Is multinational, multicultural Canada more civilization than nation-state?

The cover of Peter H. Russell’s new book prominently features a map of Canada, but make no mistake: Russell’s position as author is in fact more akin to the experienced guide than the cartographer, and he is quite open about what he is working to guide us toward. Canada’s Odyssey: A Country Based on Incomplete Conquests is designed to be a corrective to his Constitutional Odyssey: Can Canadians Become a Sovereign People? That earlier book—which was first written in 1990 and has gone through three subsequent editions, the most recent published in 2004—presented readers with an odyssey of a very different kind. As the original’s subtitle suggests, that voyage presumed its destination (i.e., the formation of a singular sovereign people) and so lent itself to a view aimed at ultimately unifying the numerous nations (both settler and Indigenous) whose historic lands are in the territory now known as Canada. This unifying project has, as Russell observes, been rejected by both the French Canadians and Indigenous nations. As he puts it in his new book:

These Canadians do not accept that the tide of history has somehow washed away these nations of their first allegiance or diluted their constitutional significance. Their enduring presence as “nations within” Canada is fundamental to understanding Canada, as is the often troubled, uncomfortable accommodation of these “nations within” by the country’s English-speaking majority.

In Constitutional Odyssey, Russell focused on the mid 19th-century process of confederation via the British North America Act of 1867, but this focus on the creation of the Dominion obscured the importance of Canada’s pre-Confederation history. This is why the account that Russell presents in Canada’s Odyssey begins a century prior to Confederation. It leads him to a very different finding about both how Canada came to be and what it is today. He argues that “the existence of nations or peoples preceding Britain’s imperial presence in Canada, and Britain’s decision not to attempt a complete conquest of these peoples, are the crucial facts about Canada’s founding.”

The argument that Canada is best understood as a multinational democracy (as opposed to a nation-state) is by no means a new one. There is a well-developed body of literature on this that spans law and the social sciences and includes leading Canadian scholars such as Michael Asch, John Borrows, Alain-G. Gagnon, Sákéj Henderson, Will Kymlicka, Val Napoleon, Charles Taylor and James Tully (to name only a few). In this sense, the essentially contested nature of Canadian sovereignty has been immensely fruitful. What I mean by this is that the basic conceptual structure of the Westphalian nation-state (i.e., that there is a singular nation or people that is absolutely sovereign within their territory) has been constantly contested from a diverse and frequently overlapping set of perspectives over the last 250 years. With Canada’s Odyssey Russell is making a contribution to this existing body of literature.

The value of this contribution, at least as I see it, is that it collects together a set of historical narratives that are often dispersed across a number of texts and presents them in a manner that is both accessible and engaging to a wider audience. This could well be mistaken as an offering of faint praise on my part. It is not. What Russell accomplishes with this text is no small feat. The existing literature is well developed, but that does not mean that it is easily accessible. More often it requires that the reader is fluent in one or more specialized scholarly register and so the disciplinary boundaries of the university can effectively hive off the body into a set of parts that can seem discrete, much in the same way that the elephant appears to the blind men in the well-known parable.

For example, were you to approach the question of multinationalism in Canada through political science you would likely be directed to the work of Gagnon, Kymlicka and Tully. This would, in turn, require some fluency in the history of western political thought and constitutionalism. Once you have that fluency you are able to access these texts in a meaningful way, but as you study them you will begin to see their connections to law and legal history. Here you will begin to encounter Henderson’s work on treaty, Borrows’s work on Indigenous constitutionalism and Napoleon’s work on Indigenous legal traditions. In order to access this area of literature you will need to acquire some fluency in the common law, the history of British settler-colonialism and legal philosophy (among other things). This could, in turn, lead you to explore the question of Indigenous rights at the international level through the work of leading scholars from the United States or the broader history of western imperialism in international law via Antony Anghie and Karuna Mantena (again, to name only a few).

My point here is that there are a number of ways that you can approach the question of the “nations within” Canada, but, like a network of hiking trails, each of these paths has distinct demands and offers particular perspectives. The challenge is that the paths crisscross and overlap and are, more often than not, lacking signs and trail maps, so it can be rather difficult to know how and where to begin.

The value of Canada’s Odyssey is that it requires very little of the reader in advance. It offers an open and accessible path and, although it may appear somewhat daunting (given its length of 500 pages), it is a very enjoyable and engaging read. In its writing style, the book manages to walk a line ­somewhere between academic and popular history, which is a challenging line for any author. The informality of its tone combined with the sheer scope and detail of the project serves to reach and hold the attention of a diverse set of readers. Russell makes it clear that this is the intent of the book:

The book is organized in a historical narrative form, and contains a great deal of historical detail. But it is not a history of Canada, nor am I a historian. The book is an argument about Canadian history and its bearing on Canada today. I have poached shamelessly from the work of Canadian historians and am much indebted to them. But I am a political scientist who believes strongly that an understanding of today’s politics requires an appreciation of formative events of the past.

