Smoke and Mirrors: Demythologizing Canada’s Aggressive Public Relations

Part 1: Before reconciliation with indigenous peoples can be achieved, the Canadian national identity must be dismantled and reconstructed

As the first part of a two-part series, I will be discussing Canada’s impressive PR campaign and the institutional rot that lies underneath it.

As a disclaimer, my intention in this article isn’t to put the Trudeau Liberals down in order to bring other parties up. Regardless of political associations, there’s no question that all the major parties in Canada have been culpable in their failure to recognize that the flaw lies in our thinking as much as it does in tangible policy-making. Until all Canadians can accept responsibility for the maltreatment and marginalization of indigenous peoples, there won’t be any reconciliation.

As you likely already know, the Canadian Prime Minister is Justin P. Trudeau – the dashing, photogenic, darling liberal, and son of our former Prime Minister, Pierre Trudeau. His photo ops have been shared widely around the world, his “bromances” with Barack Obama and now with Emmanuel Macron have been well documented. You may even follow him on Instagram, where you get regular updates reminding you of how human our Prime Minister really is. Trudeau has managed in some ways to become a poster boy of the Western left. In contrast to the animated deadweight governing our larger, English-speaking allies in the United States and Britain, he certainly looks like a breath of fresh air.

Well, he even speaks French and will kiss you on the cheek when you meet him. The problem really isn’t Trudeau, though. He is an incredibly talented politician – he embodies and projects everything we want to see in ourselves as a nation: socially liberal, admired outside Canada, idealistic and visionary. It is highly effective politicking, but personality and idealism alone will always fail to solve institutionalized problems, no matter how many votes it can win.

Trudeau is profoundly representative of the Canadian identity in the sense that he’s what we want to see. For us, he’s a hollow recognition of Canadian achievements without a will to address our problems. We sit back and say to ourselves that Canada is just about as good as it gets, without mustering the courage to criticize our country or question what it means to be Canadian. Trudeau is the same way, he’s all the vanity without the substance.

Trudeau came to power on a series of promises. One of which was a strong commitment to achieving lasting reconciliation with our indigenous peoples. I am aware that we’re only halfway into his term, and anything lasting can be hardly measured yet. However, it doesn’t even seem like this government’s trying anymore.Last week, in Leuven, there was a seminar being held with the participation of Canadian academics as well as government officials. Going by the title of ‘Coping with Conflict, Controversy and Competition: How Can we Learn from Canada’, the event appears to be touting the success of this past year’s Canada 150 celebrations. Note the beginning of that title, ‘Coping with Conflict.’ Ongoing over the past several months, but coming to a head over the past couple weeks, there has been a fairly high profile controversy taking place at my former university – Dalhousie,  in Halifax, Nova Scotia. The nexus of the issue was that the student union of that university moved to boycott Canada 150 celebrations and any more Canada Day (July 1st) celebrations  until reconciliation with indigenous peoples had been achieved. The student union has received a great deal of backlash for such a move, with many people  referring to the plan as “anti-Canadian”. Now, admittedly watching from afar because I’ve been abroad for a lot of the past year,  from my perspective Canada did not come across this past year as successfully putting on Canada 150 celebrations, nor did it seem to really ‘cope with the conflict’ that clearly exists in Canadian society. It’s both the seminar and the controversy around Canada 150 that made me realize the rot in our thinking. Unabashedly and unreservedly celebrating our sesquicentennial hurts Canadians. The name itself, Canada 150, implies that the celebration of Canada excludes what happened beforehand. Celebrating the construction of a nation at the expense of several other nations hurts those peoples. And it demonstrates to the rest of Canada that it’s okay to pick and choose what you like about history and what you like about the Canadian identity, and discard what you don’t want to come to terms with. We’re allowed to hold celebrations marred by controversy and then go abroad and tell people it was a successful demonstration of the Canadian ability to cope with conflict. That’s no problem. You’re allowed to celebrate Canadian founding fathers who doubled as architects of genocide, that’s also no problem. According to Canadian PR thinking. But that PR hurts the parts of our society that are still marginalized and that endure discrimination  on an institutionalized basis. When Trudeau blatantly touts the Canadian identity as if it is flawless, it further obscures the parts of our identity that we need to reevaluate and criticize. Our national identity cannot be immune to criticism. Criticism does not imply any sense of “anti-Canadianism”, in fact it does us all a great service. If only Canadians were brave enough to collectively criticize our identity in order to reconstruct them. Canadians need to sit down and understand that what we benefit from every day, from our quality of life to the very land we walk on, it runs far deeper than the shallowness of 150 years of confederation that we celebrated this past summer. There’s actually thousands of years of history and historical memory embedded in our country, not just 150.

Mark Townsend

Master of European Studies