Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media & Culture
Vol. 7, No. 1, 1993
Edited by Brian Shoesmith & Ian Angus

Richard Collins and his Canadian readers: the further adventures of the decoupling hypothesis

Paul Attallah

Few people have written as knowledgeably and as provocatively about Canadian television as Richard Collins. Indeed, his book Culture, Communication and National Identity: The Case of Canadian Television, constitutes a major intervention into the permanent debate on the nature and direction of broadcasting in Canada. Nonetheless, reception of the book has been fairly discrete. It has not generated the widespread attention which it deserves, although this is understandable for a scholarly tome, and its readers have so far been divided between the refreshing perceptiveness of some of its observations, and the bemusing myopia of others.

To date, four critics have published responses: Rowland Lorimer, Gaetan Tremblay, Peter Harcourt, and Mary Jane Miller. The first two being the longest tend to develop their arguments most fully. Nonetheless, although the responses range from nationalist rejection (Lorimer, Harcourt) to sympathetic interrogation (Tremblay, Miller), all agree with Tremblay that: "La publication de cet ouvrage entrainera certainement de vives reactions, en particulier ches les intellectuels nationalistes anglophones" (p. 3). [The publication of this book will undoubtedly stir the liveliest reactions, especially amongst nationalist anglophone intellectuals]

It is then not surprising that the strongest reaction should emanate from Lorimer, 1 who begins by questioning Collins' fitness for the task:

The point is whether Richard Collins has made an error in judgement of his own breadth and depth of understanding. Does he have the knowledge to take on such an ambitious task... I believe he oversteps his knowledge in the very chapters that argue his thesis. He lacks a full enough background and appreciation of our situation in Canada for his thesis to be accepted as well argued (p. 582).

Lorimer's position, however, is rooted in arguments within English-Canadian nationalism and requires its own unpacking. Lorimer objects to Collins on two specific counts. First, the outdated nature of his knowledge of Canada which, in turn, has consequences for his central hypothesis. And secondly, his flawed understanding of the political development and corresponding social projects of Canada and Quebec which, in turn, causes him to misdiagnose the meaning of nationalism and its attendant discourses.

On the first point, Collins' outdated knowledge of Canada, it is difficult to disagree with Lorimer. Collins appears to have assumed that the political situation he observed while conducting research in the early to mid-1980s would remain eternally valid. However, as anyone even passingly familiar with Canada will know, the political situation has changed radically. The discontinuance of Canada is now widely contemplated. Indeed, Quebec has become de facto, if not de jure a separate country, and further constitutional transformations are likely to lie in the future. Additionally, a free trade agreement signed with the United States in 1989, has profoundly challenged certain, long-held notions of Canada's uniqueness and its ability to survive as a separate, socio-cultural and economic entity.

However, it is the consequences of these developments which are crucial. Lorimer argues that, had Collins been cognisant of them, he would certainly have revised his central thesis which claims that Canada represents an enviable model of the decoupling of culture and polity. According to Lorimer, that decoupling is precisely the problem with Canada, not the promise it holds out to the world:

Canada as we know it today is ending... Did our broadcasting system and, specifically, our mix of Canadian and US television programmes contribute to our current evolution? Of course it did... with a combination of four channels of American programmes available to over 90 percent of the population, and separate English-language and French-language services on the CBC/Radio-Canada, it hardly could be said to have contributed to the evolution of shared myths (p. 582).

In other words, it is precisely because culture and polity were decoupled, precisely because we gave ourselves unbridled access to American broadcasting, precisely because we split broadcasting between English and French, that we were unable to generate the common symbols that would have held us together. However, the view of Canada foundering as a result of an institutional failure to produce binding symbolic systems, and its implicit corollary that had our institutions been strengthened much would be better, is undoubtedly specific to Lorimer's own agenda. Indeed, there are many in Quebec who would argue that such failure is felicitous since it releases Quebeckers from the domination of Anglo-Canadian myths and ideologies, thereby allowing them to realise their own socio-cultural and national potential.

