In the late 1990s, culture writer Lydia Perovic emigrated from Montenegro to the open, optimistic country of Canada and threw herself into its vibrant artistic and cultural communities. She was happy with her decision until about five years ago, when she noticed Canada turning inward, losing its will to be a nation and a culture, and growing increasingly illiberal in speech and imagination. This week she publishes Lost in Canada, a shrewd and moving account of one immigrant’s second thoughts about her second home, and a call for all Canadians to think harder about the future of their country and its culture.
At the midpoint on the journey of life, I found myself in a dark forest, for the clear path was lost.
Or, to give my own riff on Dante, after 20 uncomplicated years of living as an adopted Canadian, I find myself in a dark forest, for the belonging is lost.
I used to have it: I have been saying ‘we’ easily for almost two decades. I moved here from the 1990s wars in the Western Balkans as a graduate student to escape the relentless history of home, and in search of a functioning draft of a liberal democracy. Here, to the country that doesn’t quite gel, is decentralized into smithereens and interrupted with enormous empty spaces, none of which particularly disturbs it. Where mutual differences are vast and we’d rather not overanalyze what they mean, just live pretending that they don’t exist. Blandness: behind it is an uneventful competence in governance, fundamentally Red Tory political instincts (meaning, easy-does-it, conformist, communitarian — at least until the neoliberal era, and figures like Mike Harris and Paul Martin). Fair play as an agreed-upon ideal. And very little history.
After the Balkans, it’s what I wanted. Explaining where I’m from is nearly impossible. Today it’s called Montenegro. Before that it was SFR Yugoslavia, the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, the Kingdom and Principality of Montenegro, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Napoleonic France, Venice, the Principality of Zeta, the Ottoman Empire, the Byzantine Empire, further back the Roman Empire, and further back still the Illyrians . . . But this exercise in phantom roots is tiresome. A nation is not blood and soil; it is a moral conscience, “having made great things together and wishing to make them again,” wrote the French historian Ernest Renan. A “great solidarity” with the past and the future; a daily plebiscite.
Canada, with its declared agnosticism about blood and belonging — agnosticism that came through the front door officially with Pierre Elliott Trudeau but had many earlier traces — is of the Enlightenment, although by birthday of its confederation she is rather Victorian. The person writing these lines also understood herself to be a child of the Enlightenment, intent on proving with her own life that we can abandon blind obedience to traditions and re-examine our life and everything we’ve known, and become part of a new society — community even — based on shared ideals and the conscious choice to belong. Now she is not sure anymore that that’s how things work.
Something’s been happening with the we. I am beginning to suspect that there are fewer and fewer of us believing in the “great solidarity” across ethnicity, class, and time.
My adoptive country and my city are becoming unrecognizable
My adoptive country and my city are becoming unrecognizable. Conversations in the public sphere are changing, as are those in the media and the culture. Public speech increasingly must be premised with a recitation of pronouns — this is now even required of lawyers before B.C. courts and their clients — and land acknowledgements. What should those who do not share those religious and ideological beliefs do? Are we always already letting the side down even before we’ve said anything? The internet speaks American and so, increasingly, do we, importing wholesale the culture wars as they happen in the U.S., adopting the diagnoses of American problems as universally relevant. There is this elaborate vocabulary of political contestation all around us, why not use it? the thinking goes. We apply the American framework of irreconcilable ‘black’ and ‘white’ difference to Canada and harden the settler and Indigenous split. Where this paradigm is not available, the cleaving is along the lines of ‘white’ and ‘BIPOC,’ a strange acronym unifying all Black, Indigenous and people of colour, as if they all have something in common, as if not being ‘white’ automatically groups them into the same category.
Over the last five years in particular, people running Canadian cultural institutions and media have put all of their chips on irreconcilable differences. There is no Canada for all, no political cause for all, and no arts for all. There is no individual outside ethnic determinism: there are bits and bobs of inter-regional and inter-ethnic resentment. What happens to class analysis under those circumstances? What happens to arts? Art criticism? The possibility of “great solidarity”? Freedom of expression?
Free speech used to be a liberal-left cause when The Body Politic magazine existed, Little Sister’s bookstore had its literature stopped at the Canada-U.S. border, NDP MP Svend Robinson questioned the need to refer to a God in the Canadian Constitution, and further back, when Manitoba’s United College fired Prof. Harry Crowe over an expressed political opinion, the NDP opposed the War Measures Act, Doris Anderson edited Chatelaine, and further back still, when William Lyon Mackenzie was publishing the Colonial Advocate. Freedom of speech is not a top-drawer value for the left and liberal centre in Canada any longer.
It’s not just that Canada has forgotten it used to think of itself as a liberal democracy. Illiberalism in the chattering classes is one thing. Sometimes liberalism leaves the society open to illiberal developments by its own constitution. It shies away from questions about a good, fulfilled life worth living, and limits itself to offering one type of freedom — freedom from interference — and not giving enough space to positive freedom, the capacity building and real options for its citizens. I live in a city, and a country, where car drivers and house owners decide what living in the city and country is going to be like for everybody. Where only those who are upper-middle class (and up) can give a career in the arts, literature, or journalism a go. Where only citizens with that kind of solvency can count on having consistent access to psychotherapy.
Toronto 2022 is a hybrid of Dubai (endless luxury condominium towers) and Vancouver (extreme housing costs). It’s also a place of people who are compelled to work and hustle more than ever, who have stopped reading books, are screen-bound, and increasingly lonely. If a certain liberal and democratic mettle is necessary for liberal democracy to be accomplished and carried over into the future, do we have enough of it? Can that political ideal survive without the kind of citizens who can be relied on to have a degree of independence of spirit, curiosity, capacity for deep concentration, and freedom from fear and penury?
There’s a vintage shop in the east end of Toronto that I used to frequent called Gadabout. It sells everything old, but I went for the drawers upon drawers brimming with postcards and black and white family photos. (Both, I presume, are resupplied whenever an elderly Toronto resident dies and the offspring or some stranger cleans the apartment and removes the belongings.) The vintage postcards I brought home and sorted by decade. They might begin with the start of the 20th century and end with the ’60s; the changes in style and topics of depiction from one decade to next easy to spot. I also own a few of somebody’s old family photos, and I used to have a private art project where I mixed them with my own family photos from the same era, or put them on the wall as a group. On one wall of my previous apartment in Toronto’s Junction neighbourhood, I hung the hand-written land purchasing agreement of 1900 from the city of Ulcinj, principality of Montenegro, next to a photo of an unknown Toronto family of nine arranged on the porch of a brick house, dressed in their Edwardian best. Same time, different geographies.
The project has for some time now moved from card shuffling and wall decoration to real life. The pondering of belonging has moved from the head to the whole body: aging, childlessness, the possibility of a non-biological family and friendship between women, the unused time with parents, which can never be retrieved. What could a nation still mean and is it a kind of solidarity that we should keep alive in our lives? With this book, I adamantly say yes, although my younger self would be surprised by my answer. In the middle of my life, I find myself a stranger to my old country, while my new country of 20 years of uncomplicated belonging suddenly also looks strange and impermeable. When we are nowhere, when we don’t know where we are, that’s where the thinking begins, that’s where writing starts, said psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva (from her stable, accomplished, married, bourgeois life in France). While I used to believe that, I’m not so sure anymore.
Excerpted from Lost in Canada: An Immigrant’s Second Thoughts, published this week by Sutherland House and available in bookstores everywhere.