That weren't no DJ, that was hazy cosmic jive

Identity and patriotism

I was thinking something fun today about identity and patriotism, as the title suggests.

I’m a British Columbian who spent a good few years living in Quebec before moving to the UK for work at an international development agency (which shall remain undisclosed). We know what Stephen Harper (and, frankly, Stompin’ Tom Connors) thinks of dirty rotten expatriates, but of course I’ve never thought of myself as an expatriate. I avoid London’s Canadian ex-pats generally, considering they are, in the main, Leafs’ fans. In any case, as this blog maybe reflects, I still stay pretty engaged with what’s going on back home.

Thus the big question of home and identity. Do I call myself a British-Canadian? Or the inverse? I don’t like nationalising identity at the best of times, but these terms ring hollower than other hyphenated demonyms like “African-American.” That’s a term that links an ethnic identity and a civic identity, keeping each intact and enforcing two different concepts of identity. For me, though, I consider both Britishness and Canadianness alike to be civic identities. I have no time for ethnic identities, I’m afraid (and anyway, who wants to shoot the breeze with someone who fancies himself an Irish-Welsh-Anglo-Scots-Canadian-Brit?).

But sometimes these questions are thrust upon you. I remember at university in Montreal, talking to a Québécois friend about terms of origin. “Someone from Ontario is an Ontarian, someone from Alberta is an Albertan, and in English at least, someone from Quebec is a Quebecer,” I said, profoundly.

“Yes,” he agreed.

“What’s the term in French for a British Columbian? Is is Colombie-Brittaniquois? Colombien-Bretagne?”

He paused and smiled. He wasn’t sure.

It seemed a fascinating point to me because, I realised in my often-difficult battle to acquire the French language, I had no demonym for “who I was.” I could say where I was from – “je suis de Colombie-Brittanique.” But saying where you are from is quite different from saying who you are.

I realised that I didn’t mind, I was just curious. I wasn’t lost at sea without being able to incorporate my homeland into the very fabric of my being since, as is the case with all of us, our identities and our common communities are now as geographically dispersed and ethnically variant as to render point of origin quaint. When your parents have retired to another town besides the one you’re familiar with, when your old friends and exes live in different countries, when your favourite music, film, and literature is global in origin, the best you can say is that you retain a strong affection for where you’re from – not that it continues to ultimately shape you. Unless of course, you’re a total momma’s boy, or an ethnocentric nazi.

I’ve since learned that the term for British Columbian is Brittano-Colombien, which I admit I quite like. But again, it’s strange. What’s “British” (or “Britanno-“) about your average British Columbian? What association do they have with the Columbia River, or further back, with Christopher Columbus of boating fame? Is it implying that I’m a follower of Chris Columbus, and that I have predominantly British blood? And which part of Britain does the blood come from? Even in 2010, that’s still a ridiculously fraught question.

Michael Ignatieff would call people who ask these questions “cosmopolitans,” which seems to suggest I like drinking them, and only at very specific temperatures darling. I’d prefer to think that this supposed cosmopolitanism should be natural state of anyone in the 21st Century, and if only in selected places, then certainly in Canada. There has never been an “ethnic Canadian” (some might consider aboriginal peoples as ethnically Canadian, but they draw their ethnicity to something outside the nation-state of Canada in the first place, so I don’t think that applies). There’s always been a (kind of contradictory) pride in how little pride we brandish in front of others, and how much internal difference (and even discord) we celebrate. Almost as though Canadian citizenship were a generous licence to rights and freedoms, rather than a rigid code of conduct or legitimisation of a particular ancestry, or indeed, a recipe for identity.

That is the way I like it. I’m more of a Charter fan than I am a teary-eyed patriot. Nevertheless, it still makes for longer-than-necessary introductions when, instead of asserting a single demonym to people, I just list the places I’ve lived and loved.

Filed under: Canada, International, Travel, UK, Uncategorized, , , ,


October 2010

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