We’re a pretty fantastic country. Other nations have linguini or lederhosen, croissants or crumpets, Guinness harps or apple pie and on and on. But Canada has beavers and brews, hockey and maple syrup. And at a deeper (if more ambiguous) level, we like to think of ourselves as a nation with a big heart that sets a good example, if only our boisterous sibling to the south would follow. This image of an ideal and endearing self endures because we tarp it over the campsite of our patriotism without looking too closely at the pokey little details.
AU likewise illustrates a special breed of excellence: the distance student. AU scholars embody a far-flung landscape mentally connected at the most intangible of levels. And, like our country, we at AU share a bond that’s hard to place but that nevertheless brings pride and confidence. There’s nothing quite like the sensation of abiding assurance and limitless relief from having just finished a course. We’re like astronauts or monastics in that we are spatially isolated but intangibly bonded with our fellow students; we all share the same academic cosmos. It might seem hyperbolic to envision AU as a magical shared experience reducible neither to symbolism nor to caricature but, as with patriotism, there is really something there that makes us ourselves. While Athabasca students don’t have sports mascots to rally around, or a physical campus to, one day, as alumni, relate our memories about, we share a connection as learners whose learning goes beyond the so-called classroom of life and enters the real world of academic growth.
Behind the frills and gimmicks of a University or a Nation lie deeper identifications; we Canadians often like to think of ourselves as a tolerant and diverse country, neither too brash nor too bashful nor too arrogant or prone to being inconsiderate. These traits are supposed to be bred into us as though they were natural. How inborn are they, though, and how much of all this is an exercise in feeling superior to others? The classic documentary Being Canadian notes that it’s possible that we are “the most passive-aggressive people in the world.” Hmm.
Act Natural, But Don’t Act Like You’re Acting!
So, we’re not perfect, but being ourselves comes naturally. Being naturally Canadian is like being naturally a woman or a man; we know there’s countless ways to be ourselves but essentially we feel like we have an authentic core. And what counts, or is discounted, as natural? Shopping provides a few clues: camouflage pants, moose t-shirts, and Tim Hortons drive thru lineups all give potential illustration to who we are as Canadians. But we aren’t born with a double-double pressed to our lips any more than we are born wearing a blue or pink bracelet indicating our gender. We learn not only to act our age; we also learn to act our national identity as we are socialized to understand it. We can scientifically agree that we each have the physical correlates of our biological sex but gender itself is partly a cultured construction. Kilts are skirts, after all. Not even clothes mean the same thing everywhere. Clearly, ontological facts indicate that who we are is somewhat fluid. Nowhere is this more clear than at AU, where our student selves may not fit the checklist for stereotypical college attendees.
Not everything is as advertised when it comes to being Canadian. Just ask a few peers about the success of the Toronto Raptors and some will immediately explain why they aren’t as into basketball as hockey. There’s more to sports than a team being from a Canadian city; something makes Canada a hockey country almost as though the ol’ stick and rubber is in our blood. Meanwhile, the CFL is an all-Canadian professional sports league, with half its players Canadian-born, even though we’re playing what is often termed American football.
When taking sociology at AU we immensely solidify our academic position in the eyes of our non-scholarly peers if we have a few Canadian thinkers to reference out of our brain’s bank. Performance of identity is often a conscious act, after all.
So, to impress those peers this Canada Day, in honour of our great Canadian social theory industry, I’d suggest Marshall McLuhan (the medium is the message), Erving Goffman (all of life’s a performance), Naomi Klein (we’re oppressed into a hideous vortex of advertising), and Joseph Heath/Andres Potter (marketing provides outlets for us to express our narcissistic sense of unique and superior identity; rebellion is actually a form of conformity)
Crucially, there’s a Toronto bias in this list (all are Torontonians except for Goffman, whose sociology is based not coincidentally on a dramaturgical process of learning to act as if one belongs). This Toronto-centrism matters in terms of understanding the fact that national identity is neither natural nor self-evident. Canada is not a country of equal regions any more than any other; just ask Americans who live in the so-called flyover states! A country as large as ours and as historically recent in its formation contains not only vestigial limbs of colonial identity but also geographic bias. One of my undergrad history textbooks at AU even contained a chapter titled “Empire Ontario”.
A Glance in the Mirror is an Invite to Interpretation
So, what it is that makes us us, and not the US, is up for debate—depending on who you ask. After all, Bob and Doug Mackenzie might be hilarious characters but how many people actually say ‘oot and aboot’ or exclaim ‘you hoser!’ without actually referencing either the film or attendant cultural stereotypes or both. Culture is often about performing an ironic self-reflexivity that would make Jean Baudrillard proud. His Simulation and Simulacra asserts that the makeup (pun intended) of our world is essentially a hall of mirrors; we meander confidently through what we think we know but the basis of this knowledge has long ago lost its believability and entered a realm of masquerade (https://web.stanford.edu/class/history34q/readings/Baudrillard/Baudrillard_Simulacra.html).
But there must be a core Canada somewhere. We don’t have to wistfully hum the melodies of Simon and Garfunkel’s line “they’ve all come to look for America” do we? Aversion to an American explanation of national identity with regard to that most Canadian phenomenon of all, being Canadian, would be impolite and a bit close-minded. Canada Day is about having a good time and maybe celebrating another great school year as AU students so let’s cut the analysis and pretend like we don’t know what we know.
Nevermind Simon, Nietzsche says: Don’t Think So Much, Just Do You…at AU
So let’s all be natural, AU naturel as it were, and just let all our Canadian-ity hang and flow out on Canada Day! But wait, hold that non-thought, our student selves demand critical thinking rather than passive acquiescence to the status quo. For there to be a natural begs there to be an unnatural and we have to be aware of, and possess at some level, what we are not in order to understand what we are. Here Friedrich Nietzsche in his inimitable fashion surveys the problem. “You want to live according to nature? Oh, you noble stoics, what fraudulent words! Think of a being such as nature as prodigal beyond measure, indifferent beyond measure, without aims or intentions, without mercy or justice, at once fruitful and barren and uncertain; think of indifference itself as a power – how could you live according to such indifference? To live—is that not precisely wanting to be other than this nature? Is living not valuating, preferring, being unjust, being limited, wanting to be different? And even if your imperative ‘live according to nature’ meant at bottom the same thing as ‘live according to life’ – how you could you not do that? Why make a principle of what you yourselves are and must be” (Nietzsche, 39). Nietzsche demolishes the be natural approach using his rhetorical bulldozer. It’s one composed of ores mined from the depths of the earth and from dead dinosaurs fracked out of the abyss of archaeological time. It’s a human implement, rife with metaphors and inseparable from the symbolism that makes our species special.
There is nothing outside of nature and, let’s be honest, if everything we say, feel, think and act counts as Canadian then any human behaviour can count as Canadian. If we’re a nation of plurality and diversity, then what are its limits? Bruno Latour notes that nature includes everything one can imagine as humans; therefore, how we interpret the natural world is invariably, and naturally, a political act (http://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog.php?isbn=9780674013476 ).