Nonetheless, the diagnosis that the decoupling of culture and polity has indeed occurred and is certainly unfortunate, is linked to Lorimer's second charge that Collins misunderstands the differential, political development of Canada and Quebec, and consequently misrecognises the meaning of nationalism. Why have polity and culture been decoupled in Canada? Because Canada and Quebec are at different stages of political evolution and therefore have "different central social, cultural and political tasks to confront" (p. 584). Specifically, Quebec is still in the process of becoming a democratic society, whereas Canada has already attained that stage and has turned towards "ethnic and racial heterogeneity and the development of a society of hyphenated Canadians" (p. 584). If this is true, it becomes false to claim, as Collins does, that Canada somehow constitutes a future model of decoupling for the rest of the world. The decoupling is the result not of rational choice but of historical circumstance. Its outcome is not tolerance and harmony but the difficulty for either group to accept the central other (p. 584).

Furthermore, this historical circumstance, the differential, political development of Canada and Quebec and their contradictory social projects, also underwrites Lorimer's rejection of Collins' claim that Canadians and Quebeckers "long for an old-fashioned nation-state where culture, language, religion, race, politics and economics are all congruent" (p. 584). Nothing could be further from the truth. What Canadians want is only "not to be deafened by the thunder of empire"; and Quebeckers want only "linguistic, cultural and political sovereignty", being quite happy "to embrace global trade because they feel no community vulnerability if they have complete political control" (p. 584). Neither, therefore, really longs for an old-fashioned nation-state.

Lorimer's rejection of Collins is therefore total. In his view, Collins has so dramatically misunderstood the real, political situation of Canada, as to misrecognise and misdiagnose entirely the origin and meaning of Canadian and Quebecois nationalisms. This, in turn, has allowed him to suggest "audaciously" that the decoupling of polity and culture in Canada may be safely and enthusiastically embraced by the rest of the world.

Finally, Lorimer does concede that Collins' book may possess one or two qualities. It does "provide a sense of the contrast between the Quebecois and Canadian sensibility", something rarely done within Canada. Lorimer also praises Collins' knowledge of Canadian communication scholarship. However, there is one aspect of Lorimer's critique which I myself find notable and which is certain to raise objections elsewhere: it is the characterisation of the difference between Canada and Quebec in terms of democratic lack of achievement. Is it an indispensable element of English-Canadian nationalism to characterise, however benignly, Quebec in terms of its collectivist project, and hence of democratic lack, and itself in terms of an individualist, fully realized, democratic project? Like all characterisations, it naturally contains an element of truth but it also naturally overlooks the other element of truth which could characterise it.

The other sustained engagement with Collins' work is provided by Gaetan Tremblay. 2 His overall reaction, though, could hardly be more different from Lorimer's:

C'est un livre comme je les aime: stimulant, riguoresuement construit, bien argumente et provocateur. Et bien ecrit de surcroit. Un ouvrage nourrisant, qui alimente la reflexion sur des questions fondamentales (p.3).

[This is the type of book I like: stimulating, rigorously constructed, well argued, and provocative. And also well written. A substantial work which provides food for thought on fundamental questions.]

Tremblay does, however, express two main reservations: the "radical" decoupling of polity and culture may be overstated; and his reliance upon the "Trudeau vision" of Canada causes him to see nationalism as essentially reactionary and to neglect other types of relationships.

Tremblay agrees that the decoupling hypothesis is worth consideration but wonders how resilient the evidence in support of it truly is. For example, Collins' argument would appear to rest on the following evidence: although Canadians consume vast amounts of American culture, they nonetheless maintain their own political institutions. Here, Tremblay agrees with the distinction between symbolic (American, cultural products) and anthropological (political institutions) culture. The problem with the distinction is that it fails to account for any relationships which may be established between the types of culture, and hence between politics and culture:

Son travail questionne fort a propos les liens de causalite unidirectionnels et simplistes trop souvent postules entre la consommation d'emissions etrangÉres et les representations, les attitudes et les comportements des telespectateurs. serait hasardeux de conclure, dans l'etat actuel de nos connaissances, qu'il n'y a aucun rapport entre un univers symbolique qui sacralise, par exemple, la liberte individuelle, la competition, le sentiment de sa "manifest destiny" et l'attachement aux ideologies et aux institutions qui les supportent (p.3).

