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Identity Crisis: Can CanCulture Survive?

by Kees Kapteyn

growing up in a border town where the earth's most influential nation looms only miles away, one gets bombarded with conflicting signals on a consistent basis. When I was a kid, Mom and Dad would watch Irv Weinstein bring the news of the latest barn fire in West Seneca, then they would change the channel a couple of notches to watch Front Page Challenge where Pierre Berton would be the first to figure out the mystery guest's identity after asking only two questions. I remember I had to turn and ask my mum;

"Mom, are we American or are we Canadian?"

The question perturbed her, thinking me an imp, talking nonsense.

"We live in Canada, don't ask such silly questions." She answered me curtly.

Ever since then, I have warped my sanity trying to be as Canadian as I can, and resolving never to be influenced by things American. It's not easy work I tell you. The American Influence is as pervasive as acid rainclouds and just as difficult to ignore. We, meaning Canadians, have always seen American encroachments into established institutions of our culture. American magazine conglomerates have made Canadian editions of their giants, like TIME or Sports Illustrated, luring away markets from Canadian magazines. Walt Disney has secured the rights to march our hallowed Mounted Police. The National Hockey League, custodian of our national sport, has the bizarre ratio of 20 U.S. teams to 6 Canadian, and while expansion continues, it does so only south of the 49th parallel, way south, in places where people have never seen snow. Still in sports, the National Football League is testing markets in Toronto and Vancouver in consideration of moving teams there; a move that would slit the throat of the already languishing CFL. It goes on and on, and we never think of slowing it.

By and large, we find their culture more exciting than our own; we faithfully watch their tv shows and movies, listen to their music and follow their sports. We all seek American ideals, we all want to get laid, rich and famous. So, sadly, our own culture gets ignored at home. What's more, with such a strong foreign presence in all our lives, can we even say that we even HAVE a culture to speak of? It's easy to say we have a pride; not a "we got da bomb!" kind of zeal, but a "gawd, I love this place!" kind of fascination, but what about a culture of our very own?

We don't have any art forms that are indigenous to our soil, just variations of a theme.

America is the home of the blues and rock and rock and roll, there is Greek sculpture, Japanese painting, Italian operas, but what is truly Canadian? Inuit throat singing?

We have the Group of Seven, the band of painters that captured the essence of the North on canvas, but are they any more than a genre that has not generated any influences? In music, acts like Alanis, Shania Twain, and Celine Dion are major international acts, but what have they contributed to Canadian culture? They don't even live in Canada anymore! Our literati and film directors are respected and honoured around the world, and they do depicts a distinct Canadian personality, so perhaps there is hope there? In a sense then, it can be said that there is a strong Canadian take on culture, and in sooth our own culture has not evolved fully just yet. Take into account the age of our country, which is hardly into its adolescence when compared to societies thousands of years old like China. How does anything human acquire an identity but by experiencing and developing a history from which to draw? In our adolescence, we follow trends, draw from influences and assimilate our peers. These incoming signals are usually shallow and superficial. What we have in Canada is scarcely an identity as much as an identification. But as we mature, we figuratively clean out the closet and keep the things we love, need, are proud of and will sustain within our personalities. Canada has yet to reach this rite of passage. Eventually we will mature as a nation into a whole, separate, sovereign being, strong in the assertion that we are our own selves.

But before we accept this, we still have to consider something else.

A thousand years ago, different civilizations could exist without ever knowing each other's presence. They developed into almost perfect isolation, oblivious to outside influences, and hence widely diverse cultures came out of them. Why? GEOGRAPHY.

To find other civilizations, explorers had to conquer mountain ranges, sail entire oceans, travel incredible distances and face terrible hardships. Such expeditions were understandably rare. Over time however, technology gradually made these trips easier, but for millenniums, geography was still the vessel that contained individual cultures. Today however, media technology has a way of flattening mountains, draining oceans and shrinking the planet like a dehydrating fruit. Radio waves, satellite beams and the internet link up the globe oblivious of borders, passing media across at a relentless pace, to the point where there is hardly a society in the world without outside influences. Today, it is impossible for a society to remain completely sovereign.

Now look at Confederation, 1867. right around then came the telephone, the telegram, and soon after, radio, the movies and television. Canada came into being at the very time the world was beginning to shrink. There were so many outside influences that Canada would have a very hard time creating its own identity. In a way, our cultural growth has been stunted.

So what do we do in this information-rich world? Realistically, all the protectionism in the world will not stop it. We cannot be like the Soviet Union had been and drop an iron curtain at our border. We cannot survive without trading partners and allies. But what we do need is to realize how important it is for Canada to have its own independent culture. Government especially needs to see that funding for the arts is NOT a vanity. They need to recognize the depth of the arts and how they can define Canadiana. CanCon must keep upping the native content in our media, the Canada Council must continue endowing our artists and cuts should cease on the CBC and our publishing industry. They, as well as the regular citizen, need to see how necessary it is to support and preserve our culture, because without a culture, there is no national personality and consequentially no need to remain a nation.

We all need to collectively self-actualize, fall in love with our individuality and defend it in a world of clones.

But why is it so important to be Canadian? My feelings are these:

I believe that Canada is truly the best country in the world - not just because I live here, but because I've compared it to other countries. We are peaceful, we have an enviable diplomatic role and are welcomed all over the world. We have one of the highest standards of living, the best health care system, the best social welfare system. I also believe we have the most vibrant cultural personality in the world. We aren't obsessed with sex and violence, we don't worship celebrities. We are truly innovative and creative and when we create, it's for the advancement of the art and not for the profit it might generate.

We have something beautiful and it deserves to develop, it deserves to be preserved.

This is why threats to unity and identity are so frightening.

This article originally appeared in Rhododenron, a zine Kees edits.
to receive a copy send a few stamps to:
Box 564
Virgil, ON
L0S 1T0

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