Saturday, February 13, 2010

The Olympic Opening Ceremonies: History, Heritage, and Patriotism

I’m not ashamed to admit that I sometimes feel that swell of pride for my country. I attended an Oilers vs Canucks game last season, and sang the national anthem for the first time in over a year. It had been too long since I’d heard it, and I almost welled up with tears (although it might have just been the pre-game beers playing tricks with my emotions).

What better celebration of patriotism than the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Opening Ceremonies. Given the topics I’ve been considering in my coursework this last year, I couldn’t help but watch the opening ceremonies with a mix of my old patriotism kept in check by a critical eye considering the implications of history, heritage and patriotism.

Benedict Anderson argues in the introduction to his book, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism that the nation is a construct, a powerful imagined political community. These imagined political communities are intimately linked to and shaped by heritage.

It seemed like the opening ceremony committee armed themselves with a checklist of Canadian heritage points and made sure each was addressed. We saw Mounties carry and raise the Canadian flag; tap dancing and fiddling from Eastern Canada; First Nations groups welcoming the world to Canada; flashbacks to immigrants being received at our shores; a heavy emphasis on Canada’s natural beauty, with displays showcasing the forests, prairies, mountains and animals; and the necessary Canadian celebrities (Sarah McLachlan, Nelly Furtado, and my personal favourite, Bryan Adams). Slam poet Shane Koyczan’s “We are More” inventively summed up many of those themes.

The opening ceremonies lead to questions about the relationship between patriotism and heritage. Is Canadian patriotism dependent on a misguided sense of heritage? In the case of the opening ceremonies, patriotism was grounded in the story of Canada’s landscape and people. Disputed aspects of Canada’s history were glazed over to weave a multi-cultural quilt. I was intrigued by the fact that the ceremonies moved seamlessly from an introduction of various First Nations groups to a celebration of the settlement and exploration of Europeans without mention of the disconnect between those events. This patriotism is dangerous: it selects sections of Canadian history and highlights them out of context to tell a disjointed and manipulated story.

The Olympic version of Canada’s history is really patriotism mixed with a dash of heritage. There must be a way to make “Canada’s history” fair to the chequered events that blot the past while retaining an enthusiasm for what it means to be Canadian. Perhaps the Olympics are not the best platform for discussing those matters, for fear of making bold statements in front of an international audience. Still, there must be a better way to tell our story: a way that pays tribute to the good and the bad; a balanced perspective that celebrates Canada’s history while acknowledging past mistakes; a new portrait of “Canada’s history” that would continue to inspire Canadians and remain fair to the past.

1 comment:

  1. I so very much agree. And sometimes I feel the displays of heritage and patriotism are reactionary, like we skip over the bad parts because so do everyone else. Just like with our discussions about Pier 21, we present only the positive because America presents only the positive (Ellis Island), and do we not have just as much (and if the patriotism kicks in) or even more to be proud of than they do. So why is our picture more negative than theirs. I sort of feel that with the Olympic games, we highlight what makes us proud, which is not everything that we are, because we want to show that we are as good, if not better (which is the dangerous part) than the rest of the world. That being said, I loved the whole thing, especially the 'We are more' poem.