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Conference
 

76th Annual Summer Conference, August 9–12, 2007

What Does Citizenship Mean in a World Without Borders?

Irvin Studin

The world beyond our borders is already present in our daily lives. The presence will only increase. Borders are fluid, international networks are multiplying, dual citizenship is common – what rights and whose responsibilities do we bear, and to which country? In a world that has left behind the tidy era (or not so tidy) of nation-states and citizens of relatively fixed geographic and cultural identities, is anything constant any more?

***

I want to thank the board of directors of the Couchiching Institute and the organizers of this great conference for inviting me to participate this year. Indeed, I hope that, after hearing what I have to say, they still invite me back in future years… I should also say at the outset that it is an honour for me to share the stage with my fellow panelists – Pierre Pettigrew in particular – a distinguished public servant and, by dint of the difficult political period in which he served, a warrior of many years for our country. Drew I had the pleasure of meeting not too long ago in Ottawa and Farouk and I crossed paths at the Privy Council Office several years ago… But he, like I, has many miles to go before he sleeps… For our generation has great responsibilities and much work to do… I will try to touch on some of these responsibilities in my remarks…

Let me start my formal remarks by sounding a slightly iconoclastic or dissident note, as is my wont, and just to make things a little interesting – to stir a little… Two things: first, I disagree with the premise of the discussion – to wit, that our world – or that Canada’s world – is somehow borderless and that our identities are somehow singularly ambiguous or complex as a result… And second, and this in way of propelling forward the discussion on our rights and responsibilities – in particular, our responsibilities – in this turbulent, fascinating world, that a Canadian is…nothing more, nothing less, than a citizen of a state called Canada… All of our rights and responsibilities as Canadians – originate in this basic reality… The rest is commentary… (Asked what is the central lesson of the Torah – the old Testament – the rabbi answers: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. The rest is commentary…)

A brief digression, if you’ll allow me… But not as long as my father’s famous digressions, which are truly tangents on tangents on tangents…, until the entire original premise of his point – if not the entertainment value of the intervention – is lost in the proverbial ether…

I am the first born – the first son – of détente Jews from the former Soviet Union… My parents hail originally from the historic port city of Odessa. Odessa, as many of you will know, is today part of the Ukraine (Yushchenko country, not Yanukovitch), but it was originally founded by Catherine the Great as a key strategic post in Imperial Russia in the aftermath of the Russo-Turkish wars… We speak today of borderlessness and fluid identities: well, Odessa, like most port cities, was hyper-cosmopolitan – far moreso back then than in the present during the Soviet period – and its geist-its spirit – hyper-borderless… In the 19th century, the city was Russia’s biggest port – home not only to Russians, but also to Ukrainians, Cossacks, Tatars, Moldovans, Greeks, Turks, Poles, and, of course, Jews. I could go on… After Warsaw, Odessa was the most important city in Eastern European diaspora Jewry… A real intellectual nerve centre… Isaac Babel, Noam Biyalik, Zev Jabotinsky, Leon Trotsky: they were all Jews who hailed from Odessa… And these Jews played massive roles in some of the major political movements of the last century and a half – not only in Russia, but in Europe, and over time, the world. I speak here of anarchism, communism, Zionism, nationalism… But the basic point is that Odessa, at least in its 19th century heyday, much like other major cities of the day – Berlin, Paris, Shanghai, London, that eternal city of exiles – was a microcosm of sorts for the universe… There was general bonhomie among the ethnic groups. Assimilation, as the famous Australian public intellectual Donald Horne once wrote, was done in bed… Proof of this cosmopolitan, indeed “borderless” bonhomie: when the anti-Jewish pogroms came – and come they inevitably did, in 1821, 1850, 1871, 1881 (most notoriously, after the assassination of Tsar Alex II), 1905, and 1906 – the damage in Odessa, for all the Jews that lived there, sometimes in excess of 30% of the total population – was often small by comparison with the damage sustained in other cities… Many people died and were injured in these pogroms, but the scale of death in Odessa – if I may be so technical – was often mitigated by the cosmopolitan character of the city…

