When Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called his country the world’s “first post-national state” with no “core identity” or “mainstream,” he was offering a prescription, not a description. As Canada celebrates its 150th birthday this week and stares into the uncertain future ahead, his words may prove little more than an opening bid as the country negotiates its 21st-century purpose.
Trudeau’s rhetoric alludes to a goal, popular in center-left circles, of a Canada that has reached an almost transcendent level of multicultural democracy, in which all historically restrictive conceptions of nationalism — race, religion, language, culture — are vanquished in favor of an inclusive citizenship based on simple acknowledgment of shared humanity. Immigration can and should remain high (Canada’s rates are already among the highest, per capita, on Earth) and assimilation discouraged, lest the majority population attempt to enforce a “mainstream.” Even the notion of shared Canadian values becomes taboo to partisans of this school of thought, as seen in the relentless scorn heaped upon failed Conservative Party leadership candidate Kellie Leitch. Leitch proposed a Canadian values test for immigrants and was mocked not for any definitions she offered but for simply implying Canadian values could be defined at all.
On the other hand, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest many post-national advocates, including Trudeau himself, aren’t really interested in going as far as their generous language suggests. Many in the Canadian elite left seem to actually desire something closer to a managed post-modernist state, in which a decidedly modernist hierarchy of political power at the top is deemed necessary to maintain an inclusive, diverse citizenry below.
The status of French Canadians as the first among equals in Canada’s multicultural mosaic is not generally contested by even the farthest-left members of the Canadian political class, for instance, nor is the existence of two official Canadian languages and a disproportionate share of political power reserved for the 17.5 percent of Canadians who can speak both. Loyalty to the old-world customs of the British parliamentary system is still fierce, as is the retention of the British queen as Canada’s legal head of state.
These hypocrisies are justified on the basis that they help produce favorable outcomes. Canada is what it is today because of them, after all, so why raise protest? Yet the obviously exclusive nature of things such as linguistic power barriers, exaggerated loyalty to English institutions and undue attention to French grievances will inevitably face pushback from an ever-more-diverse society as it becomes more glaring whose influences they deny and whose interests they promote.
Most challenging of all, however, is finding a place for rising aboriginal-Canadian nationalism in a post-national society. Recent years have seen increasing demands to make white colonization and conquest of Indian nations the central fact of Canada — a conception that forces the country’s national identity away from something nonjudgmental and color-blind, and closer to the narrative of somewhere like post-apartheid South Africa, where the historical suffering of one racialized group at the hands of another requires ongoing acknowledgment and atonement at the highest levels.
Already, Ottawa has engaged in numerous acts of acknowledgement of this sort — the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on Indian residential schools, the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, hints at reparations for the so-called “Sixties Scoop.” Atonement, meanwhile, takes the form of political speeches conceding “traditional lands,” restorations of aboriginal place names, new self-government treaties and even aboriginal languages in Parliament. Should trends continue, Canada may wind up less a post-national state than a binational one like New Zealand, which has, in recent decades, come to emphasize its indigenous heritage to the point where even saying the country’s name without adding the Maori name “Aotearoa” is seen as impolitic.
Trekking backward — though it seems implausible from here — is always possible, of course. There has never been much hard evidence to indicate that the existential path Canada’s currently on is broadly popular — Trudeau certainly wasn’t elected promising a “post-national state” — and polls suggest high immigration, weakening assimilation and unqualified aboriginal conciliation generate skeptical public reception. My own theory is that Canada’s political institutions are less democratic, and thus less receptive to an old nationalism populist backlash, than has been seen elsewhere in the West, though stranger things have obviously happened.
When Canada celebrated its 100th birthday in 1967, there was some ambiguity regarding the sort of future that awaited, but recent events such as a native-born governor-general, a new flag, single-payer health-care legislation, the empowering “quiet revolution” in Quebec and rising rates of immigration from the global south still made the trend lines broadly obvious: Canada would be less colonial politically, less English culturally, less white racially and more comfortable with activist government ideologically. Today’s lines are just as easy to observe, but where they lead is much harder to imagine, promising, as they do, to steer the country not merely from one identity to another, but away from identity itself.