[This book quite rightly questions the simplistic and unidirectional causal links too often presumed to exist between foreign content consumption and viewer behaviour, attitudes, and representations. However... given the state of research, it would be dangerous to conclude that there exist no relationships whatsoever between a symbolic universe which sacralizes notions such as individual liberty, competition and the feeling of its own "manifest destiny" and attachment to the ideologies and institutions which support these notions.]

Consequently, Tremblay wonders why Collins never refers to any studies on the impact of television on beliefs and attitudes. Although the absence of such studies may call into question the nationalist policies which flow from there, it does not authorise the rejection of any links between cultural identity and political sovereignty. Here, Tremblay may be pursuing his own agenda. In the name of methodological object, the absence of studies, the current state of research, he leaves open the possibility that there may indeed be a link between culture and polity. In the Quebec context, furthermore, the existence of such a link is absolutely essential, not only to nationalist discourse, but to the everyday aspirations of most Quebeckers.

Nonetheless, Tremblay himself never oversteps the boundaries of methodological objection as is evident in his second major reservation: Collins' reliance upon the "Trudeau vision" of Canada. Pierre Trudeau (Prime Minister 1968-1979, 1980-1984) is probably one of the very few, internationally known, Canadian, political figures. He is certainly the sexiest. The "Trudeau vision", however, requires some explanation.

Under Trudeau, the Federal Government undertook a policy of bilingualism whose effect was to make all of its institutions offer services in both official languages (French and English) across Canada. It also sought to institute a policy of multiculturalism, aimed at recognising or incorporating the various cultural groups which composed Canada. In return, all Canadians, and especially Quebeckers, were to lend allegiance to common political institutions. Bilingualism was intended to reduce Quebeckers' aspirations to political autonomy since it would demonstrate emphatically that their concerns and fears could be addressed within Canada. As it turns out, bilingualism was never really an aspiration of Quebeckers. It seems that they wanted two zones of unilingualism: French in Quebec and English elsewhere. As a result, Quebeckers have come to be infuriated that their aspirations are reduced in the rest of Canada to a demand for bilingual services which have long ago been met, delegitimising any future demands; and Canadians are infuriated either that the demands of Quebec were misrepresented to them or that, having demonstrated linguistic generosity far beyond the measure of mere mortals, Quebeckers should continue to make further demands.

Furthermore, bilingualism bred strong resentment in many outside Quebec, since it was widely perceived as a strategy to reserve key positions within federal institutions for those who were bilingual, that is to say, for Quebeckers. In response, many English-speaking parents sent their children to "French immersion" schools in the hope that they would become bilingual and have access to those positions. French-speaking children, of course, were not to be admitted to French immersion schools. However, as French-immersion was widely perceived as a superior or privileged form of education, exclusion of French-speakers was itself perceived as a form of discrimination. After years of having their language despised, Quebeckers suddenly found a premium attached to it from which they were excluded.

In a final twist of the tale, many Canadians whose first language was neither French nor English, concentrated largely though not exclusively in Western Canada, resented what they perceived to be the special attention paid to French and French speakers. After all, if Canada really were composed of numerous, cultural communities, why should one in particular, French speakers, be singled out for particular consideration? In response to this, and sensing electoral advantage in the West, the Federal Government instituted a policy of multiculturalism which was widely perceived within Quebec as an attempt to devalorize and denigrate their own legitimate aspirations and demands. Why were Quebeckers reduced to the status of a cultural community ("une province comme les autres") when it was patently obvious that they were one of the "founding peoples" of Canada?

