You’ve seen them. They appear alongside car company logos on the backs of trucks and ambulances — “Support Our Troops.” But this essay is not going to quibble over the appropriateness of some tiny piece of viral marketing. No, I have bigger fish to fry. This essay is going to chase after that illusive beast sought after by so many writers: the Canadian identity.
When I tasked myself, as a writer, to find an image for Canadian identity, it seemed that the image found me. Into my mind wandered the image of a wild deer and I didn’t immediately know what it was doing there. I might have expected to see an industrious beaver or a majestic moose, or some other animal long associated with our nation, but I didn’t understand what this deer was doing here, wandering around in my mind. So I tried to follow it, understand what it was doing there, but it would always run away from me and elude my comprehension. It was having fun as I tried to chase this deer around my mind with strings of words and sheet after sheet of crumpled, lined paper. Before too long I realized that I had found what I was looking for, I had found it without capturing it, without tethering it to the ground or fencing it in somehow. I had found it in the chasing, in the hunt itself.
A number of years ago, I first heard someone speaking publically on my behalf as a Canadian. Not speaking as a Canadian himself, but speaking for me as a Canadian. I felt a sudden tightness around the middle of my chest. At first I dismissed it as simple indignation, but now that I’m significantly older and marginally wiser I realize that it was something else. It felt suddenly as though I was trapped, cornered, confined in a new and unfamiliar way that I didn’t immediately understand. But I understand now.
I feel the same tightness today when I hear someone expounding what it is to be Canadian as though the definition was as old and fossilized as a dinosaur. That tightness didn’t come from me, you see, it came from the spirit of the wild deer that is a part of me and a part of everyone who calls this country home. That feeling was the same spike of panic that the wild deer must feel when he senses a snare closing around his leg.
I suppose I misled you. I am not trying to ensnare Canadian identity with these words as so many have attempted before me. Sorry. On the contrary, by trying to domesticate our national identity, I have come to believe that the best part about being Canadians is wild. I believe that all the best parts of our civilization come from what is wild and live in harmony with it, wilderness and civilization each accentuating and making space for the other. After all, all true inspiration comes from what is wild, from what is free.
Answers to questions like “What is Canadian?” and “Who are Canadians?” have remained tantalizingly out of reach ever since this nation of ours dreamed itself into existence. Of course, some of you may believe that this beast has already been caught. Have you listened to the news lately? Every day someone is talking about what Canadians think, what Canadians want, what Canadians value as though the answer to the question “What is Canadian?” was settled and answered long ago. After nearly 150 years of chasing the beast of Canadian identity, it would seem that one simply had to pretend to catch it —photoshop oneself, towering over its corpse— and that was that.
I can remember discussions of national import being framed in terms of what was best, most practical, most beneficial for the most number, or even most affordable in one context or another. The idea of what was Canadian was never something put forward as evidence in debates of public policy but rather something to be sought after in ones own time as a matter of sport, a matter of public debate but also personal reflection. Now, instead of engaging in the time-honoured, playful and respectful hunt of this ever-illusive animal, it seems that many would attempt to domesticate it by throwing a fence around the entire country. For all the talk of so-called “free trade” and a world without borders, fence-building it would seem is the real order of the day.
To the south the Americans are building an enormous fence along their Mexican border complete with armed guards. To the east, the Israelis are building concrete walls to block their view of the Palestinian prison yard from their suburbs —now there are some people who know all about fences. But it’s too easy to criticize others. Let’s look to our own borders and our own concerns.
I hate it when other writers try to define Canadians by talking about Americans, so I’ll make this comparison short. In America, The Land of the Free, no one is free to be un-American. In Canada, we’re always bitching about stuff. We love criticizing our institutions— just eavesdrop in any coffee shop for half an hour if you need evidence of this— and such activities have never before been discussed “un-Canadian.” On our list of national pastimes complaining probably ranks somewhere between camping and guessing what the weather is going to do. We love complaining. We’re damn good at it. And I dare say that it’s even healthy for us as a country —it keeps the discussion open, keeps us from being complaisant, keeps the discussion from revolving around dogmas handed down from some authority figure. Foreigners might misunderstand this as ingratitude; it isn’t. It is simply the practice of chasing the wild deer. It is playful and it respects the deer’s wild nature.
If that deer was firmly tethered to the ground, if there was a fence around it, if there was a set, concrete, carved-in-stone picture of Canadian identity, then the hunt is over. The discussion ends and we all lose our skill as hunters in this vast forest of possibilities. We domesticate the deer and we domesticate ourselves. Can you feel it? The snare tightening around your chest?
I will never forget the reaction of one man when he first visited the north of our country. He looked out upon the vast arctic regions and marveled at the “wealth of untapped resources.” When I read this, I felt that tightness again. This man did not see the majesty of the frozen lakes or the serenity of the fallen snow. He experienced no hush of respect for the communities of animals and people making their lives in this part of the world. He looked and he saw dollar signs. He listened and he heard the ring of cash registers. This man is one who would tell us what Canadians want, what Canadians think, who Canadians are, what Canada is. It seem that there is a great rush to encircle all that is still wild about Canada, to create a fence so large that no matter where the wild deer runs he will not really be wild anymore.
If we as a culture and a people are going to survive and thrive in an increasingly uncertain and unstable world, if we are going to contribute positively to that world, the wild deer must be allowed to do what it does best: it must be free to run. So, my fellow Canadians, trust your instincts and run from anyone who builds fences and snares with wire, concrete or words. But run with a light heart, for it is a very big country and it will take much more than ribbons to fence it in.