“The bud disappears in the bursting-forth of the blossom, and one might say that the former is refuted by the latter; similarly, when the fruit appears, the blossom is shown up in its turn as a false manifestation of the plant, and the fruit now emerges as the truth of it instead. These forms are not just distinguished from one another, they also supplant one another as mutually incompatible. Yet at the same time their fluid nature makes them moments of an organic unity in which they not only do not conflict, but in which each is as necessary as the other; and this mutual necessity alone constitutes the life of the whole.”
There is a general confusion around Canadian identity: is Canadian culture sufficiently distinct from the US to justify Canada’s separate existence? Does a Canadian identity meaningfully exist apart from the UK and the British Crown? It is an idiosyncrasy of Canadian political culture that our national leadership denies the existence of a particular Canadian identity. How can one love something which does not exist? Are Canadians who believe themselves possessed with a national consciousness merely projecting patriotic feelings onto a phantasm out of a misplaced romanticism?
When disambiguating a complex topic it can be useful to begin by determining what something is not before answering what it is. On a basic level, the whole debate around Canadian identity displays a misguided rationalism; all sides erroneously assume that one can understand a nation as an abstract proposition. The prevalence of this attitude speaks to Canadians’ lack of historical consciousness. As Christopher Lasch pointed out, people disconnected from their own history are incapable of achieving any depth of self-understanding.
Some concepts can be understood analytically: the meaning of the concept of “a bachelor” can be precisely expressed by the definition “an unmarried man”; we can express it mathematically “a bachelor” = “an unmarried man”. We must avoid the error of many who claim that because a nation cannot be defined analytically, it does not exist. The concept of a particular nation like “England” cannot be defined analytically like “a bachelor” can. A nation is a historical phenomenon born of and shaped by the decisions of specific individuals. One can only understand a nation by understanding the people of that nation who made it what it is.
History is a study of the world, it occurs in the world, and it therefore is characterized by particularity and change. Where an abstract concept may exist in the realm of reason in a universal and static form, history is composed of a multitude of specific objects and organisms as they develop through time.
History is forged by the will. It is the actions and reactions of people–the expressions of their will–that create historical events.
Neither should we fall into the error of those who claim that nations do not exist because they are composed of individuals. It would be like claiming a man doesn’t exist because he is composed of cells and organs. Indeed, the falseness of the common discussion about Canadian identity is put into stark relief when applied to how we understand a person.
You can have a concept of a man, you have an idea of “Adam”, you can say things about him: personality traits, physical features, etc; but you do not and can never know the “meaning” of being him because you have no access to his inner life and the phenomena of his experience. Moreover, not even the man himself could express in a coherent analytic description what it “means” to be him, yet he knows that he exists and is different from other people.
This is true for every person who tries to define themselves. We can say things about ourselves, but it is impossible to express what it means to be ourselves in comprehensive terms. When dealing with living things there will always be an element of mystery, even when it comes to understanding ourselves.
Having discussed what a nation is not, we can now define what a nation is. A nation is an organism, except that instead of cells, it is composed of people. As an organism in history, a nation must be particular, but the source of that particularity is not to be found as an idea in the world of reason; rather, a nation’s particularity is found in history, in the unique character of the specific group of people who compose the national organism. Thus we can say that a nation in its essential sense is a people bound together through common ancestry, who are formed and given a particular character through their interactions with the land they occupy.
Sometimes a nation will form a state for itself to secure its interests, the people binding themselves together by law into a commonwealth. Sometimes the state precedes the nation, a man or group of men will consolidate their control over an area by establishing the institutions of a state, and then the people living in that state will come to see themselves as a people with a unique destiny.
However, we must at all times remember that the nation and the state are two distinct entities. Indeed a militarily successful state will likely eventually expand into territories occupied by other nations which that state will thenceforth rule over. The nation-state appears as a very recent innovation, with multinational empires having been the norm for much of history.
