Philip Resnick, The European Roots of Canadian Identity.
Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, 2005. 125 pages.

I recommend this book highly both for its elegant presentation of conventional opinion on the Canadian identity and for its provocative attempt to explain that opinion in terms of our European origins. If you are making up a course pack on political identity, include at least the first four chapters. Better: assign the entire book. It is readable, it draws you in, and while it no doubt tells you things about this country that you already knew and things only half-forgotten, so much the better. It offers admirable brief summaries of the debates about the influence of the United States on the Canadian economy and the arts, Canadian participation or nonparticipation in the defence of the continent, the development of the welfare state, bilingualism, multiculturalism, immigration policy and citizenship.

Resnick describes us as peaceable, deferential, modestly proud of our social programs (it goes without saying) and, withal, engagingly self-deprecating and aware of the fallibility of human endeavours. On the international stage Canadians shun utopian visions, imperialism and unilateralism. Is the picture attractive? It is undoubtedly the one to which most Canadians today subscribe. In this important sense Resnick has things right.


The central, original and contestable argument is this: to buttress the Canadian identity against American incursions, 
Canadians should look to Europe and the European Union. Our roots lie in Europe and we have retained European habits of mind. We have remained more European in our sensibilities than have Americans. We will know ourselves better and our future will be brighter if we revisit the European connection.

Inevitably, The European Roots of the Canadian Identity will be compared with Michael Adams’s prize-winning Fire and Ice (2003). Like Adams, Resnick defines “identity” in terms of national cultural distinctiveness. To inspire love, to command loyalty, a country and its policies must be distinctive in some fashion. And like Adams again (and many others, of course), Resnick supposes that for Canadians the quest for distinctiveness involves us in the attempt to understand how we differ from Americans. For both authors, distinguishing Canada from the United States is the sine qua non. But Resnick’s is by far the better book. Adams offers at best poll data to show us changing patterns of majority opinion in the two countries. Resnick gives us a scholarly work based on years of reading and observation, laced with a challenging thesis.

Let us look at that thesis. Supposedly liberal democracy has two futures, the European and the American. This idea is current, though not always used to defend the European alternative. In The Cube and the Cathedral (2005), George Weigel argues that the American future is more promising than the European because America’s refusal to subordinate the claims of “the cathedral” to those of secularism anchors the sense of political morality and human rights. In The Roads to Modernity: The British, French, and American Enlightenments (2004), Gertrude Himmelfarb suggests that the United States did well to reject the chilly and arrogant rationalism of the French Enlightenment, and to embrace what she describes as the signal features of the British (a.k.a. the Scottish) Enlightenment: “Sympathy for the disadvantaged, compassion, and benevolence.”

While Weigel and Himmelfarb choose the American future, Resnick recommends the European. His use of the paradigm is the more interesting because he gives it a Canadian spin. But what I want to note here is that all three authors suppose that it is the political culture, rather than the constitution and form of government, that defines a country’s identity. The population’s political attitudes and values, or to use the phrase that originated with Tocqueville, the prevailing “habits of mind and heart,” are prior in some important and yet not easily defined sense. Americans know themselves to be Americans because they share certain attitudes and values; Canadians are Canadians because we cling to a somewhat different set of values.

No one reading Resnick’s book, or Wiegel’s, or Himmelfarb’s, is going to deny that citizens take pride in their country’s distinctiveness; no one is going to deny that political culture is an important element in a country’s political way of life. But is it supremely important? Why should we define a country – why should we define Canada – primarily in terms of attitudes and opinions? Why should we suppose culture is prior? Years ago Donald Smiley asked, “Do political institutions in any crucial sense matter?” His topic was the British North America Act (now the Constitution Act, 1867). Thus he was asking: do constitutions matter? The question is still relevant.

Though Resnick argues repeatedly that the Canadian identity rests on our shared values, he also points out that not all Canadians favour bilingualism, robust social programs and so on. We differ on foreign policy issues and on attitudes to Europe. He calls this fissiparous feature of our public life “Canadian self-doubt,” and he wishes devoutly that we could overcome it and emphasize our commonalities. He does not make it clear how looking to Europe will help Canadians discover what they have in common. He does suggest that our penchant for quarrelling is putting our national identity at risk.

Smiley would say that in a free society it is wrong to expect agreement on political and ideological issues. We should not be looking for shared values, or for a cultural definition of our country. Canada must be defined in terms of its constitution; it has a civic identity. The advantage of the civic identity is that it allows disagreement on cultural matters. The parliamentary form of government thrives on political disagreement; Canadian federalism was intended to preserve cultural differences. Because it welcomes disagreement, a civic identity is inclusive. And because it is inclusive, it represents and promotes equality under the law. To repeat: a civic identity is inclusive and egalitarian. A cultural identity, in contrast, excludes, or appears to exclude, dissidents and cultural minorities; it favours, or appears to favour, only some political opinions, some cultures.

