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We're trapped by mistaken identity
The myths we used in building our nation have made us victims
of our past, says Quebec historian JOCELYN LÉTOURNEAU.
It's not easy to break the cycle


Monday, March 5, 2001

Ask an American for a history lesson on the pre-Civil War era or how the West was won. Unless he is a real history buff, he will draw on images from a few films, television series or classic novels: Gone With the Wind, The Last of the Mohicans, Little House on the Prairie, maybe Dances with Wolves.

What do you expect? you ask.

Try another example. Ask the average Frenchman to tell you the history of his country in just a few words. Our intrepid historian would probably weave a tale of liberty, equality and fraternity -- three concepts that seemingly make France one nation for all, as much today as yesterday. He might base his story on one of the many tales passed down by his forefathers, or mothers, that define what it means to be French: our ancestors the Franks and Gauls, Alésia, Charlemagne, Joan of Arc, the châteaus of the Loire Valley, the Ancien Régime, the French Revolution, The Three Musketeers, and so on.

Who are we to laugh at these examples? All cultures, all peoples of the world are raised on similar stories of themselves. Tales that storytellers great or small have handed down or hammered into the next generation to explain their role on the world stage, give them substance as a group, or, as the Belgian poet Joseph Boubée wrote so many years ago, to avoid appearing like orphans born of war.

Optimistically speaking, these cases of mistaken identity -- our own and others -- may be disappearing in an age where we can communicate instantly, explore the world on-line and find encyclopedic knowledge on the Web.


Maybe not.

Although it has made great progress, positive knowledge has difficulty combating these great metaphors and images -- of the West and the East, nations and social classes, neighbours and strangers, masculinity and femininity -- that structure and proclaim our relationship with the world.

In fact, objective knowledge is just one part of the current of information that nourishes and enriches people's imaginations and behaviour. But this current, in which we swim around like fish, is not homogeneous. Rumours coexist with facts. Value judgments are found along with balanced opinions. Gossip and hearsay stand side-by-side with credible information and comment.

It is almost impossible to resist the pull of this current that mixes truths, falsehoods and lies in a rather subtle blend. It flows around us, sometimes without us even being aware of it.

It is so effective that, over time, the image of something, formed out of a loose collection of information, often replaces the thing itself.

The image cloaks or moulds the thing, and what we see is not the thing itself in all its complexities and ambiguities, but rather the thing outside itself, reshaped according to our intentions, classifications and speculations. That is how myths are born and that is often the problem.

Trapped by our own devices

In a fascinating book, Edward Saïd showed how Orientalism is basically a Western creation projected on another culture, trapping it in words and images such as the cruel and bloodthirsty warrior, the veiled yet seductive woman, or the wily sheik with an unquenchable thirst for wealth. Our perceptions of the East, as seen in advertising, travel brochures, films, novels and children's television programs, have less to do with the way that Eastern cultures see themselves and more to do with the many clichés that we, as Westerners, have created to shape their world according to our fantasies and fears. This cultural cannibalism works both ways: There is an Eastern-based view of the West as well. Each culture sublimates or debases the other. It's a vicious circle in which each sees the other as if distorted in a mirror.

But we don't have to look far to find inaccurate images that we have created of others and they of us.

Daniel Francis, an historian who has studied our own national mythology, offered an insightful look at how an image of Canada, once predominant and supported in English Canada in particular, grew out of a collection of stories, icons and myths, such as the great Canadian wilderness, the heroic nation builders, the worship of the North, Anglo-Saxon superiority and the infantilization of Francophone Quebeckers.

We would be wrong if we thought the images that helped to shape our national psyche had disappeared from our cultural landscape. It takes just one dispute between natives and non-natives, Quebec and English Canada, or developers and heritage advocates, for example, to bring about a resurgence in the clichés that affect how Canadians see each other.

The Oka crisis, which shook the country in the summer of 1990, is an excellent example of how our country's founding myths persist today. By analyzing the editorial cartoons that appeared across the country during the conflict, Quebec researcher Réal Brisson skillfully showed how the people depicted in the cartoons were not just natives on the one side and non-natives on the other, but central players in our nation's history who were pursuing the ongoing battle of images in the public arena through intermediaries.

The cartoons depicted not just flesh and blood combatants locked in a power struggle. The sometimes humorous drawings used our country's perpetual themes to replay our history for the benefit of long-time Canadians, who perhaps had their beliefs reaffirmed, and new Canadians, who may have suddenly discovered Canada's dilemma through its supposedly insurmountable issues: the English versus the French, reason versus passion, sovereigntists versus federalists, Quebec versus Canada, Indians versus whites, good versus evil.

And so unfolds the saga of our country.

Breaking the cycle

What should we do about such stories, which trap us in their webs and keep us from moving forward? Frankly, it's not easy to get rid of them. They are not isolated creations, but the work of competing powers trying to move their issues to the top of the public agenda. To succeed, they feed the public ideals, dreams and visions. These stories satisfy and reassure the people who use them to interpret the world. They reinforce their identity. Change the stories, and you give people the tools to change their identities. By divorcing ourselves from these national myths, we can rediscover the past and open the door to new possibilities for the future. These possibilities are sometimes beyond the imaginable. And doing the unimaginable is quite stressful for many people.

People who are responsible for thinking about the world's future face the challenge of helping us move beyond these outdated stories, metaphors and images. Not so that we can be trapped in other myths, but so that the next generation does not have to live with this destructive legacy of a past that dictates the future.
Jocelyn Létourneau, a history professor at Laval University in Quebec City, is senior researcher at the Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies of Francophone Literature, Arts and Traditions in North America. He is author of Passer à l'avenir: History, Memory and Identity in Quebec Today.

Canadian Mythology

Today:Our identity trap
by Jocelyn Létourneau
Tomorrow: Myths of the West
by John Richards
Wednesday: Atlantic heritage
by Margaret Conrad
Thursday: Living the indigenous part
by Drew Hayden Taylor
Friday: A northern notion
by John Ralston Saul
Saturday: The LaFontaine-Baldwin
Lecture by Alain Dubuc

A joint initiative of the Dominion Institute, John Ralston Saul, La Presse and The Globe and Mail, these articles are published concurrently in French and English. The LaFontaine-Baldwin Lecture will be delivered Friday in Montreal, and broadcast Sunday on CBC Newsworld.

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