By the 1970s, tensions between the Soviet Union and the West had eased – temporarily, of course. My parents were able to emigrate on the back of a creative, highly moralistic amendment – the Jackson-Vanik amendment – passed by the US Congress and signed into law by Gerald Ford in 1975. Jackson-Vannik essentially required that the USSR, in exchange for “most favoured (trading) nation” status with the US, allow for emigration for some of its citizens to the West. The legislation had the Jews in mind. And so my parents left. One long train ride – a long, at once borderless and border-heavy, train ride – out of the USSR, through Czechoslovakia (still in the Soviet orbit), then through Vienna and finally to Roma, Italia, where they stayed a year. And where I was born… Si, sono nato a Roma… In 1976…

Why Canada? Why did my parents decide to emigrate to Canada? They had other options: the US, first and foremost, but also Israel and Australia. Why Canada? A narcissistic rendering of the history would say that Canada was the best country of the four – the most stable, the most beautiful, its population the most kind, generous and indeed cosmopolitan (or multicultural, as they had just begun to say in those days…) The truth is my parents, like most of the détente Jews, knew precious little about Canada… Ask your average man in Asia today – in Japan, in China, in Korea, in India – what they know about Canada, and you will likely find similar ignorance… Believe me: I’ve tried it… And yet our country and our people remain among the most liked in the world: go figure… I will return to this issue a little later…

The truth of the matter is that my parents came to Canada because everyone in their circle – in Odessa – was saying that Canada was impenetrable, impregnable, inaccessible: that Canada was not taking Jews from the USSR… So it was a case of what Thorsten Veblen once called ‘conspicuous consumption’: the rumour, untrue though it was, made my parents and others that much more determined – hungrier – to get to Canada…

And so they did. And I grew up, with two younger sisters, in Toronto. We spoke Russian at home, went to French immersion schools (immigrant parents were, self-selectively, anxious to get ahead; and my father, symmetry oblige, had gone to an English-immersion school in Odessa) and, significantly, swearing in over a dozen languages… Try me: having grown up playing soccer – the world’s game – seriously, arm-in-arm with teammates whose parents hailed from every corner of the world, I could muster creative invective against a given soccer referee in almost any tongue: Russian, Italian, Persian, Polish, Hebrew, Mandarin, Spanish…, even Jamaican patois… And in English and French, bien entendu… I was a Russian-Jewish Canadian, my best friends variously of Polish and Iranian heritage…

So what is a Canadian? I asked that question virtually every day of my childhood in Toronto. Back in the day, my parents, like most Torontonians, would insist – at least implicitly – that the notion is a wholesale fiction – an artificial construct distinguishing, barely, those north of the 49th parallel from their American brethren – brethren who, in the eyes of the outsider – the immigrant – were negligibly distinct from the Canadians… All of my friends called themselves “Italian,” “Portuguese,” “Russian” or just plain “Jewish.” In extremis – if pressed – they might offer “Italo-Canadian,” or “Portuguese-Canadian,” but Italian or Portuguese always first… Always… That I myself was born in Roma and they themselves had in many cases never stepped foot in Italy was an irony that never dawned on my playmates… It is an irony that has never been lost on me… The Canadian of the 1970s, 80s and 90s was sufficiently nebulous and insufficiently prestigious an identity as to capture the imagination of a young Torontonian looking for a tribe! (Parethetically – globalization-schmobalization – let me suggest that in the Toronto of today, with its myriad and growing ethnic enclaves, not all that much has changed in this regard…)

To be original, in my teens I started calling myself “Canadian” tout court…full stop... What are you? people would ask. Canadian, I would reply. No really, what are you? Where are you from? Where are your parents from?

Truth be told, however much I declared that I was Canadian, I had little understanding of what this actually meant. So my defences against these typical lines of questioning were slim indeed… And my friends were unpersuaded… I could not be Canadian… A Canadian was a French Canadian or, more readily, someone of Anglosaxon progeny whose parents spoke without ethnic accent…, in a “Canadian” idiom…

So I decided I would ask the experts… As Bernard Crick once said: “Boredom with established truths is the enemy of free men…” And frankly, I was bored with the answers – or lack of answers – I had been getting – and giving – to this basic question: What is a Canadian? The question is bluntly put… And what, pray tell, is a Canadian in today’s world – this so-called borderless, inconstant world of which we speak; this world in which identity is apparently so fluid and fleeting?