At this point, it is worth taking a moment to consider the origins of the state. In book 1 of his Politics Aristotle provides us with an overview of the origins of the state drawn from his observations of the Greek city-states of his age. He explains that before joining together to form a state people live with their families in an oikos (a household) headed by a patriarch. The household is composed of various relationships of dependency between the patriarch and the other members. The patriarch would also have possessed some property that would be used to provide for his household; property in this context refers to everything from the tools a craftsman uses to ply his trade, to plots of land.
Aristotle explains that the state emerges when the patriarchs of various households agree to unite themselves and their households into a political society and elect some from among their number to govern the state. Likewise, Cicero argues that a state emerges when men agree to bind themselves all into a body of citizens united by law. This legal agreement takes on a life of its own and thus gives rise to a res publica; the concept of res publica is best expressed by the English term “commonwealth”.
However, in becoming citizens, the patriarchs still retain their rights and jurisdiction over their households. Fundamentally, a father remains charged with the duty and the right to govern his family and his property. Indeed since those twin interests constitute the core concern of every household, the state cannot be said to be fulfilling its purpose of furthering the interests of its component households unless it upholds those rights. Thus each household exists as its own little state within the commonwealth; the authority of the head of the household is as the authority of the laws of the state. The household then is a microcosm of the state, or rather the state is a macrocosm of the household, as the household precedes it.
The family then, because of its nature and origins is a pre-political question. Political questions are those which emerge from and belong in the political life of the state. In the sphere of conventional politics, it is proper to debate whether to make alliances, make war, or make peace. But pre-political questions like the structure of the family or the existence of the family at all are of a fundamentally different nature. Pre-political questions like the family are the pre-conditions for political order; a body of citizens who cede their rights over these matters to the state cannot truly be said to be free. The fact that pre-political questions are now dragged out into the arena of political contestation is an assault upon the fundamental rights and institutions of western societies.
In a similar way, the nation is a macrocosm of the household. A nation is a community of families, and each family is like its own little nation. Indeed the nation is the natural extension of the family: as a family increases in number through the generations it intermarries with other families in a geographical area, these families will develop shared practices and beliefs, in other words: a culture. This affinity for one another will mean that in historical periods of struggle, they will be naturally drawn to each other for aid. Thus imperceptibly, over the centuries these people will have developed into something which, given the right circumstances, can be forged into a nation.
The organic nature of nationhood explains why it is incoherent to postulate that the existence of a nation must be justified. Just like a person is born into a family, a person is born into a nation, both are aspects of who we are as individuals. And just like the natural development of a person’s maturation as a biological organism is for them to form their own family, the natural development of a family’s development as an organism is for it to form part of a nation.
There is no more need to justify the existence of a nation than there is to justify the existence of a person. Indeed, belonging to a nation is core to being human. There is no more sense in asking a person to justify the existence of a nation than there is in asking an acorn why it grows into an oak. All political reasoning must begin with a recognition of these basic facts of nature as its premise.
Nationhood in Canada
Having explicated the concept of nation in general terms, we can now consider national identity in the Canadian context. The founding peoples of the territory that would eventually be occupied by the Canadian state had already constituted themselves into nations prior to the establishment of Canada in 1867. Alongside the various Amerindian nations on the land, British and French settlers had consolidated themselves into the Anglo-Canadian and French-Canadian nations respectively. It was representatives of the Anglo-Canadians and French-Canadians who in the interest of securing the continued existence of their respective peoples agreed to establish the Dominion of Canada.
The concrete historical reasons for which the Canadian state was formed were 1) to establish self-government by the peoples of Canada and 2) to secure the independence of the peoples of Canada from annexation by the United States. From that point until the present those two purposes have remained central to Canada, even as the meaning we ascribe to them and the justifications we provide for them have changed dramatically.
