Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Ten Things I Like About Canada (In Honor of Canada Day)

Herewith, a partly serious, partly humorous, entirely personal tribute to our fine neighbors in Great White North:

10) Rush, Barenaked Ladies, The Guess Who, and Gordon Lightfoot. I have no idea if one could make a cultural argument that there is anything particularly Canadian that all of them share, but anyway, my life would be worse without them.

9) Red Tories. A historical label which not only reflected pretty much exactly the sort of democratic political ideology (economically agrarian and egalitarian, politically communitarian, culturally traditionalist, religiously Christian) that I like, but which also describes a variety of relatively successful real-world political movements and politicians that--had I been a Canadian voter 50 years ago--would have had very close to my complete support, maybe even more than America's own Populists from a century or more ago would have gotten from me. (Forget about Harper's Conservatives and the New Democratic Party, everyone: let's bring the old Progressive Conservatives and the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation!)

8) Point Peele National Park. A small peninsula jutting southward from the Canadian mainland into Lake Erie, it's a beautiful stretch of forest and beach where my wife's family--she grew up in Michigan--used to spend their July 4th holidays (a smart way to avoid the crowds and get some good swimming in).

7) Relative avoidance of sugar processed from high fructose corn syrup. Once when we were visiting the Ontario Science Centre, we saw a display--in some sort of health exhibit--on the manufacturing of sugar and the relative amounts consumed by residents of the U.S. and residents of Canada. Our sugar consumption towered over theirs...primarily because most of our sugar intake comes from corn syrup, which we put into everything. It was an early part of our determination to change what we eat.

6) Speaking of food...Shreddies. Enough said.

5) Toronto. Yes, it's too big, and too expensive, and it dominates English-speaking Canada's economic, cultural, political and intellectual life to an unjustifiable degree. But a cleaner, more multicultural, more fun big city you're not likely ever to find.

4) Socialized medicine. Of course, it's not really socialized medicine; various levels of government only cover a little over two-thirds of all heath care costs in the country, and the providers are a patchwork of government-run, for-profit, and non-profit organizations. But it's universal care, and your basic medical needs don't cost you an arm and a leg (sometimes literally), and besides, my oldest friend from graduate school, James Meloche, helps run one of the Local Health Integration Networks in Ontario. That's good enough for me.

3) The intellectual problem of Canada. Why do I find Canada's perpetual crises over language rights, sovereignty, religious freedom and more, as embodied in questions about constitutionality, Quebec's unique cultural and political status, and the future of the Canadian federation itself--and reflected in documents from the Constitution Act to the Meech Lake Accord to today's Commission on Accommodation--so engaging and admirable? Because they actually exist: it's political theory made real. Unlike other nations that ponder in the abstract about nationality and identity, in Canada you find all these issues, which are usually just fodder for pretentious intellectuals like myself, being treated with great seriousness by actual politicians and parties and voters. The fact that our divided neighbors to the north have been able to survive intact--as a distinct nation with the smaller nation of Quebec still a part of it, despite all the conflicts and all the talk of separation for so long--is due to the hard work and aspirations of millions of ordinary Canadians who have taken the time to think and talk about sort of difficult matters which most citizens in most democratic societies would prefer to leave alone, so all credit to them. (Though, to give pretentious intellectuals a nod, it's probably not a coincidence that Canada has produced some of truly profound political thinkers, none more so than Charles Taylor, the--in my opinion--greatest political and moral philosopher of the 20th century.)

2) SCTV. Better than Monty Python? Um...no, not really. But better than any of the many incarnations of Saturday Night Live over the years? Oh yes, definitely.

1) The loonie. Why have a one-dollar coin? For luck, of course.

20 comments:

Matt said...

Hi Russell. Two quick questions for you:
1) What do you mean by "agrarian" in the red torries bit and do you think there have been any successful "agrarian" governments in the 20th century? Depending on what you mean by it, I guess, it seems that there have been few attempts and those disasters.

2) How "multicultural" is Toronto and what do you mean by it? I was in Montreal a few weeks ago and was shocked at how homogeneous and, especially, white it was. It's true I was coming from New York City but still it was a shock how white and homogeneous it was. I remember Vancouver being diverse but then I was going there from Idaho (nearly as white as Montreal, it turns out!) so I might have had just a bad base to tell from. Is Toronto much different from Montreal? Because as far as I could tell from 4 days there spent mostly in the center Montreal = white, white, white and homogeneous. (Even the diversity of languages heard was much less than in, say Philadelphia, let alone New York City or San Francisco.)

PithLord said...

Russell,

You are pretty nice about #7, but as a Canadian it makes me cringe. Self-righteousness and resentment towards Americans are one of the less appealing national characteristics.

