Pico Iyer Journeys

Imagining Canada

Insofar as self-definition is the issue of the day, worldwide, Canada has something distinctive to give the world, and insofar as more and more people are trying to think about how to deal with foreignness, more and more people are becoming aspirant Canadians. Canada, if only because it had to, was thinking about multiculture—and globalism and pluralism—before the rest of us even knew the words existed. To this day, moreover, it’s juggling both sides of a bilingual identity, and doing so across five and a half time zones. And though cities like Paris and London and New York are all as mongrel as Vancouver or Montreal, in their way, all of them, I think, are less able to revise their identities to accommodate the new—and less inclined to acknowledge the mongrelism that isn’t a part of their chosen image. The Old World tends to hide behind its past, while diffuse and scattered America seems too large and too out of breath, or too weighed down under pressures, to think about where it’s going.

When first I began visiting Canada, it seemed to me that the country, because of its 250 years of experimenting with such issues, was already well embarked on Act 2 or even 3 of a drama that elsewhere was in its prologue. Not so much because of the official Multiculturalism Act of 1971 as because of the simple fact that multiculturalism was a daily reality for most of the people smelling foreign spices through their windows. And although that is no less true of Kuala Lumpur, say, the native multiculture where I wrote much of this lecture, Kuala Lumpur is not being transformed every year by new immigrants from around the world, captivated by its spaces as they are by those of the “magnetic north.” Very soon after I arrived in Toronto I found that I had only to pick up a newspaper, or strike up a conversation with a friend, and I was being introduced to levels of refinement in the discussion of crossing cultures that I simply hadn’t met in a lifetime of traveling. I was introduced to all kinds of new terms here for the subtlest implications of migration — “allophone” and “landed immigrant” and “barrel children” and, of course, “middle power”; but I was also exposed to complications and problems I’d seldom run into before. Just three months ago I was in Amman, and was talking to a Jordanian high-school senior who was wondering where to go to college: the U.S., Britain, Lebanon, Dubai—or Canada. His parents didn’t want him to come to Canada, where he was keenest to go, because they didn’t want him just to socialize with other Jordanians. Montreal, they felt, had become a suburb of Amman.

In certain respects, therefore, Canada has written the book on the very issues that are coming to seem the governing ones of the next century. And it’s no coincidence, I think, that it was here that McLuhan dreamed of and drafted a new wired planetary universe, while his colleague, Frye, leapt towards a globalism of the soul, helped, no doubt, by the fact that he came to the world’s literature with an eye that was neither traditionally British nor American. Canada was the place that invited Jane Jacobs to come and try to make practical her vision of what a North American city could be, human-scaled and diverse, with “urban villages” instead of “inner cities” and an array of walkable neighborhoods downtown that could make the notion of a mosaic visible. Canadians, as Michael Ignatieff tells us, are among the ones who have gone farthest in discussing what rights might mean in a world that has gone global—how responsibility might play out in an extraterritorial context—and it is the Canadian Charles Taylor who introduced the notion of “recognition” to political philosophy. Ignatieff himself, I think, must have been moved by his Canadian upbringing towards the abiding interest in nationalism and belonging that he now carries with him around the world. When I was growing up in Santa Barbara, the local literary sage was the Canadian Hugh Kenner, who defined, in his Massey Lectures of a few years ago, another important principle of the Canadian imagination which defines the particular power of someone like Anne Carson—”High and low cultures aren’t in oppostion,” he wrote: “the more you know of either, the more you enjoy the other.” And again, it seems no coincidence to me that the person who defined the very notion of “Generation X” came from Vancouver, or that the one who is credited with coining the word “cyberspace” moved up from America to live there.

Much of this may strike you as the wishful optimism of a starry-eyed visitor with a confirmed ticket out next week, and Canada has always

perhaps been too easy a notion for foreigners to play with, a seemingly malleable idea without the weight and responsibilities of the United States. But an outsider, at least, is prompted to do things that a local might not, and sometimes in the process to see the things that a more daily eye overlooks. He may make two long expeditions to Honest Ed’s (as I did) or (as I did again) to the Canadian Hockey Hall of Fame; he may take drives around Mississauga, looking at its shopping malls, and pop in on a Korean church on Bloor Street to hear what a new Canadian sermon sounds like. Most of all, he may see all this, as suggested before, with the eyes of someone from Los Angeles, a typical modern mongrel city which seems to be speeding into a post-national future willy-nilly, making up the rules—insofar as it has any rules—as it goes along. The one other great asset that Canada enjoys, after all, is one that many locals have long seen as a blight: the fact that it is next to the world’s only superpower, and the non-stop blast of its pop culture. Yet in a world in which more and more countries wake up to find that America is just down the street, this too places Canada in the position of an elder statesman.