Originally 1) was a manifestation of a developing self-consciousness of Canadians’ existence as a people and 2) emerged from anglo-canadians’ decision to reject American republicanism in favour of continued loyalty to the King of Great Britain and French-Canadians’ desire to avoid being absorbed by the dominant Anglo-Saxon character of the United States.
In our own time, 1) has been transformed as a result of the re-definition of nationhood within Canada in accordance with multiculturalism. The notion of self-government has become obscured as the meaning of “self” in a political context has changed. Rather than membership in a founding nation, the new relevant political frame is membership in the global mass of humanity; the individual is said to be absolute, yet identification with a founding nation is deconstructed.
Likewise 2) is at once retained yet also totally transformed by a new collective self-concept. Where the question of republicanism versus monarchism was the driving force of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, it became entirely irrelevant in the post-WWII era if not earlier. The consolidation of a new international order established liberalism and socialism as the defining political dichotomy of the age. From then on every western nation would be shaped in the image of a mass democratic welfare state administered by a class of technocrats.
In the wake of Britain’s abject humiliation by the Americans in the Suez Canal crisis, it became clear that Britain was no longer a great world power. Soon after the British government oversaw the dissolution of its empire; the old imperial administration no longer had the will nor the capacity to defend the empire from the depredations of other powers. And so the empire that had taken hundreds of years to build seemed to go up in smoke overnight.
In the face of this mid-20th century revolution of the global order Canada had a choice to make: align itself with the United States or attempt to chart an independent course. The resolution of this question is powerfully covered in George Grant’s Lament for a Nation and so I shall not dwell too long on it. Suffice it to say that the Liberals had been working to distance Canada from the British Empire since at least the days of Prime Minister Mackenzie-King and jumped at the chance to align Canada with the new global hegemon to the south. The Conservatives had rested their entire political project and identity on the Empire and had no idea what to do in response to its demise.
In response to the end of the empire and the irrelevance of the monarchy, Canada sought a place in the world as part of the liberal international order. 60 years on Canada remains a happy satellite of the USA, our society defined only by an even more extreme self-identification with the principles of contemporary left-liberalism than that of our neighbours to the south. Nevertheless, a residual anti-Americanism has remained an important element of Canadian political culture. Canadian national pride is now grounded in the shallow soil afforded it by the purported contrast between the progressive nature of Canadian society and the so-called backward, conservative nature of American society. How long Canada can remain basking in the glow generated by the petty narcissism of small differences remains to be seen.
For their part, the French Canadians underwent the Quiet Revolution wherein the institutions of the provincial government took a leading role in making Quebec into a secular, modern society. In so doing the French-Canadian political leadership rejected the ethnic and religious elements of their national character and embraced a vision for a multicultural society just like anglo-Canada had, with the one distinguishing feature being that Quebec would retain the french language. Yet the French language in North America remains a reflection of the French Canadian nation, its expressions indelibly marked by the history of the French-Canadian people. Québécois nationalism abandoned the nation that the French-Canadians had originally joined confederation to protect, in pursuit of integration with the American-led world order.
The Canadian state has always been a means to an end; it was originally conceived as a tool for preserving the existence of its founding nations and now it is a tool for facilitating the ideological project of multiculturalism. But the Canadian public has fallen victim to the error of believing the state to be an end in itself. This misconception has been mobilized in service of the multicultural project: being Canadian has been re-defined as having an affiliation with the Canadian state and an allegiance to its liberal and multicultural values. By means of the same sophism, the founding nations of Canada are now judged to be tolerable only insofar as they don’t interfere with the objectives of the multicultural state.
It is on the basis of this sophistical reasoning that the question is now so frequently posed: is there a meaningful Canadian identity that exists? If the term “Canada” truly refers to the modern Canadian state, one would indeed be hard-pressed to articulate what Canadian identity could possibly be. However, this is the same conundrum faced by a craftsman, who upon being deceived into believing his tools are an end in themselves has decided to give up the pursuit of his craft in order to preserve the integrity of his tools.
