A Canadian Identity: Am and Am Not.

Posted on April 21, 2014


Selfless SelfieArguably, I am a living embodiment of both the dream and the nightmare of colonialism.

From one perspective of history, I am a fine example of the merits of cultural integration. From another perspective of history, I am a sad example of the failings of cultural assimilation.

You wouldn’t know it to look at me, but one of my great grandmothers was a full (probably) blooded Algonquin Indian. You also can’t tell by the way I speak, but one of my great grandfathers was a full-tongued francophone, who struggled with English. My surname may give it away but, it is also worth noting, that one of my great grandparents was fresh off the boat Irish.

Despite my mutty bloodline, however, to the casual observer, I am a white, male anglophone. I am exactly what 19th and 20th century English colonizers wanted to make of the peoples they colonized. I don’t identify with any of the cultures to which I am tied by blood. My understanding of them is rudimentary at best and ultimately framed by the discourse of the colonizer, even if I am deeply sympathetic to the efforts to criticize and undermine the hegemony of that discourse.

Nevertheless, however sympathetic I may be to the colonized, I am not one of them. I have succeeded in life precisely because of my assimilation into the culture of the colonizer. Although I grew up in an environment framed by the consequences of colonialism (low income households, broken families, alcoholism, drug abuse, sexual abuse, mental illness, petty criminality), I was not trapped by that environment precisely because, in the gaze of all others, I was a white male anglophone. I escaped the jail created by the jailers because I could pass myself off as one of them.

My assimilation, however, was not complete. I don’t really identify with white anglophone culture either. Yes, I suppose I am happy to call myself Canadian, but I don’t identify with most of the distinctively Canadian cultural tropes. Other than an unshakable commitment to universal healthcare, I suppose I am Canadian only insofar as, like so many other Canadians, my national identity is an “am not” rather than an “am” and I happen to call this particular chunk of land home.

Ultimately, I am highly suspicious of nationalism in whatever form it takes, whether it is the colonizer or the colonized waving the flag or banging the drum, which often puts me at odds with both of them. Nevertheless, I understand the value of community ties and cultural anchors. Well, I suppose it’s more accurate to say that I understand their value in an abstract sense because that kind of identification hasn’t played an important role in my life. I understand that a strong identification with a cultural heritage can be valuable, but I also suspect that it sometimes can be a trap. A strong identification with a particular community and culture can be a stable mooring for some. It can also be a strangling sink for others.

One of the more influential bits of G. W. F. Hegel’s writing is often referred to as the master-slave dialectic but, given the German Hegel uses, we should probably refer to is as the Lord-bondsman dialectic. One of the key takeaways from this chunk of text in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit is that neither the lord nor the bondsman is fully human, when they see each other as lord and bondsman, and, in fact, it is the bondsman alone who has the chance to become fully human, so long as he doesn’t fall into the trap of thinking that the lord is the model of what it means to be human. While the lord’s humanity withers away because of his lazy dominance and his dependence on the bondsman’s recognition of him as lord, the bondsman can find a new and fuller identity through the work he is forced to do. Through his work, the bondsman becomes conscious of what he truly is: an independent being, neither lord nor bondsman.

Neither colonized nor colonizer, an am and an am not. Thus I willed it.

Posted in: Identity