LA SURVIVANCE: NOT THE EXCLUSIVE DOMAIN OF QUÉBEC, BUT A LEITMOTIF FOR A PAN-CANADIAN INTERPRETATION OF CANADIAN HISTORY
Being a native-born Québecer of partial French-Canadian ancestry, I grew up hearing over and over about ‘La Survivance’, or simply put, ‘The Survival’, meaning the period of French-Canada’s history, especially in Québec, which followed the British Conquest, where French-Canadians lived through a long period of insularity, and subordination to English-speaking economic and political interests, and were exhorted to fall back upon their Roman Catholic faith, agrarian heritage, and distinct variation of the French language and culture to guarantee that the ‘foreign’ forces, which not only were surrounding them geographically on all sides, but which also dwelt in their very midst, would not swallow them up.
This aspect of my native province’s history has stayed with me to this very day. Until one day I was discussing with a tourist to whom I was giving a city tour, and this gentleman told me he’d seen somewhere, either in a book, or in a documentary on TV, that this concept of ‘Survivance’ had been used to describe Canada as a whole.
Being a good Canadian Studies geek, and a fervent Canadian patriot, I got to thinking about all of this, and harkened back to my courses at the University of Ottawa between 1993-96, and realized that he was right. Although the subject had never been spelled out explicitly by any Professor or T.A. whilst I was a student, the whole concept of Canada’s survival as a going concern seemed to weave itself like a leitmotif throughout the entire fabric of the course curriculum, not to mention my own experience as a Canadian, having lived through two referenda on Québec independence, the Patriation of the Constitution of 1981-82, two Constitutional amendment squabbles: One in 1987-90 (The Meech Lake Accord), the other in 1991-92 (The Charlottetown Accord), not to mention the October crisis of 1970, Bills 22, and 101 in 1974 and 1977, the Clarity Act of the mid 1990s, the squabble over the language used on public signage in Montréal in 1990, and the sometimes seemingly endless handwringing over questions of Québec and Canadian identity, and constitutional jurisdiction over the division of powers.
I thought to myself: ‘Canada really is a house divided’. But we seem to soldier on often despite ourselves. That’s what blows me away the most. Which got me thinking? Maybe the need or quest to survive as one common nation state, despite our own sometimes self-defeating and self-sabotaging instinct to the contrary, is what truly unites us as Canadians?
If one looks at our history from a common perspective of survival, what is it that we’re all struggling to do? Basically we’re all struggling to overcome social, cultural, linguistic, economic and spiritual distances which separate us which are engendered by our common problem of living so great a distance from each other physically. If one looks at the history of Canada, what is it that has forged us as a nation? Mostly what are known as ‘space-binding technologies’, such as the railroad, the telegraph, the telephone, TV, radio and the internet. These are all technologies based on moving information and people from place to place and ‘binding them’ together through space, so as to bring them closer together both physically and therefore metaphysically.
Our greatest national institutions have been, and still are, transportation and communications organizations, both public and private, such as CN, CP, CBC/Radio-Canada, Shaw and Rogers Media, Bell, and Quebecor. These organizations provide a forum within which Canadians of all backgrounds gather and associate freely so as to transcend language, religious, racial, ethnic, political and socio-economic differences so as to find common ground. I think Canada’s business class and public broadcaster have acted much more as an instrument of national unity than our political elites on both sides of the English/French divide.
That’s why I say that what we have in common is survival. Because when push comes to shove, the vast majority of Canadians from all ten provinces and all three territories, especially since the near-death experience of the independence referendum in October of 1995, would more than likely tell you that nobody is really truly interested in seeing Canada wiped off the map. We would have to be truly either idiotic or really suicidal to want to break up our country given the state of the world we live in today.
If there’s one country that’s doing really well it’s Canada. The USA is up to its eyeballs in debt, foreign and domestic policy entanglements with partisan gridlock, the European Union has the entire southern half of its membership in the so-called ‘Club Med’ section of countries like Greece, Italy, Spain and Portugal, in a near-default situation, with Germany and France squabbling over how to deal with it, Russia is a mess, with violence, poverty and gangsterism running riot.
