The new Canada

Professors discuss the federal Conservative party’s re-conceptualization of Canadian identity

From peaceful nation to warrior: Queen’s history professor Ian McKay says the Conservative government has done much to militarize Canada. Aranda Adams

The federal Conservative government has introduced a series of initiatives dedicated to constructing a Canadian national identity based on the British monarchy and war according to Queen’s University professor Ian McKay.

“The Conservative government has arrived with a very complete vision of a new Canada,” said McKay, a history professor at Queen’s University. “The peaceful kingdom is being replaced with a warrior nation.”

McKay recently released the book Warrior Nation, which explores the federal government’s effort to militarize Canada.

“I see the glorification of war in newspapers and on television,” he said. “We are going from a caring and sharing Canada to a killing and conquering one.”

With its emphasis on military history, the 2011 Canadian Citizenship Guide, used as an official study aid for immigrants wishing to attain citizenship, best illustrates Canada’s new Conservative identity, McKay noted.

“In the guide, you really notice many images of soldiers,” he said. “There is also a push on the monarchy with paintings of the queen throughout the guide.”

In particular, the guide emphasizes Canada’s history as a British colony, McKay said.

“John Buchan, a British governor general in the ‘30s, is brought forward as an ultimate guide to what it means to be Canadian,” he said. “John Buchan is well known for his writings on the white man’s burden and the intrinsic inferiority of other races - what the heck is he doing in our citizenship guide?”

In light of this new characterization of Canada, Esyllt Jones and Adele Perry, history professors from the University of Manitoba, will be publishing an alternative citizenship guide, purported to include a more honest reading of Canadian history.

Jones believes the revisionary guide will provide a strong critique of the Conservative party’s attempts at transforming Canada’s national identity.

“The hope is the writing of the guide will provoke discussion and debate,” she said. “The official guide patronizes new immigrants by ignoring how immigrants have contributed to Canadian society.”

The revised guide will appear in virtually the same format as the official one. However, it will emphasize the role of both social movements and immigrants in shaping Canadian culture, Jones said.

“We want a more honest version of Canada’s past out there,” said Jones. “We need to enforce the idea that immigrants don’t need to be told how to be Canadian because immigrant roles have been so large in building Canada.”

Professor Tracy Whalen, a teacher of visual rhetoric at the University of Winnipeg, regards all the images in the official guide as elaborate rhetoric.

“Epideictic is the rhetoric of celebrations and lamentations, the rhetoric of praise and blame, the rhetoric of the Canadian citizenship guide,” she said.

When briefly looking through the guide, Whalen noticed its visual depiction of aboriginals to be detached from reality.

“Aboriginal people show up in the history section of the guide in the form of artwork,” she said. “This creates a double detachment - they are presented as paintings and in a historical context.”

The recent Conservative proposition to change Canada’s national animal from beaver to polar bear might also be regarded as part of this identity-transformation plan.

However, because images can be interpreted in many different ways, the consequences of changing Canada’s national animal from beaver to polar bear are not so easy to discern, Whalen said.

The polar bear has a long history of appearing on Canadian postcards and is often associated with global warming. However, both animals are already significant parts of Canadian culture, Whalen added.

“Both animals are on our national currency, both animals are fairly salient in our cultural imaginary,” she said. “I think Canadians are only talking about it because a senator suggested it.”

Published in Volume 66, Number 12 of The Uniter (November 17, 2011)

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