Does Canada have culture?
By Matthew Fraser, Opinions Editor
“What’s the difference between Australia and yoghurt? If left alone long enough, yoghurt will develop a culture.” I have always loved that joke; in but two short sentences it perfectly encapsulates my view of most if not all of Britain’s colonial children—and yes, that includes Canada and America.
My contemporary in this “War Of Words” is quick to define culture as: “the social norms, arts, achievements, and social institutions of a particular social group.” To fortify her point my opponent lists foods like poutine, dill and ketchup flavored chips as well as the Canadian habit of saying sorry. She later makes vague gestures to “Canadian classic rock” alongside “arts and dance” to further illustrate the supposed “culture” of Canada. However, her definition and examples are far too shallow in my opinion to be considered anywhere near culture.
Culture is not a few foods distinct to an area, but the rich tapestry and customs by which a people define themselves and the country that they hail from. Mexicans do not have “culture” simply because they have Tamales and Tacos; Mexican culture is based around the shared histories that unite the people of the country and provide a common historic accounting of the nation. The artifacts left by the Aztecs, or the traditions of the indigenous people as passed down through language and real cultural touchstones (like traditional serape) help define Mexican culture. The resistance against the Spanish conquistadors and the rage that would later birth the Zapatista movement further evidence Mexican culture. Using flavored chips as an example of culture is about as poor an example as using breakfast cereal as evidence of culture. I would be as much a fool to define a Mexican person by a Tamale as I would be to define a Canadian by a bag of chips. Neither then is it right to define a Japanese person by Ramen as it is to define a Canadian by poutine (a food from Quebec that can’t even stop Quebecers from attempting to secede the country). As I read my opponent’s argument, I seriously asked myself if all she learned from her anthropology class was that people are defined by a few narrow cuisine examples and in turn, that their plate is the totality of their culture.
I feel that saying that Canadian “culture” is saying sorry is to imply that the majority of the world’s population is uncultured, reckless brutes with little regard for the well being of others. It implies that we in Canada have inculcated such an overwhelming respect for the average human that all other cultures pale in comparison. Anyone who has met a Japanese person or been to Japan would understand the foolishness of that implication. As a matter of fact, I would go so far as to say that since “sorry” is a standard English word with corollaries in all other languages we certainly can’t assume a monopoly on good behaviour. I wonder then, does my opponent believe that a word like “schadenfreude” is the totality of German culture as well? Is the fact that the average polite Spaniard will routinely say “gracias” evidence of their culture? In some ways I feel apologetic for the triviality of that example.
Regarding arts, dance and “Canadian classic rock,” I’m fascinated at the concept of there being anything particularly unique and Canadian to those things that would make my counterpart believe them to be distinctly Canadian. Our most famous artist, Emily Carr blended French impressionism with First Nations art to create her style; certainly not unimpressive but only uniquely Canadian because she borrowed from the Indigenous peoples. I can’t think of a single non-Indigenous dance that one would attribute to Canada. In fact, where is our answer to any dance, from ballet to Soulja Boy’s infectious and short lived “Crank That.” Lastly, I am forced to chuckle at the concept of “Canadian classic rock.” It is merely a Canadian version of American music wherein even the most famous acts are virtually unheard of outside of our borders (sorry Tragically Hip) or they are mistaken as American (that’s you Neil Young).
Most profoundly, my opponent manages to centre her whiteness as the definition of Canada’s culture in my opinion (she apparently is only concerned with the past 153 years). I feel she accidentally re-illustrates the expulsion of First Nations people to depict (with atrocious examples) a cultural image of Canada as a white man’s country; this is elucidated by her bringing up the completely unrelated Norwegian and Russian cultures (two real cultures in their own right). If one has a vested interest in defining, then defending Canada as mostly white with a sprinkle of multiculturalism, then her argument makes more sense. However, should you not subscribe to the supplantation of First Nations people as one of the most important parts of the Canadian identity, you would quickly realize that British and French colonial interests nearly eradicated the First peoples to replace them with—as my opponent’s definition of Canadian culture goes—Ketchup potato chips.
It’s telling in my view that my opponent gives so few examples of Canadian culture but feels as if saying that Canada has no culture “is just plain false.” In some ways, the fact that the best examples she could muster come from a factory is an irony more delicious than Timbits.