The Canadian Mind: A Culture So Open, Its 'Brains Fall Out'
The Canadian national temper is a funny thing, riddled with contradictions. It is plainly an abstraction, and yet it does seem to have discernible traits. Some jokingly regard it as absurdly apologetic -- a Canadian is someone who says “sorry” when he is jostled. Canadians are polite and amiable, pacifist by nature; they are the world’s peacekeepers. Canadians regard themselves as morally superior, especially with regard to Americans. Canadians are inwardly attracted to failure, as Margaret Atwood contended in Survival -- Canadians have a will to lose as powerful as the American will to win. And so on.
Canada is a huge but under-populated country. The wind echoes in our ears. Much has been made in our literature of the hardiness and resilience necessary for existence in a punishing climate and of the harsh labor required to extract the benefits of a resource-based economy. Susanna Moodie’s Roughing It in the Bush is an early classic detailing the rigors and challenges of domesticating an unforgiving milieu. Canadian fortitude is a national foundation myth.
One recalls Northrop Frye’s analysis in The Bush Garden of Canada’s “garrison mentality,” the fear of “being swallowed by an alien continent,” the fight for survival in inclement surroundings, and the feeling that events and achievements of significance must be happening elsewhere. Naturally, Frye’s thesis has been contested in a rising swell of self-importance and postmodern speculation. In Studies in Canadian Literature, Sherrie Malisch points out that many critics have taken umbrage with Frye, advocating for the replacement of the “myth” of the garrison mentality by something called “ecological logic,” by feminist sensitivity to the environment, or by an aboriginal sense of ‘wholeness.”
Similarly, writing in the Town Crier, André Forget, for example, thinks that Frye’s analysis is passé, that the “garrisoned mind” has opened up to an anonymous urban and Internet landscape which “has done away with most of the practical limitations geography used to enforce.” Canadian writers in particular have become more sophisticated. His argument is not entirely without merit and may be initially persuasive. Yet any reading of our literature and study of our culture and politics would strongly suggest that the Canadian imagination remains for the most part local, indigenous, imitative and mired in a state of general insipidity.
Everywhere one turns one sees a tendency toward mimesis -- we tend to copy rather than invent -- qualified by intellectual emptiness. In other words, it may be that the vacancy of the Canadian mind reflects the vacancy of the Canadian landscape. Of course, much of the land is variegated -- lakes, rivers, forests, the impressive mountain ranges running down the length of “beautiful British Columbia” -- in the same way, metaphorically speaking, that we can boast a number of resonating exceptions to the staple of tepid cultural and intellectual sameness.