The "Trudeau vision" therefore, represents to many the wilful misrepresentation or manipulation of the aspirations of each dominant language group to the other, as well as an attempt to construct shared national symbols which failed to generate support because they failed to represent any recognisable aspirations. By constructing artificial symbols, a bilingual and multicultural Canada, Trudeau sought both to couple and to decouple polity and culture. He sought to decouple the Quebecois polity from its own firmly rooted symbolic system which, because it bore the unmistakable traces of theocratic and xenophobic authoritarianism, was very easy to criticise; and he sought to couple a new pan-Canadian polity composed of French, English, and multicultural Canadians to a pan-Canadian, symbolic system consisting of pride in the vastness, natural resources, and cultural pluralism of Canada. Neither dominant language group recognised itself fully in the new symbolism, with the net result that the Trudeau vision is now widely repudiated in Quebec as an irrelevant vestige of the past, an infantile disease which one recalls but does not want to experience again; and in Canada, by different groups, either as the nirvana to which we must at all costs return, whatever the contradictions, or as a great political manipulation from which we fortunately escaped.

In the 1980s, however, a series of events occurred which made the disagreement over bilingualism look benign. In 1980, the Government of Quebec held a referendum asking the population to give it the authority to negotiate "sovereignty-association", a form of political separation combined with economic links to the central Government. The referendum was defeated after Pierre Trudeau, in a series of passionate speeches, promised that a negative vote would be construed by his Federal Government as a mandate to institute "renewed federalism". After a long-drawn, legal dispute and seemingly endless negotiations, the Federal Government and nine of the ten provinces signed a new constitution in 1982, the Canada Act. Quebec, however, did not sign the constitution because the final text was substantially different from what it had been led to believe it would be, and the final negotiations to alter the text were conducted in a secret, night-time meeting to which the Quebec delegation was not invited. This bred a deep sense of betrayal in Quebec and the firm conviction that the Canada Act of 1982 in no way corresponded to the "renewed federalism" that had been promised. The Canada Act of 1982 also introduced the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, loosely modelled on the US Bill of Rights, and whose pragmatic effect has been to open the courts to American-style, legal challenges. The Charter was to become the rallying cry of those who opposed further constitutional amendments.

In 1984, Pierre Trudeau resigned and Brian Mulroney, the leader of the Federal Conservative Party, was elected Prime Minister with the largest majority in British parliamentary history. His overwhelming support was spread across all provinces and regions, a very unusual circumstance in Canadian politics. Mulroney, however, had promised "to bring Quebec into the constitution". His means of achieving this end was announced in 1987, and was called the Meech Lake Accord, named for the Laurentian lake at which it was initially proposed. The Accord consisted of five constitutional amendments, notably the constitutional recognition of Quebec as a "distinct society", demanded by successive Quebec governments as a condition for signing the Canadian constitution. The Accord needed the ratification of the Federal Parliament and all ten provinces. Opposition to the Accord reached ugly proportions outside of Quebec where it was argued that recognition of Quebec as a distinct society, would allow it to over-ride the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and give vent to its fundamentally anti-democratic and repressive urges. This opposition was received in Quebec as merely another example of English-Canadian fear, loathing, and bigotry. When ratification was not achieved within the specified three year time limit, the Accord died and the nature of the Canadian union underwent a transformation barely believable to most Canadians.

