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The Passport

New-found meaning behind that slim and elegant booklet

Stephen Marche

The document is elegant. No one can dispute that. The deep navy blue of its slightly pebbled cover, the understated gilt imprint of the royal arms of Canada, which somehow looks faded even when new — the passport is a classic. Its cover may be harder, more durable, the pages inside more decorated than when I was a boy, but, in the hand, its familiarity is heavy, anchoring. A passport is a little book printed for a single situation, the condition of being between countries. To hold it is to be going from home to elsewhere or from elsewhere to home. Over time, the booklet assumes the association of distance and belonging, of leaving and returning. This year that association, often subtle, like a half-remembered smell from childhood, clarified itself in the atmosphere of trauma that overtook the world. This was the year when we remembered what it means to hold a Canadian passport.

When COVID-19 hit North America in March, I happened to be on a family vacation in Tobago. Facts, known quantities, established perspectives turned out, often overnight, to be poorly grounded assumptions that no longer applied, and I found myself ten degrees from the equator and confused. Half an hour after our departure, federal officials warned would-be travellers not to leave home. A day later, the government told us to come back before commercial options dried up. There were no earlier flights leaving Tobago. We were scheduled for the last one, unless Sunwing cancelled, which it mercifully didn’t. The Tobagonians didn’t want us there: the government asked all of us to return home as promptly as possible, and ordinary people looked suspiciously at anyone from away. I didn’t blame them. We were vectors of disease. As the anxious week ground down, constantly opening up new vistas of uncertainty, I found myself returning to the hotel safe, again and again, to check the passports. Their slight sheen in the half-light would calm me. They were our way home.

Once we were on the plane, with the passports safely stowed in the carry-on, my first thought was for a young writer I used to know who had moved to New York. When I was in my thirties and she was in her twenties, she had asked me for career advice. The first thing I told her was to leave Canada. How many kid writers had I told that? Maybe as many as two or three dozen? America wants talent and Canada doesn’t, I told them. If you want to make things, and make a living at making things, you have to leave. Canada loves its systems vastly more than individual expression. It chooses the stability of institutions over personality or excellence every time.

Its familiarity is heavy, anchoring.

Hobvias Sudoneighm; Flickr

Where was that writer at that moment? New York was on the edge of the precipice as we flew back. The city had just announced its first few thousand deaths and was two weeks away from not knowing where to bury its dead. Anyone who has spent any time in the United States over the past few years should not be surprised. Ride the subway in New York, cross the border on a busy day, get sick there, God forbid — the American systems, as a whole, are in mid-collapse. COVID-19 has exposed the breakdown at all levels, from the federal government and the states competing for PPE to the chaotic overlapping of plans to reopen businesses that vary jurisdiction by jurisdiction. The United States has, in effect, only an ad hoc civil service. Two-thirds of senior roles at the Department of Homeland Security are unfilled or unconfirmed. Several states — Texas and Florida being the largest — have such limited government they barely deserve the name. A month after 1.5 million Floridians had applied for unemployment benefits, just 40,193 had been paid. Americans decided to run their country like a business, and they’re doing it. But all businesses fail eventually.

At Canadian customs, I handed over our passports. The border guard took our papers, acknowledged who we were, instructed us on how to quarantine, waved us through. Physical calm descended on me: my family and I were once again part of an order we understood. And that slim elegant booklet, in the middle of global crisis, garnered a new association: gratitude. I was suffused with profound gratitude.

What was I grateful for? What was the substance of my gratitude? The passport gave me the sensation of homecoming, familiarity, the knowledge of my physical safety, an assumption of care that has become less and less easy to take for granted in a sickening world. To have a passport, to have papers is a blessing we could ignore before COVID-19 but not after. I would be lying if I did not acknowledge a positive presence, too, a connection with a people. I was grateful to be among Canadians.

