“It is exactly because we were the losers of the American Revolution that we can now become winners of a Canadian one.”
“To get at the Canadian circumstances is above all to see the country in terms of its contradictions.”
“No nation ever grew up more absurd, and is taking so long to grow out of its absurdity.”
Those are just a few of the memorable lines from A Nation Unaware, the 1974 book that articulated Canada’s identity in a new way, but that, after the fact, seemed obvious.
What were the “contradictions” that defined the country? They were the regions versus the centre, English Canada versus French Canada, and Canada versus the United States. This mix of contradictions was so unique to Canada that it marked it off from any other place and could be said to constitute a “Canadian civilization.“
These contradictions, embedded in Canadians’ psychology, also played themselves out in the economic life of the country, as the regions vied to affirm themselves, French-Canadians in Quebec fought to retain their identity, and Canada strove from its very beginnings to assert its independence from the United States. Their two most forceful expressions: public enterprise and interregional redistribution, the history of which makes up most of the book. Both were devices of necessity, taken by many as a kind of curse Canadians had to live with. But they became the basis of a distinctive economic culture that gave Canada exciting future possibilities.
The persistent Canadian hand-wringing in the face of such a culture came from the typical Canadian tendency of looking at things through American eyes, dubbed in the book the “American-ideology-in-Canada.” This borrowed perspective made Canada appear to be a second-rate reflection of the American way of life. Not so, Herschel discovered. The Canadian economic culture was a highly creative, positive force, and the sooner Canadians recognized it, the better.
Over the years, A Nation Unaware became a Canadian classic, taught in political science, history, business and communications courses. Canadian literary giants like Pierre Berton and Peter Newman cited it. Nationalists like Mel Hurtig talked about it. Decades after publication date, when Herschel himself considered the book out of date – his hopes for the country had been dashed by its continuing subservience to American ideas – people would come up to him and insist that it wasn’t out of date at all, that they thought about the book all the time, and it was as relevant as ever.
Within the narrative of A Nation Unaware are chapters and
sections on related subjects that stand on their own and
have stood the test of time. Part I, on the Canadian
identity, for example, remains the one unerring explanation
of what makes Canadians what they are, different from the
Americans and everyone else (and, as
A sardonic title for the book: A Nation’s Underwear. It was coined by a clever headline writer for Canadian Forum magazine.
already explained, it’s not public medical care, as silly a
suggestion as they come). Part IV, on the Canadian public
broadcasting culture, is a compelling account of one of
Canadians’ greatest innovations and of how deep its roots
were in the history of the country. A chapter on mining
promotions, of all things – one has to read the book to see
where it fits in – has a section on stock markets giving a
lie to the fiction that they were economically important in
Canada or even in the economic development of the United