It is from the death of the Meech Lake Accord that the definitive, psychological break with Canada occurred in Quebec. Opinion polls indicate that a new Quebec-based, federal political party, the Bloc Quebecois (BQ), will sweep the province during the next federal election. The BQ's platform is to remove Quebec from Canada. The same polls indicate that the provincial Parti Quebecois (PQ) will sweep the next provincial election. The PQ's political platform is to remove Quebec from Canada. At this point, even should these parties not come to power, it is extremely unlikely that Canada can return to a "pre-Meech" situation, although that is precisely what the rest of Canada would like. Furthermore, yet another new political party, the Western-based Reform Party (RP), has emerged with surprising strength in the polls. The Reform Party's political platform consists of a neo-conservative, moral and economic agenda, and involves asking Quebec to leave Canada. Although the RP will probably not do as well electorally as its leaders hope, it has already had the tangible effect of shifting political discourse in Canada markedly to the right as the traditional political parties, the Liberals (centre), the Conservatives (right), and the New Democrats (centre-left) scramble to maintain the affections of an extremely volatile electorate. 3 While English-Canada undergoes an obvious crisis of confidence in its political leadership whose pragmatic effect appears to be a flare up of right-wing, punitive nationalism, Quebec goes its own way.

In this context, anyone praising the "Trudeau vision" enters an obvious minefield. When Lorimer complains that "(i)t is rather audacious for an Englishman who has not lived for an extended period of time in Canada to feel he has the knowledge to write about so vast a topic as the culture of Canada", he is perhaps referring to this dimension of political reality which is so obviously and painfully lacking in the book. Indeed, the absence is so great as to risk vitiating the value of other observations. It may also explain the polite silence which has so far greeted the book. How do you tell a smart, nice guy that he got it all wrong? Normally, Canadians would be flattered beyond words to be taken as the object of a study of such scope and insight. The flattery, however, has turned to embarrassment.

It is against this specific background that Tremblay questions Collins' definition of nationalism. In Culture, Communication and National Identity, nationalism emerges unequivocally as a reactionary ideology: "une ideologie negative, passeiste, protectionniste et depassee" (p. 4). However, this characterisation bears little or no resemblance to published work or political programs in Quebec which present "une conception du nationalisme dynamique, ouverte, tournee vers l'avenir" (p. 4). Clearly, Collins shares this view of nationalism with Trudeau. Consequently, Tremblay makes a few trenchant observations: a) Collins' characterisation of Canadian, intellectual life can hardly be accurate when he quotes so extensively from Pierre Trudeau, the leading denigrator of nationalism; but only once from Rene Levesque (Premier of Quebec, 1976-1985), the leading exponent of modern, Quebec nationalism. Indeed, is it not curious that at a time of nationalism's manifest return to the world stage, it is most often European intellectuals from the former "great powers" and nation-states of France, Britain, Russia, etc., who find nationalism peculiarly troublesome and inexplicable?

On pourrait egalement se demander pourquoi les intellectuels de ces grandes puissances concoivent si souvent le nationalisme comme une ideologie d'une autre epoque et ont tant de mal a analyser "l'enigme de sa survivance", telle qu'elle se manifeste avec eclat dans l'actualite mondiale (p. 4).

[One could also ask why intellectuals from the great powers so often conceive a nationalism as an ideology from another era and have such difficulty understanding "the enigma of its survival", as is brilliantly manifest on the world stage today.]

Finally, if nationalism is indeed culpable, then Collins stands guilty of his own brand of political nationalism because he argues that it is better to adapt attitudes and cultures to existing political institutions than to adapt political institutions to cultural and linguistic realities. In this manner, Collins merely asserts a political "nationalism" which places the integrity of institutions above the affirmation of cultural identity.

Clearly, Collins is operating within the context of assumptions appropriate to modern Europe, and not of assumptions appropriate to Canada or perhaps to any other country tempted to use Canada as a model. It would seem that Collins is pursuing his own agenda in constructing a particular version of nationalism which does not begin to exhaust its reality in Canada, even though it may be functional in light of anticipated European unification.

Mary Jane Miller 4 shares Tremblay's sympathetic questioning but emphasizes quite different aspects of the book. Like virtually all the other authors, Miller notes that Collins has been totally overtaken by events historical (the failure of the Meech Lake Accord), political (the resurgence of English-Canadian nationalism), and intellectual (the publication of books by Rutherford and Raboy; and the appointment of Ivan Fecan to head CBC English-language drama). 5 However, on balance, Miller has more good than bad things to say about Collins' book.

