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Impossible Conversations: A Review of The Unfinished Canadian

Monday, April 29, 2013
by Tariq Piracha RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewaltwitter / tariqpiracha


Andrew Cohen's The Unfinished Canadian
The Unfinished Canadian published by Andrew Cohen in 2007. The book examines the many faces, or personalities of Canada, looking at our identity, citizenship, multiculturalism, and our anti-Americanism, to name a few. He dispels some myths, questions some "facts", and proposes some potential ways to evolve a Canadian narrative.  

Now arguably cliché, Canadians often define themselves by what they are not, instead of what they are. Despite our tendency to define ourselves "in the negative", Cohen has plenty of nothing-to-do-with-the-United_States adjectives to describe our many personalities: The Hybrid Canadian (also sometimes referred to as a hyphenated Canadian), The Unconscious Canadian (who has little awareness of the past), and The Casual Canadian are just some of the terms (also the names of his chapters) that he addresses. 

While most of Cohen’s content is a reflection upon these Canadian tendencies, some of his content is not just about civicness or collective identity  it is also about governance; it carries potential implications for public administration. Here are a few of our impressions that were captured from the conversation: 

The Tall Poppy Syndrome
The most telling touchstone from the book for me was Cohen’s treatment of the tall poppy syndrome; a syndrome that has successfully worked its way into many aspects of bureaucratic culture. For the uninitiated, the tall poppy syndrome is essentially the tendency to cut down anything that stands out above the rest. Organizationally,  the prevalence of a “tall poppy” culture proves challenging as it undermines any attempt at performance management.; but this tension between a culture that cuts you down and a management regime that stands you up seems utterly impossible to reconcile, especially when its not something we bureaucrats are supposed to talk about.
How’s that for an elephant in the room? Lead, but don’t stand out. Renew the public service, but don’t rock the boat. This is a particularly salient point as, despite the risk involved, we are seeing are more of these impossible conversations taking place more publicly. 

Canadian Citizenship - a global model or a cautionary tale?
Andrew Cohen warns, early on in this book, that it is very subjective. It's a reasonable caveat. I felt that it read more as a curious museum of Canadian anecdotes, and it is largely up to the reader to assess each anecdotes’ impact on an overarching narrative about "Canadianness." I actually enjoyed it, precisely as a curious museum, though I don't know if I was left with stronger feelings in any direction about any particular take on our national identity. The strongest chapter, in my view, was The Casual Canadian. Here, Cohen explored Canadian perceptions on citizenship, noting our relaxed standards for acceptance, which led me to wonder if Canada is a sign of the future, in which national identity loses importance in a global world.
Citizenship, and the chapter The Casual Canadian, took up a substantial amount of our discussion. There is a long history of political debate about what it means to be citizen, or for a nation to be sovereign. With the almost free-flowing movement of people, the nature of citizenship is undoubtedly being challenged. Where it goes from here, and how citizenship is managed, in whatever form it takes, will prove to be an interesting exercise and compelling model to examine.

Canada: A People’s (unknown) History
Cohen’s The Unfinished Canadian explores various aspects of the age-old question “who are we?”, using history, geography, politics, language, and culture as lenses. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he comes up with few answers to that question. On education, he espouses that we don’t learn enough of our own history. On multiculturalism, he notes that it’s a recent phenomenon. On citizenship, he notes we confer it too freely and without attaching enough responsibility. All fair points, all well-argued. As a result of his book I’ll be re-watching Canada: A People’s History, because the book made me realize that in my entire life as a Canadian, I really haven’t learned that much about this country, and there is so much more to know.
Cohen ties history and our citizenship (or perhaps civicness?) together. He argues that Canadians have a duty to appreciate, at least, the major Canadian milestones. We may even find that new Canadians know more about this country than Canadian-born ones. It is a sentiment to which many (myself included) are sympathetic, but it raises some interesting questions about the composition of Canada, and the need or desire to focus on the future vs. the past. Does the Casual Canadian need to know our past in order to contribute to our future? 

The Ignorance and the Apathy
Cohen quotes Thomas Homer-Dixon in his book and I feel it’s worth repeating here: “Our greatest failing is our unwillingness to face the reality of our second-rate performance in so many areas, and to do something about it.” This quote touches on two major themes that struck me about The Unfinished Canadian. First is our ignorance about our history, and second, our apathy. I find it interesting to note the mixing of the two: we have so few icons and symbols that inspire, commemorate and link us to our past. Yes, hockey is often touted as the essence of what it means to be Canadian, but are we to leave it at that? I am not arguing that hockey should not be a part of the Canadian identity, but I am also hopeful that we do not feel as though hockey is a sufficiently meaningful characteristic of what it means to be Canadian. But, as Cohen points out, what choice do we have when history is largely absent from the Canadian consciousness? History, Cohen argues, is too often written by experts for experts.

However, this isn’t just about what it means to be Canadian. In the context of these discussions, what does it mean to be a public servant? Can we be anything more than a second rate public service if we have little to no appreciation of the history of the people, regions and nation we serve?
There are significantly more topics covered in The Unfinished Canadian making this post an unfinished review at best. However, I can assure you that the conversation had much more depth, richness and clarity than can be demonstrated here. Thoughts? We invite you to share yours below.

Next month, we’ll be discussing Donald Savoie’s Whatever Happened to the Music Teacher? Interested in taking part?
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