Defining national characteristics for any country is silly at the best of times and dangerous at the worst of times, but the process is particularly silly and dangerous when it comes to Canada. Justin Trudeau has described us as “the world’s first post-national state.” That’s just a way of shrugging off the question of who we are. Not that shrugging off the question of national identity is the wrong response. Trudeau’s dad famously said that “there is no such thing as a model or ideal Canadian,” and that’s a vital absence for us. Being Canadian is not a connection of race or blood or language or tradition. The Americans have the power of their symbols. The English have the ingrained connection of their manners. Out of a sense of embarrassment, we’ve cobbled together our versions, but their power is negligible. I wasn’t suffused with gratitude because of maple syrup and hockey, or self-deprecation and the overuse of the word “sorry.” I was grateful for strong institutions. I was glad to return to a country where the administrative state is maintained and supported, not just by politicians but by ordinary people.

But I knew, at the same time, that the institutional nature of the country is what has always driven me crazy about Canada. It’s why I told all those kid writers to leave, and why I wasn’t wrong to tell them that. Canada wants to keep you in your place. In countries as in families: what you love about your home is what infuriates you, and when the crisis hits, sometimes it’s what infuriates you most that you need most.

When it mattered, when the world shattered, the Canadian political class responded with ingrained instinct to institutional prerogatives. The respect for established expertise and order transcends party here. While Trump retweeted calls to fire Anthony Fauci, and Boris Johnson delayed locking down London, Doug Ford, whom I have described in the past as a tinpot northern Trump, proved me wrong. He listened to public health experts, he imposed their advice as policy, he insisted on total informational transparency, he did not hedge his bets, he did not bother with rhetorical games. He gave near-daily press conferences where he made clear and clearly informed decisions. The response of a supposed populist to the outbreak has been in the best Canadian tradition of deference to expertise, distinct from the vast majority of his conservative counterparts in the United States and everywhere else. Compare Ford’s response with the cruel stupidity of the governor of Florida temporarily banning non-Floridians on cruise ships from disembarking, closing and opening and then closing the beaches — and you see why I was so grateful to be home. As I write this, Ontario stands at around 150 new cases a day, and Florida is approaching ten thousand. Government matters.

The spectacle of the prime minister working from home in March, as his spouse self-isolated in another part of Rideau Cottage after testing positive for COVID-19, was the aesthetic performance of our national orderliness. The fact that the leader of our country was left alone with his three children to work from home, like the rest of us, without any help, all that scrupulous cheerful distance, was maximum Canadianness: an absurd level of samey-samey rules-following on display. His hair, usually coiffed with an almost incredible precision, took on a rumpled shagginess that was every bit as much an aesthetic act. Look, he was saying, even my hair must go through the dishevelment that everybody else’s hair must go through.

The orderliness in which we live comes at a cost. As a writer, I see it most fully in my little corner of the culture industry, which is a small but revealing group because it pertains to an aspect of life that is inherently uncontrollable and, for most of its history, in explicit resistance to administration. Art is wild. Art is shocking. Most of all, art is unpredictable. Talent is fundamentally unjust; some have it and some don’t. No one knows why. In this country, that basic fact of life is unacceptable. The history of Canadian culture is the history of either ignoring art or trying to manage its unpredictability. There’s a reason that all the best Canadian music of an earlier generation — Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Neil Young — could be made only in California. The question of whether the art is any good rarely occurs to anyone here. Taste is all very well, but a mandate is a mandate.

Here’s a current fact that could only be Canadian: We are better at managing film festivals than at making movies. TIFF is a masterpiece, but the Canadian cinematic masterpiece remains unmade. If you want somebody to organize the lines into the theatre, hire a Canadian. The movie inside? I wouldn’t bother. If you make a film here, it will be made to serve the needs of the CRTC or Telefilm or some other institution rather than a market or an audience. And the corollary is obvious. If you just want to subsist in a static category of “filmmaker,” Canada might work for you, as long as you don’t make anything that disturbs the orderliness of the institutions. If you want to make an actual film, leave. The commitment to the institution, in this country, carries more weight than any function it purports to serve.

