On Guard for Canadian Parochialism, Part Two

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By Gilberto Fernandes

Who killed spawned Canadian citizenship?

Wikipedia Commons.

Wikipedia Commons.

Like Gillian Frank and Jamie Duong, who challenged the Elections Act rule limiting the external voting rights of Canadian expats to five years living abroad, I too am an emigrant. I moved to Canada from Portugal over ten years ago through spousal sponsorship. I became a Canadian citizen as soon as I was eligible, mostly because I wanted to be able to vote. I am also a citizen of Portugal, a country that has long encouraged dual citizenship, provided various kinds of aid to its emigrants, and used its diaspora to generate international exchanges with various host countries – something that Canadian governments, businesses, and cultural institutions have welcomed. Like Frank and Duong, I keep well informed about political debates and current events in my home country, which I visit often and may return to one day. I also intend to vote in my homeland’s upcoming national elections.

But unlike Canadian expats, I will be able to vote for my own member of parliament in Lisbon representing my “Outside of Europe” riding. Everyone who knows me knows that I follow Canadian politics avidly and like to express my views on it – case in point. Even before coming to Canada, I educated myself about this country’s history and political system, and can safely say that I know more about these than most Canadians. I have also contributed to disseminating historical knowledge among Canadians and helped preserve their collective memory, to which I have dedicated an unhealthy amount of volunteer hours. Finally, I will soon be the father of a Canadian-born child, to whom I will be sure to bequeath my Portuguese citizenship. In the eyes of some leading historians and public intellectuals, this makes me an uncommitted, compromised, and even ungrateful Canadian. How come?

McClelland & Stewart, 2008.

McClelland & Stewart, 2008.

Among the Anglophone liberal-conservative intelligentsia, Andrew Cohen and Rudyard Griffiths have led the charge against the transnational belongings of dual citizens and long-term emigrants, and Canada’s postmodern embrace of hybrid national identities and fragmented allegiances. In The Unfinished Canadian (2007),[i] journalist and historian Cohen argues that citizenship is ultimately about “nation-building.” In his view, Canada’s commitment to diversity displaces its “centre of gravity” and “fragile sense of place”. He cites the cosmopolitan novelist Yann Martel’s description of Canada as “the greatest hotel on earth” to denounce the lack of “loyalty” of a supposedly high number of “new Canadians” who return to their countries of origin later in life. Cohen invokes those 14,370 Canadians evacuated from Lebanon in 2006, particularly those who have since returned to the latter, to illustrate his claim that “casual Canadians” treat their citizenship as a right instead of a privilege that ought to be earned. He extends this criticism to prominent Canadian politicians (hardly the civic slackers) who hold dual nationality, like former Governor-General Michaëlle Jean (a Haitian refugee) or Liberal leader Stéphane Dion. Cohen’s book captured (and perhaps informed) the parochial views on Canadian nationality favoured by the Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration under Prime Minister Stephen Harper, discussed in part one of this series.

Rudyard Griffiths. Wikipedia Commons.

Rudyard Griffiths. Wikipedia Commons.

In a similar vein, Griffiths’ Who We Are (2009)[ii] sets out to refute the supposed myth that Canada’s “postnational” embrace of multiple and transnational identities is what grants it a competitive advantage in our globalized world. Under this paradigm, he argues, citizenship has become a largely meaningless source of entitlements with few matching responsibilities. In Griffiths’ view: “The powerful emotion of loyalty – not abstract ideas about individual freedom or the rights of man – is the terra firma of our political history.” He urges a return to a more conventional, territorial, unifying (assimilationist?), nation-state model based on a few core liberal-democratic values. These ought to be enforced through prescriptive measures, such as mandatory voting, lengthening the residency requirements for prospective citizens, and increasing linguistic demands on immigrants (the last two included in Bill C-24), among others. He also calls for the revoking of Canadian citizenship from those expats holding dual nationality, arguing that such “privilege” should be tied to “physical settlement” and one’s contribution to the “economic and social betterment of the [national] community.”

