February 12, 2009

Despite sharing much in the way of popular culture and language, Canadians like to establish their identity as explicitly distinct from their powerful neighbor to the south. And they often do so according to a collection of “€œUs > Them”€ stereotypes, all which contain small kernels of truth: Americans invade, Canadians keep peace; Americans are obnoxious, Canadians exude proper etiquette; Americans leave their citizens to fend for themselves and suffer in dire poverty; the Canadian social contract funds human welfare through adequate taxation of its grateful citizenry.

Canadians are also quick to mention that they know much, much more about the rest of the world than Americans. Their public school system teaches that the United States has a cultural “€œmelting pot,”€ which leads to assimilation and the loss of ethnic identity”€”and is therefore bad! By contrast, Canada uses the cultural “€œmosaic”€ approach, which leads to integration”€”and is therefore good! Furthermore, unable to resist the spread of American entertainment, and American trade, many Canucks like to argue for greater self-sufficiency.

So, if Canadians value sovereignty and perceive themselves as overtly distinct from”€”if not totally better than”€”Americans, then why the messianic “€œcelebrification”€ of another country’s politician? The Canadian national news media has been releasing a flood of articles regarding Obama’s upcoming visit to Ottawa on February 19th. These articles venture beyond any nation’s expected interest in another’s foreign policy. They underscore Obama’s approval of Canada, as this will be his very first presidential visit abroad. The only thing criticized is the appalling brevity of the great man’s sojourn up north.

Social networking sites like MySpace regularly demonstrate how much the Canadian youth demographic admires the new American president. One user blogged about the historic nature of attending the inauguration as a Canadian (?). Another blogger went further and wrote that Canadian politics desperately needs someone like Obama. Canada’s own politicians never dream of receiving such coverage, even ones who are said to resonate with the youth.

The new American president has even become the centerpiece of the Canadian Black History Month, which until 1995 had been known as “€œFebruary.”€

Why do we have this? In 2002, the Parliament of Canada also transformed May into Asian Heritage Month. Both cases are somewhat inconsistent with the official Canadian cultural policy. Whereas the United States”€™ “€œoriginal sin”€ was African slavery, Canada chooses to hold a month-long celebration/dirge for the Aboriginal peoples. In part, this is related to the fact that Canada avoided slavery, abolished by the British Empire in 1807 before the formation of the Canadian state. The country did not practice legal racial segregation either. Aboriginal history and questions of land claims, reservations, and self-government are regularly spot-lit in schools, the media, and politics. Yet, Aboriginal interest groups like RAPA are still lobbying the House of Commons to declare June the Aboriginal History Month, thus far only municipally successful in the prairie city of Regina.

Anyway, what do Canadian ethnic interest-group battles have to do with Barack Obama? Well, the current American leader is featured on the 2009 Legacy Festival poster. This promotional piece for the Canadian Black History month depicts a number of close-ups of prominent African-Canadians in the foreground. The background contains golden-hued clouds, in which … hovers Barack Obama’s giant, near-disembodied head inside a maple leaf. Canadian artist Robert Small, responsible for the artwork’s creation, emphasized the importance of history with significant moments like that of Barack Obama.

The new American president’s inclusion in this Canadian poster is therefore meant to be “€œmotivational.”€

But doesn”€™t seeking racial inspiration outside of Canada clash with our long tradition of “€œWe”€™re not Americans!”€ national identity? And doesn”€™t the poster challenge the Canadian multicultural paradigm? Even more troublesome, what’s with the overtly neoclassical title, “€œThe Birth of Change,”€ and the unambiguously mythic treatment of The (Foreign!) Leader? Throughout the history of art, such artificial visual hierarchy has been used to glorify religious and royal figures … and living Communist party secretaries in Socialist Realism. By sanctioning this cult of personality focused on the new American president, the Canadian government gets more than just a raised eyebrow.


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