I often think, in all these contexts, of my grandparents, all four of whom were born in India. For all of them, I think, there came at birth a very strong, perhaps oppressively strong, sense of where they belonged, what they believed, who their friends and enemies were and where they would likely pass all of their days. Now, for more and more of us, the very facts that were a given for our grandparents are, you could say, a chosen; we have the chance—which is also a challenge—to invent from scratch our sense of tradition, of neighborhood, of home and even of self. The oldest and simplest question in the world—”Where do you come from?”—suddenly brings new and more open-ended answers, or no answers at all for those strong enough to live in the spaces between categories. And when I think of the ways in which inheritance is perhaps less important than it’s ever been before, I can better understand why global possibility these days so often travels on a Canadian passport. For what struck me on my earliest visits to Canada was that all these issues, of identity and belonging and new forms of citizenship, were on the table every day, and by that I mean not just the conference tables of polysyllabic government institutions, but, again, the breakfast tables of ordinary people, compelled to think about what a neighborhood means in a world in which everyone on the street is speaking a different language. Walking down the street, and talking to people who seemed so self-consciously to be thinking about the issues that those I knew in Bombay or Los Angeles or London didn’t have the time or inclination to address, I came away at times with a sense, often invigorating, of a new set of Founding Fathers drafting the bill of rights for a new kind of community, diasporan, rainbow-colored, fluid and post-national. A “Royal Canadian Multiculture,” as I sometimes thought of it, blending its old elements with its new. Such efforts were almost bound to be too earnest, too ham-handed and too self-conscious (and selfconsciousness, Canada sometimes taught me, is the opposite of selfconfidence), yet at least there was a sense here that the mingling with the Other was a fact of life that had to be addressed. In that sense, I wasn’t surprised to see that the very meaning of citizenship in a borderless world, and how democracy can be made meaningful and active, was the theme of another University of Toronto philosopher, Mark Kingwell, in his most recent book, The World We Want. “Otherness,” he writes, in a phrase that catches much of what I’m talking about, “is imagination’s best tutor.”


It was probably just as my enthusiasm for Canada, and its expertise in all these matters, was cresting that another book came into my life, and this one, perhaps happily, was less forgiving of my assumptions. When I made my way through Neil Bissoondath’s slashing attack on multiculturalism, Selling Illusions, I was constantly sobered, not because so much of it seemed wrong, but rather just the opposite: for long stretches I felt myself agreeing with his every word so strongly that I found I might have written his book (or he might have written some of mine). Official multiculturalism, he argued, almost irresistibly, proposed a kind of racism as a supposed cure for racism, defining people entirely in terms of their ethnic origins and to that extent confining them to divisions that would always set them apart and locked inside their pasts. The affirmative action that was often multiculturalism’s handmaiden seemed mostly to attempt to redress the injustices of the past by creating new injustices in the future. For Bissoondath, the multiculturalism that Canada sponsored turned “ethnic communities into museums of exoticism,” gladly celebrating “the Other” at the level of foods and festivals, but not really inviting those who looked different into the city’s inner workings, and so, in effect, encouraging foreigners to remain colorfully foreign as if they were still pavilions in the World Expo I’d visited as a boy. Toronto, he wrote of the city that had especially captivated me, is “the intolerance capital of Canada.” I had to listen carefully to this argument because it echoed so much of what I’d heard from people I talked to in Canada, especially those referred to, in one of the less happy local terms, as “visible minorities,” and also because I felt that Bissoondath was thinking about the issue more rigorously than those who just sang of Canada’s tolerance (or those who wrote diatribes against racism funded by Multicultural Committees). Pierre Trudeau had introduced official multiculturalism, Bissoondath wrote, to advance other agendas of his own, and it had served the happy second function of assuaging liberal unease without really changing anything deep down. It offered tolerance, with all the gritted-teeth self-consciousness and even condescension that that implies, in place of real acceptance.