And while I hate to say it, I don't think there ever was a genuine "Red Tory" political movement, as opposed to an intellectual one. There have been plenty of equivalents of Rockefeller Republicans, but whatever Grant saw in Diefenbaker was primarily his projection.

What did happen is that right and left Prairie populists got an actual turn at power, in the form of the CCF in Saskatchwan and Social Credit in Alberta.

matt,

It seems odd to me to define multiculturalism purely in terms of skin colour. But in those terms as well, Toronto is quite diverse. Montreal is perhaps less so than in its heyday.

Russell Arben Fox said...

Matt,

1) The red tories--or, more concretely, as Pithlord mentions below, the CCF and the Social Credit party--were not "agrarian" in a deep philosophical sense; more simply, they just cared about the flourishing (or even just the survival) of economies and communities based on agricultural work. The same could be said of a half-dozen important New Deal policies, a couple of which are still operating successfully seventy years on. (That others of those New Deal policies have metastisized and been corrupted and abused by many agents, both corporate and political, isn't, I think, in itself a principled argument against them.

As for "agrarian disasters"...what are you thinking of? Is France's or Japan's heavy subsidizing of their farming population a "disaster"? I suppose if you're a Davos-type, it is. If, on the other hand, you think the best thing to do about globalization is moderate it when you must, fight it when you can, then such policies seem to be working fairly well.

2) As for Toronto, I don't have any data on its ethnic and racial breakdown (and again, see Pithlord below). Canada is, to be sure, a very Caucasian place, overall. But Toronto has a tremendous number of immigrants, many of which have maintained their ethnic integrity quite well. My family and I were in Toronto during the last World Cup, and the number of flags flown on the streets, the number of ethnic and national fan groups which one could find in almost any bar with TV reception during the matches, was simply astounding.

Matt said...

Pithlord,
I do expect that Toronto is more multicultural, whatever that means, than Montreal and I don't (and didn't) define it just by skin color, but that's a decent proxy, no? At least when you're looking at people on the street it's not to bad, especially when mixed with style of dress and language. In those terms Montreal, while a beautiful place, was, to all appearances, massively less diverse and multicultural than most large American cities. It certainly felt very, very homogeneous.

Russell Arben Fox said...

Pithlord,

Self-righteousness and resentment towards Americans are one of the less appealing national characteristics.

I suppose, in retrospect, it was a fairly self-righteous display. (A huge mound of sugar next to a significantly smaller mound...) But it sure made its point well.

I don't think there ever was a genuine "Red Tory" political movement, as opposed to an intellectual one. There have been plenty of equivalents of Rockefeller Republicans, but whatever Grant saw in Diefenbaker was primarily his projection.

It's an iffy call, and I suppose I ought to take your word for it. Still, consider: was there an actual "Reagan Democrat" movement, a bloc of voters and politicians who had a common set of concerns? Well, yes, but only in retrospect--post-1984, lots of people turned around and started calling those particular (mostly ethnic, mostly Catholic, mostly upper Midwestern) Democrats who voted for Reagan by that name, and suddenly you had hordes of people self-identifying as such, realizing that they'd been identified. "Red Tories" may not have existed as such until Gad Horowitz labeled them, but he nailed a real agenda and sensibility all the same. (That said agenda was sublimated within the platforms of the PC or the CCF is almost besides the point.)

Russell Arben Fox said...

In those terms Montreal, while a beautiful place, was, to all appearances, massively less diverse and multicultural than most large American cities. It certainly felt very, very homogeneous.

I've never been to Montreal; I'd love to visit someday. I know enough about it, though, to know that at least some of its residents would take you description as a compliment.

Matt said...

Thanks for the clarification, Russell. I don't know much about Japan's agricultural policy but if it's like France's I'd hesitate to call it "agrarian" since it's basically a niche program in a bigger system of industrialization. It's like, to some degree, subsidizing folk dancers and singers- it makes people feel good but is, to a large degree, window-dressing on the fact that the world has mostly changed. That, at least, is the reasonable aspects of it. The bad aspects are the parts that help keep the 3rd world poor by making it less profitable to export the products where they have a comparative advantage.

You might be right that immigrants to Canada feel more freedom to retain strong feelings towards their home countries. I don't know if that's true but it might well be and I'd not be surprised. I'm not sure that it's good but certainly don't think it's clear that it's bad and think most American's are much, much to worried about it. So, good for Canada as far as that's true.

Matt said...

Do go to Montreal if you can, Russell. It's really beautiful, the people are generally quite friendly (even if you speak no French), it's not hard to get around, and there's lots to do. These days, though, w/o the built-in 25% discount on everything, it's pretty expensive, or at least I found it to be.

