Every year CBC Radio’s Canada Reads competition urges Canadians to support one book on a list of five that “Canadians should read.” Five celebrities debate the books’ merits, deciding which ones are to be voted off the island until a single title remains. Canada Reads may be our culture’s closest approximation to a functional democratic institution. The initial Canada Reads, in 2001, was won by Michael Ondaatje. As election theorists insist, though, it’s the second free vote that reveals a country’s true inclinations. Accordingly, the second Canada Reads competition, in 2002, chose Next Episode (sometimes known by its original French title, Prochain Épisode), by Hubert Aquin, an erudite, self-destructive Quebec revolutionary of the 1960s. Most Anglo Canadian readers hadn’t heard of this novel prior to its inclusion on a national radio show. “Cuba is sinking in flames in the middle of Lac Léman while I descend to the bottom of things,” runs the opening sentence. Who would imagine that the first word of the book “Canadians should read” would be the name of the country that is home to the hemisphere’s only enduring socialist revolution? Or that July 26, the date of Fidel Castro’s assault on the Moncada Barracks in Santiago, Cuba, would recur in the pages of an emblematic Canadian novel like a secret key to our being?
A New Jersey union organizer once told me that American bosses were afraid of Canada because they didn’t understand how things worked up there. “You never know,” he said. “Some crazy lefty might take over.” I shook my head. Like most people, I assumed that Thousands Take to the Streets was a headline to be expected only after a rowdy Stanley Cup hockey celebration. Yet the G-20 protests in Toronto on June 26 and 27, 2010, proved that the potential for anger to swell into insurrection was alive in the Canadian psyche. The more than 900 arrests that took place in those two days, many of them of peaceful placard-wavers or unsuspecting pedestrians, also offered a hint of why revolutions don’t happen here: Canada is very heavily policed.
Our founding document, the British North America Act, vaunts “Peace, Order and Good Government” in contrast to the “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” claimed by the republic south of the border. A mainstay of our national mythology is that there was no Wild West in 19th-century Canada – no Billy the Kids toting six-shooters – because the North-West Mounted Police arrived first. Only after the forerunners of today’s Mounties had secured order were rank-and-file settlers allowed to move onto the prairies. That policy is the ancestor of the vacant, locked-down Toronto of 2010, where streets and buildings of no particular strategic importance were put off-limits to the public, and the reason why Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair repeatedly denounced peaceful protest as being “complicit with the criminal conspiracy.” In the context of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s project of converting Canada into a night watchman state, in which the military police and prisons are expanded, while all other branches of government shrivel, it is vital to ask: Are Canadians complacent by nature, or are they repressed by a state whose mantra of order has been internalized by its citizens?
I spent the summer of 2010 in Cairo, Egypt. The moment my taxi swung out of the airport, the driver pointed out the white-uniformed police officers who stood on nearly every street corner. My friends and I couldn’t figure Cairo out. A metropolitan city of more than 19 million people, the vast majority of them living in ugly poverty, where it was safe to walk the streets at 3 a.m.? My experience in large Latin American cities where glaring divides between rich and poor bred violent street crime told me that this shouldn’t be possible. For lack of a plausible explanation, we attributed Cairo’s calm to the Islamic faith. These hungry people didn’t mug or steal, we decided, because they were afraid of going to hell. As events in the Spring of 2011 illustrated, I should have listened to my taxi driver. Once they had been upstaged by unassuming little Tunisia, where the Jasmin Revolution showed that Western-backed dictators could be overthrown, Egyptians rushed to bring down the president who had filled Cairo with police officers, joining forces to protest in Tahrir Square. This vast hub of space in the city’s core is bordered by all the disparate elements that have contributed to Egyptian culture: the pink stucco of the Egyptian Museum, home to the country’s ancient heritage; the bleak headquarters of the civil service, built in Soviet style under the nationalist government of Gamal Abdel Nasser; the Parisian-style low-rise apartment blocks that date back to the days of European colonialism; and the brand names of the globalized present. It was natural for protesters against the Mubarak government to assemble here; to refashion their country’s history at the point where all of its past influences converged.
Space – an excess of space, finding the right space, feeling at home in the space where one lives – is an abiding Canadian dilemma. According to literary critic Northrop Frye, the pivotal Canadian question is: “Where is here?” If Canadians are to express their revolutionary potential – and a few more years of Harper’s stifling rule may make this our only path to a decent society – they will need to find their Tahrir Square. Since Canada is a vast country of highly articulated regional identities yoked together into a portmanteau national identity that contains elements that we all share and others that are distinctly local, there are few obvious candidates for this role. An Albertan’s heart does not always beat faster at the sight of the Peace Tower stretching high above Parliament Hill in Ottawa; a Nova Scotian will respond with curiosity, but not necessarily passion, to the stately Douglas firs of Stanley Park in Vancouver. Yet Prime Minister John Diefenbaker was incorrect when he said that Canada has too much geography and not enough history. It’s true that our relation to geography is ambivalent: crowded together in suburbs and cities, most of us feel Canada’s endless spaces as both a source of pride and an unsettling, slightly alien presence. Yet the weight of history is also heavy in Canada, if rarely acknowledged. European settlement began earlier here than in the United States; the basic contours of the Canadian nation have existed for more than three hundred years. As Canadians, we have a long history of denying our history. This may be the paradox that unites us.
