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

Chad Gaffield
Karen L. Gould

The Place of Canada in the World of the Twenty-first Century / Le rôle du Canada sur la scène internationale au vingt et unième siècle

Metaphors and Maps: Imagining Canada into the Twenty-first Century

Lorna Irvine

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1 In their Introduction to Painting the Maple – a 1998 collection of essays that, as the metaphor in the title suggests, investigates some of the ways that race and gender influence our perceptions of Canada – Strong-Boag, Grace, Eisenberg, and Anderson (1998), warn that Canada is disintegrating. In illustration, they point to the free trade agreements which, they tell us, facilitate “postmodern corporate capitalism and the related, though less understood, phenomenon of globalization” (1998: 3). Such millennial theorizing is not uncommon. For example, in Millennial Dreams, the cultural studies theorist, Paul Smith (1997:61), argues that, with the demise of the Soviet Union, capital in the north dominates both time and space, inevitably presenting a “different description of reality.” Addressing the cultural, civic, and political life of the United States, he metaphorically personifies the country as “lurching” toward the millennium, “insanely anguished about its future and at the same time wracked by memories of its childhood” (1997:189). While the search for national redefinition goes on, globalization, according to Smith, “has begun to dominate the discursive arena of our time” (1997:262).

2Indeed, Smith's insistence that the “millennial dream of capitalism” draws upon “fantasies of domination and exploitation” (1997:262) underlies the conviction of the editors of Painting the Maple that globalization is a threat to Canada's distinctiveness because it encourages a uniform, rather than a multivarious, approach to national identity. Deep cultural divisions revolve around issues of diversity, they argue, as the debates about education demonstrate. “The current period, roughly 1980 to the present, has seen a dramatic split in intellectual thought between those who call for a return to the ‘core curriculum’ and to the questions of universal, national or fundamental importance, and those who argue that the actual problems facing society at the end of the twentieth century cannot be solved by specialized knowledge or homogenous, monological methodologies. For this latter group, interdisciplinarity is a praxis that brings together scholars within the university and groups outside the university to work on complex common problems and to produce... transformative knowledge” (Strong-Boag et al. 1998: 7). Such knowledge, they go on to argue, recognizes that “the power of words, images, and concepts cannot be underestimated in the construction of Canada. The images of ‘Canada First’, the ‘true North strong and free’, and the ‘two solitudes’, or such terms as ‘bilingualism’, ‘multiculturalism’, ‘anti-racism’, ‘First Nations’, and ‘academic freedom’ name realities in order to insert them into the imagining of community. They map the ongoing struggle to construct the nation” (1998:14).

3 Painting the Maple, indirectly connected to other studies of nation-formation such as Homi Bhabha's (1990) Nation and Narration, Benedict Anderson's (1983) Imagined Communities, and Néstor Canclini's (1995) Hybrid Cultures advocates scrutinizing “the discursive formation of nation to see where, how, and why some discursive practices (stories, texts, voices) install themselves in a narrative of nation and others do not” (Strong-Boag et al. 1998:8). They are just these certain “discursive practices” that William New (1998) questions in his recent Borderlands, an essay about how its citizens (mainly its Anglophone citizens) talk about Canada. Because national boundaries, New suggests, are insubstantial and fragile, they allow for numerous metaphoric possibilities, functioning both as “descriptions of concrete agreements and as metaphors of relationship and organization” (1998:5). According to New, metaphors conceptualize our world, socially, even ethically compartmentalizing place and space. He points to the familial metaphor of imperialism – mother country, daughter colony – as an illustration of colonial dependency. It is also gendered, reminding us of an earlier conceptualization of Canada by the historian William Kilbourn (1970), who writes that “in a masculine world of the assertive will and the cutting edge of intellect, a certain Canadian tendency to the amorphous permissive feminine principle of openness and toleration and acceptance offers the possibility of healing” (1970:53). Here, Canada is imaged as female, set against a rough assertive male world, and often connected with the United States.