Jason said...

Come on, man. The Barenaked Ladies? Gordon Lightfoot? These are lightweight items. What aboot:

Leonard Cohen
Neil Young
Joni Mitchell

I seriously think some of Cohen's best songs would jive well - check out the album The Future - with your sensibilities. Don't know that there's anything terribly Canadian about him, though.

Jacob T. Levy said...

it's political theory made real.

Does it betray my profession if I say: that's not an especially appealing thing about a place? I mean, yes, constant constitutional and existential crises do keep attention focused on first principles a lot,but there's a great deal to be said for grubby ordinary politics as the default condition.

I love living in Montreal-- but my enjoyment of it will be enhanced, not diminished, if someday we have two sane non-secessionist parties fighting a provincial election over ordinary unprincipled electoral spoils.

(The way to salvage my professional self-esteem would be to point out that just because first principles are at *stake* a lot of the time doesn't mean that millions of people suddenly become particularly good at thinking about them-- cf the accommodation hearings!)

2) only if "multicultural" is equated to skin color is Montreal not one of the most multicultural cities in North America. Montreal's about 20% immigrant; it has large Algerian, Lebanese, Hasidic, Italian, and Greek populations, to say nothing of the obvious French and Anglo-Scottish.

Russell Arben Fox said...

Thanks for commenting, Jacob!

Does it betray my profession if I say: that's not an especially appealing thing about a place?...I love living in Montreal-- but my enjoyment of it will be enhanced, not diminished, if someday we have two sane non-secessionist parties fighting a provincial election over ordinary unprincipled electoral spoils.

Well, of course, I can't disagree. Which simply highlights what I should have made obvious: I am entranced by the high rhetorical and political stakes over Canada's many struggles in part because I don't live there. I mean, as an adopted Kansan, I find the legal and political infighting in the Kansas-Nebraska territories during the 1850s to be a simply brilliant example of ideologies clashing in real-time...but that doesn't mean I wish I actually lived here during the Bleeding Kansas. No, I'll definitely give that era a pass.

And nice point there about "white" Canada's urban populations--both English and French-speaking--are themselves very diverse.

Matt said...

Jacob- is that 20% foreign born or does it include second generation? If the latter than lots and lots of big US cities beat Montreal, and even if the former many do. More importantly, though, I don't think that much of the diversity you mention is very deep. I'm often tempted to say that "generically european" is now nearly as valid a category as "generically American" is, and that much of that isn't that far from what one would find in Montreal anyway. So, the diversity there seems less to me than in many big cities. Certainly this is so if you include the second generation. Is a kid born in Montreal to Italian immigrant parents anything other than Canadian? I'd be surprised. It's a great city, one I like a lot, but not too diverse I'll still insist compared to other world-class cities.

Matt said...

A few minutes on the internet show me that Jacob's 20% figure is for foreign born. That's a lot. It put Montreal in 3rd place (as far as I can tell) in Canada, though a fairly distant 3rd to Toronto and Vancouver. It also puts Montreal behind at least 12 US cities. Not all foreign born provide equal levels of diversity or multi-culturalism, I'll still insist, so while the percent foreign born is high I still think that the level of multi-culturalism is fairly low for a big, world-class city.

BKN said...

Matt:

What parts of Montreal did you get to? In Montreal neighbourhood matters a lot, if it's visible diversity you're after. Ride the Green metro from downtown to its western terminus (Angrignon) and you'll see enough African and South Asian faces and businesses to know that you're not in Kansas anymore, so to speak. My in-laws' block in Ville Lasalle includes a store that sells bagged lentils, mango pulp and sari material across from a depanneur (convenience store) run by a Sino-Vietnamese man and his Filipina wife--most of their customers are Haitians.

I spent Canada Day on the shores of a salt lake in the middle of the Canadian prairies watching a small town parade and fireworks show. An elderly lady on a lawnchair near me seemed to have the remains of a Scottish accent. And I hear that the town's new doctor is a (white) South African. That was as diverse as things got.

Jacob T. Levy said...

Matt,

Not all foreign born provide equal levels of diversity or multi-culturalism, I'll still insist, so while the percent foreign born is high I still think that the level of multi-culturalism is fairly low for a big, world-class city.

But to get that result don't you have to weight basically at zero the central biculturalism of the city? You have to decide that "Quebecois" or "French" just don't count at all (or, I guess, that "Anglophone" or "Anglo-Scottish" doesn't count at all) as "cultural" in order to think that there's not a high level of cultural diversity even *before* you get to immigration. Yes, the two groups are bothw hite, but that hardly makes them a homogenous whole.

