Wednesday, August 1, 2012

O Canada! - The Reluctant Psychoanalyst Travels as a Typical Tourist in the First World

Wanting the kids to have a sense of another country and neither feeling competent yet in the third world nor flush enough to travel to Europe; we decided to visit our neighbors to the north.  After dropping our car in Toronto, we headed by train to Ottawa, a cute little city on the border between Ontario and Quebec that is situated on a defensible bluff overlooking the Ottawa river.  The capital was moved here from Quebec City in part to protect it from attack by the United States after we invaded the country in the war of 1812.  I have been struck by two things - the form of government, and the consequent depiction of it - and the intertwined historical roots of this country with ours - in ways that I, a casual historian at best, have been unaware.

The Parliament building in Ottawa sits on the bluff and is a vision of Romantic High Gothic English elegance.  With copper roofs, dominated by a twenty five story peace tower in front and a beautiful circular wooden library in back, it feels a bit like Hogwarts - and the meeting room of both the House of Commons and the Senate, the two bodies of the Parliament, are rich in wood and green or red leather, and feel very clubby.  Unlike our Chambers, arranged as auditoriums, each of these rooms have sets of desks on risers that face each other across a center aisle.  The presider - a presumably neutral party - sits at the head of the room, while the majority sits, faces, and debates with the minority across the aisle.  There are, of course, committee rooms where the legislators hammer out the details, but even these are configured differently, frequently with a table that legislators sit around rather than a dais that legislators sit behind while experts testify.

One of the moments that the differences in government become apparent then, is at 10 O'Clock at night.  That's when crowds assemble on the front lawn of the Parliament to watch a half hour light show, MosAika, that is projected on the walls of the Parliament building.  A mixture of history, cultural definition, and entertainment, this show, with accompanying music, is simultaneously humble, playful, and immensely impressive.  One of the central themes is that Canada is a country that is engaged in a conversation.  The gimmick is that Canadians can make brief YouTube-like videos to "participate" in the conversation  - and have them projected as part of the show.  Another theme is that Canada is a country that is committed to peace.  Finally, there is a theme of commitment to community and to heritage.  Throughout, the four seasons play a significant role, weaving themselves into each of the themes - not surprising in a country where everyone experiences a long, cold, dark winter.

The theme of conversation in a bilingual country is interesting.  Conversations around us moved from French to English and back to French.  Traveling mostly in well touristed areas, we were not randomly sampling, but people were willing to struggle across language barriers.  The British "took over" in the 1760s after a series of battles that they attempted to finance by waging taxes on the New England States - arguing that the war was protecting our interests.  We objected, and England ended up losing the larger prize.  More broadly it is apparent that Europe never really understood what was of value here or in the countries they colonized world wide (nor did we, in turn understand what was of value in Central and South America).  They came searching for gold and silver and, while they returned with some, it was the land as a cradle for nations that was the real prize.  Sometimes we, in psychology, can be guilty of this same sin.  We don't recognize the value of our patient's autonomy - the importance of the governmental structures they want to put in place - and instead we try to put in our own.

Back in the real world, however, the English gained control of a vast area that the French had explored and settled - including much of what would later be the US Midwest - dotted with French Names from Detroit though St. Louis and Des Moines all the way down to New Orleans.  So the English came, they governed, and they doled out the choicest morsels to themselves.  The French who had come here were largely poor, Roman Catholic and loyal to the crown - even if that crown was now English.  Benjamin Franklin was surprised when he came north to recruit the Canadians as allies who, despite having been recently defeated and occupied by the British, preferred to side with the Royalists than with our revolution.  But this did not mean that, across the centuries, as the English speakers doled out favors to their own, the French were sanguine about it.  Quebec became more and more adamant about seceding from the government and in 1995, by a slim majority of 50.6%, Quebecers decided to stay in the Union.  While the intent to leave the union has diminished, shopkeepers seemed pleased when we asked if they spoke English rather than our assuming that they did.  And it seems possible that this divided nation is able to dialogue about its differences and work towards solving some of the inequities that certainly remain.