The book’s structure offers a sense of the temporal scope of this field of view. It is divided into six parts: parts one and two focus on the 18th century and the transition into the long 19th century (to borrow Eric Hobsbawm’s apt phrasing); part three focuses on the process of Confederation that took place in 1867; parts four and five focus on the first and second half of the 20th century respectively; and the final part offers us a contextual perspective on the present and possible futures. Canada’s Odyssey is, quite simply, expansive (a fact given away by the length), but what sets it apart is how Russell navigates the actual features of the historical landscape. He does not attempt to provide us with an “objective” chronology (a familiar historical device that positions the author as an all-seeing eye that merely records events in the sequence in which they occur, but can never escape the little subjective ticks and tells that betray its situated—and all too human—perspective). Nor is this a hagiography of “great men”; rather, Russell navigates the features of the historical territory from a more situated perspective so that he can remind us of something. As I see it, he offers us a way of making our path through the territory that moves between the abstraction of maps and compasses and the specific features of the landscape that they omit.

In my own terms, I would characterize the form of this book as genealogical. That is, it begins from a current problematic and traces the origins of it through a series of encounters and events that could have always been otherwise. The merit of this approach is that it helps us gain a more perspicacious view of the problems of the present. We can begin to see the aspects that a certain habitual way of seeing things had served to conceal. Simply put, when executed well this approach can help to show us what may be hiding in plain sight.

Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Purloined Letter” serves as a handy illustration—the Prefect and his police detectives fail to find a missing letter because they assume that it would be hidden and not left out in the open on the unscrupulous Minister’s desk—as does Arien Mack and Irvin Rock’s work on inattentional blindness, which clearly shows how expectation can blind us to what is right in front of our face. In their 1998 book Inattentional Blindness, Mack and Rock argue that there is no conscious perception of the visual world without attention, and famously illustrate the point by referring to the Invisible Gorilla Test. The gist of the test is that scientists gave participants a set of instructions for reviewing a video and then asked them if they had noticed anything out of the ordinary. In most groups, less than 50 percent of participants reported noticing the man in a gorilla suit walking through the scene.

In this specific case, Canada’s Odyssey serves as a clear response to the general confusion about the place of Indigenous peoples within the constitutional structure of Canada. The past 150 years have seen the creation of a vast despotic system of colonial administration that was specifically designed to dissolve Indigenous peoples as peoples and thereby unify the Canadian body politic. This was unilaterally imposed over Indigenous peoples who had an extensive and well-defined network of treaty relationships with the British imperial crown that extended back to the Royal Proclamation of 1763 and the Treaty of Niagara in 1764. The aim of this civilizing project was driven, in large part, by the presumption that a state was defined as a single nation within a bounded territory. This has left a legacy of confusion regarding the nature of Indigenous peoples (are they subjects of the Crown, a cultural minority within Canada or self-determining peoples?) and the meaning of aboriginal rights and title that were recognized and affirmed in section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982. Simply put, many Canadians have become used to seeing Indigenous peoples as wards of the Canadian state.

This is precisely why Canada’s Odyssey is such a timely and important book in the year of Canada’s sesquicentennial. If I were to recommend a set of readings that could serve to disabuse my fellow Canadians of their assumptions regarding Indigenous peoples and the history and structure of the Canadian state, I would begin with this book. It offers an open and accessible path through a history of which too few Canadians are aware. I am not suggesting that it is a complete map or a panacea (I am sure that we have all missed seeing a gorilla or two and had to live with the consequences). Rather, it is an excellent starting point to orient oneself within the constitutional history of Canada.

The arrangement of its historical narrative is key. It serves as a corrective to other historical narratives on the origins of Canada that see the country as either a product of British imperial conquest or a compact of two founding nations. It clearly demonstrates that Canada is a product of incomplete conquests and so remains both a multinational and multicultural state. And this is where I believe the book makes its most important contribution. As Russell helpfully points out:

Canadians are not supposed to think of themselves in grandiose ways—but I do suggest, in closing the book, that what we have learned about living well together could be of value to all of humankind. Multinational, multicultural Canada might offer more useful guidance for what lies ahead for the peoples of this planet than the tidy model of the single-nation sovereign state. Indeed, Canada might be more like a civilization than a nation-state. As an example of how diverse peoples can live together in freedom and peace, this loose, never settled alliance of peoples called Canada could replace empire and nation-state as the most attractive model in the twenty-first century.

I very much agree with him on this point, and anyone looking for some way to mark Canada’s sesquicentennial would do well to read this book.