- Who Do We Think We Are?Writings on Citizenship and Identity in the Early Twenty-first Century
For more than a decade now, we have been regularly reminded of the notion that we live in the information age, in a knowledge economy, in an era when more Canadians hold university degrees than ever before and when access to information is faster, easier, and more efficient. Higher education, my generation was told, would provide the key to future financial and social success (or, at least that is what we thought until the recent financial meltdown). At the same time, if organizations like the Dominion Institute and Operation Dialogue are to be believed, it would seem that Canadians' national and cultural sense of self (or cultural literacy, if you will) is on the decline. There is no doubt much truth in what they tell us. Surveys conducted by the Dominion Institute reveal an apparent decline in Canadians' awareness and knowledge of basic Canadian history, while Operation Dialogue has reported that our cultural awareness of ourselves is remarkably low. Recent events in Canadian federal politics, for example, have highlighted the fact that a good many Canadians are unsure about the basic principles of our parliamentary democracy.1 In an age when we have access to more information than ever before and increasing numbers hold post-secondary degrees, Canadians apparently know a whole lot less about ourselves than we should. [End Page 221]
Is it possible that as a nation we are witnessing a growing sense of "cultural illiteracy," that Canadians are in fact less aware of their nation, culturally and politically, than perhaps ever before? Are we so overwhelmed with global information that we simply do not have the intellectual time or interest in learning about ourselves? Or do we naïvely believe that we do know ourselves? Are we confident in our identity personally as citizens and collectively as a nation? An apparent increase in boisterous flag-waving, a growing self-confidence and smugness in relation to our place in the world, and the furor in early 2009, for example, over an elementary school principal not playing "O Canada" every morning at his school (CBC 2009), would seem to indicate that we have a great awareness of who we are and what we collectively stand for.2
Three recent books help to shed some light on the evolving notion of who we think we are as Canadians and on what our notion of the imagined community has come to mean in the early twenty-first century. At the centre of these books is an implicit debate over how multiculturalism and diversity have defined and shaped us, for better or for worse, and how we might shape a "Canadian" identity in the face of future diverse immigration patterns. All of these titles, directly and indirectly, speak to the political and cultural implications of an increasingly diverse Canada, and each uses history—and Canadians' sense of their history—in making their points with regard to who Canadians think they are (or who we should aspire to be) in the early twenty-first century.
Rudyard Griffiths's Who We Are (2009) is a public declaration of policy ideas and principles of a highly political nature. Griffiths and the Dominion Institute have been telling us for years how little most Canadian citizens know about their national history, structure of government, and public institutions. Griffiths takes issue with the notion that Canada is a postnational state, where inclusive diversity is embraced and Canadian identity is put on the back burner, second to diverse linguistic, ethnic, and regional loyalties. This notion...