Saturday, June 30, 2007

Andrew Cohen, The Unfinished Canadian: The People We Are


It seems appropriate to post a review of Andrew Cohen's new book The Unfinished Canadian: The People We Are on Canada Day weekend, when many Canadians are reflecting on the state of the country, our national identity and perhaps even our history. (Others, of course, are enjoying their beer and barbecues…) Certainly, we can always count on our media outlets to run the latest news from The Dominion Institute about how we are failing as a nation because of a lack of national cohesion or inadequate public knowledge about Canadian history. Unfortunately, like so many of the Dominion Institute's press releases, The Unfinished Canadian strays so often into a negative doom-and-gloom polemic that its valid points are overshadowed by its weaknesses and exaggerations.

Broadly speaking, Cohen's argument is that Canada is a nation unwilling to strive for (or even accept) greatness, that its history is not known or celebrated, and that it demands too little allegiance from its citizens. To structure his argument, his book is divided into a series of chapters, looking at different facets of Canadian identity – our approach to citizenship, how we are perceived by outsiders, our understanding of our history, our relationship with the United States, the development of the National Capital Region, and so on – as case studies of how this identity has been structured, and where it is lacking.

There are heroes and villains in Cohen's discussion of Canada. Among his heroes are his friend (and co-editor of Trudeau's Shadow), historian Jack Granatstein; Dominion Institute founder Rudyard Griffiths; and recent Governor General Adrienne Clarkson. Conversely he scorns pollster Michael Adams, most of the current crop of Canadian historians, Ottawa's city planners, Canadians who hold dual citizenship, and our current Governor General Michaëlle Jean. If you have a passing familiarity with these individuals and their achievements, then you can easily guess the themes of the book which develops around these central figures. Cohen does little other than repeat old critiques of Canadian identity and public policy, largely by providing extended summaries and critiques of existing texts. If you haven't read the texts in question (such as Granatstein's 1998 polemic Who Killed Canadian History?), then Cohen's book may be a useful primer. If you have, he adds little to the long-standing arguments that he recounts. Cohen argues for a proud national history with a nationally-determined curriculum, an end to dual citizenship, a more positive relationship with the United States, a celebration of national heritage, and a national capital which is a showpiece of the country to the world. However, Cohen constructs his argument in such a negative fashion that it is hard to embrace his philosophy.

To give one example, in the process of savaging Michael Adams' book Fire and Ice for an oversimplified and methodologically questionable approach to gauging Canadian and American values – a critique raised by several book reviewers and scholars – he decides to also attack the Donner Prize committee for awarding their 2004 award to the book. He then broadens his attack to include all book prize juries, and even those individuals who have won the award. Indeed, he begins by arguing that the Donner Prize committee was blinded by the popularity of Adams' book, and gave him the award because his book was widely read. Yet mere paragraphs later, he savages the committee for giving its 2001 prize to an "obscure and dubious" choice – Université de Montreal professor Marie McAndrew's work on ethnic and cultural diversity in Quebec's schools – on the basis that it was "virtually unheard of in English Canada" and probably still untranslated. Beyond the fact that Cohen's argument is clearly inconsistent – if the Donner committee cannot give its prize to popular or more obscure works, what should it pick? – I doubt that Cohen has read McAndrew's work. I have, and it's a very important work on how Quebec is struggling to adapt to cultural diversity in a post-Bill 101 world, worthy of more attention throughout the country. Yet in his hurry to attack those that would praise Adams work, Cohen loses all sense of nuanced critique.

Since my own research in recent years has looked at Canadian identity politics and how the federal government and various partner organizations have sought to shape these through July 1st celebrations, I would be remiss if I did not respond to Cohen's reductionist and negative interpretation of how the name of July 1st was changed from Dominion Day to Canada Day (p.89-90). According to Cohen's interpretation, this was done "just like that," because a single Member of Parliament decided that the name of this day was a "colonial remnant, an insult to Quebec and multicultural Canada." Cohen recounts how the private member's bill was shuttled quickly through the House of Commons on a summer day in July 1982, when quorum was lacking, and then the bill was approved by the Senate three months later. Cohen sees this as a travesty, an act of "historical cleansing." He claims that the term "Dominion" did not have colonial connotations – pointing to the fact that term was suggested by New Brunswicker Leonard Tilley who took is from Psalm 72.

