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A Sudden Crisis for Canadian Exceptionalism

Most Canadians believe themselves to be special by virtue of their being Canadian. If you were to confront them with this, they would likely deny it. But that denial would in itself buttress the impression of specialness. It would constitute an expression of humility accompanied (as it almost certainly would be) by even the smallest degree of self-righteous importance at being ever so humble (“I know I’m a hundred times as humble as thou art,” as one of the world’s biggest pop stars once put it). This is the purest expression of Canadian exceptionalism, which manifests as an exceptional unexceptionalism.

Like many key features of Canadian identity, Canadian exceptionalism takes as its vital oxygen a sort of oppositional energy to what is generally understood as American exceptionalism. American exceptionalism is conceived of as a continuation of manifest destiny, a ceaseless, visionary determination to occupy all continents literal and figurative, be they purely geographical or financial, cultural, political, psychological, metaphorical. Canadian exceptionalism takes its cue from American exceptionalism but overtly rejects the imperialistic expansionism inherent in this deeply-ingrained stereotype of the Yankee character. That rejection, in the national cultural imagination, is what makes Canada exceptional. Canada, it is understood, wishes not to conquer but to coexist, desires not conflict but cooperation, pursues collective order and polite equilibrium rather than engaging in some potentially destabilizing individual pursuit of happiness.

This anti-American position-taking feeds into left-of-centre self-images of Canadian society as diverse, progressive, tolerant, and more open and inclusive than that of our more populous and more powerful southern neighbours. Canada may not be able to boast of the United States’ remarkable cultural, industrial, and international achievements, but that’s exactly what makes it better. Like most stereotypes of national character, this identitarian discourse is largely bunk. A triad of recent events in Canadian current affairs both demonstrates Canadian exceptionalism in discursive action and exposes its fundamental inadequacy and inaccuracy as an explanatory paradigm.

Last week’s headlining happening in the country was the desperate, deadly shooting spree carried out by Michael Zehaf Bibeau on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. A homeless, angry, drug-addicted young Quebecker who had converted to Islam and embraced certain elements of both anti-establishment and jihadist ideology, Zehaf Bibeau shot and killed Corporal Nathan Cirillo as he stood guard at the National War Memorial before running into the Parliament buildings, where he was shot dead himself by the RCMP and the Parliamentary Sergeant-At-Arms, Kevin Vickers. National tributes to Cirillo and Vickers followed, as well as shock and resentment at and vigorous over-analysis of Zehaf Bibeau’s motivations, aims, and the catalysts for his behaviour. Following hard on the heels of another deadly hit-and-run targeted at a Canadian soldier in Quebec by a diagnosed schizophrenic who also identified with fundamentalist Islamic thought, the events in the nation’s capital sparked a round of self-examination and increased security and vigilance by Canadians across the country.

But it also fired up the engines of that particularly Canadian form of exceptionalism. Beyond shock and outrage at such disorderly violence, one of the dominant early reactions of Canadians online was to praise the CBC’s television arm for its calm, reasoned approach to covering the breaking news from Ottawa, which remained in flux for several hours after Zehad Bibeau’s brief rampage on the Hill. CBC News anchor Peter Mansbridge’s measured on-air form impressed American observers accustomed to frantic, panic-inducing sensationalism from their 24-hour cable news outlets (Canadians may define themselves as Opposite Americans, but we do hang desperately on the merest hint of incipient praise allotted to us by our elder brother to the south). Likewise, the orderly, quietly defiant resumption of the House of Commons session the very day after a shootout rang out through the corridors of Parliament fed into this self-image of Canadians as a Stay-Calm-and-Carry-On sort of people.

But there was a darker side to the popular reaction to the shooting on the Hill. A more reactionary element in the country immediately singled out Zehaf Bibeau’s extremist Islamism as the obvious cause of his assault on symbolic public monuments and those associated with them, even if this troubled young man’s story has turned out to be much more complex than what can be labeled mere “terrorism”. For a vocal, belligerent slice of Canadian conservatives, the attack was the irruption of global jihadism into Canada’s peaceful-seeming reality that they had predicted and warned of for so long that they seemed almost hopeful for it to happen, almost giddy and elated once it did. The underlying bigotry and prejudice of these views is frequently disavowed under the aegis of Canadian exceptionalism’s progressive focus on multiculturalism and tolerance, but the isolated bursts of racially- or ethnically-charged reactions to the Ottawa shootings showed this disavowal to be merely discursive.

