3.2: A Constructed Canada

2] In this lesson I say that it should be clear that the discourse on nationalism is also about ethnicity and ideologies of “race.” If you trace the historical overview of nationalism in Canada in the CanLit guide, you will find many examples of state legislation and policies that excluded and discriminated against certain peoples based on ideas about racial inferiority and capacities to assimilate. – and in turn, state legislation and policies that worked to try to rectify early policies of exclusion and racial discrimination. As the guide points out, the nation is an imagined community, whereas the state is a “governed group of people.” For this blog assignment, I would like you to research and summarize one of the state or governing activities, such as The Royal Proclamation 1763, the Indian Act 1876, Immigration Act 1910, or the Multiculturalism Act 1989 – you choose the legislation or policy or commission you find most interesting. Write a blog about your findings and in your conclusion comment on whether or not your findings support Coleman’s argument about the project of white civility.

It is uncomfortable coming to terms with the truth that the idea of Canadian nationalism is and always has been based on the exclusion of people who are not white. Myself identifying as a white Canadian girl, I get an uneasy feeling looking at documents like the CanLit guide, and the Indian Act, which I will later elaborate on in this post, and realizing that since its colonization Canada has been continuously constructed as a white persons country.

I use the word constructed, because there is no other word for how Canadian nationalism has developed over the centuries. As we read in this lecture with Daniel Coleman’s argument in his introduction to White Civility: The Literary Project of English Canada, Canadian literature has been notoriously entrenched in the “British model of civility” (Coleman 5). As literature influences society and vice versa, it is easy to see how this model of British civility was held as the dominant model for Canadians to aspire to for so long, and how those who didn’t fit within this model were forced to assimilate.

The Indian Act of 1876 is a good example of this type of forced assimilation put into effect. Although it has gone through many amendments since it was initially passed the Indian Act’s purpose to assimilate First Nations peoples to a White Canadian model has more or less remained the same. Erin Hanson in her article for Indigenous Foundations succinctly describes the act as “a part of a long history of assimilation policies that intended to terminate the cultural, social, economic, and political distinctiveness of Aboriginal peoples by absorbing them into mainstream Canadian life and values” (Hanson n.p).

Laws under the Indian Act such as the banning of the Potlatch and Sundance, and imposing government structures on First Nations communities in the form of band councils were all effective in ensuring the erasure of First Nations’ culture. In the process of tearing down Aboriginal culture, these laws were also effective in the construction of a Canadian nationalism based on British civility.

Over time, and a few world wars later, the Indian Act began to change as white Canadians were beginning to realize that First Nations people were legitimate citizens of the country who deserved rights (wow! imagine that!), but there were still problems with it. The 1951 amendments allowed for certain changes to be made like the lifting of the Potlatch ban, however, the document was still highly oppressive in its nature. Again in 1969 there was an attempt to amend the act by Prime Minister Trudeau with his “White Paper” policy which proposed the abolition of the act and giving First Nations people status as regular Canadian citizens. This proposition was resisted by First Nations people due to the fact that it was an assimilationist policy in disguise as something progressive.

If you look closely at all the laws and policies that are connected to the Indian Act it is overwhelmingly clear that it is a very oppressive piece of legislation. Coleman points out the irony in how uncivilized it is to “forget” how oppressive legislation like the Indian Act is, in an effort to adhere to a supposed model of civility. Coleman’s concept of a “fictive ethnicity” that is the idea of a white Canada seems to go hand-in-hand with the Indian Act’s purpose of erasing any culture that could be a threat to this model.

One final thought – If you look how Canadian nationalism is being constructed today you can see that there really is nothing “British” or “civilized” about it, for the most part. Watch this video and see how the players have changed but the game stays the same. Although I found it hilarious, I couldn’t help but notice how overwhelmingly white it was, and yet it is meant to represent how all Canadians are! I know its a comedy piece and shouldn’t be taken too seriously, but then again this is the kind of media that has a wide audience and can be easily circulated, so its important to be a little bit critical of what popular videos like this say about “Canadian culture” and who fits into its definition (and who doesn’t). But seriously, watch the video, you wont regret it.

– Natasha

Works Cited

CanLit Guides. “Reading and Writing in Canada, A Classroom Guide to Nationalism.” Canadian Literature. n.d. Web. July 7 2016.

