Book Reviews / Comptes rendus de livres - Eva Mackey, The House of Difference: Cultural Politics and National Identity in Canada

Book Reviews / Comptes rendus de livres

Eva Mackey, The House of Difference: Cultural Politics and National Identity in Canada

Brian S. Osborne
Queen's University
Mackey, Eva. The House of Difference: Cultural Politics and National Identity in Canada. London: Routledge, 1999. 199 pp., 14 illus., cloth US$90, ISBN 0-415-18166-6.

1 Eva Mackey's House of Difference is Canada. It's a place where the national project has attempted to cultivate a national identity in the midst of diversity. The author accepts that Canadian state-nationalism initiatives have — for the most part — eschewed policies of erasure and forced homogeneity. However, her central thesis is that the preferred policies of apparent inclusion and tolerance have served to reinforce dominant identities, exclusions, and hierarchies of difference. Further, she argues that the constant "reproduction" of the crisis of identity have allowed state institutions to intervene in the production of a culture of tolerance that was necessary for "managing relations between Québec and Canada and in articulating a national identity which differentiates Canada from the USA" (p. 16).

2 More particularly, for Mackey, what is at issue is not the impact of such policies on "minorities" but, rather, on "Canadian-Canadians." Accordingly, the House of Difference focuses on the "subtle and mobile powers of liberal inclusionary forms of national imagining and national culture" and the "white backlash" (p. 5). That is, it is a study of "whiteness" and of those who perceive themselves as being "victims of multiculturalism" (p. 20).

3 Eva Mackey's study discomforts me. Perhaps naively, I have generally accepted the dominant metanarratives of this distinctive place. Increasingly over time, I have come to accept the ideal of the "peaceable kingdom," the celebration of Taylor's and Kymlicka's "deep diversity," and an appreciation of Canada as Gwyn's "first postmodern state."1 I can identify with the objective of an enhanced "social cohesion" that is defined as an ongoing process of developing a community of shared values, challenges and equal opportunity based on "a sense of trust, hope and reciprocity among all Canadians."2 Predictably, therefore, my first reaction to Mackey's thesis was that she was cynical in labelling putatively progressive cultural policies as mere strategies to manipulate and perpetuate difference in the face of heterogeneity. But then I am a simple geographer seduced by the role of narratives and landscapes in the modernist project of establishing ties that bind. Mackey is an anthropologist informed by a postcolonial critique of what the ties are binding people to.

4 To this end, she examines the historical construction of Canadian national identity as it relates to its representation and management of internal and external "others." For her, the central theme has been a mythic narrative that foregrounded "fairness," "justice," and "tolerance" in official histories, art, and government immigration and cultural policies. Whether these advocate "nominal respect" for Native or French peoples (Native Proclamation 1763, Quebec Act 1774), advocate the erasure of cultural difference (Canada First Movement, Immigration policies), or construct an aesthetic of wilderness, victim, and survival (Frye, Atwood, "The Group") the intent was always the same: a Canadian identity concerned with reinforcing white settler hegemony and a distancing of Canada from the United States.

5 Mackey sees similar motives in the emergence of multiculturalism as the cultural politics of the elite. Rather than erasing difference, the multiculturalism initiatives of 1971 and 1988 served to "institutionalise, constitute, shape, manage, and control difference" (p. 70). And I thought it was an ideological step forward after centuries of racist exclusionary thinking and practice!

6 Mackey's strategy is to deconstruct the cultural politics of the "pedagogies of nationalism" that locate Canada's pluralism in a linear narrative of nation building. For her, therefore, even — or perhaps more especially — the Canadian Museum of Civilization is a site of identity production. She effects a close reading of the architect's rationale and the curatorial practices to uncover a blatantly instrumentalist and statist rhetoric. For Mackey, it is a "hierarchically controlled space" (p. 77) in which Native peoples' difference and self-representations are appropriated by the Canadian national meta-narrative. Even the fact that these representations often render a radical critique of the dominant culture is taken as further evidence of a centrist design to demonstrate the putative tolerance of the dominant society. You just can't win!

7 At a different scale, these ideas are personified by interviews with some sixty people and participant observation in five communities — renamed Elmford, Rockville, Wallaceford, Brookside, Fernwood — celebrating Canada's 125th anniversary in 1992.3 "Canada 125" was the Mulroney government's alternative to the proposed Columbus Centennial that was dropped because it was too controversial. Intended to mobilize patriotism and national unity at the local level, Canada 125 afforded Mackey the opportunity to examine public contestations of the official multicultural policy.

8 This "multi-site" and "event-centred" approach allowed an ethnographic exploration of the construction of national and local identities. Constantly switching scales between discourses at the national and local level, Mackey carefully articulates the context of Canada 125: the failure of the Meech Lake Accord; the Oka Crisis; economic recession; the Spicer Commission; the Beaudoin-Dobbie Commission; the Charlottetown Accord. Given the profound national angst at this time, Mulroney shrewdly deflected the organization of Canada 125 to a private corporation with a budget of a mere $50 million — in comparison to the over $1 billion for the 1967 Centennial. Overtly non-partisan, blatantly corporate, Canada 125 directed its attention to white, "non-political Canadians" (p. 133). Specifically excluded were "special interest groups": immigrants, people of colour, lesbians and gays, and even women — although the "The Joy of Toys: Toy Poodle Owners of Canada" were approved (p. 122)!