While studying in the UK I happened on a book of short essays commissioned in 1958 by David Ben-Gurion, first prime minister of the State of Israel. Ben-Gurion had posed the question “What is a Jew?” to 50 Jewish sages – great thinkers within Israel and among the Jewish diaspora – in order to inform Israeli policy in respect of mixed marriages – in short, whether the offspring of a marriage between a Jewish man and a non-Jewish woman could legitimately be deemed Jewish. Anyone who knows anything about Judaism and Jewish communitarian dynamics knows very well that mixed marriages are a vexed question indeed! The replies to Ben-Gurion included the who’s who of the global Jewish intelligentsia of his day: among others, the brilliant Oxford philosopher Isaiah Berlin, Felix Frankfurter, the great American jurist, and the Lubavitcher Rebbe Menahem Mendel Schneersohn.

I determined that, when the time and opportunity came, I would pull a Ben-Gurion, but for the Canadian context. I asked the question – What is a Canadian? – of 50 great Canadian thinkers (I called them “sages”), literally from all walks of Canadian thinking life – the civil service, politics, academia, literature, journalism, business, the arts; of thinkers from both official language groups, and from all the regions of the country, as well as from the Canadian diaspora; of Canadians de souche, Aboriginals, immigrants and even self-styled ‘exiles’; yes, there are some of these as well… I ended up with 42 responses – 43 including my own – and together they formed the 2006 book What is a Canadian? Forty-three Thought-Provoking Responses (Douglas Gibson Books, McClelland & Stewart, 2006)… I got many no’s as well: distinguished people who did not quite know how to answer the question, did not have time, or did not think the question terribly interesting. Claude Ryan, the great former editor of Le Devoir and former boss of my fellow panelist Monsieur Pettigrew, said ´oui, avec grand enthousiasmeª, but sadly passed away shortly thereafter, before yielding a response. The inimitable John Kenneth Galbraith said no, he was too busy writing, at the age of 97…, and then expired not too long afterward… And an inordinate number of Québécois – to my chagrin – said no: not that they were not interested in the question, but that, sotto voce, their answer might get them into hot water back on their home turf… Quel dommage!

What did my sages say? Because I wanted unvitiated, frank analysis – to the extent of the possible – and because I wanted highly quotable material, I had asked all of my sages to start their short responses with the words “A Canadian is…” Not a Canadian could or should or might be…, as is the escapist Canadian wont… A Canadian is… To make a long story short, the answers boiled down to three basic types or categories: I call these categories the idiosyncratic school, the sociopolitical school and the rejectionist school… In the idiosyncratic school of thought, the Canadian is defined by certain distinctive, often primordial, essential character traits, a particular personality-type or peculiar values. We know this school well. According to this line of thinking, the Canadian is variously law-abiding, liberal and enlightened. And lucky, lest we forget. The Canadian is also famously tolerant, polite and generous; also diplomatic. In the late Pierre Berton’s view, a Canadian is – even if Asians and Odessites are altogether unaware – apparently famous for being able to make love in a canoe without tipping it. A Canadian is, to take the less auspicious view, a historical amnesiac (or historically ignorant), parochial, pathologically deferential, complacent, too comfortable with mediocrity, all too easily racist (despite apparent good intentions) and, as Thomas Homer-Dixon, one of my sages, suggests, prone to Schadenfreude. Apparent or claimed value differences with the American, as sages like William Watson, George Elliott Clarke and Paul Heinbecker note, are often central to this line of argument. Of course, I might counter, and here I do: none of these traits, good or bad, exists invariably in each and every person we may wish to call ‘Canadian’. Indeed, such traits may not even be and indeed are often not more true for the Canadian than for, say, the Italian, Greek or any other Westerner, for that matter; although the chances are quite good that, between the Italian and the Canadian, the Italian would sooner tip a canoe when love-making if the Canadian lover in question was a Yukoner…