There is another side to Cohen's tale. Some of his basic facts are correct. There was some jiggery-pokery in how Hal Herbert's private member's bill was rushed through the House of Commons in 1982, and it was Leonard Tilley who suggested the term "Dominion" to denote Canada's status. What Cohen's version of the story doesn't tell you, however, is that the designation for July 1st had been a matter of contention since at least 1946, when the first such bill to change the name of the day was introduced in Parliament. Indeed, University of Regina historian Raymond Blake has identified dozens of bills introduced between 1946 and 1982, both private member's bills and government-sponsored ones, to change the name of July 1st, some of which managed to get through the House of Commons, only to then die in the Senate. There were thus decades of debate over what term to use for July 1st. "Dominion" was contentious, especially in Quebec and among new non-British origin Canadians. There was good cause for thinking it was a colonial term. The reason Tilley had to come up with this new "special" designation for Canada was that Britain refused to allow Sir John A. MacDonald to use his preferred term - "Kingdom of Canada" - for fear of antagonizing the United States. Dominion would then be the term used to designate other newly independent nations of the Commonwealth that followed in Canada's footsteps. One can debate whether or not deciding to move away from the term "Dominion," drawn from Canada's past, was a good idea, but the story is far more complicated than Cohen would have us believe.

There are aspects of Cohen's argument that I can support. For instance, I do think that Canada needs a political history museum and that the National Portrait Gallery should be located in Ottawa rather than Calgary. I'd like there to be more attention paid to Canadian history in high school curricula. I think that Adrienne Clarkson did a lot for the prestige of the office of Governor General and that the media and opposition parties were petty in their criticisms of her work. However, there is precious little in Cohen's work that is original – it reads as an extended series of book summaries by more prestigious and prolific authors. As one-stop shopping for the Granatstein-Dominion Institute-nationalist side of the past decade of Canadian identity debates, The Unfinished Canadian not a bad resource. Readers who want a more nuanced treatment of the identity issues he deals with would be better to turn to the original source material, or to wait for a more original publication to appear. Perhaps they might be interested in historian José Igartua's recent book The Other Quiet Revolution: National Identities in English Canada, 1945-1971, an accessible examination of how and why English Canada's approach to its identity politics began to change in the post-war years. It was published in 2006 by UBC Press, an academic publishing house that Cohen suggested is mainly concerned with publishing history books that are "dense, distant and obtuse, written by experts for experts" (84). The state of the Canadian history profession and the politics of its identity are more complex and nuanced than Cohen (and his mentor Granatstein) are willing to admit. The Unfinished Canadian would be stronger if Cohen had provided a more thorough, creative and less ideologically-blinkered approach to the issues that he examines.

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6 Comments:

At 11:15 pm, Anonymous M Lyons said...

Matthew,
I was disappointed in your review of The Unfinished Canadian.
I think your time today on this 'special day' for Canadians would have been better spent drinking beer/flipping burgers than writing this less than objective critique..shame on you!
It is obvious that you completely missed the point of Mr.Cohen's book which simply put:as Canadians we can be/do so much better.
You also missed his wonderful wit when you say:"The Unfinished Canadian strays so often into a negative doom-and-gloom polemic that its valid points are overshadowed by its weaknesses and exaggerations.."(first para last sentence)
AND
"However, Cohen constructs his argument in such a negative fashion that it is hard to embrace his philosophy" *3rd para last sentece.And then I wonder if you purposely found fault and 'fudged' a few words to change the meaning Mr.Cohen intended in his criticism (not 'argument' as you put it) of the Donner Committee awarding Mr.Adam's and Marie McAndrew their prize because 'one was widely read' and the other 'not translated into English.You know that is not what he said nor what he meant..perhaps tho' you saw this way as an excellent opportunity to tell everyone that you read Marie McAndrew's book and it was excellent...(good for you)
As far as Canada Day who cares how long the 'name change' had been in the works...the point is it was downright shameful how in the end it was finally passed!
Happy Dominion Day to you..
Margaret Lyons

 
At 8:38 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Firstly, I love the title of your blog and just discovered it today. An anecdote - when I was younger, my Peterborough-French mother served dinner to a visiting Toronto guest. He wanted to make sure that he *fit* in, had a few gin and tonics, and told us all that he had really enjoyed *la grapfruitla* that morning for breakfast. We laughed so hard we were sure he was the complete WASP and kept the joke going in the family for the past 50 years. Those were the days you could really pample the moose.

