A primary difference between Canadian culture and American culture: Our neighbour is a great beast that would happily, if permitted, occupy us, devour us and who, in effect…is well on the way to doing just that through the ongoing and insidious infiltration of our cultural universe and our electronic media; through continuous and systemic artistic bombardment with images of American homogenized identity and iconography that is moribund and based on the ‘melting pot’ theory of blending differences to eradicate Otherness.
Canadian culture has always presented itself as a shining example of the now hackneyed and somewhat suspect ‘mosaic’ theory of cultural diversity through preservation of heritage. While Canada has been a country since 1867, our land and its indigenous people have existed for hundreds of years. At the beginning of the 16th century, the battles over ownership of our country began with the British and French explorers who ‘discovered’ Canada at around the same time as the ‘discovery’ of the rest of North America and the Caribbean by European invaders, oh… I mean to say, explorers. Our culture and our country is, in fact, a hybrid result of several hundred years of weaving together traditions and ideologies. Into what? Well, it certainly isn’t a finely edged mosaic. Perhaps more like a faded tapestry complete with holes and fraying threads.
Like many of the countries of the world, we too have a history of occupation and colonization. Even today, we are a dominion of the British Empire. We have tried, throughout our history, and to varying degrees of success, to maintain the diversity and the sense of Otherness that determines our identity: for Canadians the question of survival has always been tied to this. Our art reflects the way in which a chorus of blended yet discernible voices makes up the collective culture of our country. Even when that very chorus offers nothing but cacophony.
Why do we continue to make theatre? Audiences continue to dwindle. Funding continues to evaporate. Because on some level we know that it is the last line of defence in the war against cultural obliteration. The battle we are fighting today in Canada (and make no mistake: it is a battle) is one to ensure the survival of our culture and its cultural product, and that this cultural product be preserved not as a luxury, but as a fundamental human right.
In a conversation by the side of the National Highway in Cuba with a garlic vendor, I raised the issue of how culture exists when people are fighting to ensure their very survival, when foraging for food is a daily exercise and clothing and cleaning oneself a luxury. Without blinking, he answered, “Without culture we have nothing. Without culture, we have no face. No voice. And without those, how could we survive? It would mean nothing. ‘Voice” is, undeniably, the core of the identity of an individual, and the basis of a national identity. Without knowing and articulating who we are, our art loses all meaning. Without our art, our identity loses all meaning. And without our art and our identity, what hope is there of survival on any level?
Otherness can refer to behaviour that is anti-social and sociopathic. It can also refer to non-conformists, outstanding creative thinkers, visionary philosophers; in short, to stars. Canadian culture is built on the need to excel in order to survive, to compete and win in order to succeed. We are often, especially in creative fields, encouraged to stand apart from the crowd, to be different. This embracing of Otherness requires two things: identifying and understanding what actually constitutes ‘the crowd,’ the majority; and identifying and exploring our position in relation to the majority. We are, even as Other, always present in a context. And context, or interactive landscape, shapes us as much as we shape it.
We are never simply “of” a community, we are the community. We are a culture by virtue of what is reflected back at us every time we look in a mirror, every time we look at each other, and every time we speak or listen.
My parents were born in Canada. My grandparents came from Eastern Europe in the early decades of the 20th century. One grandmother used to tell the story of how, as a young girl serving beer to soldiers in a tavern in a small village on the border of Poland and Russia, she never knew what language she would have to speak on any particular day, “Every time there was a pogrom, a border dispute,” she would say, “we would have to change our nationality and language. We were Jews, so we were nothing. We had no voice, to them we had no faces. We had no identity.”
I am named for my great-great-grandmother. I bear the name of a biblical warrior woman who suffered greatly because she demanded respect and identity in a community that denied her citizenship because she was Other by ethnicity. She was Other by ethnicity. She was Other by gender.
I grew up as a primarily English-speaking person in a province where French is the official language. I grew up as Jew in a city where the majority of the population was Catholic. I grew up as a philosopher among pragmatists who valued probability above possibility. I have been The Other all my life. I learned to belong and to appear the same. l learned to survive, creatively, intellectually and yet, it was only when I began to recognize my own face, to exercise my own voice, that I began to live. Sometimes I think that Otherness is simply what we name the face that we ourselves refuse to recognize in the mirror.
Algerian writer Hélène Cixous writes, “As soon as you let yourself be led beyond codes, your body filled with fear and with joys, the words diverge, you are no longer enclosed in the maps or social constructions, you no longer walk between walls. Now, listen to what your body hadn’t dare let surface.”