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Andrew Potter: Who loves Canada?
Left-wing nationalism tends to be a feature of post-colonial states, where the fight for independence or liberation from oppressors forms the nationalist narrative.
By: Andrew Potter
Of all the incredible aspects of Ukraine’s David versus Goliath struggle against the Russian invasion, one of the most remarkable has been the strength of Ukrainian nationalism and the forces of collective will and sacrifice it has marshalled. The Liberal MP from Montreal, Anthony Housefather, took note of it on his Twitter feed:
This is a strange thing for a Liberal MP to say. First, because for two years now the Liberals have been aggressively dividing Canadians over things like mandates. And second, the Liberals have spent the last seven years actively encouraging the view that Canada is a risible country.
For many progressive-minded Canadians, one of the more cognitively dissonant aspects of the “Freedom Convoy” that occupied downtown Ottawa for three weeks and blocked border crossings across the country was the exuberant nationalism of many of the protesters. Yes, there were plenty of “fuck Trudeau” signs, some Canada flags were flown upside down while other Canadian symbols were either defaced or disrespected. But there was also a great deal of straight-up flag waving of the sort we are used to seeing only on Canada Day or after we win gold in hockey at the Olympics, while many of the protesters spent some time on the blockades belting out O Canada.
This flummoxed a lot of people, especially those who found the political aims and methods of the convoyers objectionable. On social media, it was common to see people lamenting this co-optation of the Canadian flag, with some wondering if it was even acceptable to fly the flag any more.
The reason this has been so disconcerting for so many is that a long-standing feature of the Canadian political landscape has been that the nationalists were predominantly on the left. As the author Stephen Henighan noted years ago in his essay “Free Trade Fiction”, this made Canada close to unique among industrialized, developed countries in the West, where the nationalists tend to be on the right. Left-wing nationalism is typically a feature of post-colonial states, where the fight for independence or liberation from colonial oppressors gets wrapped up into a nationalist narrative.
The reason left-wing nationalism has been so appealing to Canadians was precisely because of our weak identity and ongoing concerns over assimilation, first into the British empire, then later into the American continentalist project. If there’s a founding document of this tendency it is Margaret Atwood’s Survival, but it is prefigured by books like George Grant’s Lament for a Nation and finds its popular expression in everything from Heritage Minutes to the famous Joe Canada ad for Molson beer.
The left-wing focus of Canadian nationalism held sway from the end of the Second World War until about five years ago, and it was hugely consequential for Canadian politics. Most obviously, it helped establish the Liberals as the natural governing party. By making support for Liberal policies synonymous with defending Canadian independence, and by treating Liberal values as Canadian values, the Liberals were able to effectively frame their conservative opponents as un-Canadian.
On the continental policy front, it served to place a pretty clear barrier to deep political integration with the United States. In a 2005 essay that looked at the prospects for political co-operation between Paul Martin’s Liberals and George W. Bush’s Republicans, Joe Heath noted that the big obstacle to Canadian participation on things like Ballistic Missile Defence was the fact there was virtually no ideological overlap between nationalist groups in Canada and the U.S.
For years, Canada’s two main political parties reliably played to type. When he was prime minister, Jean Chrétien never missed an opportunity to say that Canada was the greatest country in the world, to boast of our standing at the top of the UN’s Human Development Index, or to just generally talk about how great it was to live in Canada (under a Liberal government, of course.) For their part, Conservatives couldn’t help but take the bait, repeatedly arguing that Liberal Canada was a cesspool of socialist mediocrity that ought to seriously consider letting the U.S. take over. At one point, Stephen Harper even teamed up with Stockwell Day to write a letter to the Wall Street Journal apologizing for Canada being such a bad neighbour.
Today, things have completely reversed. A major catalyst for this shift was the decision by Justin Trudeau, when he came to power in 2015, to make denigrating Canada central to his Liberalism. It began when he started issuing formal apologies for past wrongs, at an unprecedented rate for Canadian federal governments. Then there was his acceptance of one of the findings of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, that Canada committed genocide against Indigenous peoples. Then there was his decision last spring to order all federal flags to fly at half-mast after the reports of the unmarked graves of hundreds of Indigenous children who died while in the supposed care of the residential school system. The flags remained lowered for months, until pressure from veterans groups and the approach of Remembrance Day forced his hand and he ordered the flags raised.
Whatever the merits of any of these initiatives taken on their own, taken as a whole they set a recurring tone from the government, that Canadians were a fallen people. There is no question that dumping on Canada is a deliberate strategy for the Trudeau Liberals. What is less clear is whether, in persuading Canadian leftists to dislike their country, the prime minister realizes the forces he has unleashed in the process.
From the perspective of domestic political strategy, it leaves the space of nationalism open to political opportunists. There are no vacuums in politics, and the space vacated by the old left-Liberal nationalism has been taken over now by the right, in some cases the very far right. This process has been amplified by the obvious psychological impact of Trudeau’s gambit: not everyone sees Canada, or Canadians, as the nation of racists and bigots and misogynists that Trudeau likes to portray them, and these people will increasingly be inclined to look for a home in a party or a movement that rejects this characterization.
But there is also the question of alignment with nationalists in other countries. For the first time, the predominant strain of Canadian nationalists share a political ideology and worldview with their counterparts in the United States: it should surprise no one that along with all of the Maple Leafs, there were plenty of Stars and Stripes being waved at the trucker rallies. It’s also telling that many of the convoyers and their supporters demanded their “Miranda rights” or insisted on the protection of the First Amendment.
It doesn’t take a weatherman to see where this is going. Forget about Housefather’s wish for a Canadian unity that could help us face the challenges of the world together; Justin Trudeau’s abandonment of Canadian nationalism to the right might end up accelerating the very process that generations of Liberals before him spent their careers resisting, namely, the assimilation of Canada into the United States.
Andrew Potter is the author of On Decline: Stagnation, Nostalgia, And Why Every Year is the Worst One Ever.
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