4New is interested in more nuanced metaphors; like the editors of Painting the Maple, he believes that the borderland works well as an image for contemporary Canada because it implies a “condition of ‘interstitiality’ in-between-ness, an experiential territory of intervention and revision” (1998, 27). A dramatic example of borderland imagery appears in Michael Ondaatje's (1992) The English Patient. The Italian villa in which the characters play out the drama is presented as a liminal space, a borderland, which is open to many different kinds of negotiation, all of which oblige readers to question the stability and even the legitimacy of boundaries. At one point, the English patient, speaking of living in the desert, says: “We were German, English, Hungarian, African – all of us insignificant to them [the Bedouin]. Gradually we became nationless. I came to hate nations. We are deformed by nation-states” (1992:138). While not denying the significance of nation, New emphasizes the importance of the uncertainty of in-between-ness: “Inside Canada, a boundary discourse often functions both inclusively and exclusively, as the metaphoric plane on which differing versions of nationhood and nationalism – some with a misconceived faith in the power of definition – declare themselves” (1998:29). Indeed, New thinks of uncertainty as really a “matrix of creation” (1998:30) and quotes the playwright John Gray who, in a sort of excess of metaphors, calls Canada an “internally generated vision, a collective work of art... an existential fable, a poem packed with personal questions” (1998:68). New quotes Gray, I presume, because he wants all of us to resist certain older nationalist clichés so that we can “imagine our way past the stereotypes of affordability and snowy boredom. And without losing sight of the larger world in which we live... embrace the local spirit, the creative energy.” Canadian Studies will, he hopes, become the “text of our lives” (1998:102).

5That's probably what Jonathan Kertzer (1998) also hopes in Worrying the Nation, his analysis of Anglophone literature. He, too, investigates the tension between politics and culture and argues, as the others have, that without a stable centre, Canada, as a nation, can be imaged only by “permeable” boundaries (1998:136). While he understands that many post-nationalists interpret nations as “tribal remnants” (1998:163), he nonetheless believes that contemporary human beings need, both historically and discursively, the concept of nation, protean as it necessarily is. He writes: “We must continue studying how the nation is imagined: how it defines a body of writing as national; how it informs and validates that literature; how its clashing loyalties impassion citizens for good or ill; how it convokes and disperses communities; how it invokes and subverts the ideal of heroism; how it foresees a fusion of personal and social satisfactions (joy and justice); and how it gives a mission to literary criticism, including the mission to denounce nationalism in its vicious forms” (1998:195). For Kertzer, Canada is a riddle.

6Not everyone will agree that Canada should remain a nation in order to give literary critics a mission. Peter Newman (1993), in The Canadian Revolution: From Deference to Defiance, might be arguing for Canada's nationhood as a mission for journalists. Situating himself, as he tells his readers in the conclusion, as “the guy in the tunnel. Trying to illuminate the path we've taken and even flash ahead a bit to light our uncertain future” (1993:400), Newman gives us a quantity of numerous potentially guiding metaphors. Former editor-in-chief of Maclean's and The Toronto Star, he writes with a journalist's panache, a sort of bravura that encourages extravagance. As an analysis of Canadian politics mainly between 1985 and 1995, his book begins with that now clichéd metaphor of Canada as a “Clark Kent” who, Newman argues, may finally be transforming into Superman. While he admits that changes in the political identity of Canada tend to be “glacial” (a not surprising metaphor for such a northern country), he suggests that something happened between 1985 and 1995, when there occurred “a sudden bursting like buds in springtime” (1993:xvi). While this is not an un-Canadian metaphor – buds do, finally, burst even in Canada – the attachment of the metaphor to a renewed connection between thought and emotion is somewhat less Canadian; that is, with the bursting bud metaphor, Newman implies that, at last, Canadians could escape from their lengthy indenture to authority and their northern stoicism, replacing it with individualism and a sort of southern recklessness. In case we miss the point, he underlines it: “the time had come to stop pretending that being Canadian was some kind of inside joke dreamed up by a bored God with a highly–developed sense of the absurd” (1993:xix). Such a God is surely good enough for prime time – a Canadian humorist who might have appeared on SCTV or This Hour Has 22 Minutes.