Peace as a central theme felt genuine.  Unlike our country, with a sitting President who, though having won a Nobel Peace Prize, is presiding over a bloody war, the Canadian military seems more focused on maintaining adequate self defense and being prepared to serve in an auxiliary fashion in attempts to redress inequities abroad.  The TV commercials included prime time public service announcements about giving a broad berth to police and other emergency vehicles - characterized as people working to protect you - as well as appeals to contribute to aiding kids in third world countries.  Canadians have a much better international reputation - perhaps both because of their foreign policy but also because they have had to be guests in their own country; visiting provinces that are potentially hostile to them; learning to be polite to people that are both like and unlike themselves.  When traveling abroad, then, they may be more open to differences, more embracing of diversity, than we are.  Certainly the subways in the major cities are filled with as many diverse ethnic groups - including the dominant culture - as is the case in the US.

I think it must be different to be in a country where there is a large minority culture that is there by choice.  Many of the original French immigrants were poor.  Like in the US, many of them returned - 10,000 of the original 30,000 went home again.  But those who stayed were happy.  They were poor, as they had been at home, but they could forage for wood and hunt for game - neither of which were possible at home, and their happiness turned into progeny.  The French Canadians reproduced at a terrific rate and relatively densely populated the Eastern corridor along the Southern Great Lakes and the Saint Lawrence Seaway, with more English present the further west one travelled.  Perhaps our closest analogy would be to the Southerners who "lost the war of Northern aggression" but retained much of their cultural heritage.  Having the legacy of different languages might interfere with Canada's ability to deny the presence of two very different heritages - to keep them from building, like us, a myth of National Unity.

So the conclusion of MosAika, the national production at the national capital in a country that is currently dominated by the Conservative Party, was about the social responsibility of Canadians towards other Canadians - and about the government's role in making this happen.  A message with this tone, in our country, would be an abomination to the Republican party - the same party who, not long ago, had a president, Richard Nixon, who tried to implement a National Health Care system and failed.  Perhaps the long cold winters here help people to realize a sense of responsibility towards each other.

An acquaintance who moved to Canada characterized it as a country where everybody drives a Honda.  While I have seen more variety than that on the road, I think his point is well taken.  In contrast to our country, where every man acts for himself, and therefore some of us accumulate great wealth, in a country with a more socialist ethic, a reasonable level of autonomy and a government that is concerned with the well being of the people, there is neither great wealth nor is there as much abject poverty - of wealth, and perhaps spirit, a real accomplishment in a country where there can be so much darkness that Seasonal Affective Disorder must be a national issue.

From a psychoanalytic perspective, the metaphor of discussion/dialogue is a powerful one.  If the discussion includes those who have been excluded - if the marginalized - on the personal level, the unconscious and the repressed - are included in the dialogue, does it follow that there is a greater sense of connection with those around you - a greater sense of empathy, and a corresponding lessening of drive?  How do we square that with the increased self focus of the analytic period - with the intense experience of the self - a kind of analytic narcissism - that can be part of the analytic process and even part of the residual analytic effect?  Is the Canadian humility - one that is leavened with self confidence - a model of a positive analytic outcome?  Is the playfulness exhibited in MosAika - a projection onto the symbol of power of the country that at times pokes fun at the building itself - a self deprecating self concept that is elastic and able to withstand attack through flexible engagement - a model for individual psychological health?

Obviously I am drawn to the possibilities inherent in the analogy - perhaps under the sway of the charms of this country.  It is also very nice to be able to move between train and subway, using mass transportation to travel.  Sure, we have to wait at stations.  Yes, the kids complain about walking.  But we don't have to find parking.  We are using a little less gas, and I am able to read and write while taking a break to look out the window rather than being forced to drive.  The US is less expensive, perhaps less shabby, and certainly warmer.  Despite that, the reluctant wife and kids are ready to move here.  Me?  I'm not so sure I could survive the winter.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    

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