According to the socio-political school of thought – my second school – the Canadian may be identified with certain key public policies, societal principles or values – such as multiculturalism, universal health care, peacekeeping, and the Charter – which are thought or perceived to underpin a certain civic essence, if you will. Indeed, medicare and the Charter have been described as – and here I quote Rex Murphy – “the tectonic plates of the modern idea of Canada.” I would again counter – and I do – that most public policies and principles – aside from those enshrined in the Constitution – are made to be amended, rescinded or even ignored, often in very short order, depending on the political imperatives of the day. It is therefore difficult to proclaim that a Canadian is categorically a creature of certain policies – particularly when such policies clash. And given that most of the said “tectonic plates” of ‘Canadiana’ do not predate the 1960s, the Canadian of the socio-political school must be seen as very embryonic indeed… Or perhaps transitory… Or evolutionary… Or, as skeptics like Mark Kingwell or Roy MacGregor or my papa might say, ‘imaginary’ or ‘invented’ – or at least so contingent in nature as to have her essence constantly overstated by nationalists or overly keen commentators.

A final school of thought is the rejectionist school. Exponents of this school speak of varying degrees of alienation from what they may perceive as a ‘majoritarian’ conception (or indeed, the state’s conception) of the Canadian. In short, they do not see themselves in the Canadian, as they currently see her being defined. Guy Laforest and Christian Dufour – two such rejectionists – are apparently “exiles” within Canada, and thus outside of the Canadian ‘mainstream’, as they see it being conceived. The grievances of these particular Québécois – more Canadien than Canadian, if you will – appear first and foremost to be political or constitutional in nature, with particular emphases placed on the absence of a Québec signature on the Constitution Act of 1982, and on the failures of the Meech Lake Accord in 1987 and the Charlottetown Accord in 1992. Louis Balthazar offers that these grievances actually predate Meech and Charlottetown, and have roots in an alleged or perceived violation of the original political bargain that shaped Canada: to wit, the idea of a recognized and distinct French-majority Québec, sovereign within its spheres of responsibilities under the federal model.

Were my sample different, I would no doubt have found elements of rejectionism – although perhaps not of the same intensity – in some other parts of Canada – perhaps Newfoundland and Alberta, or among certain Aboriginals…

So what, then, after all this enlightened introspection – indeed, by some of our best minds – is a Canadian? Given the great diversity of responses to my question, it seems the only coherent way to answer is to suggest, as I did at the start of my remarks, that the Canadian is nothing more (and nothing less) than a citizen of the state called Canada. (As Patrick Weil concluded in his famous essay on the French, ´est français celui que l’État considère comme telª.) The Canadian is a fox, to borrow from Isaiah Berlin’s overused metaphor: she stands for many things, but unlike the hedgehog – a member of an older nation – a Persian, a Russian, a Han-Chinese, a Korean, a Jew – she may not be animated by a single, or coherent, force, motif or logic. In short, the Canadian, at this point in history, has no essence. I repeat: the Canadian is, in the only meaningful sense, a citizen of Canada. This Canadian is certain to be a citizen of the physically colossal and not negligibly populous federation occupying the northern half of North America, consisting, today, of ten provinces and three territories, and operating under the democratic laws and political institutions established in the Constitutions of 1867, and also of 1982. And the Canadian, as a citizen of the Canadian state, is susceptible to all of the obligations, formal and informal, attendant to this citizenship, and is the beneficiary of the vast complement of rights and freedoms secured by this citizenship.

So the Canadian is a political creature; she exists only because the Canadian political project exists, and will continue to exist only if the political project moves forward. In other words, politics and political institutions – the means by which the business of the Canadian state is conducted – matter existentially to the Canadian. Or to paraphrase Pericles: the Canadian may not be interested in politics, but politics is necessarily interested in the Canadian! The Canadian is a political fact, and the Canadian is a fact only in virtue of the political. This is the only constant that matters to the Canadian (as a Canadian), and to us as Canadians… The rest, as I have said, is commentary…

A word about responsibilities – or better still, obligations. Much has been made in the literature and in the public sphere about our country’s fantastic bulwark of rights and freedoms… I have little to add at this time. But I will say without reserve that we are often loathe to discuss responsibilities – either because we associate responsibilities with the totalitarian state or, more likely, on my view, because we in the West – because life is good – have become somewhat lazy… I use the word lazy with intent; la rectitude politique would call this laziness political apathy… (I should qualify this: Europe has just laboured heroically over the course of four-plus decades to create an historic, magnificently complex union consisting today of 27 countries and – bilingualism-schmilingualism – 23 official languages.) Responsibility is hard work, in most cases, whereas rights – at least in their negative, liberal conception – can often be asserted without having, as a citizen, to bat an eyelid…