Miller praises Collins for challenging some of the basic nationalist assumptions concerning television, and for being "the first academic to attempt consistently to look at programmes, policies and critics in French and English" (p. 1). She even finds some irony in Collins' decoupling hypothesis for in order to prove him wrong, to prove that polity and culture cannot be decoupled, Canada would have to fall apart. Since nationalists do not want it to fall apart, they must find a way of making the decoupling work, although decoupling flies in the face of their most basic assumptions:

If he is right the steady erosion of all of our story-telling, symbol making institutions may not affect our political future. But in the months to come we may just break up the nation and thus, arguably, prove him wrong (p. 2).

Not surprisingly, though, given Miller's own publishing background, the focus of her interest lies with Collins' evaluation of Canadian drama. Although his scholarship is "daunting", he fails to provide "consistent information about writers, producers, directors or plots". Nonetheless,

(w)hen he does engage at length with the television text, specifically in his chapter on the miniseries... he is on solid ground - clear, detailed, precise and stimulating... The few factual mistakes are minor and inevitable in a book of this complexity (p. 2).

Consequently, although cognisant of the socio-cultural and political implications of Collins' argument, Miller chooses to give the book a more formal and scholarly reading.

Peter Harcourt 6 finally returns us to the nationalist rejection of Lorimer by taking dead aim at the underpinning of the decoupling hypothesis: the distinction between anthropological and symbolic culture. Harcourt characterises Collins thus:

Canada possesses distinctive anthropological traits (parliamentary government, no death penalty, health and welfare systems, and progressive taxation).

These anthropological traits distinguish Canada from the United States.

Canada, however, possesses no symbolic culture (neither any story-telling institutions nor any public wish to consume the stories of its institutions).

Despite this uncoupling, Canada has survived for over a century.

Consequently, a political entity need not couple polity and culture in order to be successful.

This, according to Harcourt, is a "specious distinction" for "our 'anthropological' culture did not come about by chance" (p. 4). It was rather the result of choice and "its ability to endure as a distinct way of life into the next century is in no way guaranteed" (p. 4). Indeed, Harcourt believes that "there can be no enduring anthropological culture without a symbolic culture to support it" (p. 4). This is, of course, the classical nationalist claim: the way of life is expressed in and sustained by representations of itself, which themselves are rooted in and sustained by the way of life. Consequently, there must be representations of our way of life for without them, it will wither away and die. Where does Harcourt find the representations which Collins found so notably lacking?

In the past, our symbolic representations of ourselves were found less in our works of art than in the civic culture that surrounded us, culture less imported from the United States than inherited from Europe. In English Canada, our architecture, our schools, our churches were largely Scottish and we certainly weren't American! But we had a symbolic culture, a symbolic culture largely from our churches and our schools (p. 4).

Harcourt, then, would introduce education and religion into the debate on national culture and notes that "neither education nor religion is mentioned at all in Richard Collins's book" (p. 4). It is worth pausing here to consider the numerous arguments that appear to be developing in Harcourt's response. On the one hand, polity and culture have been redefined as anthropological and symbolic culture. This slippage is perhaps unfortunate since polity classically refers to political institutions and the public sphere, whereas anthropological culture classically refers to a "way of life". It is not clear that any significant advantage is gained by defining the one in terms of the other, and it would seem more appropriate to view them both in relationship to each other, as versions of the broader concept "culture". Furthermore, Harcourt is pointing to a dimension of volition in the creation of an anthropological culture when he states that it "did not come about by chance". Indeed, it did not, and much of it can undoubtedly be traced to Scottish origins. However, the linkage of culture to historical origins seems to raise numerous, untheorised problems. For example, where does Harcourt locate all the Canadians of non-Scottish descent, origin, or heritage who presumably would have expected to see their "anthropological" origins represented in some "symbolic" system? What of all the Canadians of American origin, who were legion at the time of the American revolution, and who settled predominantly in Southern Ontario and South Eastern Quebec? What of native Canadians? What are we to make of Harcourt's affirmation that "we had a symbolic culture"? Who, precisely, is the "we"? Why should all the Canadians who do not revel in church, school, or Scottishness wish to agree with Harcourt? Indeed, could it be that a liking for American television is precisely the proof that the only consensual, symbolic culture Canadians can agree upon is one which does not bear the evident marks of our own class and ethnic divisions? It would seem that Harcourt is pursuing the classical, English-Canadian, left, nationalist agenda.

