Robert Fisk: A lesson from across the Atlantic

Canadians don't want to be the 'melting pot' that the US boasts

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A poutaine is a chip, cheese and gravy mash much loved by the Québecois. And Samuel de Champlain was the founder of a township at a place called Kebec – aboriginal for "where the river narrows" – an outpost on the Saint Lawrence River which the French called Quebec. When the natives urged explorer Jacques Cartier to visit their village – the Huron-Iroquois word for village is "kanata" – he thought they were describing the whole region. So – well, of course – he called it Canada.

And last week, quite by chance, I was in "Kanata" for both Canada Day and the birthday of Quebec, where – how I remember the dreary recitation of all this at my prep school – General Wolfe defeated the French on a plateau called the Plains of Abraham, thus ending French claims to North America and heralding the weird concoction which we now call Canada.

But back to the poutaine. The Canadian embassy in Washington sent out invitations to its annual bash, each one illustrated with a cartoon of an elegantly dressed de Champlain holding in his hand – you guessed it – a poutaine. The Québecois were not amused. The cartoon was an insult to French-Canadians.

The ambassador should be forced to resign, announced one pompous francophone outfit in Quebec City, which was, for 11 years, Canada's colonial capital. Indeed, it announced, the Canadian foreign minister should resign – unlikely, since his predecessor had already done the same after consorting with an ex-biker girl whose husband had been murdered and whose Carla-Bruni figure was even more revealingly dressed than that of Madame La Présidente. George W himself had commented favourably on the statuesque companion of Canada's ex-ministre des affaires étrangères – a warning sign if ever there was one.

Either way, the scandale de la poutaine was enough to provoke the mirth of Canada's anglophones. Didn't the Québecois always take themselves too seriously? Was this really the people who wanted "Québec libre"? The pot was stirred further when visiting French prime minister François Fillon referred to the province of Quebec as a pays.

A "country", the anglophones roared? Fillon practised some truly Gaullist deceit. In French, he cryptically explained, a pays can be a region as well as a country. Ye Gods! Only a day earlier, I was watching two of the Canadian air force's clapped-out fighter aircraft roaring over Ottawa as tens of thousands of citizens – most of whom were chatting away in languages I could not understand – waited for Canada's version of the Red Arrows aerobatic team. True to the country's supposedly un-bellicose reputation, they are called the Snowbirds.

Well, as my old chum Rick Salutin wrote in my second least favourite Canadian newspaper last week, "Canadians are always pushing the panic button over unity but it never works because, the moment you mention it, Canadians realize how diverse they are and start worrying. I hate that Canadian-values thing." Me too. The fact is that when I queued at immigration in Montreal for my visa, I was as mystified by the words of the Canadians around me as I was on Canada Day. This is because I do not speak Ukrainian, Mandarin or Urdu. Nor Afrikaans. Nor Hindi. Nor Tagalog. And that's part of Canada.

Because Canadians don't want to be the "melting pot" that the US boasts – where you're an American first and a Nigerian or a Burmese or a Latvian second. They believe – or the "multiculturalists" believe – that Canadians should be encouraged to keep their own languages and traditions and religions intact. You can be a Syrian-Canadian Muslim and speak your own language and read your own Arabic language newspaper or watch Arabic movies but still enjoy and support the freedoms of Canada under the maple leaf flag.

I like this idea – or rather, I think I do. If it works. It's too soon to say and no one can admit it won't work because, if they do, someone's going to start figuring out which ethnic, religious or national group is going to be among the first invitees to climb aboard the wooden boat back to their country of origin. And that would be the end of Canada. In some ways, this allows Canadians to define themselves in the negative. They are not Americans. Canada is not aggressive. It pours money into NGOs and refugee camps and education for newly arrived immigrants.

People seem proud of themselves and their adopted history. Not long ago, I was walking past the Canadian war memorial in Toronto with a young woman from Afghanistan. That's a bloody big memorial for a titchy little disaster like Dieppe, quoth Fisk. "Yes, but we lost a lot more at Vimy Ridge," the woman replied. Note the "we". The dead of Passchendaele were now "her"' dead – even though her great-grandfather would have been fighting the Brits on the Khyber Pass a year after the end of the 1914-18 war.

I hate to use a clunker – and henceforth the order of the golden cliché is to be awarded to all journos who refer to "elephant in the room" scenarios – but the elephant in Canada is indeed called Afghanistan. Its army was sent in to do good works after the Taliban meltdown of 2001 and now finds itself suckered – partly courtesy of the country's former prime minister, Paul Martin – into a major combat role against a Muslim insurgency. Fatalities are now 87 and climbing, but the Canadian military is not exactly winning the war against a massive Taliban resurrection.

Canada's retiring chief of defence staff, General Rick Hillier – now, of course, off chasing a lucrative directorship – was in the habit of calling the Taliban "murderers" and "scumbags". It looks good in the papers, but when a commander starts rubbishing his enemies – Montgomery, remember, kept Rommel's picture on the wall of his caravan – you know his soldiers are in deep trouble. They are fighting Muslims in a Muslim country and they should get out. Quickly.

But Canadians seem happy people, the most polite I've ever met on earth. There's an apocryphal story that before Lebanon's civil war, an Australian economist was invited to Lebanon to explain its financial workings to the Beirut Chamber of Trade. He eventually addressed Lebanese businessmen in words which echo my own thoughts about Canada. "Ladies and gentlemen," he said. "I haven't the slightest idea what you're doing – but keep it up!"

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