What are my responsibilities as a Canadian? Not as a human being, not as a Westerner, not as a North American – but as a Canadian… Because politics and political institutions, as I have offered, matter existentially to the Canadian, the first responsibility of the Canadian – again, as a Canadian – must logically be for the defence – the protection – of our political institutions. This defence comes against all description of threats, potential and actual: occasional threats to our northern sovereignty by the Russians notwithstanding, our country has, at this time, few overt foreign enemies. However, the unity of the federation – the Quebec question, in particular – remains a highly nuanced and precarious affair – one that will bite us in the backside if we take our eye off the ball… Other centrifugal forces – tribal and regional – also tug daily at the coherence and unity of the federation… The integrity of our institutions is, from countless quarters, under constant and growing scrutiny. And, perhaps most importantly, in a time of general Western political apathy (I have called it laziness), our institutions must constantly prove themselves relevant. (The North American – especially Canadian – debate about the relevance of political institutions finds much resonance in the present debate surrounding the constitution and political institutions of the nascent European Union.)

To continue – where our institutions are thought not to be relevant, or adequate, these institutions must change – they must adapt to the times. And their relevance must be sold to the public… Here I speak of our Canadian Constitution, our Parliament, our political parties, the civil service, the judiciary and affiliated institutions – at the federal level especially, but also at other levels of government – provincial, territorial, local or municipal... I shall not go into details in these remarks, but many of these institutions need and will need updating if they are indeed to be relevant – if they are to accord with the Canadian on the street whom they purport to define. And popular or political fatigue – laziness – with the difficult and complex process of such updating is – dare I say it – not a good enough reason to stave off what needs to be done.

As I approach my conclusion, let me just say that the impulse to protect and adapt our political institutions should – we will all agree – be that much stronger because our country, for the most part, actually works quite well. Our standard of living is perhaps not the highest in the world, but it is bloody good – among the highest in the world. Our officially bilingual, bi-juridical, multiethnic society is peaceable and productive. In short, Canada is well worth defending – in pure, rational terms. Many may not feel Canada in their blood – and here I am getting at a painful point – because Canada, simply put, is not a nation… Canada has many nations: the Québécois, the Acadiens, the Inuit, numerous Aboriginal groups, Newfoundlanders… Perhaps even the Torontois, some might argue! But in the whole, despite the protestations of Andrew Coyne, the people of our country – taken together – do not yet form a nation. Certainly not in any ‘thick’ sense… Quite naturally so, because the country is young: among the oldest federations and democracies in the world, but not very old at all in the historical scheme of things… It will take centuries’ more pained fermentation until we are in fact a nation…

If that is indeed where we want to go… But do we? Do we really want to be a nation? Do we need the founding and popular mythologies or creeds that go with nation-building? Or will some of these “unifying” ideas – Britishness, anti-Americanism, peacekeeping, goodness, even multiculturalism or cosmopolitanism… – as evidenced by our history, have refractory effects in different parts of the country…, simply because our country is huge, and the population so diverse, so repulsive to categorical reduction… Said the late journalist Bruce Hutchison: “...seeking the Canadian whole, I concluded that it defied logical analysis and lacked any outward symmetry.”

For now, I am not talking about nation-building, but only about state-building – and with this, the obligation to defend the state, and to adapt the state to the times – mainly because our state works – and still works bloody well – in practical, utilitarian terms… It would be a great shame to lose it…

In closing, allow me to briefly ruminate on possibilities – opportunities – for moving our state and our society beyond the purely utilitarian…, and perhaps to the excellent or great…, for we are, I would humbly argue, not yet there… In 1963, the late great Australian public intellectual Donald Horne wrote a polemical pamphlet called The Lucky Country. “Australia,” wrote Horne, “is a lucky country governed by second-rate men who share its luck.” Horne was writing ironically: Australians understood his words as a compliment! What a Canadian reaction!

Horne wrote his classic in the 1960s – a time of deep reckoning and transition for Australia, as it struggled to come to grips with its Anglosaxon (“convict stock”) genesis and its Asian geography. Opening of the Australian economy and relaxation of national attitudes in respect of non-white immigration and multiculturalism were very much part of this national debate.

