Canada Is Either Part of Western Civilization or It Is Nothing

June 22, 2020 Updated: June 22, 2020


Happy Canada Day. I guess. But what’s to celebrate?

Once upon a time that question was easy to answer. Too easy, probably. We spoke of our prosperity, our tolerance, and our military prowess and glossed over the ways in which we had not lived up to those ideals.

From the 1960s on, we increasingly did the reverse. We became more and more aware of the failings and less and less certain of the ideals. Our 150th celebration was a damp squib, especially compared to the cheesy giddiness of 1967, because our leaders were ashamed of Canada. And now we encounter a strange mix in the official attitude. “Canada is back,” our prime minister declares smugly, referring to himself, before declaring equally smugly that Canada is systemically racist.

In such posturing I hear the Pharisee’s prayer: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men.” Official Canada celebrates its superiority to its backward citizens and wonders why the cheering is so muted.

I do not think cutting us off from our roots can succeed. Canada is either part of Western civilization or it is nothing. And nothing gets a surprising number of votes. Including the PM’s famous “There is no core identity, no mainstream in Canada. There are shared values — openness, respect, compassion, willingness to work hard, to be there for each other, to search for equality and justice.”

Rather than dismissing these words as merely self-contradictory talking points, it’s important to focus on his immediately subsequent statement: “Those qualities are what make us the first post-national state.” Meaning devotion to “compassion … equality and justice” don’t come from adhering to our roots but to transcending them.

Those with longish memories for the long march of radicalism through the dominant institutions of our society may recall Jesse Jackson and others marching around American campuses in the 1980s chanting, “Hey hey, ho ho, Western Civ has got to go.” Formally they meant the course, which they considered too triumphalist about capitalism, liberalism, and democracy and too insensitive to racism, colonialism, and so forth. But a lot of them meant the whole thing. And to a frightening degree it went.

A fundamental principle of Western civilization, laid out in classical Greek philosophy, is non-contradiction: A thing cannot be true and not true at the same time. But postmodernism says otherwise. In his trendy “The Rights Revolution” based on his trendy 2000 CBC Massey Lecture, trendy Michael Ignatieff urged us “to acknowledge that it is the very essence of nation-states that they harbour within themselves incompatible versions of the national story.” And if that sentiment doesn’t make you want to rush down to Parliament Hill with your face(mask) adorned with white and red, or some other combination if you prefer, what would?

Perhaps “the time has come for us to invent new ways of living together,” as then-Gov. Gen. Michaelle Jean said in her 2008 New Year’s message? The familiar problem with transvaluing all values is that you retain no values on the basis of which to create new values. But if you can’t get it right, you also can’t get it wrong: As leading Canadian pollster Angus Reid wrote in his 1996 book “Shakedown,” “Moral arguments don’t carry much weight in the 1990s.” (Though ask any victim of “cancel culture” about that proposition.) And the outgoing federal taxpayers’ ombudsman just said the CRA was “systematically oppressive” because some people said so and “One’s perception is reality,” though as I tweeted at the time, it would be imprudent to take that attitude toward one’s income tax balance owing.

In such a setting, the centre cannot hold. Another leading pollster, Michael Adams, said a while back that Canada’s religion is secular liberalism, in which the state legislates equality and everyone helps everyone. But the Globe and Mail’s Margaret Wente retorted that this claim “is great in theory. But what strikes me as I travel across Canada these days is that everyone feels aggrieved.”

Exactly. There’s nothing to celebrate about Canada and no Canada to celebrate. Hip hip dead silence. Or snarling about whose grievance can throw whose over a fence.

There is an alternative. We can acknowledge that almost everything that used to be a staple of Canada Day rhetoric is true, yet so are many of the criticisms. Even our statesmen in years gone by held racial attitudes we now struggle even to comprehend, let alone forgive.

If you wonder how I could celebrate such a chequered accomplishment or would accuse me of ignoring the principle of non-contradiction, you need to get out more and realize humans are a scurvy lot. So what’s wrong with the radical critique isn’t the critique, it’s the radicalism: The assumption that our past could easily have been better and certainly would have been if they’d been there.

Here let me confess to being systemically Western civilized. (I’m also white and male, of course, but you’d have to take that up with my parents.) I just taught a course on Western civilization in which I argued that the key thing that sets it apart from all the others is precisely its relentless habit of questioning, refining, and reforming.

It’s unsettling. It’s what makes a collision with the West so devastating to any other culture. Especially the very real risk that it must end by questioning the habit of questioning, denying truth, and having sawn through the branch we’re sitting on, plunging into chaos in which might makes right faute de mieux. But as someone once said, the truth will make you free, so we must believe there is something at the end of the quest beyond endless questions.

To do so, it is necessary that we should challenge what we celebrate. But also celebrate what we challenge, realizing that while Canada is not perfect it is excellent because it recognizes and corrects its failings, unlike how it was in the Soviet Union and continues to be in communist-ruled China, fundamentalist Saudi Arabia, and so forth.

Those who will not join that celebration live in an imaginary world in which humans are perfect or at least, as in the Pharisee’s prayer, they themselves are, and may be trusted to separate their fellow sheep from the goats and make short work of the latter. Such people compare Canada not to almost any other nation that ever existed but to the imaginary utopia inside their heads. “Not good enough” is their slogan and we know where it ends: in rage and intolerance.

So yes, it is our tradition, its achievement, and its potential, that those boys fought for at Vimy and Juno Beach. And yes, they were boys, and mostly white, with some Aboriginals who if they survived the war went back to a country where they were legally and socially oppressed. But they risked all their tomorrows for the freedoms already won, those still to be secured, and to rescue from genocide a minority still often despised, even in Canada.

So Happy Canada Day after all. And many more like it.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.