9 What a context for examining the attitudes of "white-Canadians" to the national agenda and multiculturalism in particular — especially in small town Ontario. The absence of First Nations and yet an appropriation of their story; a rejection of U.S. values and yet an admiration of their patriotism; a nostalgia for a "Canadian" identity but an inability to define it; and a tolerance for ethnic-racial diversity, provided it was subordinate to "Canadian" values. Personally, I like ambivalence and a degree of confusion when it comes to defining nationalism!

10 So what can we expect to conclude from this perspective? What is Mackey's assessment of "real" Canadians' fundamental beliefs of what Canadian identity should be? The conclusion was that during the "identity crisis" of 1992, many white Canadians felt that multiculturalism disempowered them, and threatened national unity, identity and progress. For them, the solution was to define a "Canadian-Canadian" culture that rendered the multicultural agenda of previous decades redundant.

11 Perhaps more importantly, Mackey relates this study to "current approaches to culture, power, difference, nation and globalisation in anthropology, postcolonial studies and cultural studies" (p. 7). To this end, Mackey quotes Stuart Hall's proposition that "the capacity to live with difference" will dominate our attention in the twenty-first century. For some of us, Canada appears to be well poised to contend with this issue. But Mackey disagrees — or at least temporizes. Her point is that through flexible strategies of "managing, appropriating, controlling, subsuming, and often highlighting" difference, Canada has pursued liberal values and goals of inclusion and pluralism that have been integral to the building, maintaining, and reinforcing of "Western cultural hegemony" (p. 163). Arguing that analysis concerned with the binary pairs of inclusion/exclusion and cultural homogeneity/heterogeneity is inadequate, Mackey turns to the "global culture of the late twentieth century" (p. 163).

12 Like Asad and Bhabha,4 Mackey's rejects the past trends of homogeneity and elision in Western cultural politics in favour of a future that will be more fluid and syncretic and in which cultures will be imagined in terms of hybridity. The threat of globalization will result in what Hall has called "a dialect of identities": some will gravitate inwards to fundamentalisms and traditionalisms; others will reject assimilation, be unable to resort to past traditions, and will, therefore, turn to "cultures of hybridity." No mere alternative form of identity, hybridity is a "resistant" strategy that moves towards an inter/national perspective that rejects the "exoticism of multiculturalism" and turns to national metanarratives based on "anti/nationalist histories of the people" (p. 164).

13 But Mackey is sceptical. Just as she sees hegemonic strategies of dominance and control in liberal initiatives of liberal tolerance and diversity, so she sees that globalization is a Western (read American!) project of domination that leads to the elimination of difference. That is, globalization does not lead to an homogenized global mass culture but rather manipulates hybridity within a well established Western project of power and control. That is, it constructs cultural hegemony without cultural homogeneity. Mackey concludes that, as in Canada, so in a globalizing world, it is better to contend with flexibility and ambiguity rather than "place one's epistemic security in the dialectical opposition between repressive homogeneity (the erasure of difference) and revolutionary hybridity" (p. 167).

14 In other words, perhaps Canada's rational, progressive, and liberal approach to difference doesn't do too bad a job. Indeed, perhaps we could invert her argument that our liberal multiculturalism, like globalization, are both strategies for perpetuating difference. Rather, perhaps Canada's "liberal nationalism" that favours a benign cultural cosmopolitanism may be appropriate for the global scale also.5 Hopefully, these challenge both the bigotry of ethnic nationalism and the hegemony of a U.S. dominated world-system. Certainly, they will allow us to continue to debate and question these options for another century. May we live in boring times!

1 Charles Taylor, "Globalization and the Future of 3. Canada," Queen's Quarterly 105, no. 3 (Fall 1998): 331-342; Will Kymlicka, Liberalism, Community, and Culture (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994) 4. and Multicultural Citizenship (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995); Richard Gwyn, Nationalism Without Walls: The Unbearable Lightness of Being Canadian (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1995).
2 Jane Jenson, "Social Cohesion: Contested 5. Definition, Contested Concept," Social Cohesion Network Series, "What is Social Cohesion and Why Does It Matter?," Ottawa, 17 May 1999.
3 If these, as they appear to be, are all in "Main Street Canada," the claim that they represent "Canadian" verities is severely flawed.
4 Talal Asad, Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993); Homi K. Bhabha, Nation and Narration (London: Routledge, 1990) and The Location of Culture (London: Routledge, 1994).
5 Judith Lichtenberg, "How Liberal Can Nationalism Be?" in Theorizing Nationalism, ed. Ronald Beiner (Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 1999), 167-188.