Our habit of denial means that the lessons we need to learn have been learned before. The Winnipeg Soviet of 1919, arguably the most radical political structure ever created by Canadians, lasted only a few days. By the time of the Great Depression, would-be revolutionaries realized that success depended on mastering Canadian space. The 1935 On to Ottawa Trek of more than 1,000 unemployed men set off for the capital from Vancouver, gathering followers along the way until it was dispersed in Regina, Saskatchewan, by Mounties wielding baseball bats. Yet it is easier to acknowledge Canada’s distances, whose presence glares at us from the map, than it is to recognize our perpetually suppressed history. Current Quebec Premier Jean Charest’s October 27, 1995, speech to tens of thousands of Canadians who had gathered in Montreal in a naïve, counterproductive attempt to persuade the Québécois not to vote Oui in their referendum on sovereignty is our missed Tahrir Square moment. Surrounded by buildings and monuments that resonated with the history of Anglophones and Francophones, rich and poor, old-stock Canadians and immigrants, Charest ignored the significance of his setting and delivered platitudes that kept Canada’s tribes safely apart, demonstrating once again that our elites fear the unity of all Canadians even more than they fear separatism.
Revolution occurs when a country finds a language to express its historical dilemmas. This language may not include the entire population, but it needs to give the impression of all-inclusiveness. Our two official languages, our far-flung regions and our failure to embrace First Nations culture as part of everyone’s heritage mitigate against the elaboration of an all-inclusive language in Canada. Both the Québécois and the First Nations cultures possess this “we” that roots a shared perception of history in a common space. Québécois novels read in English translation often feel as though they take place in a slightly ethereal world since the presumption of shared cultural reference points between writer and readers exempts Québécois writers from evoking background and setting with the mass of descriptive detail that is a mainstay of Anglo Canadian realism; in Robert Bringhurst’s translations, the work of the Haida oral poet Skaay is calibrated, as if by a syncopating beat, by the repetition of a “they say” that defines the story as the property of a community: “A black bear sat on the opposite bank,/ and he had no claws, they say.” English-speaking Canada, like Canada in its entirety, lacks that vital “they say.” Failing to achieve a consensus that the bear that dominates us has no claws, we cannot act on this knowledge. Nor can we learn from the political cultures of immigrants. The Communist beliefs of early 20th-century Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe were a pivotal influence on the Winnipeg General Strike; yet in the post-9/11 environment, immigrants who draw on struggles in their homelands as the inspiration for radical politics in Canada risk being defined as terrorists. This atmosphere of suspicion mutes the political dialogue between older and newer Canadians that used to be one of the ways in which Canadian political ideas were renewed.
We repeat patterns that have occurred before in this space without admitting it. Canadian novels of the nationalistic 1970s took tentative first steps toward confronting collective experience: Robertson Davies’s Fifth Business mythologized Canada’s role as a country on the edge of world events, the action of Margaret Laurence’s The Diviners drifts back and forth from Manitoba to Ontario to British Columbia, inhabiting our great spaces in the same way that 19th-century Russian novels explore the sprawling geography of Russia. Since the 1990s, the best-known Canadian novels have skirted representation of contemporary Canada, preferring to dramatize the rural past or foreign countries. Who writes about our multiethnic cities as Zadie Smith and Monica Ali write about London? Who chronicles “middle Canada” – the term barely makes sense – as Jonathan Franzen writes about middle America? This lack of literary attention to our daily lives is the cultural foundation of our political apathy. The 19th-century Russian novels that charted the streets of St. Petersburg and Moscow – and the sprawl of the countryside and the great estates – inventoried the national condition and paved the way for the 1905 revolution that in turn led to the Soviet Revolution of 1917. The revolution Canadians seek in the 21st century is not that of Russia or Cuba. It must be flexible, participatory, multiethnic, ecologically aware; yet our heavily policed state will yield only before a movement that crystallizes the vast spaces in which we live by making our history visible, comprehensible to us. Until we find our Tahrir Square, we will slumber in our divisions, confirming the assumption of a Canada incapable of doing anything – including rising up against a stagnant, corporatized politics – in unison.