The combination of the two-- the baseline biculturalism and the medium-high level of immigration even by cosmopolitan city standards-- makes this feel at least as diverse and multicultural as anyplace I've ever lived, including New York and Chicago, even though, yes, it's considerably whiter than either of those places.

re: immigration and the look-and-feel of the place, bkn is absolutely right about neighborhoods. You just needed to get out of downtown more. That also would have made clear that some of the populations that become "generic white" in some US cities don't in Montreal. The Greek, Italian, Portugese, Lebanese, and Jewish populations *really* haven't assimilated to either Quebecois or anglophone culture, and their various neighborhoods are still strongly differentiated even for second-or-later generations.

Russell Arben Fox said...

That also would have made clear that some of the populations that become "generic white" in some US cities don't in Montreal. The Greek, Italian, Portugese, Lebanese, and Jewish populations *really* haven't assimilated to either Quebecois or anglophone culture, and their various neighborhoods are still strongly differentiated even for second-or-later generations.

I think it's interesting to ask exactly why this is the case. Of course, one could attribute it to Quebecois tribalism/defensiveness/hostility, and that's probably part of it. But surely it's also a byproduct of what might be called the "ideological infrastructure" of Canadian and Quebec politics: their willingness to accept groups (ethnic, national, linguistic, etc.) as the focal point for social interaction and services as much as--if not, in some cases, even more than--individuals. Such an attitude, one wherein notions like survivance are simply part of the common jargon of politics, obviously adds something to the willingness of members of immigrant groups to similarly see themselves as appropriate units of collective life, and make choices accordingly.

BKN said...

Amusing true story, somewhat relevant to current discussion: May 2008, Banff, Alberta, the same-sex wedding of one of my Montreal-born wife's childhood friends. Among the other guests: a perfectly trilingual Italian-Canadian Montrealer and her husband, he a pure laine rural Quebecois. As we arrived in Banff, the husband says (in jest), "Well, I've seen the Rockies. Now Quebec can separate."

Matt said...

You're probably right, bnk- most of my time in Montreal has been in the center. (The times outside of it didn't seem that different but they were not long.) It might well be pretty different there.

Jacob T. Levy said...

I think it's interesting to ask exactly why this is the case. Of course, one could attribute it to Quebecois tribalism/defensiveness/hostility, and that's probably part of it.

Kind of, but kind of not. Montreal Quebecois (as opposed to the pure laine rural crowd) are pretty happy to have, e.g., francophone Haitians assimilate. They at least aspire to the model of language-based assimilationism of, say, interwar France.

But Quebecois culture just doesn't have enough gravitational force for non-francophone immigrants to end up assimilating. Generations of Greek, Italian, etc, immigrants came here, found that they weren't so immersed in any one culture as to make assimilation inevitable, and didn't want to commit their children to a Quebec-only future, so they wanted English as much as French for their kids. They were fierce opponents of Bill 101-- since native-born Anglophone Canadians are exempted, it was largely communities like the Italian and Greek that were being forced to French-school their children.

On the other hand, they clearly weren't surrounded by English culture, and there wouldn't be any natural assimilation in that direction, no matter how much English they spoke. So they end up suspended in the solution-- trilingual ongoing ethnic neighborhoods.

I don't attribute much causal force to that ideological infrastructure, and Quebec politics certainly hasn't been overly hospitable toward the ethnics. Survivance is a "for me but not for thee" kind of thing.

Russell Arben Fox said...

Jacob,

But Quebecois culture just doesn't have enough gravitational force for non-francophone immigrants to end up assimilating....On the other hand, they clearly weren't surrounded by English culture, and there wouldn't be any natural assimilation in that direction, no matter how much English they spoke. So they end up suspended in the solution-- trilingual ongoing ethnic neighborhoods.

But why is that? Simply because Montreal's Quebecois culture isn't massive enough to generate sufficient assimilatory force? If you're an immigrant to a new society, trying to make a home for yourself, you'd think that the pressures of just navigating one's immediate, local urban environment would be significant enough. Maybe if you're talking about relatively well-educated and/or wealthy immigrants, with their own range of resources to draw upon, things would be different. But my understanding of immigration to Quebec suggests that, while they undoubtedly are pretty selective, it's not as though the usual modern immigrant stories known the world over aren't the rule there as well; certainly at least in Montreal. True, the bilingualism of Canada adds an additional concern, enough to make the immigrants want to teach their kids some English as well as French. But trilingual ethnic neighborhoods? Here, I think you're going to have to admit that at least some of this odd multiculutural result is attributal to uniquely Canadian factors, a few of which are tied to constitutional modus operandi of the whole place.