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Canadian Review of American Studies/ Revue canadienne d'etu.desamencaines Volume 27, Number 1, 1997, pp. 1-20 'A Society Made by History': The Mythic Source of Identity in Canada JenniferReid 1 Two decades ago Sacvan Bercovitch published The Puritan Origins of the American Self. The book, which was praised by his contemporaries, sought to demonstrate how "early New England rhetoricu and, in particular, Cotton Mather's Magnalia Christi Americana, "provided a ready framework for inventing later secular [American] values-human perfectibility, technological progress, democracy, Christian socialism, or simply (and comprehensively) the American Way-into the mold of sacred teleologyu (Bercovitch 1975, 136). 1 Bercovitch thus engaged himself with the issue of the mythic origins and foundations of a particularly American notion of identity. As a Canadian reading his work, I could not help but find myself intrigued by a discussion of national identity and mythic origins, coming as I do from a nation in which the question of identity has persistently loomed large and cumbersome. This is a country that many believe has defied the emergence / of a national identity, one whose "geography and history have combined to ,. endow [it] with strong regional identities" (Wonders 1987, 239). While this is certainly true, I wonder if it is possible still to locate an overarching mythic structure that rests at the foundation of the Canadian notion of self-a sense of human meaning that is not only shared by Canadian peoples generally, but signals a distinctiveness rooted in our particular time and space that differentiates the Canadian from other New World peoples. 2 I believe 2 Canadian Review of American Studies Revue amadienne d'etudes americaines this is most certainly possible, and that the mythic roots of our identity are sufficiently powerful to warrant examination. These roots, however, are not to be located primarily within early Canadian theological discourse, nor within other arenas that we might customarily designate religious. The locus of our sense of identity is more broadly situated in Canadian culture; but exploring it is no less a religious project than if we were dealing with more traditional sources. The construction of identity is always a religious undertaking . As Hans Mol has noted, religion is "fundamentally linked with the problem of order in the various forms of [human] identity" (1982, 4). Identity , he adds, must be sustained despite "those numerous elements (such as alienation ... culture contact, deviance, birth, death ... conquests) which tend to weaken [its] boundaries" (1).3 This notion of boundaries is critical, for it situates religious life firmly within historical existence. The human being, in any spatial or temporal context, must discover, construct, and negotiate physical, human, and cosmic boundaries in such a way as to ensure that life can be sustained in a meaningful fashion. For New World peoples, this religious project has been of perhaps singular importance by virtue of the fact that colonization altered the boundaries of human community on the globe to a previously unimagined degree. The social, political, economic, and ethnic boundaries within which people have been compelled to establish notions of identity during the colonial period assumed a complexity that haunts us to this day. And in Canada, perhaps more so than in most New World spaces, the project of reconstructing a particular meaning of ourselves and our collectivity has been quite consciously an arduous one. This difficulty has led many to conclude that no national understanding has successfully emerged within the Canadian context . Northrop Frye has suggested that "the question of Canadian identity, so far as it effects the creative imagination is not a 'Canadian' question at all, but a regional question" (1971, introduction); and Reginald Berry claims that "it is not yet clear whether any distinctly new national identity has emerged which can countervail the ... economic and cultural colonizing of the multinational corporations or the old regional and local allegiances of individuals" (Berry and Acheson 1985, ix). Others suggest that we have been able to define ourselves only to the extent that we are confident about what we are JenniferReid I 3 not. It has been suggested that "attempts to delineate the true nature of Canada and Canadians have thwarted most who have undertaken the monumental task. The contradictions...


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