In the 2010 film adaptation of Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert meets Luca Spaghetti, a boisterous Italian who offers a critique of the American lifestyle. “You want to know what your problem is?” he says, “Americans! You work too hard, you get burned out, then you come home and spend the whole weekend in front of the TV.” Spaghetti observes that Americans feel they must earn the right to enjoy life but Italians instinctively balance work and relaxation. Aside from adding comedy to Gilbert’s journey of self-discovery at the expense of stereotypes, Spaghetti’s observation demonstrates twentieth-century French philosopher Pierre Bourdieu’s principle of “The Other.” The theory’s basic premise is that individuals and nations distinguish themselves through comparison with a counterpart. For example, a glib Canadian response to the topic of national identity is “we are not Americans.” Since the notion originated in Europe, I expected to encounter cultural comparisons leaning in favour of France during my visit to the country—after all, they certainly dine better than North Americans—but reality yielded different results.
Canadians are well-received internationally, particularly in Europe, and most presume it is because they are considered friendlier than Americans. This is a perception befitting the peacekeeping identity Canada has fostered since the late 1950s when it accepted the responsibility of counterbalancing the ambitions of the United States. The consequence of this position is some Canadian nationals believe their country has a supporting rather than a leadership position. However, this is not the opinion abroad.
Normans[i] still consider Canadians liberators because of the country’s role in delivering France from German occupation through the 1944 D-Day invasion and subsequent offensives. Communities like Courselles-sur-mer maintain a close connection to the Juno Beach landing because local families cared for the soldiers’ graves until the official commission took over at the end of the twentieth-century. Citizens continue to visit the graves at Beny-sur-mer, placing flags, poppies, or cornflowers[ii] on them. Unofficial monuments commemorating the Canadian units that participated in the Normandy offensive include stone piles[iii] decorated with poppies and small wooden crosses. This is a striking contrast to Canada’s domestic memory practices with many cenotaphs remaining devoid of wreaths, flowers, etc. until Remembrance Day. Like their French counterparts, British travellers also visit the Canadian War Graves Cemetery. When asked why they would visit a site that did not belong to their country, a couple replied, “Why wouldn’t we? [The Canadians] gave us our lives.” Beyond Canada’s historic role, France respects the present identity of the country including its innovation[iv] and multicultural society.
Multiculturalism is a favoured twenty-first century Canadian catchphrase commonly connected with the humble-brag “our land is a mosaic.” Nevertheless, most Canadians concede that the mosaic approach is imperfect, but some French citizens have a different perspective. One individual explained that even though Canada’s approach has its faults, it is one of the few countries able to integrate immigrants within one generation, cultivating a sense of pride in the new country. France has yet to accomplish similar results with third or fourth generation immigrants still feeling disconnected from French society. This lack of national connection and identity can be used to recruit for gangs or homegrown terrorist cells. In contrast, a third generation Canadian usually identifies more with Canada than the country of their forbearers. This distinction could partially be because European nations are older than North America, but even the United States struggles with its melting pot approach. However, most Canadians would admit that they do not think about their government’s moderately successful approach to multiculturalism. Even as a historian, it took a French citizen’s comparison of Canada as “The Other” before I understood the unusualness of Canada’s ability to cultivate a sense of national connection within one generation. This ability offers the country a potentially consecrated position on the international stage to advise other nations on its methods, especially when there are insidious organizations seeking to exploit the disconnection.
Bourdieu’s initial theory of “The Other” suggests that countries use comparison to bolster a sense of national pride and identity. However, for some countries, the relationship with “the other” is more benevolent. Countries can learn by listening to the comparisons, like how Canada that sees itself as a supporter nation while others like French citizens consider Canada an example, perhaps even a leader. As the international status of nations begins to shift once again and the question of what each one can offer, perhaps it is time to listen to the others and let them tell us about our countries.
Desarée Rosskopf is the Associate Editor of Kazingram Dialogue. She received her Master of Arts in History from Western University and a BA Honours in History from Tyndale University College. She specializes in contemporary military history as well as collective memory and mythmaking. She is currently researching the legacy of Canada’s Normandy landing from 1944-2017 as a Fellow for the Juno Beach Centre in France. @DesareeRosskopf
[i] French citizens living in Normandy.
[ii] Cornflowers or bleuet de France is used to symbolize solidarity with veterans like the Canadian poppy. Like the poppy, the cornflower survived the destruction of the Western Front.
[iii] Placing a stone on a grave or historic site is a Jewish tradition adopted by Western society meaning “I was here, I remember.”
[iv] Otherwise described Canada’s “make it work” attitude