...ontheroad

I'm not bräve, just naïve...

Friday, June 30, 2006

Losing my identity

How much does the image of a nation matter to those who inhabit it? And what does the projection of that image tell us about the country itself? Still recovering from a sunny weekend in Québec City last week, it's time for a real 'national' holiday in Ottawa. With another Friday off, I was able to do some laundry, clean the apartment a bit and leave town in time for a weekend in the capital. Buses leave every hour from Montréal - more often in fact, as it seems Ryan and Jonathan (who I would be spending Canada Day with) managed to invent a bus that left fifteen minutes before four o'clock, and the bus that I caught.

Although this isn't the first time that I've been to Ottawa, it is the first time that I've driven between the two cities in daylight. Our bus parted company with the island of Montréal after about forty-five minutes and then cruised along the highway towards the border between the provinces of Québec and Ontario. Ontario announced itself with bilingual roadsigns and blue skies. Off to the north lay attractive tree covered hills: I'm planning a long weekend away exploring this part of the country some time between now and September.

As the coach rode along, I sat listening to my iPod and the distractions of Jett Loe's Letter to America podcast. The parallels between Northern Ireland and Québec are only occasionally apparent, but they always stimulate me to think about where I am, and why. French-Québecois(es) frequently portray their province as if it were an independent state, free of some unmentionable Canadian opression or an imposed alien rule: in comparison with the troubles of Northern Ireland though, I find it hard to give this point of view much sympathy... It seems that the October Crisis is the only time that the army has ever patrolled the streets of Québec. And if it is an idependent identity that is sought, it already exists in the unbelievable vitality of French Québecois music, arts, and theatre, and the destruction of the secondary language in all instances of publicly visible writing. After two successive defeats in referendums for indepedence, do Québecois and Québecoises continue to seek the confirmation of their identity? Or are they happy to continue marketing their province as a nation (with a 'national' holiday, a 'national' library etc etc etc) and living with a half-truth of faux-national-identity?

(In my experience, nothing reflects the identify of a community that the arts that are produced there: this is confirmed in the confused direction and identity that Northern Ireland finds itself burdened with, now over-hyped with government initiatives and buzz words rather than the security and atmosphere for true definition of itself.... Québec has no need to worry according to my yardstick, in that case...)

As the bus rolls towards Ottawa, I am intrigued about the celebrations that I will be witnessing. I am beginning to understand how the people of Québec perceive their province. I may be an anglo immigrant, but I work with French Canadians and French speaking immigrants, and I have been lucky enough to spend my year in the company of native French Québecois and Québecoises, bilingual New Brunswickers and anglo-Canadians. I am fiercely protective of my identity as an impartial outsider: I do not want to be dismissed as an 'anglo'. But last weekend I saw Québec celebrate itself with an enormous party, and now I am deeply interested in how Canada's capital (which I have previously found to be a windswept and over-planned vacuum) will present itself on the nation's birthday.

I found myself alienated on Saint Jean Baptiste Day. The celebrations were excited, lively and absolutely enormous. But it centred on an image, or an identity, that was not mine. I left Québec City last weekend feeling detached, as if the nine months I've spent in Montréal have come to nothing. Imagining myself as a real, permanent immigrant, I tried to imagine if I could have felt proud at the celebrations I had witnessed. I could not. And as much as I love Montréal, I am realising that this province is not for me. But what I have yet to discover is whether I have the same feelings on the national holiday of Canada. Am I incapable of ever detaching myself from my British identity, or have I just not found a suitable destination for hypothetical emigration?

3 Comments:

Anonymous ulli said...

Why emigrate when you're so through and through British?

6:52 pm  
Blogger James said...

QUOTE: hypothetical emigration =)

You can the man out of Britain, but you can't take the Britain out of the man...

*j*

8:19 am  
Anonymous Yolanda said...

An interesting article in the Toronto Star National Report on Canada Day addressed the increasing trend of decreasing recognition of Canada's past (and current) strong British connections in favour of addressing the many newer, smaller ethnic communities new to Canada. While both are important, the former importance placed on Canada's UK ties is constantly suffering as the emphasis on Canada as multicultural is increasing. Perhaps I just need to get used to a new Canadian identity. However, why should our past identity not play an important role in our present identity?
***
Although my family has no connections to Britain, as my grandparents immigrated to Canada from continental Europe, I do feel some sort of connection with Britain just by being Canadian, mainly because of the role of the UK in Canadian history, and even our current (though some would argue largely symbolic) ties.
By the same token, I've never been to the Arctic, but somehow as Canadian I feel as though the Arctic is an important symbol of our national identity. ditto the maritimes.
Similarily, I am thankful for the Sacrifice made by Canadian troops in both world wars, even though none of my family had yet arrived in Canada.
These imaginary connections somehow help me to identify myself as a Canadian.
***
Imagined connections are a large part of national identity. Example: When you're travelling abroad and see that flag on someone else's backpack and feel connected although you've never met, and haven't even visited the other person's area of the country.
What do I really have in common with a recent immigrant in Vancouver, or a first nations person in the praries, a trucker in the Yukon, or a fisherperson in the maritimes? We're all Canadian. But what does that mean?
***
Another tangent entirely: With regards to Quebec as a "nation." Most recognize the word nation as having a different meaning than the word "state." I do not think the two need to be synonymous. I do recognize Francophone Quebec as a distinct nation, though I do not think they need ever be recognized as a state. The federal government cannot call Quebec a nation, however, due to the wording of some UN documents implying that being a nation is synonymous with the right to sovereignty.
***
Funny thing is, I spent a year in Britain and feel less at home now, even several months after returning to Canada, than I did while abroad. "Home," like "nation," is a funny thing. I hope you find a sense of home here.

12:04 am  

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