Canada is not a post-national state but rather a Western civilizational one, writes Philip Carl Salzman for Inside Policy.
Mainstream Canadian culture is different from other mainstream cultures but remains strongly rooted in a distinctive Western culture.
By Philip Carl Salzman, Feb. 13, 2017
The idea of culture as the way of life of a particular people was introduced by anthropologists. Sir Edward B. Tylor in 1871 offered the following definition: “Culture, or civilization, taken in its broad, ethnographic sense, is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.”
Anthropologists investigated cultures around the world to understand their particular customs and institutions, and their similarities and differences. A century of research observed and documented that different peoples have distinct cultures.
By the 21st century, with societies becoming larger and more diverse, the question was raised, sometimes tendentiously, whether the idea of a common culture was still applicable. Some Canadian politicians have opined that Canada, particularly English Canada, has no culture. Such assertions have been a staple of Quebec nationalist politicians. For example, as the Globe and Mail reported in 2001, “Quebec’s new culture minister, Diane Lemieux…declared that Ontario, compared with Quebec, has no culture to speak of. ‘I believe there is no real Ontario culture,’ she said after being sworn in.”
More recently, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has stated strongly the idea of a common culture is no longer applicable to Canada: ‘‘There is no core identity, no mainstream in Canada,’’ he claimed. ‘‘There are shared values — openness, respect, compassion, willingness to work hard, to be there for each other, to search for equality and justice. Those qualities are what make us the first postnational state.”
These statements that Canada, or English Canada, has no mainstream culture are political statements, presumably intended to make political points, but how accurate are they in describing social reality in Canada?
From a sociological and anthropological point of view, it is almost without dispute that there is a mainstream culture in every society. There has to be a mainstream culture, in order for people to know what to expect, and what is expected, and to get along with one another in practical, day to day encounters and relationships.
First, there must be a common means of communication, a common language or languages, without which social life is impossible. That is why Pierre Trudeau declared that Canadian multiculturalism would exist within a bilingual society with only English and French as official languages, and no others.
Second, there must be a set of rules directing people to act in certain ways and to avoid acting in other ways, lest certain interactions result in conflict. A good example are the rules that specify which side of the road people may drive on. Note that it does not matter what the rules are – whether to drive on the right or on the left – as long as they are clear and everyone is familiar with them. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms sets out the principles on which rules must be based. The laws of Canada set those rules, which are obligatory for all Canadians and enforced by courts and related agencies.
Third, there must be some agreement about public institutions of authority, and how they are to be established, such as government, courts, and enforcement agencies. If there is no such agreement, then power devolves to those who can take it and impose it on others, resulting in despotism. The Canadian Constitution establishes those democratic institutions, and the courts enforce their rules of operation.
Canadian official languages, Canadian law, and Canadian government are the foundations of mainstream culture in Canada.
Canadian official languages, Canadian law, and Canadian government are the foundations of mainstream culture in Canada. You do not have to be an anthropologist to know that Canadian mainstream culture is very different from Chinese, Indian, and Saudi Arabian mainstream cultures, which are based on very different premises and constitutions.
Canadian public opinion supports the notion of Canadian mainstream culture. In the Angus Reid Canadian values survey, a majority of respondents (68%) agreed that “Minorities should do more to fit in better with mainstream Canadian society.” Furthermore, we find that Canadians do differ in views from recent immigrants, who more than native Canadians:
• favour traditional families (43% to 36%),
• oppose intermarriage (31% to 27%),
• favour public displays of religion (54% to 42%),
• favour retention of foreign customs and languages (62% to 32%),
• favour government requiring companies to hire women (58% to 48%), and are
• less favourable to LGBTQ acceptance (57% to 64%).
Canadian public opinion amply demonstrates a Canadian mainstream culture distinct from the views of immigrants. What are some of its features, beyond language, law, and government?
For Canadians, one major element of identity and culture is work. Many Canadians pursue lengthy specialist training, inside and outside educational institutions, in order to prepare for work. One’s social and economic status depends to a considerable degree on one’s work. Most Canadians (78%) believe that “If you work hard, it is possible to be very successful in Canada no matter what your background.” This response shows an emphasis on work as a means to success, a belief in economic and occupational mobility, and the confidence that merit in work will be rewarded.
This emphasis on work and occupational status is not primary in many cultures around the world. In the Middle East, identity is defined, after age and sex, by one’s kin group, tribal membership, and sectarian affiliation. In South Asia, identity is defined, after age, sex, and religion, by caste membership. In other words, in these cultures group membership and status are ascribed, determined by birth, rather than achieved, as they are to a much greater extent in Canada.
Gender equality, a principle that has gained great support in Canada since the middle of the 20th century, is now regarded as an important pillar of Canadian culture.