Nonetheless, the national, symbolic culture began to be eroded with television:

It is only when broadcasting, especially television broadcasting, begins to be the chief carrier of national images and attitudes that our right to our own symbolic culture has been called into question (p. 4).

Again, Harcourt draws the classic, nationalist parallel between a way of life and its necessary expression: without expression, the way of life dies; without a way of life, there can be no expression. Failure to be expressed or to take delight in the expression is attributable to external pressure. The pressure, in this case, is the strength of American broadcasting and scarcity of economic resources in Canada:

everybody knows that the struggle in this country between the concept of public versus private broadcasting has only partially been a struggle between European "elitist" systems of broadcasting and American "democratic" competitive systems. The struggle has really been about money (p. 4).

The problem then, according to Harcourt, is not really with culture but with economics. Furthermore, had Collins concentrated on this unmistakable fact, rather than on his spurious distinction, he would not have looked so serenely upon the efforts of private broadcasters who oppose "any suggestion that broadcasting... should be much more than, in Roy Thomson's ingenuous phrase, 'a licence to print money'" (p. 4). Indeed, Harcourt goes on to state:

Nowhere in Culture, Communication and National Identity does Collins address this matter... of the control that has been relinquished, not to the people in the name of democracy, but to the private broadcasters and their advertisers in the name of money... Canadian institutions and government agencies are increasingly espousing the dominant American values of exponential growth and the maximization of profits which, finally, are based on an ideology of greed (pp. 4-5).

Clearly then, Harcourt links nationalism not only with a defence of indigenous culture, but also with opposition to American values. Ironically, Harcourt's is a nationalism of moral indignation and self-righteousness tinged with nostalgia; as Collins says, "for the good old things" rather than the "bad new ones".


Canadian cultural nationalists and Richard Collins are agreed on one point: that the decoupling of polity and culture has indeed occurred. They disagree only on its evaluation. The cultural nationalists lament it as the end of Canada; Collins celebrates it as the promise of the future. However, a number of observations seem to be in order concerning the linking or unlinking of polity and culture in Canada.

In linking cultural consumption to political identity, the cultural nationalists are merely stating the flip side of Collins' argument. Collins would generalise the unlinking to all other political communities; Canadian cultural nationalists would immediately set about establishing a new linking, or in breaking up the linking of the Canadian polity to American culture. Collins is undoubtedly optimistic in believing that Canada is a model of decoupled polity and culture, but the cultural nationalists also appear to be committing an error in denouncing the decoupling as unreservedly bad.

What the nationalists fear beyond the decoupling is the linking of a Canadian polity with American culture. However, the Canadian polity has long been able to absorb American culture such that American culture is no longer strictly American, but rather North American. Furthermore, the Canadian polity has also rejected a great deal of American culture. For example, Canadians have sharply different attitudes to gun ownership and control, public health care, public broadcasting, politics, etc. The point is that cultural consumption does not map political behaviour. On the contrary, cultural consumption appears to be at least partially determined by political beliefs. In that sense then, culture and polity really are unlinked: one can consume American culture without becoming Americanized.

Collins celebrates the unlinking of the Canadian polity from culture. However, it is extremely unlikely that any polity can survive long without symbols or meta-social guarantors. Indeed, Collins grossly misrecognises the extent to which the federal government has laboured to manufacture symbols and belief systems which would underwrite the polity, and to which all Canadians would lend their allegiance. Furthermore, the federal government felt compelled to manufacture such symbols because without them, individual Canadians would have no motivation to lend allegiance to one political structure, i.e. Canada, rather than another, an independent Quebec or the United States, for example. In that sense then, culture and polity are linked.