The media operates against the same cultural backdrop. The CBC, at least in English, is a palimpsest of virtue regimes. It articulates institutional values and then attempts to impose them on the audience, which is why its audience is in such steep decline. It resembles nothing so much as a humanities department at a mid-size university, fixated on its internal logic to the exclusion of its relevance. That’s natural enough. It’s a public broadcaster. But private outlets — CTV, the Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star — have the exact same tendency. The Rob Ford scandal had to be broken by Gawker, an American blog, even though our newspapers knew about his crimes. Because they were consumed with the question “Are we the kind of institution that reports this?”

The media and culture industries are minuscule little corners of Canada as a whole. But the same dominance of the administrators affects every aspect of the country. Canada is tremendous at holding public panels on the need for innovation; not so much at innovation itself. In the Conference Board of Canada’s latest report on the subject, which was released in 2018, the organization ranked the country number twelve on a list of sixteen. In February of this year, just before the outbreak, Carolyn Wilkins, the Bank of Canada’s senior deputy governor, gave a speech at the Economic Club of Canada, in which she stated the obvious: “Canada trails many other advanced economies on indicators that we know increase productivity and the competitiveness of our businesses.” By her estimation, if our productivity had grown at the same rate as that of the United States during the 1990s, our GDP would be about 13 percent higher. That translates to $5,000 per Canadian each year for twenty-five years. She attributes part of that failure to a dearth of investment in information and communications technology, as well as in research and development.

The week before Wilkins’s speech, the chief executive of Suncor Energy, Mark Little, gave a remarkably self-reflective talk in Toronto about the state of Canadian industry, in which he pointedly refused to blame Trudeau or the government, as many other CEOs have. The scandal of Canadian companies’ lack of investment in innovation was, in his view, on business leaders. “This is something we need to embrace as a country, as business leaders across the country. Are we doing enough?” Both Wilkins and Little were expressing a frustration with what can be described only as a cultural reality: the avoidance of risk and the love of stability. Who wants disruption here?

The entire tone of our public life has been shaped by institutionalism. But in crisis, all this enclosure, all this limitation can be comforting. For myself, the comfort of returning to Canada was like returning to the stability of the family — in no small part because Canadian power is a family, or a bunch of families anyway. Business here is nepotistic. Power is nepotistic. The prime minister is some guy’s kid. In the early days of the crisis, Galen Weston, another guy’s kid, sent an open letter to the press assuring Canadians that the food supply chains were stable. The reality of nepotism is unfair and stupid and backward, and you don’t have to look further than Jared Kushner to see how absurd and dangerous that can be. But I’m pretty sure about Galen. He has been around my whole life, standing in a field talking about sweet corn and organic cherries in those ridiculous ads. If Galen says the logistical networks are stable, then they are.

The Canadian love of administration, the bureaucratic mentality that can elaborate itself into plentiful absurdities, is something more than a national characteristic. I’m not sure that I would go so far as to say it’s the soul of the country — because what is that? — but it is the national structure. It’s how things are here.

That structure derives, at least in part, from the country’s status as a British colony. The administrative order derived from the parliamentary system, and the tradition of the English civil service is a substantial inheritance; one of the deeper ironies of this moment is that many former colonies have become better stewards of that tradition than the United Kingdom itself. Trinidad and Tobago, where my family and I were nearly stranded, has that same inheritance, and I could see the power of that system working there too. In the afternoons, the minister of health and the chief medical officer and the minister of national security gave statements explaining, in detail, the measures taken and their probable consequences, where and when emergency clinics had been set up, the guidelines for the public. And all this when, in early March, there were only two cases in the whole country. The contrast with the United States was staggering: Trinidad and Tobago is a nation of 1.3 million with a GDP of a little over $20 billion (U.S.). It is nonetheless evidently better governed than the world’s purported superpower.