Gender equality, a principle that has gained great support in Canada since the middle of the 20th century, is now regarded as an important pillar of Canadian culture. Given the principle’s late development in Western society, it should not be a surprise that many other cultures in the world do not believe in gender equality. In some societies in the Middle East, women’s place is separate but unequal. Sharia law grants men authority and supervision over women, and gives a woman’s word in court half the weight of a man’s, just as a woman’s inheritance is one half of her brother’s. In parts of South Asia, a woman must obey her husband, a person chosen by her family rather than by herself. In extreme cases, violations of these directives have led, even in some Canadian Middle Eastern and South Asian families, to “honour killings.”
Religion is seen by most Canadians (64%) as important in their day to day life. At the same time, a majority (58%) believe God and religion should be kept “completely out of public life.” A substantial and growing minority (25%) say they have “no religion.” These Canadian views are consistent with the post-Enlightenment trend to limit religion to private faith. Elsewhere this is not the case, even in England, where the Queen is the head of the Church of England. In the Middle East, many countries are officially Islamic, and some declare it in their names, such as the Islamic Republic of Iran. There has been an increasing effort in some countries, Sudan and Pakistan among others, to make Islamic Shariah law the law of the country. Among Muslim immigrants in Canada, a 2011 Macdonald-Laurier Institute study found a majority (62%) wanted some form of Shariah law in Canada, with a small minority (15%) agreeing that it should be mandatory for all Muslims.
There have been similar findings in surveys among Muslims in other Western countries. The desire to substitute Shariah law for Canadian law is of course a challenge to Canadian mainstream culture. This can be seen also in the repudiation by Muslim countries of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a document influential in the formulation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The Organization of the Islamic Conference has substituted the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam (CDHRI), which reinforces Islamic Law.
Canadians also have definite ideas about governance. They believe strongly in Canada’s democratic institutions, but do not see them working as well as they would like. Nonetheless, a slim majority of Canadians “trust the government to act in the best interests of the people” (53%), want “more government involvement and regulation of the economy” (52%) and want “more public support for the poor, the disadvantaged and those in economic trouble” (51%). As well, “most Canadians support a guaranteed income program, but they don’t want to pay more in taxes to support it.”
In short, Canadians are in favour of a welfare state, but are reluctant to make more sacrifices (i.e., yet higher taxes) for an expansion of that welfare state. In most countries around the world, there are neither democratic institutions nor extensive welfare programs. In the Middle East, for instance, there is not one democratic country other than Israel. I expect very few of the subjects of those countries, and many countries elsewhere, would say that they trust their government to act in the best interest of the people. That Canadians view their government as benign is exceptional, and a major element in Canadian mainstream culture.
Canadians have vastly more in common with Americans, and indeed with the English-speaking countries of Great Britain, Australia, and New Zealand, and the countries of Western Europe.
Canada lives in the shadow of the United States of America, 10 times larger in population and economy, vastly more powerful militarily. US centres of science, business, technology, and media have drawn many talented Canadians across the border. Distinguishing themselves from Americans, Canadians sometimes speak of such features as parliamentary government, socialized medicine, and peacekeeping as central to Canadian identity and culture. But Canadians have vastly more in common with Americans, and indeed with the English-speaking countries of Great Britain, Australia, and New Zealand, and the countries of Western Europe. Inheritors of the Enlightenment, these countries have accepted science as the foundation of knowledge; and they have advanced the idea of human rights, based on an inclusive vision of humanity, and incorporated the central tenets of inclusiveness, freedom, and equality into their laws, institutions, and cultures. Many other countries in the world have cultures based on other premises, such as holy scriptures, membership in a religious community, hierarchies of purity, descent, and other tradition-based formulations. Canadian culture is first and foremost Western culture, and it is distinct because Western culture is distinct.
Prime Minister Trudeau argued that Canadians have “shared values — openness, respect, compassion, willingness to work hard, to be there for each other, to search for equality and justice.” Canadians are open and respectful, but they are not open or respectful to discrimination based on gender, sexual orientation, race, religion, birth status, or origin, because Canadian culture is heavily based on human rights. Canadians are talented at finding compromises that take into account differing interests and preferences, but they are not willing to compromise on the principles of equality of citizenship and equality before the law. Canadians are tolerant, but not of violations of human rights.
Canadian culture is an ingenious combination of legal order, human rights values, and individual freedoms. It is because of this mainstream culture that Canada is respected throughout the world, and that many people living in countries with very different mainstream cultures wish to come to Canada. Canada is not a “postnational state” as the Prime Minister asserts, but a Western civilizational state.
Philip Carl Salzman is Professor of Anthropology at McGill University. He has served as Senior Fellow at the University of St. Andrews, Open Society International Scholar at the American University of Central Asia, Erasmus Mundus International Fellow at the University of Catania, and visiting professor at the University of Sydney. His latest book is Classic Comparative Anthropology: Studies from the Tradition. He is a member of the Academic Council of the Canadian Institute for Jewish Research, a Fellow of the Middle East Forum, and a board member of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East.