I took Bissoondath’s argument seriously, not least, of course, because he wrote with the wisdom of one who’d grown up in that swarming

de facto multiculture, Port of Spain; he was one of the “global souls” I felt at home with. His claim that official quotas seemed to avoid the issue of racial inequality rather than confront it by placing a Band-Aid over the Atlantic Ocean—to put it in my own terms—reflected exactly what I’d read in earlier critics such as Bharati Mukherjee (who’d actually moved to Atlanta, of all places, because of her disgust with Canadian hypocrisy, as she saw it). Yet I was most grateful to Bissoondath because he clarified for me exactly what multiculturalism should and shouldn’t be. The policies he was attacking, so persuasively, were the literal-minded, often heavy- handed policies of a government that tried to legislate decency and to administer fairness from above. The multiculturalism I believed in took place mostly on the level of the individual, and the imagination through which he tried to penetrate the Other and let the Other penetrate him. In a way, Bissoondath’s book sent me back to The English Patient yet again, and reminded me precisely of why I had found that book so inspiring. The vision it advanced had nothing to do with government agencies or institutional white papers; rather, it arose simply from human beings ready to respond to others on a level deeper than their customs, clothes or color. It tried to make real Aziz’s airy hope in A Passage to India that “The song of the future must transcend creed.” It was only at the level of the imagination, after all, that we could begin to think differently about one another, and to make meaningful an acceptance so natural that we didn’t need to have words for it. Official multiculturalism, Bissoondath concludes, is “ethnicity as public policy; it is society’s view of the individual’s assigned place within its construct.” Real multiculturalism, I thought, would be individualism as private practice: the individual’s view of society’s shifting orders around it.

Canada was defining and exploring these themes on the page, but the pages I trusted were not so much the ones that flooded out of bureaucratic offices, however well-intentioned, but, rather, those that issued forth from individual souls at their desks, looking out at the streets of Montreal or Vancouver, and seeing Bombay, Dar es Salaam or Port of Spain. Indeed, the kind of pages I trusted most were the ones I found in works of fiction like Digging Up the Mountains, written by the new Canadian called Neil Bissoondath, in which immigrants from everywhere assemble in Canada and think about issues of migration in a way that can have no easy solution on the human plane. Bissoondath’s characters in his stories take us into displacement and liberation (or its absence) more plangently, more vividly, than anything in his non-fiction could, and they remind us that many of those who have come to Canada have come from Sri Lanka or Rwanda or South Africa precisely to be rid of a tribalism at home that never seems to go away. Besides, foreignness in practice has effects on us that can never be anticipated, sometimes as wildly positive as negative. “A man not of your own blood,” Ondaatje writes, “can break upon your emotions more than someone of your own blood.”

There was another dimension to Bissoondath’s concern, of course, and that was the enduring fear that diversity can just lead to disorder—a global Los Angeles in a way, where no shape or coherence is visible amidst the swam of relativities, and each group simply retreats into its own corner to practice its own customs and worship its own gods. The mosaic becomes a collection of jangled shards, more than likely to draw blood, and a country that exults in existing between the spaces ends up neither here nor there: too many cultures spoil the broth. When Bissoondath explained that Quebec appealed to him in part because it drew strong lines around itself and consolidated its identity instead of letting itself blur into vagueness, I saw a very good description of why I felt steadied and often solaced by Japan, which kept itself distinctive in part by trying to keep out people who looked like me. Differences cannot just be wished away.

There is a political and practical answer to this fear of cultural unraveling, and it’s the one that has been put forward eloquently by the likes of Michael Ignatieff and Pierre Pettigrew, stressing that one of the great benefits of Canada’s history is that it’s never been in a position in which it could easily present itself as a “One Nation” state, and so never been likely to confuse political and ethnic identity. We can’t do without larger groups or organizations altogether— when they find themselves in a desert individuals inevitably gather into groups—and however much we live “unconscious of ancestry,” we can’t all be one. Yet Canada, from birth, has had to be held together by shared beliefs and not shared roots, as if it were the political extension of that “moral fiction,” as Ignatieff calls it, by which we’re all one in the eyes of the law. “To believe in rights is to believe in defending difference,” Ignatieff writes in The Rights Revolution. “Pluralism does not mean relativism. It means humility.”

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