When Justin Trudeau said there is no core identity, no mainstream in Canada, he was articulating a uniquely Canadian philosophy that some find bewildering, even reckless but could represent a radical new model of nationhood
As 2017 begins, Canada may be the last immigrant nation left standing. Our government believes in the value of immigration, as does the majority of the population. We took in an estimated 300,000 newcomers in 2016, including 48,000 refugees, and we want them to become citizens; around 85% of permanent residents eventually do. Recently there have been concerns about bringing in single Arab men, but otherwise Canada welcomes people from all faiths and corners. The greater Toronto area is now the most diverse city on the planet, with half its residents born outside the country; Vancouver, Calgary, Ottawa and Montreal arent far behind. Annual immigration accounts for roughly 1% of the countrys current population of 36 million.
Canada has been over-praised lately for, in effect, going about our business as usual. In 2016 such luminaries as US President Barack Obama and Bono, no less, declared the world needs more Canada. In October, the Economist blared Liberty Moves North: Canadas Example to the World on its cover, illustrated by the Statue of Liberty haloed in a maple leaf and wielding a hockey stick. Infamously, on the night of the US election Canadas official immigration website crashed, apparently due to the volume of traffic.
Of course, 2016 was also the year really the second running when many western countries turned angrily against immigration, blaming it for a variety of ills in what journalist Doug Saunders calls the global reflex appeal to fear. Alongside the rise of nativism has emerged a new nationalism that can scarcely be bothered to deny its roots in racial identities and exclusionary narratives.
Compared to such hard stances, Canadas almost cheerful commitment to inclusion might at first appear almost naive. It isnt. There are practical reasons for keeping the doors open. Starting in the 1990s, low fertility and an aging population began slowing Canadas natural growth rate. Ten years ago, two-thirds of population increase was courtesy of immigration. By 2030, it is projected to be 100%.
The economic benefits are also self-evident, especially if full citizenship is the agreed goal. All that settlers ie, Canadians who are not indigenous to the land need do is look in the mirror to recognize the generally happy ending of an immigrant saga. Our government repeats it, our statistics confirm it, our own eyes and ears register it: diversity fuels, not undermines, prosperity.
But as well as practical considerations for remaining an immigrant country, Canadians, by and large, are also philosophically predisposed to an openness that others find bewildering, even reckless. The prime minister, Justin Trudeau, articulated this when he told the New York Times Magazine that Canada could be the first postnational state. He added: There is no core identity, no mainstream in Canada.
The remark, made in October 2015, failed to cause a ripple but when I mentioned it to Michael Bach, Germanys minister for European affairs, who was touring Canada to learn more about integration, he was astounded. No European politician could say such a thing, he said. The thought was too radical.
For a European, of course, the nation-state model remains sacrosanct, never mind how ill-suited it may be to an era of dissolving borders and widespread exodus. The modern state loosely defined by a more or less coherent racial and religious group, ruled by internal laws and guarded by a national army took shape in Europe. Telling an Italian or French citizen they lack a core identity may not be the best vote-winning strategy.
To Canadians, in contrast, the remark was unexceptional. After all, one of the countrys greatest authors, Mavis Gallant, once defined a Canadian as someone with a logical reason to think he may be one not exactly a ringing assertion of a national character type. Trudeau could, in fact, have been voicing a chronic anxiety among Canadians: the absence of a shared identity.
But he wasnt. He was outlining, however obliquely, a governing principle about Canada in the 21st century. We dont talk about ourselves in this manner often, and dont yet have the vocabulary to make our case well enough. Even so, the principle feels right. Odd as it may seem, Canada may finally be owning our postnationalism.
Theres more than one story in all this. First and foremost, postnationalism is a frame to understand our ongoing experiment in filling a vast yet unified geographic space with the diversity of the world. It is also a half-century old intellectual project, born of the countrys awakening from colonial slumber. But postnationalism has also been in intermittent practise for centuries, since long before the nation-state of Canada was formalised in 1867. In some sense, we have always been thinking differently about this continent-wide landmass, using ideas borrowed from Indigenous societies. From the moment Europeans began arriving in North America they were made welcome by the locals, taught how to survive and thrive amid multiple identities and allegiances.
That welcome was often betrayed, in particular during the late 19th and 20th centuries, when settler Canada did profound harm to Indigenous people. But, if the imbalance remains, so too does the influence: the model of another way of belonging.