Is 'Torontoness' the Answer to the Canadian Identity Crisis?

Urmi Desai in Urban Issues

Over the weekend, Tom Kent's widely-read piece on Canadian citizenship, "Canada is much more than a hotel," appeared in the Globe and Mail.  Kent, a former assistant to Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson, argues that Canada's citizenship and immigration laws require updating.  Kent raises some important points which deserve an honest vetting, but - typical of the genre - his conclusions are ultimately confusing.  One can't demand loyalty, but can "encourage it" through taxation and obligatory citizenship.  Loyalty, in turn, serves to strengthen our flagging sense of identity, a weakness that is "our special Canadian problem."  Only when we believe ourselves to be Canadian - and only Canadian - can we make a difference in a complex and interdependent world.  Less interconnectedness apparently goes further in an interconnected world.

Several weeks ago, I attended a Maclean's debate featuring New Yorker writers Adam Gopnik and Malcolm Gladwell on - wait for it - Canadian identity.  As we settled into our seats, a sense of giddy apprehension pervaded U of T's Convocation Hall.  One has to wonder if a society that readily commits to congregating to discuss identity problems (even paying for the pleasure) doesn't share the same masochistic loyalty of couples chronically in therapy.  Perhaps Mr. Kent need not worry.

Thanks to Maclean's attempt to engender a livelier debate by recruiting "new voices" - those of Canadian writers who haven't lived here for the past ten years or more - not much was added to the cannon familiar to debating clubs across Canada.  With such threadbare material, the debate was ultimately one of style.  While Gladwell offered buzz-word theories to admirably distill complex ideas into uncomplicated Kool-Aid, Gopnik relied on his gifts of close observation (read people-watching) and lyrical oration.  Ultimately, Gopnik held us in rhythmic sway, describing his recent ascent of Montreal, where he saw not a city, but a kaleidoscope of contributions made by individuals with strongly-hued identities of their own - shards of brightly-coloured glass that together mesmerize and inspire us. 

It was only later when I tuned into the weekly broadcast of Laurie Taylor, BBC's sociologist of the people, that I realized that I had failed to observe something key about the debate. Gopnik's crowning moment - to which the audience responded with the loudest applause of the night - wasn't about a country, it was about a city. 

In visiting the city of Marseille, Taylor finds that residents hailing from all over the world find a strong sense of identity in their city - as opposed and in opposition to the country of France. While the tendency has some drawbacks, I think there is a lot of merit to the argument that a wide range of people can more easily identify with their city.  For one, cities appear to lack the colonial pasts and historical baggage of their national counterparts.  And there is simply no topping the familiarity of local skylines and landmarks when it comes to belonging.

The View Up Here: a look out over the city from the CN Tower continues to bring newcomers together


Unlike Kent, I don't think we need a shared identity to build a better society - the checkered history of identity politics gives lie to this oft-supposed correlation.  But a stronger identification with place - a sense of belonging - may make us happier, healthier individuals.  A recent study suggests that conservatives - who are more likely to be married, parents and religious - report greater feelings of satisfaction in life.  However, study after study demonstrates that it's probably the relationships that arise from these tendencies that matter most.  And this is what is missed by traditionalists who confuse the power of sharing beliefs with the need to believe in the right things. 

'Torontoness' - that feeling that one is from somewhere along with others from that place - may not secure us from criminal activity, solve global problems or even prevent us from electing embarrassing mayors - but it may just be good for us.

Urmi Desai is a policy analyst and a freelance writer specializing in urban issues.  She is editor of the Move Smartly blog. Email Urmi

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