For Irvin Studin, a public policy professor at the University of Toronto who penned a widely circulated article titled “Why Do Canadians Shun Greatness?” the modesty at the heart of Canada’s national identity is a direct result of its history. For one thing, Studin argues, the country’s independence did not involve an “emancipatory moment” like the one that gave the United States its origin story. But perhaps more importantly, he says, Canada has been done in by its own good luck: Because North America is so isolated, it has never really had to protect itself. “You defeated an empire, and so you became an empire,” he said in an interview. “But Canada never had that. We never had to fight for our existence or prove ourselves.”
During the second half of the 20th century, as the United States emerged as a superpower, Canada slipped into a very different role. Instead of building up a massive army, the country developed its foreign service and treated international peacekeeping as its central calling abroad. After World War II, Canadian peacekeepers were deployed to places like Cyprus, Lebanon, West New Guinea, and Yemen, where they stood guard over simmering conflicts and worked to prevent them from flaring up; in 1957, Canadian diplomat Lester Pearson was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for helping to resolve the Suez Crisis. “The term in the postwar era that was used for Canada was ‘middle power,’ and we were very proud of this,” said Andrew Cohen, a professor of journalism and international affairs at Carleton University and author of the book, “While Canada Slept: How We Lost Our Place in the World.” “It was so us, to be a middle power. It reflected...the instinct to mediate, the idea of being the helpful fixer and the honest broker.”
It was a peculiar sort of pride, a moral authority derived from not being the kind of country that would start a war in Vietnam or face off with the Soviet Union. “It was kind of like a phantom nationalism—a negative nationalism,” said McGill University historian Gil Troy. “It was defined...by saying ‘We’re not patriotic; we’re not aggressive like the United States.’ But that in itself was a form of nationalism—they just didn’t name it nationalism because of some post-’60s, post-colonial assumption that nationalism is somehow bad.”
Troy doesn’t see it that way: In an essay published last spring in the Canadian magazine Policy Options, he argued that it’s no longer enough for Canada to be “the nice nation”—that to fulfill its potential, it must rise up and become a “leading player in the Western democratic West.” For Troy, that means passionately supporting Israel, denouncing Iran, and being willing to stand up, militarily, for its ideals. The emphasis on peacekeeping, Troy said in an interview, “curdled at a certain point—it turned, and became too concerned with appeasing others. And in a world filled with some seriously bad people and some seriously evil forces, that kind of approach has its limits, and it has to be paired with what people consider a more in-your-face confrontational style.”
This call to arms has been embraced and passionately promoted by the Harper government, whose approach to foreign policy has been marked by militaristic rhetoric and an emphasis on Canada’s martial history. Perhaps the most overt manifestation of this effort has been the $28 million promotional campaign to recast the War of 1812, when British forces in Canada fought off an invasion attempt by the United States, as a defining moment in Canadian history. “This kind of talk is just everywhere,” said Ian McKay. “They’re [also] redesigning the Canadian passport, and they’re going to put on the back...all kinds of ennobling, exciting things about Canadian history, one of which is a long salute to Canada’s role in war. There won’t be any word in these passport history lessons on peace. Not one. Not a peep.”
The new Canadian nationalism does not end with militaristic bluster. A 2010 report by former Globe and Mail editor Edward Greenspon, intended as a blueprint for making Canada “the centre of the networked world that is emerging in the 21st century,” focused on ways to make the country more economically powerful, and to avoid being left to “sit on the sidelines as the world moves on.” Among other things, the report called on policy makers to help expand Canadian trade with India and China, so that Vancouver might become “the Asian business capital of North America.” The report also called for the construction of a pipeline that would connect the Alberta oil sands to the country’s west coast, so that its oil can be exported more easily to countries other than the US.Continued...