7Newman's metaphors are certainly rhetorical. They enliven his writing. But they also tell us a good deal about his desires for Canada, most notably that Canada (the peaceable kingdom) is capable of revolution. “Once or twice a century,” Newman tells us, “like a hurricane that eludes the meteorologists' charts, the breezes of history unexpectedly accelerate and blow away the touchstones by which people live” (1995:3). While winds are a part of nature, Newman believes that Canadians have always suffered from having an identity so connected with nature; he wants to shift his images in line with the “Darwinian ethic of the 1980s” (1995:65) although surely Darwin has informed Canadian nature imagery all along. For example, Northrop Frye's garrisons image depicts Canada as a series of protective camps surrounded by an often antagonistic nature, a wilderness where, as one of the characters in Margaret Atwood's Wilderness Tips imagines: there are trees that are “hardly trees; they are currents of energy, charged with violent colour” (1991:129). Such metaphors describe Canada in terms of a struggle.

8Newman's desire to encourage us to see a Canada raw in tooth and claw even affects the now prevalent images of borders that Canadian writers have recently been using. When he tells us that Canada is “delicately poised on the edge of perpetual collapse” (1995:11), unlike the optimistic borders of New's Borderlands, this edge is presented as potential disaster. It affects, too, his attention to gender. Newman quotes from his favorite writer, Morley Callaghan: “Canada... is like a woman waiting in the window of an old house at a crossroads. She is an ageless, wild and hard beauty. Men riding by come to her in the night. They use her but never really possess her. They leave her and ride on, afraid of her fierce domination over them, knowing they can't handle her; she leaves them feeling small.” By pointedly setting what he calls Margaret Atwood's “literary ruminations” against, for example, southern Saskatchewan's “folk wisdom bom of winters so severe that they couldn't see their own feet in snowstorms and land so tough that it yielded more rock than crop” (1995:35-6), Newman not surprisingly prefers Callaghan's familiar metaphor of male/female struggle in which Canada is perceived as a wild, hard and, of course, used beauty not at all like, for example, the unnamed narrator of Atwood's (1972) Surfacing, whose complexity confuses such gendered absolutes.

9Newman's particular vision of Canada's future makes it no easier for him to find effective encompassing metaphors than it is for any one else. Earlier, writers such as E.J. Pratt could use the unifying image of a railroad that linked the provinces and emphasized an east-west axis. Now, though, the axes have shifted, more often moving from north to south, or else with further disregard of borders, from North America to Europe and Asia. As Newman notes, “with the demise of nationalism and the CBC that had once been the house organ, Canada would have to find a different set of sustaining mythologies” (1995:103). During a period of economic decline – the decade being discussed in The Canadian Revolution – the mythologies are not, on the whole, sustainable. Newman describes a country sharply divided; suffering an identity crisis; overwhelmed by the mass media of the United States; unable to work out its dual cultural, political, and linguistic traditions. He describes Prime Minister Mulroney's policies as calamitous and calls him an “an obsessive beekeeper, walking around the buzzing apiary of Canada punching holes into every hive he could find” (1995:247), succeeding, finally, in dramatically polarizing Canada. In another metaphor (probably owing something to the American poet, Robert Frost), Newman portrays Mulroney as a “lighted match” (1995:261), and the opposition leader, John Turner, as an “iceberg” (1995:265). This fire-and-ice image underlines the bifurcation of Canada that Newman emphasizes.