The truth is that in both cases a tool is only valuable insofar as it serves the purpose it was designed to fulfill. The unfortunate fact is that today’s Canadian state fulfills neither of its original objectives and to deflect public attention from the collapse of its legitimacy, it has decided to question the legitimacy of the nations of Canada.
Where rationalism is misplaced when applied to understanding a nation, it plays a very important part in how we judge a state. The growing turmoil in contemporary Canadian public life is the product of a state that has delegitimized itself by acting against its intended function. Where a state has failed in its critical functions then it has entered into a contradiction by undermining the very foundations of its existence. To restore a harmonious civic life, the institutions of state must be reformed such that the life of the state is harmonious with the interests of the nations it serves.
Our approach to solving the problems outlined above cannot be drawn from the same kind of abstract theoretical thinking that is suited to analyzing the meaning of nationhood. Solutions to political problems must be drawn from more practical thinking. There are many ways to approach the problem which have merit, but from my perspective, the solution to the problem of securing a healthy and harmonious national life must rest on the basic building block of the nation: the family.
Typically, when someone discusses family in the contemporary political context, they make reference to “family values”. It is an exceedingly common phrase in our politics, but it is almost just as commonly misunderstood. Family values cannot simply be a vague collection of nice-sounding sound-bites; as a coherent political idea, family values refers to the values that are essential to furthering family life.
We can draw a full understanding of what family values are by considering our earlier discussion of the household. For Aristotle, every man was tasked with learning to run his household well, his term for this skill was oikonomia, composed of oikos (household) and nemein (to manage). This art of household management is concerned with ensuring that the actions a person takes with respect to his family and property are directed toward the good of the household.
Family values then are just the virtues that characterize a good practitioner of oikonomia. The necessary precondition for the virtuous exercise of oikonomia is that a patriarch has authority over his family. In our case the state has usurped paternal authority and situated itself as the ultimate arbiter of many issues which concern the household. As a result, we live in a society where paternal authority is devalued and subverted; not a situation conducive to a healthy national life.
In a basic sense, a policy that is good for families is one that restores authority to fathers and autonomy to households: removing the left-wing leaning of schools so that parents are in charge of the moral education of their children, lowering taxes so that families decide how to spend their money, etc.
That being said, policies that directly address the nation itself are also necessary both for a healthy national life, and to permit the full flourishing of family life. Since families are the cells that make up the national organism, then just as the health of the parts affects the whole, the health of the whole affects the parts. In Canada, the state has been waging a campaign against the very possibility of national life; this policy prevents the full expression of the family’s national aspect, instead leaving it alienated and cut-off from the national community that is its natural higher level expression.
A policy that is good for Canada’s national life is one that restores the political rights of its people and preserves the autonomous existence of its nations: cutting immigration because maintaining a coherent national community is impossible with 1 million people moving to the country every year, ending the policy of multiculturalism so that Canada’s founding nations regain their centrality in public life, etc.
If family and nation are organic unions then in order to survive and flourish they need space to grow. Natural law will assert itself one way or another in the end, if we allow organic forms of life room to breathe then Canadian national life will gain renewed vigour and if we continue to smother them, we will continue our long decline.
In the lives of all nations, there come moments of decision, where the national destiny is determined by the actions of a few men. It seems to me that today we face such a moment. History is inexorably bringing forth the hour when we will be asked whether Canada is to continue down its current path towards slavery and dissolution, or whether Canada will take the leap towards independence.
In the hour of decision what counts is resolve and force of will. The partisans of national death know this and seek to weaken the coherence of national identity in the minds of those who must uphold it. My aim in writing this article was to show the sophistry underlying the arguments of those who would subvert the confidence Canadians have in their own country. Every year on Remembrance Day people across the country read John McCrae’s poem “In Flanders Fields” where he entreats his people to hold high the torch for which so many gave their lives. We can only pray that we have the fortitude to fulfill our historic duty.