The Politics of Speech: Canadian Prime Ministers and the Construction of National Identity
The issue to be addressed in this research is how Canada has developed a workable politics of national identity since the Second World War when it became one of the most culturally and linguistically diverse and regionalized nation-states in the world. Because it is such a pluralist society, its national identity is not culturally determined; rather, it has constructed and sustained a national identity or series of identities that attempts to achieve a level of accommodation between the constituent parts. The challenge has been to grasp all of the various components of national identity into something that could sustain the nation by minimizing the differences and accentuating points of commonality to achieve some social cohesion to keep the disparate elements together. This required more than imagination -- to borrow from Benedict Anderson whose work always emerges in any discussion of national identity; it requires political dialogue that was able to respond to a pluralistic society.
My focus here is on the political dialogue between prime ministers and citizens. This project examines the speeches, language and rhetoric of Canadian prime ministers since 1945 to show how they have contributed to the evolving and changing ideal of Canada and how they have responded to questions of nationalism and identity. The contribution of the research is important to the advancement of knowledge about political leadership, nationalism and identity in Canada.
Political leaders have discursively defined and shaped their nations by articulating a national identity through their speeches and words as well as through their policies. In examining the rhetoric of multiple leaders in Canada, this project provides both an interpretive and a longitudinal analysis of how they have constructed national identity and offers a new and innovative way to understanding Canada, an approach that reveals both the continuities and the changes in Canada’s national self-understanding.
While the scholarship on national identity and nationalism in Canada is collectively compelling and informs my approach, there has been little scholarly consideration paid to the role of prime ministers’ discourse in constructing national identity. My project is an empirical, evidence-based theoretically-informed one that rest on a meticulous and thorough analysis of primary source materials at Library and Archives Canada which holds most of the prime ministerial papers. Canadians have long been interested in notions of identity and nationalism and have struggled finding a sense of common citizenship. The Canadian identity is continually re-born and re-invented and, although the death and re-birth are often traumatic (note the debate over the introduction of the Maple Leaf Flag to replace the Red Ensign and the agonies associated with the ending of Britishness for many Canadians), the dialogue about Canadian identity and nationalism is necessary and this project shows how prime ministers have helped to articulate that identity. Of course, there are fixed points of commonality such as the rule of law and, more recently, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, but cultural, political and intellectual leaders – as well as citizens, too – search constantly for a set of core “national” values to identify the nation and foster social cohesion to prevent Canada becoming a weak and divided plurality of separate and distinct groups.
National identity and nationalism remain two of the most significant cultural expressions of social identity despite the promise of globalization and a wired, interconnected world. The process by which Canadian prime ministers developed an ideal of a national community is a subject of central significance because it was, and is, a part of the process of defining Canada and its place in the world. The prime ministers’ rhetoric and discourse illuminate the great questions that dominated the political ideas of the day and appeal to those interested in the intellectual, cultural and political development of Canada.
Dr. Raymond B. Blake
University of Regina - History Department
3737 Wascana Parkway
Regina, SK S4S 0A2
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