Resnick does not neglect Canada’s civic heritage; he offers a good definition of the civic identity in chapter 4. (Do not leave chapter 4 out of that course pack!) He suggests there that what Canadians chiefly owe to Britain (Britain as part of Europe) is our constitution, including our Parliament. To John Locke and the England of the seventeenth century, we owe representative government and the rule of law, and the security for liberty, equality and individual rights that is found in them. But in the end he cannot believe that the civic identity suffices to tell Canadians who and what they are. He cannot give up the idea that national cultural distinctiveness is the crucial factor in a people’s sense of self. The difficulty with relying on a civic definition, he suggests, is exactly that it does not capture Canadian distinctiveness. It does not distinguish Canada among the liberal democracies. It puts too much emphasis on Canadian-American similarities.

He hopes to secure both “goods” for Canada: the cultural identity and the civic one, the particular identity and the universal. Supposedly Canada will be like other liberal democracies in its institutions, but will use those institutions to forge distinctive policies. I do not find the argument completely intelligible or convincing but undoubtedly some readers will. To further encourage the development of consensus, Resnick argues for public endorsement of multiculturalism, mutual dialogue and programs of mutual recognition. It is one of the strengths of the book that it describes well Canadian attempts to forge a “Canada clause” in the Charlottetown constitutional accord, to accommodate the claims of First Nations as a third order of government, and to recognize Quebec as a distinct society or nation within the distinctiveness of the Canadian national entity.

The argument for distinctiveness pulls Resnick in two directions. When he is urging us to focus on our cultural commonalities, he refers to Canada as an “imaginary country.” The phrase suggests that history and cultural identity are malleable; it suggests especially that a population creates its identity by interpreting and reinterpreting its history: sometimes erasing, sometimes adding, on occasion purposefully forgetting episodes. The idea depends on arguments from the Counter-Enlightenment and dates from at least the eighteenth century. It is another notion currently in vogue. It is expressed in Charles Taylor’s Modern Social Imaginaries (2004; Taylor tells us he is drawing on Benedict Anderson’s 1991 book Imagined Communities), in Jocelyn Létourneau’s A History for the Future: Rewriting Memory and Identity in Quebec (2004) and in Jeremy Webber’s Reimagining Canada (1994). If we believe Létourneau, and perhaps Resnick, we have something of a free hand as we create our “imaginary.” What is needed is a collective will. (And here Resnick’s worries about Canadian self-doubt, our lack of will, surface again.)

But though he flirts with the notion that Canada is an “imaginary country,” ours to remake in the image of the future, Resnick is, in the end, more comfortable with the contrary suggestion: that Canadian identity is firmly rooted in particular and well-known historical experiences – historical “givens.” He believes indeed that enduring aspects of the Canadian political way of life were determined once and for all by the Tory party of the nineteenth century. Thus he argues that Canadians today favour robust social programs because John A. Macdonald boldly adopted the National Policy. (He advances this contention even though he shows with admirable clarity the post–World War II origins of Canadian welfarism and the regulatory state.) He suggests that Canada today enjoys a mixed economy, unlike the United States, because those early Tories, cognizant of our sprawling geography, limited domestic capital and low population density, drew on both public and private funds for their ambitious projects.

In the academic world this view is not uncontested. In Globalization and the Meaning of Canadian Life (1998), William Watson contends that the National Policy and mixed financing were adopted lock, stock and barrel from prior American policies. Even supposing that the ethos of the National Policy still influences Canadian thinking, there is nothing distinctively Canadian about the policy, says Watson, nothing to distinguish Canada from the U.S.

Certainly the legislative debates of the Confederation period1 do not suggest that the Fathers and the ratifying legislators in the provincial parliaments intended a Tory country. On the contrary: Tory and Liberal alike, they were classical liberals in the tradition of John Locke; at the national level they designed civic institutions to allow the free play of ideologies on a footing of equality. No “Tory streak” distinguishes Canada from the United States. Resnick is at his least convincing when he attempts to read the political and cultural preferences of Canadians today back into the Confederation period.

I have not said enough about Resnick’s hopes that revisiting our European roots will cement our identity. But though I admire his bold attempt to appropriate a new paradigm, I did not derive a clear picture of Canada’s original and continuing debt to Europe. I found his description of the European Union offputting. He speaks frankly about Europe’s “democratic deficit” and the quarrels among the states of the EU. We surely want to follow Europe’s adventures with a friendly eye. But is it clear that France-in-Europe is a superior guide to good government? The best Resnick can say is that, insofar as we study the European example, we will not adopt offensively utopian and unilateral remedies in the manner of the United States.

On the other hand, I found engaging his description of Europe’s superior expositions, museums, films and plays, its intellectual life, “the wide range of seminars, colloquia, and discussion forums,” the bookstores “with their streams of new publications.” I appreciated his description of the buildings in Paris, the Haussmannian avenues, the planned symmetry. It brought to mind John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. In passages Resnick sounds exactly the note of the Americans; they too haunted the bookstores, sending crates of books home; they longed to participate in the intellectual life. They were agape at the beauty of buildings and parks. They too were convinced, for a time at least, that life in Paris was life at its finest. n


1 See Janet Ajzenstat Paul Romney, Ian Gentles and William D. Gairdner, eds., Canada’s Founding Debates (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003)