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History Table of Contents
1998 Summer Conference
Summer Conference 1998
Rethinking Canada for the 21st Century

The Canadian Essence: What will it mean to be
a Canadian in the 21st century?

John Gray, Playwright, Vancouver

I’m not very good at talking about the future. In fact, I think I’m getting bored by the 21st century already. So, what I’m going to do instead is talk a bit about the past and the present with the understanding that by the time I’m finished we’ll be in the future.

My family comes from a village called Hopewell, which is about 100 people in Nova Scotia where we lived for six generations. It’s continued to be my psychological home, although I was brought up in Truro, where they make Stanfield’s underwear.

While in Truro I never actually saw a Canadian play and I never read a Canadian book and I never heard a Canadian piece of music.

But thanks to Hopewell I knew lots of reels and strathspeys and in Truro I played with an R and B band.

In that time, I didn’t attempt to write an original sentence or a piece of music. And it’s small wonder, because if there is anything as stifling as the expectations of your village, or your community or your ethnic group, it’s a culture that by definition comes from someplace else.

This isn’t easy to explain to someone who takes for granted the ability to see something in art and then to see it in life; like a place name, or a familiar accent. And it isn’t easy to explain to an urbane city dweller — a cosmopolitan person — what it is like to live in a community where everyone knows your parents and if you make one enemy you make a hundred.

The same way it isn’t easy to explain to non-practitioners in the arts how it’s the specific details that make a story legitimate and valuable. It’s not the general themes that we all talk about.

Without a conscious and detailed sense of who and where you are, plus a what-the-hell attitude about what you say out loud, you’re probably not going to voice an original thought in your life.

Anyway, I left Nova Scotia for British Columbia when I was 20. I couldn’t decide whether to go to Britain or the United States, so I went to British Columbia, where I could be in both places at once.

Then a little later on, I moved to Toronto and something happened there.

Toronto has always been the centre of Canadian culture and I don’t want to attribute to Toronto’s bohemian climate. In fact, sometimes I think it’s a deep sadness to me that the centre of Canadian culture comes in Canada’s anal retentive breadbasket; the land of the sucked intake of breath; that Southern Ontario hit.

But at least it was capable of supporting some original work, and for the first time in Toronto I saw some things in art that I also saw in life. In 1974, Southern Ontario was, by default, the seat of what we might call the Canadian identity.

But as someone from Nova Scotia, it didn’t take me very long to see that Southern Ontario didn’t contain the entire Canadian identity.

It wasn’t all inclusive and, so, like so many Canadians I set on my way — searching for the Canadian identity, like it’s a kind of missing cufflink, misplaced west of Flin Flon.

It took me a long time to realize that my concept of a national identity was itself something I had absorbed from the American culture I sucked up as a kid. I mean, the idea that a nation is a monolithic construct — like America, France or Israel — "a people" with its own language, with its own genetic characteristics: a longing for personal freedom; discerning taste in food and wine; a set of forearms like the shanks of giant cattle.

The Canadian identity isn’t like that.

To begin with, it first appears as a negative image, like a track in the snow: something you define more by what it’s not than by what it is.

I’m a slow learner, you see, and it took me a long time — a few more years — to discover that "Canadian" doesn’t even describe a peculiar "people" or "history;" but an existential position in which a person carries more than one identity at once and recognizes that other people do, too.

Put another way, Canada is an ideological tool kit, in which you take out one idea or the other — depending on the circumstances. Or it’s a prism, in which the spectrum alters depending on your position, but certain colours are clear.

One thing Canada is not is a piece of geography. The Canadian identity has nothing to do with physical borders — basically because our borders are indefensible, which is my point today about the Canadian identity and why it is useful.

A Canadian is a person who is juggling more than one identity, in a land whose physical borders are indefensible, in a world in which identities are shifting, and physical borders are irrelevant.

In other words, Canada is a kind of model for the 21st century in which a nation defines itself, not as a piece of geography or a race of people, but as a political and cultural and existential concept.

Have you noticed how the Americans .just discovered existentialism. Multiculturalism, they call it. We got to have people [who are] different. We’re not all just Americans. This is news to them. The French are having the same problem. The Germans.

Canadians have been dealing with that concept for 25 years. That monolithic position is now confined to the Monarchist league; the thickest rump of the Reform Party and the Parti Quebecois.

The problem is, our cultural domination is so extensive and so all-pervasive that we’re still looking at ourselves through American eyes.

So, we interpret our democratic sophistication as a kind of vacillation. We under-rate ourselves because we interpret nationalism in terms of American nationalism, and culture as the monolithic expression of "a people."

In fact, the purest expression of Canadiana is the hyphen. The hyphen is a beautiful thing. Look at the railroad as a hyphen and you’ll see- what I mean. It joins distant places — yet you can travel back and forth. That movement, travelling between places, oddly enough, becomes a place in itself.

For me, Canada has been my rescue from my peculiar village — where everybody knows your uncle and if you don’t watch it your brain will shrink to the size of a pea.

It’s also my rescue from the place I watch on TV and see in the movies, where if you don’t watch it you’ll turn into Michael Jackson; neither black, nor white, neither male nor female, neither young nor old, neither here nor there.

That’s my pep talk for today.