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The Canadian Distinctiveness into the XXIst Century - La distinction canadienne au tournant du XXIe siecle

Chad Gaffield
Karen L. Gould


Perspectives on the Canadian Distinctiveness into the XXIst Century

Chad Gaffield

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1What are the origins, current status, and prospects for the distinctiveness of Canada into the twenty-first century? This infinitely complex question was at the heart of a three-day conference that brought together internationally-acclaimed speakers and delegates from dozens of countries from May 18 to 20, 2000. Organized as a millennium event by the International Council for Canadian Studies and the Institute of Canadian Studies at the University of Ottawa, the conference, “The Canadian Distinctiveness into the XXIst Century,” probed the key dynamics of Canada's past and present in order to provide timely perspectives on the future. The result was an intense and profound discussion that was consistently insightful and stimulating, as well as being, at various times, reassuring, disturbing, encouraging, discouraging, visionary, pragmatic, optimistic, and pessimistic.

2And then came 11 September 2001. Just as we were ready to publish the revised conference papers, the destruction of the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City caused us to wonder about the continued relevance of these papers. If the world were really fundamentally changed as so often claimed, should we not ask all the authors to reconsider their perspectives? Or, perhaps, we should simply abandon the plan to publish the results of the conference if indeed the analyses and insights no longer had currency in the post-9/11 world.

3One year after the 11 September tragedy, some perspective on the meaning of this day is possible, and although its long-term importance will not be known for many years, an increasing number of analysts are now insisting on the need to situate all current events, no matter how cataclysmic, within larger contexts across space and time. Moreover, these analysts are emphasizing that 11 September exposed the critical character of two considerations that previously had been increasingly dismissed as determining factors for the twenty-first century: the nation-state and cultural values. Indeed, for much of the later twentieth century, it had been argued that globalization was undermining the importance of the nation-state, and that with the rise of cities, multinational businesses, and other forms of connection and organization, the relevance of political entities such as Canada was declining rapidly. Similarly, the driving forces of this globalization were often said to be economic and technological rather than cultural. Questions of values, priorities, and, in fact, of history were often considered epiphenomenal at best and, perhaps, completely detached from those of real consequence.

4One year after 9/11, however, no one is doubting that the nation-state is still relevant or that cultural values are fundamentally important. And it is clear that we should never have doubted for a minute the enduring relevance of the outstanding contributions made in May 2000 to understanding Canada at the dawn of a new era. These penetrating analyses emphasize both culture and the nature of Canada as a political jurisdiction within which complex change is now underway. The urgency of the following chapters has thus increased rather than diminished with the passage of time.

5Part One brings together the innovative and profound insights of the conference's three keynote speakers, John Ralston Saul, Jocelyn Létourneau, and Margaret Atwood, each of whom focuses on central questions of Canadian distinctiveness from both historical and contemporary perspectives. Their visions of Canada on the eve of a new era provide the foundation for the following chapters that address four major themes. In the next section entitled, “Individuals, Collectivities, and the State,” Gilles Paquet and Susan D. Phillips offer analyses of Canada's historical development in order to propose new ways of thinking about questions of governance and state-civil society relationships in the twenty-first century while Denis Lacorne and Alan C. Cairns contextualize Canadian society's diversity in comparative, longitudinal, and critical perspectives. In Part Three, W. Michael Wilson, Monique Begin, and Maya Dutt examine “The Texture of Canadian Society” in terms of business cultures, social and political cultures, and diverse literary cultures. The connections between these cultures are the focus of the theme of Part Four, “Culture, Identity, and the Market” which is analyzed by C. Michael Hall in the context of tourism; by Shirley L. Thomson with reference to Canada's cultural policy; by Jean-Louis Roy in terms of international forces; and by Maria Teresa Gutiérrez-Haces with respect to “citizenship diplomacy.” Part Five then directly confronts Canada's changing international context under the theme, “The Place of Canada in the World of the XXIst Century.” In this section, Donna Winslow addresses the question of global security from the perspective of the Canadian military and Huguette Labelle explores concerns about the quality of life of all peoples in terms of Canada's expected international role. In the concluding chapters, Terry Cook probes the meaning of information technologies and communications for a distinct Canadian voice while Jean Laponce and Lorna Irvine peer into the future from the vantage points of current societal trends and literary metaphors and maps.

6Taken together, the chapters of this book reject any notions of inevitability about Canada, either historically or for the future. Rather, the analyses focus on agency, on the idea that however much victimization has occurred and occurs now, individuals, groups, and collectivities can in fact play a meaningful role in determining their own destinies, and indeed, the destiny of Canada. Second, the authors consistently emphasize the importance of culture, of creativity, of imagination, as well as of market forces and technological change. Their interpretations back away from concepts of determinism, either economic or otherwise, to embrace a more complex interrogation in which they explore the connections and disconnections between what is said and what is done, between ideas and behaviour, between thought and action, between the intellectual and the material. Third, these authors assume that it is necessary to focus on the future from the perspective of the past and the present. This approach calls not only for recognition and analysis of the complexity of the Canadian reality, but also for examination of the changing constellation of qualities that have defined Canada historically, and that may or may not be appropriate as we move forward into the twenty-first century.

7In addressing the question of Canadian distinctiveness, the authors repeatedly identify key questions of balance, of equilibrium, in the context of competing forces. They frequently use such words as “complexity”, “contingency”, “ambiguity”, “inclusivity”, “chaos”, “coherence”, “identities”, “contradictions”, and “continuities”-all of which have become familiar in international debate not only in the social sciences and humanities but across all disciplines.

8It is in this context that Jocelyn Létourneau refers to the delicate complexity of artist Alexander Calder's mobiles. Even though Calder was born at the end of the nineteenth century, his life and interests may serve us well in thinking about the twenty-first century. Indeed, before becoming one of the more innovative sculptors of his time, Calder was to bridge the arts and sciences through his education as a mechanical engineer. Similarly, his mobiles resulted from his interest in creating constructions that shift and change gracefully in response to new external pressures. The idea that the art of an American is able to capture metaphorically the Canadian dynamic will undoubtedly be contested by some while others will agree that the characteristics of Calder's mobiles do, indeed, seem relevant to many aspects of contemporary Canadian society.

9Whether or not examples such as Calder's mobiles will be seen to be useful images as we move forward in the twenty-first century, the discussions at the conference emphasized that profound and complex changes have come to characterize the Canadian reality. Taken together, the various presentations emphasized that these changes called for both hope and caution. Above all, the speakers stressed that the challenge is no longer simply to know ourselves as Canadians, but rather to use this knowledge to create a healthier and more just society in a rapidly changing international context within which the ‘changed world’ after 9/11 must be situated.


Director of the Institute of Canadian Studies at the University of Ottawa. He was educated at McGill University (BA 1973; MA 1974) and at the University of Toronto (PhD 1978). He taught at the University of Victoria (1979-1985) before coming to the University of Ottawa where he holds a University Research Chair in Canadian History. His teaching and research activities focus on Canadian social history during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. He was selected the University's Researcher of the Year for 1995 and Professor of the Year in 2002. In 2000-2001, he was President of the Canadian Historical Association. He is currently team leader of the Canadian Century Research Infrastructure Project

© Les Presses de l’Université d’Ottawa | University of Ottawa Press, 2003

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