Coleman, Daniel. White Civility: The Literary Project of English Canada. U of Toronto, 2006. Web. July 7 2016.

Hanson, Erin. “The Indian Act”. Indigenous Foundations, UBC Arts. n.d. Web. July 7 2016.

IFHT Films. “How to be a Canadian”. Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, June 30 2016. Web. July 7 2016.

6 thoughts on “3.2: A Constructed Canada”

  1. Hi Natasha,

    I love the video that you posted. I agree it is important to think critically about all pieces of media regardless if they are comedy pieces or not. That video in particular does feature mainly white actors. I recently saw an Molson beer commercial. I saw it on Facebook and can’t seem to find a version of the video to link you to – however the commercial features a beer fridge that can only be opened if “I am Canadian” is spoken in 6 different languages. This commercial did a very good job, in my opinion, of representing Canadians as a multicultural nation. This, however, is something that we are still talking about today since, even in 2016, Canada is not thought of as a multicultural nation.

    Thank you for your insight!
    ~Stef~

    1. Hi Stef,

      I know exactly what commercial you’re talking about, and I completely agree! Its a good piece of media that tries to present Canada as the multicultural nation it is. Thanks for your comment!

      – Natasha

  2. Hi Natasha,

    I can certainly relate to the awkwardness, particularly as a history major, in studying these documents that support our ideas of the ‘creation’ of Canada. When reading your article I was taken back some of our earlier readings, in particular the exploration of the recording of history via literature, and the remembering of history through oral traditions. In todays literate world, this is a conflict that is often overlooked. The value of the written word in todays world has allowed for the implantation of what can be argued as a false history for Canadians to cling to. That is not to say that our past events are fictional or meaningless, but they are missing a hug component. To me the exclusion, and attempted erasure, of First Nations histories and traditions, is the same as building a house without foundations. This brings me to the second point of interest, bear with me as I run a little of track here. The large amount of public apologies that have been occurring over the last 10 years or so. While I believe them to be a necessary step in the creation of dialogue, I often find them to be insincere. Even here, in the guise of humility and reconciliation, all I see is Eurocentric Canada acting in its own interest. Do you think these public displays of remorse are actually accomplishing anything? Are they enough to alert people to the many misconceptions that have been passed on to all of us through the guise of history lessons? Do you think they will make a great enough impact to cause the engagement that I believe is necessary to properly deconstruct the one-sided policies that attempted to eliminate the original inhabitants of this country?
    What do you think?

    1. Hi Sean,

      I like the analogy of the house without a foundation, because that’s exactly what its like! The First Nations people and their stories were here first, so erasing them from Canadian literature leaves us with a very unstable home doesn’t it? Like you said there has been attempts to repair the damage that has been done. I think that although the apologies are a good first step towards a more open dialogue, and finding a well deserved place for Aboriginal stories in Canadian canon, they can’t be seen as the be all and end all. The whole “we said we were sorry” thing is already old because real apologies are not just words, but they are a promise to act. When actions are accompanying the apologies that’s when real accomplishments can be made, and mindsets can be changed. Thanks for the comment!

      – Natasha

  3. Hi Natasha,
    I was interested to read how First Nations rejected the repeal of the Indian Act by Trudeau because it was seen as assimilationist, but wonder if you’ve found through your research what, if any, the consensus is among First Nations as to what they would like to have happen with the Act?
    Thanks, Claudia

    1. Hi Claudia,

      In my research for this post I didn’t really find anything about what the current consensus is among First Nations with regards to the Indian Act. However I read in Erin Hanson’s article that although it is agreed upon that the Indian Act is a problematic piece of legislation, it is significant because it acknowledges that Aboriginal people have a distinct relationship with Canadian land, and that deserves to be acknowledged. Here’s a quote included in that article by First Nations author, Harold Cardinal :

      “We do not want the Indian Act retained because it is a good piece of legislation. It isn’t. It is discriminatory from start to finish. But it is a lever in our hands and an embarrassment to the government, as it should be. No just society and no society with even pretensions to being just can long tolerate such a piece of legislation, but we would rather continue to live in bondage under the inequitable Indian Act than surrender our sacred rights. Any time the government wants to honour its obligations to us we are more than happy to help devise new Indian legislation.”

      Thanks for your comment!

      – Natasha

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