Given Canada’s current pride in flaunting its “post-national” diversity, it’s easy to forget how overwhelmingly white the country used to be.
According to Statistics Canada, as recently as 1981 Canada’s visible minority population was a mere four percent — basically an entire nation with the demographics of Vermont. Immigration has since changed things, of course, and there are doubtless many who are wistful euphemistically for the cultural cohesion of that earlier age. Yet even in its epoch of white homogeneity, Canada was a land of tense identity politics, much of which continues to this day. The unprepared may be startled at the degree to which the country remains a minefield of anachronistic white sensitivities.
Anthony Bourdain, the celebrity chef behind the marquee CNN program “Parts Unknown,” certainly was. As part of a promotional push for an upcoming episode in the province of Newfoundland, the show’s official Twitter account casually used the word “Newfies” to describe the province’s residents. This was considered tremendously offensive, and after outrage on social media, an official apology was offered.
Newfoundland, an Atlantic island housing just over half a million people, is also the country’s newest province, having joined in 1949 after spending decades as a semi-independent Commonwealth dominion. A long history of alienation from the mainland has fostered all manner of stereotyping on both sides, and teasing residents — who are overwhelmingly white — for their vaguely pirate-like accents and supposedly “Podunk” lifestyle has been a trope of Canadian life for ages. A certain type of modern Newfoundlander has insisted on interpreting such teasing as bigotry, a conclusion that has in turn been obediently incorporated into Canada’s architecture of enforced taboos. In recent years, everyone from Walmart to Pokémon fan artists has been taken to task for using the Newfie nickname, whose purported offensiveness, by some accounts, may be rooted in the history of offensive stereotypes of African Americans.
As far as white ego is concerned, however, few communities in Canada can match the sensitivities of the French Canadians, who remain guarded by an extraordinary set of social protections that seems to exist in brazen conflict with the unstratified multiculturalism that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promotes to the world.
Though it’s hard to imagine in the context of 2018, when French Canadians occupy such an array of high positions in Canadian life, including the office of prime minister, governor general and chief justice, there was a time not long ago when French-speaking Canadians were considered the country’s most aggrieved underclass, victims of systemic discrimination in employment and widespread prejudice in broader society. Some audaciously extreme comparisons were made — one of the most influential works of the ’60s-era French Canadian resistance movement was a 1968 book by Pierre Vallieres, published in English with the hideously insensitive title “White N–––––– of America.” Yet in the midcentury phase of Canada’s super-white era, notions that the unloved French Canadians were indeed roughly equivalent to American blacks stuck, and many of that age’s revised, progressive sensitivities about Francophones are still enforced today.
Such taboos were not unknown in the United States either, for what it’s worth. In 1972, Sen. Edmund Muskie was forced to stage a damaging, tearful news conference after it was alleged that he had used the term “Canuck” — a epithet for French Canadians back then. Though the specifics of Muskie’s story seem preposterous today — the Vancouver Canucks are subject to no Redskins-style boycott (at least not yet) — the sentiment has survived. Any English Canadian who offers any substantial criticism of Quebec, as I often do, can expect a deluge of cries of “racist” and “colonizer,” given that the French Canadians still insist on conceptualizing themselves as a capital-M minority, even as their privilege grows and distinctiveness fades in a society whose sharpest social tensions have moved beyond competing strains of European heritage.
It is indigenous Canadians who today are the out-group subject to the most active efforts of reconciliation, yet rivaling white-centric identities complicate this task, too.
Since colonial times, Canada has recognized the existence of Métis people — the descendants of European-indigenous relationships. Initially the identity was considered something narrowly particular, tied to the geography, culture and lifestyle of the Canadian Prairies where Métis families were most common, and fusionist lifestyles were most authentically practiced. Over time, however, as the presence of Indian blood evolved from racial embarrassment to something potentially interesting and exotic, Métis identities started to be expansively and controversially claimed by any otherwise white person willing to make, a la Elizabeth Warren’s claim of Native American heritage, a vague assertion of aboriginal background.
Census figures for Métis Canadians have exploded in recent years, almost certainly reflecting growing rates of outwardly white Canadians abruptly deciding to lay claim to their indigenous heritage, however distant or poorly documented it may be. In 2016 the Supreme Court of Canada concluded that mere “self-identification” as Métis was enough to claim the title — reversing earlier demands for proof of “ancestral connection” and “acceptance by the modern Métis community” — in a ruling that also declared Métis persons legal “Indians” under Canadian law.
A potentially awkward future thus looms amid growing national desires to incorporate greater indigenous perspectives into Canadian government and culture. Will the purportedly aggrieved voices of those who are, for all intents and purposes, white, threaten to crowd out those of the more historically — and dare one say, legitimately — marginalized?
As a nation historically defined by inter-white cultural and geographic conflict transitions to a new national reality of a more complicated milieu of peoples, that often seems the challenge of Canadian diversity in general.