The People We Are
By Andrew Cohen
McClelland & Stewart,
270 pages, $29.99

As the title suggests, journalist turned academic Andrew Cohen sees Canadians as “unfinished,” a species whose insularity and self-satisfaction have prevented us from achieving our full national potential.

So that we can “become a more confident, more accomplished people,” he offers a plan. To become “future Canadians,” we need to rediscover our past by establishing national standards for teaching history and celebrating historic occasions. A more “mature” relationship with the United States, in which we would no longer fear absorption but harness our mutual interests to our mutual benefit is also prescribed. Our sense of civic-mindedness and creed could be strengthened by placing a higher value on citizenship: making it harder to come by, setting more rigorous standards for its attainment and doing more to integrate new Canadians into our host culture.

Some of Cohen’s medicine would be easy for Canadians to swallow and relatively simple for inspired governments to implement: Honour past and present achievement and achievers; create a culture (and presumably a tax regime) that encourages charity; restore historic buildings, monuments and sites.

Others might be greeted with more controversy and cultural resistance: Become more accepting of both the foibles and importance of our politicians; call on all taxpayers to invest in the national capital region; launch a 21st-century project of national enterprise to spark the collective imagination, as did the building of the railway.

If guiding us to be a better people and a more enriched nation was Cohen’s sole purpose – and if he were prepared to take the time and space to catalogue how we might reach this destination – this would be a laudable and worthy journey. For example, instituting a national historical curriculum would be a worthwhile and appealing initiative, though education is squarely in provincial jurisdiction.

In the same way, the evidence of increasing isolation from the mainstream among Canada’s foreign-born is alarming, and any bold, new thoughts on how to reverse this trend would certainly get my attention.

Sadly, though, Cohen has chosen not to turn his keen mind to these challenges; indeed, re-imagining “the future Canadian,” and offering how we might get there, warrants a scant 19 pages. He dedicates the vast majority of his analysis to tilting at the windmills of Canadian myths and lecturing us about “the people we are.”

To his credit, Cohen acknowledges from the start that his perspective “is unscientific, selective and subjective. In offering examples, [the book] makes no claim to regional, linguistic or ethnic balance. … [It] is a mix of reportage and reflection.”

He marshals considerable resources and research to paint his picture of the Canadian character. Examples and illustrations are both current and familiar, as well as historical and obscure. In the trenchant tradition of Alexis de Tocqueville and other foreign observers of national psyches, Cohen declares his take will be “impression through immersion.” Citing German political scientist Hans J. Morgenthau, Cohen believes a collective zeitgeist or national character exists, and that it “will ultimately manifest itself in the actions of a nation.” What a nation does will tell you who it is.

His conclusion about “the Observed Canadian” is that whether it was noted 20 or 100 years ago, “Canadian” appears to mean much the same: unfailing polite and prone to understatement. Yet at the same time, Canadians are highly tolerant of failure and suspicious of lofty aspirations.

Cohen then layers this historic understanding of Canada with a journalist’s penchant for the present. We are “unconscious” to the extent that we appear disinterested and ignorant of Canadian history; we are “a nation of amnesiacs.” Even though we spend an inordinate amount of time denying it, Cohen also finds us to be “American Canadians.” With more in common than not, we indulge in a national pastime of “tearing down America” (paraphrasing U.S. Ambassador David Wilkins) because “it makes Canadians feel better about themselves” (Cohen’s words).

He echoes Canadian novelist Yann Martel’s claim that “Canada is a hotel,” where we ask little of our “guests” who, in turn, assume little responsibility. Because both the state and the new arrivals “show a studied indifference to citizenship” and have come to believe that “citizenship is a right and not a privilege,” we diminish any common sense of bond and instead develop a “casual” – and often ethnic or regional – sense of what it means to be a Canadian.

Cohen’s dystopic portrayal of Ottawa, where he lives, as an “eyesore” is offered as proof not only that “Canadians are too ready to accept ugliness in their cities” but that anyone who doesn’t live there (and presumably, even those who do) care so little about our national capital that there is no support for investing in the one part of Canada we all share.

And if the stick that has been poking you in the eye hasn’t got your attention yet, Cohen concludes that we suffer from “the tall poppy syndrome,” which finds fertile ground in a “culture of resentment” toward success.

In a final flourish, he takes a few pages to remind us that we are neither particularly civil (witness our national sport, hockey, or the lack of decorum in the House of Commons) or charitable (on a per-capita basis, we routinely donate less than half of the American average), before conceding the pale virtue of “an extraordinary instinct for compromise.”

Given that all of this is – by his own admission – both subjective and unscientific, part of me wants to let it slide and concede that his unscientific subjectivity is as worthy as that of any other opinionated chronicler of the Canadian condition. Indeed, to support his take on the Canadian character, Cohen has found no shortage of similar sentiments expressed by contemporary curmudgeons such as Allan Fotheringham, Peter C. Newman or Tyler Brûlé.

Cohen can be downright mean, using ad hominem attacks to support larger conclusions about the Canadian character. He devotes almost a full chapter to pillorying pollster Michael Adams, suggesting that Adams would sacrifice a well-earned reputation for professionalism and objectivity to advance a personal, anti-American bias. Fire and Ice, Adams’s awarding-winning examination of the divergence of Canadian and American values, was popular because it was something “we wanted to hear,” corresponding to the ingrained “jealousy and inferiority complex” feeding the myth that Canadians and Americans are different.

While Cohen seems to revel in this bad-boy behaviour – in being un-Canadian, perhaps? – his invective often fails to hold together logically. In Cohen’s view, we uncritically shower praise on our current Governor-General, Michaëlle Jean, even though she is “green,” probably unqualified and possibly a separatist, because her ascent fuels our conceit of tolerance and fetish for all things multicultural.

Yet former governor-general Adrienne Clarkson, with a virtually identical (and only slightly longer) resumé, found herself on the wrong side of public favour because “rising above her station [is] a cardinal sin in a resentful country.”

Perhaps even more damning, Cohen presents Canada and Canadians as static and unchanging. Because of this fixed perspective, he ignores the dynamic changes taking place and rendering the “old” Canada virtually unrecognizable. He gives brief reference to our changing patterns of immigration, but fails to examine the impact that 250,000 (largely visible-minority) immigrants per year are having on our cities and suburbs. There is a revolution going on in our post-secondary institutions, where female enrolment is skyrocketing past that of males, yet nary a word of how this might shape our businesses or politics.

There is a whole new legion of youth activists, supported and encouraged by their baby-boomer parents, who are reshaping our attitudes toward the world; they fail to make an appearance here. Never far from any debate on Canadian identity, Quebec is emerging as one of the most secular and liberal societies on the planet. Will Quebec re-examine its historical insularity in the Canadian community? And if so, how will the rest of the country respond?

These are major forces reshaping the Canadian character today. Rather than examine them, Cohen exhibits the very characteristic he deplores, seeming content to cut down the tallest poppy of them all: Canada.