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.Recommend this Post