Britain is experiencing its fair share of debt-related and recession-linked woes. Africa is wracked with drought, famine, war, disease, you name it. The Middle East is in flames, with the so-called Arab Spring ‘springing’ up everywhere, leaving old, derelict autocratic dictatorships at the mercy of a combination of radical Muslim Brotherhood-inspired militants and pro-western, pro-democracy idealists.
Latin America is wracked with narco-terrorist violence, floods, guerrilla warfare, poverty, injustice, massive slums, with Asia being much in the same situation, with China and Japan being notable exceptions to the rule. Even there, China is beginning to boil over with civil unrest, riots, pollution, massive traffic congestion, disease, overcrowding, corruption, industrial accidents, environmental degradation, you name it. And Australia has been ravaged by flooding, wildfires, and a massive problem with illegal immigrants from Asia seeking asylum on an island off its coast.
Meanwhile, good old Canada keeps chugging along just great up here in the Great White North. Our borders are relatively secure. The cold keeps out the riff raff, and basically ensures that only those who are really interested in coming here actually do and stay. There’s plenty of work for those who want it and are willing to re-locate to get it. We have excellent infrastructure, with roads that criss-cross the entire country. We have telecommunications and rail lines linking us to virtually every point on the east west axis, and some north-south, at least for freight traffic, that is.
What I’m saying is that basically, although we like to complain in Canada, we all essentially realize deep down, when push comes to shove, that we’ve got it pretty darn good here, and wouldn’t want to let it fall apart for anything. This is so, despite the rhetoric which comes out of the mouths of our politicians, as well as those of the hoi polloi at every Tim Hortons across the land who congregate every morning to talk about how much they’re getting screwed at the gas pump, how much the government is robbing them blind on their taxes, and how much those darn people in the other parts of Canada just don’t get it or respect us, understand our point of view or where we’re coming from, or that those darn politicians in Ottawa are so darn far away and keep voting themselves big raises and don’t do anything to merit their gold-plated pensions that we’re paying for after all. Add to that the results from last night’s hockey game and you’ve got pretty much the fodder for virtually every conversation in every Tim Hortons across Canada.
But ask those same people if they’d actually rise up and do something to change it, and they’d all pretty much back down in an instant. The gas may be ‘expensive’, but it’s there every time they go to fill up. It never runs out. And it’s still much cheaper than in Europe or other parts of the world. They may complain about the government, but there again, they have the right to complain all they want and nobody cracks down on them. Try that in Burma, or in China. At least in Canada we have a government that functions that we have the luxury of complaining about, and that we can participate in improving if we want to participate in the democratic process.
So I think we can all be thankful that Canada has survived and that it continues to survive, sometimes despite itself, and without even realising what it’s doing. Maybe if we became aware of this common thread of Survival as our functioning leitmotif we could act upon it and spur ourselves into common action so as to transcend what divides us and truly ‘reach across the great divide’, as Sass Jordan put it, binding us together not only through physical space, but by creating a common metaphysical space within the collective Pan-Canadian psyche which is above and beyond all matters of race, colour, creed, language, gender, political affiliation, and social and economic circumstance.
That common metaphysical space is our desire to live together in Kanata, the village, to share the land, as the Guess Who said so prophetically, and to reap the harvest which tells of much greater things than a ‘Survivance’ born of Imperial rivalries, but of on going intergenerational dialogue between the descendents of these two former Imperial rivals and their Aboriginal fellow citizens and citizens from other parts of the world who’ve chosen to call Canada their home.
A leitmotif is only as good as the people who peddle it. If we pick this one up and run with it, we could get a lot of traction out of it. Maybe enough to get us across the Great Divide. And who knows what lies beyond there? Therein lies the future of Canada. A house divided on itself shall one day unite itself based on the one notion upon which all regions of the country, and all of its people who speak its two national languages and various ethnic minorities all share in common, but who have yet to come to realize that this is so, being all compartmentalized into their component parts, striving to achieve some semblance of a metaphysical critical mass.
The Great Unfinished Land awaits to accomplish itself and be realised. Amen.