong feeling of loyalty to, and identity with, the planet. We move in and out of our various "tribes" with ease and comfort. The complexity of our "tribal" relations is in fact quite extraordinary. We are a mass of hierarchical overlapping, shifting, often contradictory and conflicting loyalties and identities. To cite one such conflict: When Canada plays Italy in a world class competition who does an Italian-Canadian root for?

Given this complexity, one might ask why national identity and culture are so controversial. Among many academics, nationalism is a concept in disrepute. At one extreme, David Trend (1993) declares, "Nationality is a fiction. It is a story people tell themselves about who they are, where they live and how they got there" (225). And in Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, Benedict Anderson (1991)demonstrates how nationalism is only a recent phenomenon in human history. He finds its origins in the late eighteenth century, and points out three paradoxes about it. The first is "the objective modernity of nations to the historian's eye vs. their subjective antiquity in the eye of nationalists." The second is "the formal universality of nationality as a socio-cultural concept - the idea in the modem world that everyone can, should, will 'have' a nationality, as he or she has a gender" The third paradox is "the 'political' power of nationalisms vs. their philosophical poverty and even incoherence." Anderson comments that, as Gertrude Stein referred to Oakland, one can quickly conclude with respect to nationalism that "there is no there there"(2).

But despite his unwavering scorn for the concept of nationalism, Anderson reflects on the continuing process:

And many 'old nations,' once thought fully consolidated, find themselves challenged by 'sub'-nationalism within their borders - nationalisms which, naturally, dream of shedding this sub-ness one happy day. The reality is quite plain: the 'end of the era of nationalism,' so long prophesied, is not remotely in sight. Indeed, nation-ness is the most universally legitimate value in the political life of our time. (3)

Why Culture and Identity Need to Be Addressed in the Schools

While many feel the concept of nation is an outdated notion harking back to a bygone era, but regardless of how we feel about this debate, as Anderson argues, nation-ness is with us. Nationalism is clearly not going to go away. It is unlikely we can do much about it. We can, however, make every effort to ensure that the manner in which our nation-ness is promoted in the school is based on democratic principles of justice and equity, concepts which also lie at the core of our Canadian commonplaces. As a pragmatist educator I am confronted with the problem of observing a gathering of fundamentalist, traditionalist and conservative forces which are erupting across this country and whose views are consistent with those of Roger Kimbal - that the legacy of western civilization and the Bible saves us from "chaos and barbarism", at the same time as we are presumably being swallowed up by American culture. They are fanning a backlash and are profoundly influencing the policy-makers and practitioners to bring back their "common culture," a move which they see as a return to essentially an exclusive Eurocentric Christian society, though cloaked in more expansive language. They view the schools as having a central role in transmitting their view of our common culture through a common curriculum

"Some argue that in an increasingly multicultural society there is a need for a common literacy; others propose that we are moving toward a culture of many literacies" (Trend 227). I propose bridging these two positions - that we work towards a common literacy as long as the common literacy is inclusive of all Canadians. But a least we should be arguing about it!

This sort of bridging of these positions requires a revisioning of our traditional notions of our culture. For example, we have to recognize the temporal character of culture. As Tomlinson points out, "There is no such thing as a single national culture that remains the same year after year. Nations are constantly assimilating, combining and revising their national characters" (as cited in Trend 229). In a speech given by Sheldon Hackney, Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts in 1993, claims, "All ethnic groups have permeable boundaries, and the meaning of any particular identity will change over time . . . . History has a way of changing who we think we are."

In short, there is a Canadian identity that is different from the identities of any one of the linguistic, ethnic or regional groups that comprise the Canadian population, that is inclusive of all of them and that is available to everyone who is a Canadian.

Commonplaces of Canadian Culture and Identity

In order to provide a starting point for these discussions I have contemplated what commonplaces there are about Canada that most Canadians would agree on ... at least as starting points for debate. In struggling to identity these commonplaces I have asked myself: Do these commonplaces provide ample latitude to address critical issues in our society? Do they provide for a new multicultural curriculum that provides opportunities for students to become, in Henry Giroux's term, "border crossers." As he states:

"Teachers must be educated to become border crossers, to explore zones of cultural difference by moving in and out of the resources, histories and narratives that provide different students with a sense of identity, place and possibility" (1992. p 11 ).


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Canadian Culture and National Identity
The School’s Role in Debating and Discussing the Roots of our National Identity
York University
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Widely published articles on multiculturalism. Teaches at York University. Former school principal and school superintendent. Nominated for the York Presidents Teaching Award 2010
canadian culture, canadian identity, canada, commonplaces of canadian identity, canadian nationalism, peacekeeping, native peoples, first nations, Quebec, regionalism, regionalism in canada, charter of rights and freedoms, school's role in nationalism, education, antiracism, multiculturalism, canadian inventions, canadian artists, canadian geography, canadian north, polar canada, canada USA, "I am Canadian", french canadians, quebecois, praires, british columbia, maritimes, monarchy in canada, human rights in canada, canadian landscape, canadian history, immigrants to canada, canadian immigration
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Dr. Jerry Diakiw (Author), 2011, Canadian Culture and National Identity, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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