Obama and Canada

As I was watching the "We are One" concert in celebration of the inauguration of Barack Obama, I felt an intense wave of nostalgia as if for the first time in years, the combination of music, hope and intelligence might produce a different sense of history's movement. Many of the artists who performed over the course of two hours, from Bruce Springsteen to Bono, are baby boomers and they were saluting the passing of a generation and the advent of something new.

All of the songs spoke to the possibility and the potential of community. I realized how deep the yearning for connection is and how profoundly we feel the need to connect to each other through shared experiences.

This is Obama's brilliance, to have translated the very essence of social networking into metaphors of change and to have recognized the degree to which communications is as much about what we say as how we say it. As I watched the show, I asked myself why a Canadian would identify so strongly with this extraordinary man? In part the answer to this question can be found in the obvious way in which Canada has maintained itself as a construct rather than as a nation.

Some may take offense at this comment. But, as a nation we have, for reasons that are both historical and sometimes justifiable, chosen to be ten parts and not a whole. We are still arguing about trade barriers between provinces and still have no national plan for education, for culture or for health care. Three of the most important elements of what constitutes us as a nation lack even the minimal national coordination needed to facilitate their care, their growth and their purpose.

Some will say that the competition for dollars between the provinces is healthy, that the lack of a national policy in so many areas that need it, like the environment means that more attention is placed on priorities closer to 'home'. This is a vague notion of community. Presumably, because we live in cities, our councillors and Mayors should know more about what we need. More often than not local doesn't equate to greater sensitivity or even connectedness. And largely, that is because there is no sense of national purpose around urban development and urban life, and no goals that transcend the often petty perspectives held by local politicians.

This is finally about vision, about the need to see the horizon beyond the immediate street on which we live, or the city we have grown up in or the province we inhabit. When Obama speaks about national purpose the cadence of his voice rises to the occasion as if the vista that he is looking at reaches beyond the immediate constraints of space, language or ideology.

This looking beyond the boundaries of the self, this deep regard and profound respect for the ability of everyone to meaningfully join together irrespective of background or position, this belief that joining together actually may lead to change and transformation, is hardly possible in Canada.

Part of the reason that Quebec hungers to be a nation on its own is precisely because Quebeckers cannot feel the presence of rest of the country within themselves. Yes, for one brief moment in 1995 when the country was on the brink of dissolution, for one brief moment Canadians rallied. But, so little happened afterwards, so little was solidified and nothing was done to convert that energy into national purpose.

From time to time, surveys are completed on what Canadians know about their history and the results are always the same, very little. The educational system is blamed and for a time more effort is put into classes and courses.

Knowledge of history cannot be imposed. The desire to understand history must come from passion, an intense feeling of purpose and conversations that link people together irrespective of differences. For a brief moment, Obama's election has pointed us in a new direction. For a brief moment, the struggle for equality which is really a struggle for the soul of a nation, has given way to opportunity and optimism. We in Canada cannot imitate this moment, not should we. But, at a minimum we need to learn from it.

Dear Ron

Your referring to Canada maintaining itself as a "construct" reminded me of CBC's competition in the 1970's to invent Canada's equivalent of "As American as apple pie" by completing the phrase "As Canadian as . . . ." The winning entry, as you perhaps know, was: "As Canadian as possible under the circumstances." In fact, this Canadian equivalent puts a bigger smile on my face than "As American as apple pie." It's a more ecologically sound way of defining one's national identity in relation to what surrounds one. For the author of the phrase it may have meant that the surrounding is fixed and that Canada simply has to adapt. However, one can also interpret it differently, namely that a country, Canada or any other country for that matter, assumes an identity that is fluid. It changes over time, taking into account the changes that take place elsewhere on this tiny planet on which we live closer and closer together. What we see from our respective national perspectives is not just a given that we must merely adjust to; it’s also a playing field in which all countries have a contributing role to play. It’s a global environment that we shape together.

I missed the "We are One" concert, but did watch yesterday via CNN@Facebook most of the ceremony of Obama's investiture (the technology happened to work better than avaaz.org's equivalent attempt, which I had initially chosen as my preferred access channel). Here, definitely, the medium was itself a powerful message of community as one felt the coincident presence of so many other people connected via the same medium: those, who shared hope and the conviction that, finally, change will happen; those who shared critical views of the disproportionate hold of the US on world affairs, whoever is in charge; and those who shared concerns, despite a sliver of hope, about the difficult roads ahead for us all.

I feel that we must revisit, in Canada and elsewhere, our ideas about national identity. We must supplement our feelings of belonging to our own particular culture and history with an overriding sense of planetary identity. We are rushing towards populating planet Earth with more than nine billion humans by 2050, sharing very limited resources, and just can't afford anymore to see our national interests before we see those of humanity as a whole. Indeed, one must have an identity, including a national identity (as you rightly posit), before one can effectively develop the broader sense of belonging to a single species and the wider ecology of life as it evolved on this particular ‘spec of dust’ in the universe. The inconvenience of too strongly felt provincial identities in comparison with national identity in Canada can be taken to the next higher level, that of the inconvenience of too strongly felt national identity that stands in the way of our ability and disposition to develop our planetary consciousness and a sense of belonging to the universe and its evolutionary history.