Michèle Mendelssohn on Canadian values and cosmopolitanism

In advance of her upcoming Eakin Lecture on April 9., Professor Michèle Mendelssohn spoke to the Reporter about her work on Canadian values and cosmopolitanism.
Michèle Mendelssohn will deliver her Eakin Lecture, The World Needs More Canada – Or Does It? on April 9.

Michèle Mendelssohn is a literary critic and cultural historian. She is Associate Professor of English Literature at Oxford University and 2018 Eakin Visiting Fellow at McGill.

Born and raised in Montreal, she earned her doctorate from Cambridge University and was a Fulbright Scholar at Harvard University. Her books include Making Oscar Wilde; Henry James, Oscar Wilde, and Aesthetic Culture; and two co-edited collections of literary criticism, Alan Hollinghurst and Late Victorian Into Modern (shortlisted for the 2017 Modernist Studies Association Book Prize). She has published in The New York Times, The Guardian, African American Review, Journal of American Studies, Nineteenth Century Literature, and Victorian Literature and Culture.

Prof. Mendelssohn will be discussing contemporary Canadian culture and cosmopolitanism in her upcoming Eakin Lecture, The World Needs More Canada – Or Does It? on April 9 at 5 p.m. at the Faculty Club (Gold Room), 3450 McTavish. The lecture is free and open to the public. All are welcome. Get more information.

Who are you and what are you doing here at McGill?

I’m a literary critic and cultural historian. I hang my hat in two places: at Oxford University, where I’m Associate Professor of English Literature, and here at McGill, where I’m 2018 Eakin Visiting Fellow at the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada.

I’m also a Canadian – a Montrealer born and bred, in fact. I grew up bilingual in Montreal West, went to local French schools, studied at Concordia University’s Liberal Arts College and then did my doctoral work at Cambridge and Harvard. So this year has felt like a homecoming.

I work on the place of the arts and humanities in contemporary Canadian culture. In the research project I’ve been carrying out at McGill Institute for the Study of Canada this term, I’ve been interested in looking at the story of Canada and the people who live here today. I’m curious about how it is refracted in so many ways in contemporary literature, media and live events.

In 2017, I finished two big projects – I came to the end of my tenure as Deputy Director of Oxford’s Rothermere American Institute, and I wrote my latest book, Making Oscar Wilde, which comes out this summer.

Around the same time, I noticed that Canadian culture was going through some remarkable changes. For example, Canada’s Heritage Minister, Melanie Joly, launched a new creative strategy for the country in which digital culture edged out books. That marks an important shift in our national culture. Another striking element of the Creative Canada Policy Framework is that it opens by affirming that “Canadian values” underpin its approach. There are continuities between culture and the state at work here, and they’re worth investigating. So I’ve been looking more closely at how art is being leveraged to advance a distinctly Canadian political agenda.

You’ve titled your Eakin Lecture “The World Needs More Canada.” That phrase rings a bell…

It should! Obama has said it, Bono has said it. You’ve probably seen the slogan plastered on walls and merchandise in Indigo bookstores. During the 2018 winter Olympics, Bell Canada made the tagline the climax of a feel-good ad with angel-voiced children singing “What the world needs now is love, sweet love.”

What is interesting to me is the amount of resonance the phrase has achieved at a time of rising nationalist and far right feelings across the world. It’s a slogan that speaks to the current global conversations about borders, immigrants and wall-building.

I think it’s important to examine the stories we tell about ourselves so that we can know where we came from and where we are going as a society.

“The World Needs More Canada” encapsulates one of Canadians’ favourite stories about the country. But it’s important not to lose sight of the fact that it is a fiction, by which I mean that it’s a narrative about Canada and its relationship to the world. In other words, it’s a mythology based on a set of shared values that some like to think of as specifically “Canadian.” “The World Needs More Canada” embodies a fascinating paradox that reflects how the country sees itself – and how it wants to be seen by those outside it. The slogan is ethically-minded, post-national and cosmopolitan. Yet it’s also sanctimonious, jingoistic and parochial.

What are the “Canadian” values your research is exploring?

Multiculturalism is a core value and a keyword in contemporary Canadian culture. “Civilizations,” John Ralston Saul reminds us, “are built around many themes, but they require a shared public language. […] Words, words, words – it is around these that civilizations create and imagine themselves.”

That’s no accident. The way I see it, the 1988 Canadian Multiculturalism Act enshrined into law a new national story about Canada. Since then, inclusivity, pluralism and diversity have become central to the story the country tells about itself.

Passed into law by Brian Mulroney’s government with unanimous cross-party support, the policy was the result of a process set in motion nearly two decades earlier by Pierre Elliott Trudeau when he announced the government had accepted the recommendations of the Royal Commission of Bilingualism and Biculturalism. On October 8, 1971, Trudeau told the House of Commons that too little attention had been paid to “the whole question of cultural and ethnic pluralism in this country.” It was a turning point, and a question that the country has been grappling with for 30 years now.

What can the 1988 Canadian Multiculturalism Act tell us about Canada in 2018?

Plenty. I’m curious about how this one thing that happened scripted the future for Canadian society, both in creative and in policy terms. My research examines the way we tell stories about Canada and the people who live here.

What I have observed is that as the mediums we use to tell these stories have multiplied – we use live performances and video much more, for example – the stories themselves have often become sclerotic. This is because these new media forms shape content in ways that make it challenging to tell a nuanced tale. From what I’ve observed, it’s already leading to what I call the “TED-ification of the Canadian story.”

Let’s face it: Canadian Cosmopolitanism is having its day in the sun. Since the 2015 election of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, the international press has been awash in articles lauding the country for its progressive, open, immigrant-friendly policies. “Who else is still pulling off the whole hopey-changey thing,” The Guardian’s political columnist Gaby Hinsliff asked in 2016, “still surfing a wave of sunny progressive feeling when the US and much of Europe are increasingly convulsed with rage against either poor migrants or privileged elites, or both?”

On OpenCanada.org, Stephen Marche congratulated Canada on escaping the US and UK’s populist plague by virtue of its policy on immigration. “We made multiculturalism a public good and regulated its application assiduously,” Marche explains.

That’s true enough. Yet the continuities between Canada’s political and literary cultures have come at a price. When it comes to politics and policy, Canada has become a global favourite, a model for other nations to emulate. Turn to cultural matters, however, and Canada almost disappears. Why is that? And what will it mean in the age of the Creative Canada Framework, a policy that explicitly makes the art the handmaiden to the state? Why don’t we trust the arts enough in Canada to give them free reign? These are some of the questions I’ll be asking in my Eakin Lecture on April 9.