“How Do you Get 25 Canadians Out of a Pool?” – Gladwell and Gopnik on Canadian Identity

March 27, 2008

I know we shouldn’t bend over in reflexive reverence for the opinions of those who have left Canada for grander stages, but how can you help wanting to know what such gymnastic minds as Malcolm Gladwell and Adam Gopnik have to say about our national identity?

This morning on CBC Radio’s The Current, the New Yorker stalwarts (who will square off on March 30 at the University of Toronto as part of a discussion called Canada: Nation or Notion?) chatted (rather intelligently, if perhaps from a greater remove than they’d like to admit) about what Canada means in the 21st century.

Gopnik rightly points out that the two writers approach the question from wholly different perspectives: he from a sentimental and symbolic perspective and Gladwell from a more empirical, policy-related one. But what it boils down to for both writers is that Canada means far more in the international community than we give ourselves credit for.

Gopnik’s issue is identity and our lack thereof. To him, that’s a strength, not a weakness, because we show the world that a country can function (and well) without a set of shared beliefs and icons. We show the world that the Romantic model of nationalism under which so many other countries were born is unnecessary, if not often damaging.

Gladwell is far less interested in issues of identity and culture. He’s interested in potential policy power. In Gladwell’s mind, our smallness (in terms of population and military power) is gradually making us more important. He contends that problem solving today is less about consensus building and more about looking to successful models. As a result, the decline of Canada’s image as an “honest broker” is inconsequential. What matters far more is that our size allows us to do what larger states, with heftier populations and more entrenched fueding animosities can never do.

Example? If Canada took it upon itself to initiate the most effective and progressive energy policy in the world, we could. Not many states can say that. And if we did, our huge (and much in-demand) energy resources would give us power.

To Gladwell, small may not be beautiful, but it is powerful – because our scale (and our historical ability to move beyond divisions and differences) gives us the opportunity to take bold chances.

This is a powerful thought, but not one that many in the corridors of power seem likely to take onboard. Though they may listen to the CBC and Joni Mitchell in their New York offices, Gladwell and Gopnik still inhabit a separate sphere than most of those who still live and work in Canada. That distance allows them a certain lattitude that is inspiring on first listen, but may not stand-up to the realities we experience watching our government day-to-day. ‘Yes, that would work,’ we say to ourselves as Gladwell speaks (he’s not, by the way, the first to say such things). And it should. But for some reason it seems unlikely.

Perhaps that’s because we value our role on the international stage so little. Perhaps it’s because it’s easier to simply throw up our hands up and say ‘the problem is bigger than us.’ It is, after all. So why not grab at the money while it’s there, sell off our companies to foreigners who see Canada as a bargain outlet for resources?

Because, as Gopnik points out, we’ve managed to do some pretty remarkable things in the past. We’ve managed to present the world with a model for how to get along, for how to be a nation with dueling (or at least separate) nationalities. We’ve also managed to produce innovators and problem solvers that have left a significant mark on the world.

We’re bigger than we think. It’s time to start taking ourselves and our role more seriously.

Give ‘er a listen.

Oh, and the punchline to that joke? You ask them politely.

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