10The images that he repeats from other writers support his vision of a certain Canadian machismo. For example, he quotes the expatriate writer Scott Symons, who, angered by what he believes to be excessive dependence on government money, calls Canada a “crêche, a permanent daycare” (1995:294). Newman objects to the historically dominant metaphor of the Canadian mosaic. Having arrived in Canada in 1940, an “exiled Jew from a Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia” (1995:329), he recalls feeling very much an outsider, overwhelmed by WASP [White Anglo-Saxon Protestant] ascendancy he approves of its waning, and supports a revolutionary spirit that might speed its demise. Not surprisingly, then, he interprets the election of 1993 as a revolution during which “Canadians figuratively stormed the walls of Parliament and razed its chambers clean of all but a few traces of the politics they had come to hate” (1995:390). But he is fearful. His conclusion, tellingly entitled Slouching “Toward the Millennium,” challenges his country not to abandon the revolutionary spirit as it moves into the twenty-first century. He wants Canadians to jettison the heavy images of the past, as he suggests they did between 1985 and 1995 when “instead of feeling as if they were carrying the Precambrian Shield on their shoulders, Canadians took a break from lugging around the cumbersome baggage of their national virtues and became most untypically Latin” (1995:395). For the “condition” of being a Canadian in the new millennium, he wants Canadians to abandon “deference and blind loyalty” (1995:396) and to begin to look after “their own spirits in the absence of a national soul” (1995:397). The word “soul” introduces, among other things, the jazz metaphors that he loves.

11Newman's metaphors are relatively flamboyant. In Misconceiving Canada (published two years after Newman's 1995 book), Kenneth McRoberts (1997) brings us back to a historian's more mundane exposition. Written in a plain style, this book avoids metaphors, except for those overarching images popular with historians that link organicism and nationalism: images of growth, particularly of trees that root, branch, blossom, and so on. Images of war are also used, so naturally that one hardly marks them as metaphors: struggle, mobilization, battle. Occasionally, McRoberts personifies Canada, commenting, for example, on the country's modesty and is inclined to structure space in terms of centres and margins. Arguing against what he calls the “centre-piece” (1997:xv) of Trudeau's policy, that of official bilingualism, with its concomitant rejection of biculturalism in favour of multicultur alism, McRoberts uncharacteristically insists that “cultures may not be water-tight compartments” (1997:118). He also reiterates the metaphor of the struggle for national identity as a “dialogue of the deaf” (1997:188), an image that Atwood (1978) used in Two-Headed Poems: “This is not a debate/but a duet/with two deaf singers” (1978:75).

12McRoberts'analysis, while quite compelling, is of less help in the pursuit of sustaining metaphors for Canadian nationalism than is Keohane's (1997) Symptoms of Canada, an essay on the Canadian identity. Keohane uses metaphors in a whole gamut of ways – to irritate, tease, shock, embolden, and so on. His focus is on language, telling his readers that he is searching for one “that may be employed persuasively in the public sphere” (1997:15). A little like the now notorious David Noble of York University, who has set himself in opposition to the contemporary embrace of technology, Keohane uses the image of the Terminator “a metaphor for a rapacious transnational New World Order” (1997:10), a figure who seeks to end inferior life forms. But Keohane is no Noble. His more positive metaphor of the cyborg, I am sure, would distress the York professor, who particularly opposes the computer's takeover of contemporary life. What is a cyborg? According to Keohane – he picks up the term from cultural theorist Donna Haraway, cyborgs are “fabricated hybrids,” who “populate worlds ambiguously natural and crafted,” and a “dialectical antithesis” of the Terminator (1997:11). As “the spectral figure haunting postmodernity”, the cyborg's particular metaphoric value as an image for Canada lies, for Keohane, once again in its ability to confuse boundaries (1997:11). Belonging to no particular race, class, or gender, the cyborg, writes Keohane, is committed to “partiality, irony, intimacy, and perversity” (1997:11). This fragmented, hybrid image which occupies “a multiplicity of often contradictory subject positions,” offers Keohane an image not of rebirth, but of regeneration; it allows him to play with the idea of transgressing various boundaries as a positive development in imagining contemporary Canada (1997:11). By using the image, he can create what he calls a “nomadic imaginary” that includes among all Canadians “First Nations, Founding Nations, travelling cultures,” and so on (1997:13). Thus equipped, he can do battle with images of the Terminator.