It would seem that both Collins and the cultural nationalists hold surprisingly "total" views of the nature of the link between polity and culture. Collins sees it as unreservedly good and the nationalists as unreservedly bad. It seems more likely that the nature of the linking is much more free floating and soft.

A polity needs a culture if only to provide citizens with motivational frameworks. This has been the experience of successive Canadian governments. However, one of the outstanding features of our polity is that it also incorporates notions of individualism and free will. This is significant because it dramatically changes the things we may wish to say about the nature of the link between polity and culture. For example, although it may be coherent and pertinent to say that in a feudal society, culture and polity are unmediately welded, it is the case in a modern system that they are linked only mediately. Clearly, a polity, by the very fact of providing a legal and practical framework for everyday life, will probably secrete its own culture ultimately. However, the modern culture of a modern polity will not overdetermine the polity. Indeed, the culture of the modern polity will be as expressive of difference as much as of unity; of individual preference as much as of ideological coherence. Indeed, the price of unity and coherence in the modern state may well be the creation of spaces of divergence. After all, it has always been the dream of modernity to create a government which would not govern; social ties which would not bind; and individualism which would not be individualistic.

Both Collins and the cultural nationalists seem to believe in a modern society in which the relations between polity and culture are at best free floating; moving sometimes toward strict congruence, and sometimes toward weak linkage. Collins falls too far on the side of unlinking and decoupling, seeing them as the hope of the future while neglecting the fact that total unlinking and decoupling lead only to anomie, the absence of motivational structures. The cultural nationalists fall too far on the side of linking and coupling, seeing them as the hope of coherence and identity, while neglecting that the identity of modernity is precisely not to be tied too strongly to any one viewpoint.


The author wishes to thank Marc Raboy for his comments while writing this article.

1. Cf. Lorimer teaches communication at Simon Fraser University (Burnaby, B.C.) and is the co-author with J. McNulty of Mass Communication in Canada (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1987 and 1991). He is also past President of the Association of Canadian Studies and a leading intellectual of English Canadian nationalism. His review appears in Media, Culture and Society, v.13, n. 4 (1991), pp.581-584.

2. Trembley teaches communication at the Universite du Quebec a Montreal. He is also past President of the Canadian Communication Association, and the author of two books on television and cultural industries: Les industries de la culture et de la communication (Quebec: PUQ, 1990) and Television: deuxiÉme dynastie (Quebec: PUQ, 1991), and a leading scholar in the field. His review appeared in Communication, Winter 1992.

3. For example, as a direct result of the popularity of the Reform Party, the federal government has begun to revise its policies on bilingualism, long a bone of contention with older, less educated English-speakers. Additionally, all parties are now openly flirting with the notion of a "constitute assembly", although there is no indication that it would be anything more than a demogogic populism, because the Reform Party favours it.

4. Mary Jane Miller teaches at Brock University (St. Catharines, Ontario). She is the author of Turn Up The Contrast: CBC Television Drama Since 1952 (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1987), the most sophisticated account of Canadian television drama yet produced. Her critique of Collins appears in Canadian Theatre Review (Winter 1991-92).

5. Cf. Paul Rutherford Primetime Canada: When Television Was Young (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1990); Marc Raboy Missed Opportunities: the Story of Canada's Broadcasting Policy (Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1990). Ivan Fecan, a Canadian, was a former programming vice-president of NBC. His tenure at the CBC has been marked by the production of several "sexier" shows which do very well in the ratings but often earn the scorn of cultural nationalists for their "American" values.

6. Peter Harcourt teaches at Carleton University (Ottawa, Canada). He is the author of Movies and Mythologies (1977) and Six European Directors (1974).

New: 3 December, 1995 | Now: 23 March, 2015