Griffiths’ myth-busting is itself grounded on conservative myths about a so-called “golden age” of Canadian history, when the country was a British Dominion engaged in nation-building, led by visionary (white) men, heroes, whose chief goal was “the establishment of… an egalitarian, democratic, economically ambitious and less sectarian society.” Consequently, he condemned Harper’s official recognition of the Québécois as a distinct nation. Griffiths believes that “Canada was founded and evolved as a nation of citizens…not a collection of communities,” and that “[w]e are a people who have long operated according to a series of hard-won principles and beliefs about the purpose of our society.” Such nostalgia denotes his ignorance or disregard of Canada’s violent colonialist past, and the myriad points of view and contributions of Indigenous peoples, women, Francophones, migrants, ethnics, workers, and other marginalized stakeholders – “grievance-ridden minorities” according to him. Plus, he would have a hard time finding supporters for his non-sectarian “nation of citizens” ideal among nineteenth century Canadian politicians. These musings would be less problematic if Griffiths, like Cohen, did not enjoy widespread praise and receptive public outlets, and did not contend that the generalized lack of historical knowledge among Canadians is one of the main reasons why so many are not politically engaged. Ironically, Conservatives have traditionally benefited the most from low voter turnouts.

The promotion of Canadian history and civics education has been a cause dear to Griffiths and Cohen, who have advanced their nation-building visions in mainstream media and public schools through non-profit organizations. In 1997, Griffiths and a group of young conservatives founded the Dominion Institute, funded by the American right-wing William H. Donner Foundation – a “paymaster” to Canada’s conservative causes. He stepped down as the institute’s executive director in 2008 before it merged with the more liberal Historica Foundation of Canada the following year.[iii] Historica was founded in 1999 by the billionaire philanthropist Charles Bronfman, a proud Canadian of Jewish background who became a dual citizen in 2012 after obtaining American nationality. As Bronfman explained to a reporter, the reason why he took up American citizenship was because he spent most of his time in the United States, and was tired of not being able to vote there. This, however, did not muddle his national identity, as he told the reporter, “tapping his fingers to his heart: ‘I’m a Canadian’.” Cohen led the merger that resulted in the Historica-Dominion Institute (Historica Canada since 2013), which he presided over in 2009-10. While privileging military and political history, this organization also offers programs on immigration and Aboriginal history. HistoricaCanada-Logo-ColourOptions-Aug13

Various prominent political and military historians have been associated with Historica Canada, like Jack Granatstein and Margaret MacMillan, with whom Cohen, Griffiths, and others co-wrote the Discover Canada citizenship study guide introduced by the current Conservative government. Granatstein’s best-selling Who Killed Canadian History? (1998)[iv] likely inspired Cohen and Griffiths, especially with its claims that Canadians’ ignorance of common “traditions, values, and ideas” has resulted in generalized civic apathy; and that mass migration (or worse, multiculturalism) is one of the biggest threats to national unity. For this, Granatstein blamed social historians and their “bottom up” focus on the daily experiences of common people, minority groups, grassroots activists, immigrants, Indigenous peoples, women, workers, and other historical agents once relegated to the margins of national history or erased by traditional nation-building narratives. For Whiggish historians like Granatstein, social history’s focus on the underbelly of Canada’s nation-building process, with its colonialist, capitalist, racist, and patriarchal ideologies, policies and institutions, has emphasized diversity and group rights over national unity and shared responsibilities. As Carl Berger noted, this generation of national historians saw Canada as “a political creation in which conflicts of races, religions, and economic interests had been mediated, on the whole successfully, through the political process.”[v]

Wikipedia Commons.

Wikipedia Commons.

Though generally accepting of an integrationist “nation of immigrants” narrative, conservative nationalist historians tend to downplay the contributions of ethnic and racial minorities towards advancing Canadian citizenship within a British liberal-democratic framework. Before Diefenbaker’s Bill of Rights or Trudeau’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Jewish and Black Canadians successfully brought about the Ontario Racial Discrimination Act in 1944; the first piece of legislation opposing racism in Canada. Armenian, Chinese, Doukhobors, Hutterites, Japanese, Mennonites and other ethnic Canadians helped enshrine civil liberties in what was a “reluctant[ly] liberal” British country.[vi] These and other civil rights gained by minority groups benefited all Canadians. Yet, their histories are excluded from linear and panegyric narratives of Canadian citizenship, like Griffiths’, that describe it as the result of “immutable beliefs about the nature and purpose of Canadian society that our forebears fought to establish over generations.”[vii] Given that he shuns diversity and its minorities, one concludes that the “we” in Griffiths’ Anglophile version of “our” history refers to white Anglophones. Not only is this history prejudiced, it is self-defeating from a marketing standpoint, given that recent surveys have shown that foreign-born Canadians are more interested in Canadian history than their Canadian-born counterparts.[viii]