13Not everyone will agree with all of Keohane's somewhat outrageous generalizations, but if his work is read as a kind of play, it at least reminds Canadians of the desirability of enjoyment. His metaphors include that of Canada as a house party, with conversation sometimes discordant but always engaged. For Keohane, the Canadian carnival is alive. Witness our comedians, pop singers, mass media, and television (Kids in the Hall, for example), moments where the “symbolic order of civilized Canadian society is lifted” (1997:131). Or what about Canada as a restaurant, an image he uses and that can certainly be connected with the sounds that Glenn Gould recorded in his “The Idea of North.” Or, Keohane suggests, Canada can be imaged as a Tilley hat, unpretentious and durable. Such playful metaphors remind us of Newman's desire to jettison the Precambrian Shield on our backs.

14I conclude with Atwood's Wilderness Tips, a collection of stories filled with WASP cages just as restricting as Newman's burden of the Canadian Shield. One of these stories, “The Age of Lead,” addresses the decline of the twentieth century (as most of the stories in the collection do). In this story, however, Jane, the ecologically-minded main character, becomes a kind of barometer. She describes her battle against the refuse that nightly collects on the sidewalk outside her house. This is what she says about the objects she finds: “She picks them up, clears them away, but they appear again overnight, like a trail left by an army on the march or by the fleeing residents of a city under bombardment, discarding the objects that were once thought essential but are now too heavy to carry” (1991:175).

15Each of the writers I've discussed seems to be trying to discard certain outmoded metaphors that are, as Jane says, “too heavy to carry.” Most of them are searching for new metaphors, more appropriate to the global, technologically-connected world in which we now live. Indeed, as Atwood writes in the introduction to The New Oxford Book of Canadian Short Stories in English: “we gave up a long time ago trying to isolate the gene for Canadianness” (1995: xiii). Well, yes – but no one seems to have given up the search for encompassing mythologies and the metaphors that populate them. It is this search that can be maintained in a number of ways, through the mapping of the sometimes outrageous and sometimes merely descriptive ideas, images, and symbols that illustrate Canadian hopes and fears as we move into the new century.



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Atwood, M. 1972. Surfacing. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart.
——. 1978. Two-Headed Poems. Toronto: Oxford University Press.
——. 1991. Wilderness Tips. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart.

Atwood, M. and R. Weaver, eds. 1995. The New Oxford Book of Canadian Short Stories in English. Toronto: Oxford University Press.

Bhabha, H.K., ed. 1990. Nation and Narration. London: Routledge.

Canclini, N.G. 1995. Hybrid Cultures: Strategies for Entering and Leaving Modernity. Trans. C. Chiappary and S. López. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Haraway, D. 1990. Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature.
New York: Routledge.

Keohane, K. 1997. Symptoms of Canada: An Essay on the Canadian Identity.
Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Kertzer, J. 1998. Worrying the Nation: Imagining a National Literature in Canada.
Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Kilbourn, W. 1970. “The Quest for the Peaceable Kingdom.” In Canadian Writing Today, ed. M. Richler, 46-53. Middlesex: Penguin.

McRoberts, K. 1997. Misconceiving Canada: The Struggle for National Unity.
Toronto: Oxford University Press.

New, W.H. 1998. Borderlands: How We Talk About Canada. Vancouver: UBC Press.

Newman, P. 1995. The Canadian Revolution: From Deference to Defiance (1985-1995). Toronto: Penguin.

Ondaatje, M. 1992. The English Patient. Toronto: Vintage.

Smith, P. 1997. Millennial Dreams: Contemporary Culture and Capital in the North. London: Verso.

Strong-Boag, V.S. Grace, A. Eisenberg, and J. Anderson, eds. 1998. Painting the Maple: Essays on Race, Gender, and the Construction of Canada.
Vancouver: UBC Press.


Professor of English, Cultural Studies, and Women's Studies at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. Her publications include Sub/Version: Canadian Fictions By Women; Collecting Clues: Margaret Atwood's Bodily Harm; Critical Spaces: Margaret Laurence and Janet Frame, as well as many articles and book chapters devoted to the work of Canadian writers. She has been a member of the executive committee of ACSUS, the editorial boards of Québec Studies and the American Review of Canadian Studies. Her current research investigates the writing of Canadian author Carol Shields

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