In some sense, Horne could well have been writing about today’s Canada. Without attempting to rate our government or governments, ours is also, indisputably, a very lucky country. Even at this at a time of apparent global transition, as suggested by our topic of discussion. We talk about a borderless world – and here I return to one of my two original volleys – but Canada, like Australia, is lucky precisely because we have borders. Our lucky existence is all about borders. Australia is a continental island, and Canada is a continental peninsula… Notwithstanding our constant border disputes with the United States – and despite the current security-driven ‘hardening’ of the American border – both realities which themselves strongly undermine the premise of borderlessless in the question at hand – Canada is as stable and productive as it is in large part because of geography. After we split the continental pie in the nineteenth century and effectively called a truce with our neighbours to the south, and after we extended our federation a mare usque ad mareusque ad mare, we cannot deny that our borders have, for all practical intents and purposes, insulated us from a most difficult and chaotic world. All the while, states – indeed nations in the ‘thick’ or ‘hedgehog’ sense – Russia, Poland, Germany – with complex borders and many potential enemies at the gates have known regular upheaval and tumult on their home soil… So the Canadian reality, ladies and gentleman, is not at all borderless: quite the contrary. Despite the emergence of modern public goods – transportation, communication, energy, finance, and most signally, as Bagwati writes, international policy cooperation among governments – and despite the advent of modern public bads like epidemics, computer viruses and religious terrorism, our geography still makes us bloody lucky, much as it did at the start of the last century… Perhaps a little less so today, but still lucky…

If protecting and improving our political institutions is our primary – indeed, as I have argued, our existential – responsibility as Canadians, then the fact that we remain quite lucky affords us unusual and – to my mind – clear opportunities to build stronger secondary institutions – coast-to-coast-to-coast institutions. These secondary institutions, as I call them, would doubtless indirectly support the political institutions and the political unity of our country, but they would have no existential value as such for the Canadian or for Canada. Rather, would serve to create a stronger common or collective or general consciousness across the entire geography of our vast land. Unlike the task of nation-building, the establishment of these institutions would not necessarily be beholden to overblown or perverse myths about “essential” Canadian traits… Rather, these institutions could be grounded in the fostering of excellence – yes, excellence – among Canadian citizens, in common activity – coast-to-coast-to-coast – among Canadians, and in reasonably justifiable pride among Canadians in national achievement – again, beyond the purely tribal, regional or utilitarian... I speak here in the main about our country’s national cultural and athletic institutions – or, more precisely, the inexplicable dearth thereof… If you will indulge me, I shall close briefly, in way of illustration, on the parochial note of Canadian sport and sporting institutions: as I speak at this conference, a Canadian has, for the first time in 18 years, if my history is correct, qualified for the final rounds of the Canadian Open in Montréal. We just hosted the Under-20 world soccer championship, and Canada went 0-3 without scoring a single goal. In most sports, our international performance at the top levels is, frankly, inadequate, considering our luck and our wealth. Apart from the CFL – a half-American enterprise – we have no coast-to-coast elite sports leagues. None. In soccer, we content ourselves with one professional team in an American league. In baseball, one American-dominated team in an American league. In basketball, one American-dominated team in an American league. Even in hockey, the national sport, we have no national league – no coast-to-coast-to-coast agora in the one sport that is most commonly loved among Canadians. Instead we seem somewhat content with rump representation: six teams in what is now a mostly American league. Do we not see a problem in this? The Australians, who today boast more than a half dozen coast-to-coast sports leagues and perform disproportionately well in elite international sport, once won zero gold medals – of all places, at the 1976 Montréal Olympics. They mustered the national will – the chutzpah – to address this problem. They would call our state of affairs in Canada, in this regard, “heroic amateurism.” The same problem exists for Canadian arts and culture. This is a failure of building, of vision… And a missed opportunity. For a lucky country, we as Canadians are the poorer for it…

My father has today come around to feeling quite Canadian: he and my mother have just returned from a wonderful sojourn in Nova Scotia – unchartered territory for the typical Toronto suburbanite. But as I humbly offered at the start, those in my generation and that of my friend Farouk, proud Canadians though we may be, have much work ahead of us…

Thank you.