The fear-based counterideology represented by Islamophobic Canadians dubbing this lone gunman attack “Canada’s 9/11” (as if merely calling it such might make it so) may not precisely be supported by Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his Conservative Party, but it is quietly fomented and fully exploited by Harper’s government. Through the Prime Minister’s remarks in the aftermath and the following day in the Commons, it was made starkly clear that the Conservatives intended to use the unsettled, insecure feelings that the shooting sparked in Canadians to push through a long-planned piece of landmark anti-terror legislation as well as to justify its military participation in the anti-ISIS campaign in Iraq. Restrictive, intrusive investigative and surveillance powers for the state and police cuts against the common conceptions of Canadian exceptionalism, to say nothing of military action; Canadians buy into patriotic constructions of the mass slaughters of World War I as nation-building crucibles, but also cherish the country’s rich (but decidedly mixed) peacekeeeping legacy.

The minority reaction of aggressive, anti-Muslim anger seems to have triggered something, however, or perhaps set existing prejudices and unprogressive actions into sharper relief. In the nation’s largest metropolis, Toronto, a bitterly divided electorate of splintered identity-politics tribes ramped up discriminatory rhetoric in a municipal election already sadly defined by it. The lion’s share of this rhetoric stemmed from the conservative Ford Nation, the frighteningly unswerving acolytes of the arch-right-wing, scandal-prone, faux-populist Ford brothers (Mayor Rob swapped places with Councillor Doug halfway through the mayoral campaign after the former was diagnosed with cancer, the maneuver executed with all of the subtlety and flow of a wrestling tag team switch). The ugly white resentment, paranoia, and distrust of misidentified elites (as if the millionaire Fords somehow don’t qualify as privileged) that the Fords have encouraged and ridden for the balance of their political careers was spilling out everywhere. Racial slurs were leveled at the most prominent liberal candidate for Mayor, Olivia Chow, at debates and in political cartoons in the city’s main right-wing populist daily newspaper, and even ran into racially-charged vandalism targeted at candidates in elections so anodyne as one for local public school board trustee. Such discriminatory rhetoric is considered deeply un-Canadian in terms of the tenets of exceptionalism, but has been proven in this election (and the four years of Ford-dom that preceded it) to have a deep-seated constituency in Canadian society and culture.

Don’t leave me hangin’!

As if to lay a finishing blow on the staggering corpus of Canadian exceptionalism, the news that Jian Ghomeshi, the host of CBC Radio’s Q and one of the nation’s most beloved broadcasters, had been fired by the public broadcaster on the heels of sordid accusations of sexual assault (to which Ghomeshi responded with a $50 million lawsuit against the Ceeb) broke Sunday night and expanded today. At the risk of feeding into the sense of privileged self-regard made blatantly self-evident by Ghomeshi’s Facebook statement ahead of the breaking news, the accused sexual abuser possessed as good a claim as anyone in the country to the status of poster-boy for Canadian exceptionalism. Previously representing Canada’s self-perceived multiculturalism, creativity, open-mindedness, and sensitivity, as well as that bedrock of good-natured humility, Ghomeshi’s true nature has been laid bare by these revelations, and it is highly unsightly in its patriarchal, creepy, chavinistic disregard for women and for the bounds of sexual consent.

The persistence of Canadian exceptionalism may be proven out by its resistance to anti-terror laws and war, discriminatory rhetoric aimed at immigrants, and suspicions of sexual assault by one of its most well-known domestic avatars. Most likely, it will endure and survive by compartmentalizing these incidences as exceptions to the well-defined but malleable terms of exceptionalism. But with the right kind of eyes, it’s easy to identify in them the rotting core of the self-perpetuating ideology of Canadian exceptionalism.

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