Mother Canada

03 Jul 2015

Heather Mallick for The Guardian:

It’s particularly hard to honour the drowned from dry land. So the statue is reaching out its skinny arms to sea while we try not to stare at her bony behind. It’s awkward, and will be worse in winter when ice hangs from her bony fingers and saltwater lashes her eyeballs. It’s a great site for child-scaring. Maybe it’ll ward off crows.

Mother Canada is yet another part of this government’s ongoing project to try to provide us with a history, with a sense of purpose that will drive us into the twenty-first century. It is a deliberate attempt at myth-making, at crafting an identity by boldly proclaiming ourselves to be not merely a nation but a people that is united behind a set of values and ideals that can finally be described as Canadian.

The merit to be found in such a project depends a great deal on whether you believe this nation to be rooted in the War of 1812, opposing communism, and the “kitsch glorification of war”. While it is becoming increasingly difficult to claim that Canada is not a military nation, I find it hard to believe that we, as a people, are interested in gaudy celebrations of ourselves as such. We have never been a people rooted in revolution as Americans are. We were founded, for good or ill, as a continuation of the British Empire – and, as importantly, in opposition to the American empire. Even as we have gradually transitioned towards our own independence, we are still marked as peoples by those initial sensibilities. Yet it was not through war that we resisted Americanization, but rather through the complicated – and tenuous – federal union.1 Disparate peoples coming together to form a body that found unlikely life within the contradiction of division and unity. Project Canada could not have worked any other way and, while it can hardly be said to be without countless faults and missteps, that contradiction is the defining attribute of who we were when we founded ourselves and who we continue to be to this day. Cape Breton (and Nova Scotia with it) has its own complicated history with this ideal of solidarity (and conflict) amidst diversity, even prior to Confederation.

On top of that, I would add that the pursuit of this myth has been a matter of flagrant (although wholly unsurprising) electioneering. With Mother Canada, the Harper Government is pandering to Cape Breton’s economic interests with the suggestion that this will provide both an initial and ongoing stimulus to the region. Hypothetically ongoing, of course, because it seems a live question whether anyone – Canadian or otherwise – would be terribly interested in visiting a 25 metre statue clad in what appears to be an awkwardly draped bed sheet.

I am not against celebrations of national identity nor am I against monuments in Cape Breton (or elsewhere, for that matter), but Mother Canada seems to be both a poorly thought-out expression of Canadian values and a deliberate attempt to garner Conservative electoral support from veterans (and, possibly, Nova Scotians). I just do not think there are any good reasons for us to spend the next few years building a cheap Canadian knock-off of the Statue of Liberty, but hey, what do I know? I’m not the one trying to win an election in October.

  1. Our journey across this continent certainly replicated colonial sensibilities of domination against both the land and the people that called it home, but we have no desire to honour that behaviour of our ancestors. This is not to suggest that it should be simply ignored or forgotten. Indeed I think we need to better remember exactly that history of injustice and the way that it has stretched into the present, but an ostentatious statue in Cape Breton is hardly the best method of preserving the nuances of those memories.