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The Myth of Cultural Identity
...Just what the heck is it?


A stereotype of Canadians is that they are an annoyingly navel-gazing bunch, constantly trying to figure out who they are and what they stand for, as a people. Some have claimed, usually pejoratively, that Canadians define themselves less by what they are and more by what they're not -- "not American".

This is a particularly pertinent question when considering Canadian films and TV as, after all, people often defend the need for Canadian movies and TV shows as a forum to tell "Canadian" stories, to provide an expression for "Canadian identity".

But what is this cultural identity? Like Ogopogo, it's elusive and hard to describe.

And Canadians often seem self-conscious about their lack of clearly defined "identity" because, so they believe, most other nations are very sure of who and what they are. Indeed, when groups within Canada feel confident of their identity, such as the French Québécois -- their impulse is to distance themselves from Canada as a whole! Canadians look enviously at the United States, for example, and see a strong, confident nation that knows itself and where it stands in the world. And Canadians stare raptly and think: "Gosh, if only we had that kind of conviction."

But, as always, there's as much mead as meat in such attitudes.

Firstly, Canadians -- at least the self-styled elites who define such things as "culture" -- do seem to be emerging with a fairly consistent self-view. A few months back, in time for Canada Day (July 1st), a conservative American website, seeking a clue to what defined their shadowy neighbours to the north, invited various Canadian journalists to define Canada and Canadian values.

And what emerged was a surprisingly consistent portrait. Surprising because this wasn't simply people pushing an agenda. Quite the opposite. The journalists contacted were both Left Wing and Right Wing, yet they seemed to repeat the same "truisms" about what defined Canada -- tolerance, compassion, compromise. To the Left Wingers, these values made Canada a great nation...to Right Wingers, these values represented Canada going to Hell in a handcart! The Right Wingers, at least, hated this vision of Canada...but seemed to feel it was accurate nonetheless.

Does this mean this view is accurate? Well, no, not necessarily. One immigrant can tell you a story of coming to Canada and the wonderful opportunities, and wonderful people he met...another will tell you of the closed doors and bigotry he encountered. One person of colour might move to Canada from, say, America, citing Canada as a more inclusive culture...and another person of colour might make the reverse trip, citing the same reasons. Individual life experiences will always be that: individual.

But what's intriguing is how, for a country supposedly in a perpetual quest for an "identity", constantly doubting itself, that poll of journalists seemed to suggest that an identity has kind of emerged -- one that is kind of worth living up to (after all, we can all probably stand to be a little more tolerant and compassionate in our daily lives).

It's as if, in all the years Canadians have spent asking "who are we?" and "what do we stand for?" and "where is our culture?", a bonafide identity and culture kind of snuck up on them and made itself at home when they weren't looking. Like little Dorothy discovering her heart's desire wasn't somewhere over the rainbow after all.

Still, the problem is that values and identity are too easily subject to the whims of the individual. We are told that Canadian movies provide a window on Canadian identity and the Canadian experience. But do they? Do Atom Egoyan's or Lea Pool's films really reflect the Canadian identity, per se? And, for that matter, isn't that a lot of pressure to put on a filmmaker anyway? And when talking about values, are we talking about the nation as it is...or the nation we imagine it should be?

Consider something as set and rigid as hockey. Hockey is the national sport. Hockey is Canada. It's what we do well, what we do better than anyone. It's what we live for.

But really...is it?

Canada didn't even take a medal for hockey in the last Olympics. It seems half the times you read news stories about hockey, it's bemoaning poor ticket sales and half empty bleachers. I read one article a few years back that suggested curling was actually more popular in small towns. Another article quoted a non-white kid claiming only white kids liked hockey. And given the rapidly changing ethnic face of Canada, and the fact that hockey teams are still predominantly peopled by white players, it might not be surprising to learn hockey might not be winning over young, immigrant fans. In fact I saw a recent survey that claimed only 13 percent of Canadians admitted to following hockey.

Don't get me wrong. Hockey is still a big to do in Canada -- but I'm not sure it's quite as big, as intrinsic, as the cultural myth would have us believe.

But what I really found myself wondering is: can anyone define their national identity? We would say, yes, of course. The Americans, the British, the French, the Japanese, the Turks, etc. etc. They all know who they are. It's only weird, insecure, illegitimate Canada that is adrift on the seas of uncertainty.

But isn't the myth of cultural identity just that: a myth? Maybe the truth is that only difference between Canadians and, say, Americans, is that Canadians are honest enough to admit they aren't sure who they are, and Americans pretend they do.

Consider the current, polarized state of political affairs in the U.S. I mean, ask yourself: if you put, say, Bill O'Reilly, Ralph Nader, Jon Stewart, Ann Coulter, Al Franken and a dozen other high profile American cultural/political commentators in a room and ask them to define America and American values...do you really think a consensus would emerge? Do you really think that the America each one lives in, and that lives in their heads, shares anything but a name with the visions of many of the others?

I didn't think so. Yet each will tell you, unequivocally, that America can be defined by rigid values and unarguable certainties.

And don't get me started on other nations. Don't get me started on, say, watching the movie, A Fish Called Wanda, in which former Monty Pythoner, Englishman John Cleese, has a line explaining how much more exciting and vibrant are Americans compared to dull, stuffy Englishmen. Uh...Cleese? Monty Pythoner? Explaining how dull and conservative the English are compared to the Americans?

Yet in that one line, we see a concise summing up of two cultural stereotypes...but is it an accurate reflection of either nation? Or is it just good to pretend it is, because having a false self-image is seen as better than having no self-image?

But maybe there's something good about Canadians maintaining a certain self-doubt, a certain unsettledness about who and what they are. Maybe a people too sure of themselves quickly become too set in their ways, and their country begins to stagnate.

Maybe when it comes to defining a cultural identity, the journey really is as important as the ultimate destination.

That's all for now,
The Masked Movie Critic

November 5, 2006

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