Northrop Frye identified Canada’s colonial inheritance as the “garrison mentality.” The pre-origins of the Canadian state were isolated outposts, inevitably producing “a closely knit and beleaguered society.” Such people were in a constant state of fear from outside threats, developing an internal logic that was identical with self-preservation. For Frye, that spirit of interiority and containment preserved itself as the national context changed. “As the centre of Canadian life moves from the fortress to the metropolis, the garrison mentality changes correspondingly,” he wrote in 1965. Multiculturalism, far from being a challenge to that spirit, has only amplified and enlarged it. Our innovation in immigration was the points-based system of 1967, and our geography has kept our immigration system uniquely controlled. The vast majority of new Canadians are here because they passed an elaborate test and proved to officials that they belong; they have been admitted into the garrison.

But if there is a garrison mentality, there is also the view from the garrison. Nature dominates our experience, and the nature of where we are is punishing, obliviating. “I have long been impressed in Canadian poetry by a tone of deep terror in regard to nature,” Frye wrote. “It is not a terror of the dangers or discomforts or even the mysteries of nature, but a terror of the soul at something that these things manifest.” Canadian landscape is the cure for all sentimentality. Go and walk around Northern Quebec or the Peace River Country or even in downtown Toronto in February, and it will become clear, without needing to be expressed, that life is a brief resistance against a base condition of indifferent lifelessness. Supposedly our core narrative is one of survival. To me, what Canada teaches without teaching, by being itself, is that nothing survives in the end, not even stories. All glory is vanity.

The concept of freedom is always intimately bound up with the conception of wild animals. Kantian categories or political theories are nothing beside them. The experience of freedom varies with the experience of nature. There are places where freedom is the freedom to rot. There are places where freedom is the freedom to soar. There are places where freedom is the freedom to rip out the throats of the weak. Our animals survive in packs, like bison, or, like the grizzly, in superb isolation. The English tradition of anthropomorphizing gardens and forests — rabbits cooking stews, fantastic foxes, toads riding motorcars — has little purchase here. We know that the raven is not like us but that a part of us is like the raven. The wilderness, obscured, crushed, shapes us no matter how deeply we stuff it down.

The pandemic has altered the concept of personal freedom at its essence, suddenly, everywhere. Our blasted land, this country either in winter or between winters, has always made human freedom seem like a ludicrous fantasy. In the Canadian landscape, freedom has always been a confrontation with death that we hide ourselves away from in elaborate systems, in a kind of extreme form of unwildness — as much politeness as possible, as much order as manageable. To become strong, durable, productive, uncomplaining cattle — that was the dream the settlers had for us out of the wilderness. If it amounted to an ideology, our founding principle would be the ideology of the obedient herd. And when the storm comes, what could be more delicious than to cower among your fellow beasts of burden in the safety of the stable?

On the day I returned from Tobago, the passport in my hand had two meanings. First, I was holding the collective decisions of generations — decisions around the political order, around health care, around support for what might be called the public good. Elections have consequences. Centuries of elections can save your life. That’s not symbolism, that’s not a feeling, not some speechifying material. My passport is my passport because of those decisions. Others have made me safe. I am grateful.

The passport in my hand was also a path home, and your home is different from your papers. The home I inhabit is a confrontation with oblivion, a garrison overlooking a wilderness that forces us to recognize that we are all the same. I am oddly proud of the harsh wilderness inside us, a cruelty we are so scrupulous about masking, from outsiders and from ourselves.

I am still conscious of the cost of that truth. If you want to be meaningful, you’ll have to do it somewhere else. If you want to go into business, you will automatically focus on ancillary markets. No one will respect you for what makes you different here. They’ll take care of you because of what makes you just like everybody else. All of this is to say that Canada is my home — nurturing and oppressive with the same gesture, safe and claustrophobic in its enclosure. And like any home, it can be known only by leaving and returning. There will be time for a good long look at ourselves now. For the foreseeable future, we are going to be living within our own borders, in every sense.

My passport has been put away. It will remain put away until the world opens again. I keep it in the safest place I know, that slim and elegant booklet stamped by many authorities, but contained in its own.

Stephen Marche is a novelist and essayist, as well as the host of How Not to F*ck Up Your Kids Too Bad, an audio series.

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