Over time, Granatstein and Cohen have moderated their views on mass migration and cultural diversity. For instance, during Cohen’s tenure, the Historica-Dominion co-sponsored the Mathieu da Costa Challenge, a writing and artwork contest encouraging youth to “discover how diversity has shaped Canada’s history and the important role that pluralism has played, and continues to play, in shaping Canadian society.” On this award, Cohen commented: “It is important to celebrate multiculturalism.” He has also been critical of Harper’s selective use of history and public memory for political gains, as in the case of the Memorial to the Victims of Communism planned for Ottawa, or the erasure of Pearson’s legacy and its replacement with Diefenbaker’s. Granatstein, who has been a major reference for Conservative officials and Harper’s “war-obsessed” public memory initiatives, has also denounced this government’s cuts to Library and Archives Canada and the ending of compulsory national census, calling it state “vandalism” and “idiocy of the highest order.”

Historians of all stripes agree, for a variety of reasons, that Canadians should learn about their pasts, including, but not limited to, the history of their national institutions, statesmen and political ideas. Their disagreement lies on which experiences and contributions get to be included in the “Canadian” story and who gets to tell it, which has implications on who gets to enjoy full membership in its national citizenship. Granatstein is right when he argues that questions over dual citizenship and external voting “are not simply technical matters” and “go to the heart of national identity.” Indeed, Canada’s self-understanding as a “nation of immigrants” has prevented it from coming to terms with the fact that it has, too, a long history of transnational emigration; especially to the United States, where over one million Canadians currently live. Since Bruno Ramirez first foray into the history of Canada–U.S. border crossings, published in 1998 and 2001, few historians have studied Canadian emigration.[ix] A major deterrent for this has been the lack of exit data available on the international movements of Canadians. As a result, policymakers have made important decisions affecting the lives of its mobile citizens based on incomplete or plainly wrong information, often in response to perceived crisis. I will explore that topic in the final installment of this three-part series.

Dr. Gilberto Fernandes is a researcher and public historian, and one of the co-founders of the Portuguese Canadian History Project. Read more at fernandesgilberto.wordpress.com.



[i] Andrew Cohen, The Unfinished Canadian: The People We Are (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2007).

[ii] Rudyard Griffiths, Who We Are: A Citizen’s Manifesto (Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 2009).

[iii] Griffiths has continued his career as a public intellectual in various capacities, including as a regular discussant in the CBC’s The Exchange with Amanda Lang, and as moderator and organizer of the Munk Debates – including the electoral debate on foreign policy currently being negotiated by the leading political parties.

[iv] Jack Granatstein, Who Killed Canadian History? (Toronto: Harper Collins, 1998).

[v] Carl Berger, The Writing of Canadian History. Aspects of English-Canadian Historical Writing since 1900 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1986), 260, cit. in Roberto Perin, “National Histories and Ethnic History in Canada,” Cahiers de Recherche Sociologique, 20, 1993, 114-115.

[vi] Christopher G. Anderson, “Review Essay: Immigration, Immigrants, and the Rights of Canadian Citizens in Historical Perspective,” International Journal of Canadian Studies, 43, 2011.

[vii] Griffiths, Who We Are, 96.

[viii] Margaret Conrad et. al., Canadians and Their Pasts (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2013), 125

[ix] Bruno Ramirez, On the Move. French Canadians and Italian Immigrants in the North American Economy, 1860-1914 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998); Crossing the 49th Parallel: Migration from Canada to the United States, 1900-1930 (Ithaka: Cornell University Press, 2001). A recent contribution to the study of Canadian emigration is Ben Bryce and Alexander Freund ed., Entangling Migration History. Borderlands and Transnationalism in the United States and Canada (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2015).


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