Canada’s cross-cultural identity deeply rooted in western society

While there’s great diversity in Canada – regional, urban-rural, French-English and ethnic – it’s encompassed within the framework of Canadian culture

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The view that ‘‘There is no core identity, no mainstream in Canada,’’ put forward by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, is incorrect. Notwithstanding Canada’s official multiculturalism policy, Canadian culture is firmly based in western civilization.

The main Canadian political structures are derived from western civilization: Language is a foundational substructure of culture, and Canada’s two official languages are English and French. Canada’s democratic governmental structures, Parliament and the provinces, draw upon British and French traditions. Canadian law is based on English common law and French civil law.

Basic principles of Canadian culture can be traced to the western Age of Enlightenment. These would include separation of church and state, equality before the law, respect for science and education, and, according to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, freedom of the individual in speech and expression, religion, marriage, association, voting and in movement.

During the past half century, expanding concern with human rights and equality have introduced new principles and laws ensuring gender equality and freedom of sexual choice.

These features of Canadian culture are not universal in all countries and all cultures. There’s no more basic fact of human life than that societies and cultures differ in foundational principles, values and goals, organizational characteristics, and in constraints and opportunities.

For example, the core of traditional Indian civilization is a hierarchy of castes with the purest at the top and the most polluted at the bottom. Those most pure at the top, such as Brahmin priests, are closest to the gods, while those most polluted at the bottom, such as sweepers of dirt and feces, butchers, and leather tanners, are closest to lower animals and to death.

South Asia, prior to the arrival of the British, was organized into a multitude of regional political units ruled by hereditary emperors, kings, maharajahs and the like. While castes were largely self-governing, towns and regions were ordered by the caste hierarchy and governed by their rulers. Democracy was not part of the South Asian tradition.

Similarly, Middle Eastern civilization was founded on the Bedouin tribal culture of Arabia, and entered world history in the seventh century with the establishment of Islam and the rapid expansion of the Arab Empire that conquered half the world, from Iberia to India.

Living in the desert, migrating from place to place with their camels, Bedouin were and, for practical reasons, had to be autonomous, operating according to the will of each scattered individual, family and small lineage of kinsmen. Decisions about life were local, decentralized, not made by any authority other than the participants.

All were descendants from the same ancestor, and so were deemed to be equal. The primary imperative was loyalty to one’s kin group at every level, from small families to tribes.

The concept of sharaf, political honour, supports individual autonomy, for a man taking orders from someone loses honour. In the same way, the idea of political honour supports equality, for, if everyone is equal, no one should take orders from anyone else, and decision should be either individual or collective. Decision-making in the desert was and is democratic.

In Middle Eastern culture, supported by religious law, men are responsible for women, and women have an obligation to obey their fathers and husbands.

South Asian civilization, with its focus on purity and pollution, caste hierarchy and reincarnation, and Middle Eastern civilization, concerned with autonomy, freedom and honour, each have distinct visions and integrity. But they’re quite different from one another. Each has its own virtue and its own beauty, the South Asian intricate, the Middle Eastern austere.

Similarly, both South Asian civilization and Middle Eastern civilization are quite different from western civilization, and from the particular Canadian version of western civilization.

How could we possibly argue, as the prime minister has, that Canada has no mainstream, no culture, when our Canadian way of life is so obviously different, in a multitude of ways, from South Asian and Middle Eastern civilizations?

And while there’s great diversity in Canada – regional, urban-rural, French-English and ethnic – it’s encompassed within the framework of Canadian culture. Even our beloved ‘multiculturalism’ is part of Canadian culture and western civilization; ‘multiculturalism’ is not one of the ideas embedded in South Asian civilization, nor is it a believable idea in Middle Eastern civilization.

It’s impossible to deny that Canada has a distinct culture as part of the distinct western civilization.

Philip Carl Salzman is a professor of anthropology at McGill University. He founded the Commission on Nomadic Peoples of the International Union of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences, and its international journal, Nomadic Peoples. His latest book is Classic Comparative Anthropology: Studies from the Tradition (2012). He is a senior fellow at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, a member of the Academic Council of the Canadian Institute for Jewish Studies, a fellow of the Middle East Forum and a member of the board of directors of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East.


canada, identity, canadian identity, western society

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