Regarding Cohen's Unfinished Canadian. What an excellent title, but how disappointing a rant. You captured much of my non-academic read of his book. His take on the negative cast of the *Canadian mind* imo is purely academic. Living in the real world would be a help so that he would understand my notes to myself when reading Hebert's French Kiss today. I gleaned from Chantal that while the US has been spending its treasure for 40 years on building armaments as it is fearful of threats from without its borders, Canadians have struggled just as hard to solve threats to its existence within its borders. We have opted for a working, peaceable democracy where everyone has intrinsic value and personal histories and cultures are part of the treasure while the country allows millions of souls to add to the culture so that it is a work in progress and adaptation. Americans seem to be running to make money in order to save themselves from the world. Canadians struggle in their shadow with a view to save themselves, and, in the process, the world. Canadians really are a pragmatic, gracious people and Cohen misses it. I doubt this is what Chantal was driving at, but that was the message I got though she gets her knickers in a knot over missed opportunities at Meech Lake where we would have had the opportunity to fund all of Cohen's pet projects. And, good for her effort even though I see her vision as misguided. I hope she writes much, much more. Cohen - not so much. But, even so, I am blessed to live in a country where I can read these accounts from thoughtful minds helping me *see* things in a new way.

I enjoyed your reviews very much.

D. Allen

 
At 12:26 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dude! I'm glad to see that I'm not the only one that felt Cohen's book was nothing more than some tired, over used critique of Canadian society! And could there be anymore American worship? I mean, I didn't get it? Are we supposed to be pro-American or Anti-American, either way we're not going to get it right as per Cohen. He's all about maintaining out heritage and goes on about the importance of our history so much so that the changing of Dominion Day to Canada Day is history's greatest crime, while all the while we should succumb to the knowledge that America will always be better than us and we should just bow down and worship them because we owe them so much? Ew. Can we say self-hating Canadian? Cohen made me wonder something after I put down the book... if you love America so much, and you want to Canada to assimilate to American values/lifestyles, and need to go out of your way to have a whole chapter trashing a book that would've celebrated the idiosyncrasies of being Canadian vs. that of being an American, why not just move to America and renounce your Canadian citizenship?

Nonetheless he does make good arguments. But I didn't know where he was coming from.

Awesome review man!

 
At 11:36 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What a disgusting read - merely the rantings of another left wing nutty professor. This book, especially the last chapter shows the narrow minded intolerence of an academic who believes he has all the answers, we simply need to be properly educated.
I was the very first to take this book from our local library - I will not waste any more time on this author.
Sharon

 
At 1:48 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello, I'm a Canadian Lit. M.A. in Montreal. I recently read the Unfinished Canadian along side George Grant's Lament For A Nation, and Bissoondath's Selling Illusions, in prep for a project on Canadian identity that centred on problems with continentalism, pluralism, and the failure to adequately address the problem of french-english relations in Canada.

Just wanted to say that I agree with your review a good deal. I believe the problem of our fractured nationalism is often owed to the shame lodged against our own country- this idea that the seminal ideas (political, philosophical, artistic) of North American culture arise, not from British, Canadian, or French distinction, but from that dream land of Hollywood, Bob Dylan, and JFK across the Southern border. It's a polemic of US comparison and self-abasement that goes back in Canadian history all the way to the Liberal roots in Canada, particularly, beginning with the overall intellectual and political dissatisfaction of Goldwin Smith.

Anyhow, enjoyed the read and wanted to say my piece; now peace!

Drew Taylor, Montreal.

 
At 1:43 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I concluded that Cohen's principle thesis was that there are two great threats to Canada's future: Regional divisiveness & a Multicultural society that has weakened Canadian citizenship and turned Canada into a global hotel of sorts. Sure he bemoans the fact that we don't celebrate our history and that must be why we have no raison d'etre, but Cohen's most intense critique is that our multiculturalist ideology has allowed foreigners to obtain citizenship too easily and with too few stipulations or tenements. Thoughts?

 

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