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From the Second Storey: Canada at 150, Guelph at 190

How does your story fit into the Canadian narrative?

We’re not so special. So says Mark Kingwell, philosophy professor at the University of Toronto, writing about national identity in this weekend’s Globe and Mail.

Kingwell questions the idea of Canadian exceptionalism, or the notion that we are a post-national nation. That idea suggests that we have figured out a way – through such things as a tolerant immigration policy, multiculturalism, a strong public health-care system — to move beyond what he calls “the narratives of identity based on bloodline or ideology.”

The argument for exceptionalism comes from the United States, where it spells out the idea that the country is unlike all others. As the U.S. prepares to swear in its new president, there’s certainly an argument that the country is different in its own way. 

Kingwell’s argument is meant as a caution against hubris. Are we really so exceptional? “We are as rife as anyone else in intolerance, bigotry and ignorance,” he writes.

Implicit in his argument is the idea that we might well be prey to the same forces that have led to the U.S. election results. There but for the lack of a Trump go we – although there’s always Kevin O’Leary of Shark Tank as federal Conservative Party leadership possible.

A page on, things turn more hopeful with an essay by William Macdonald, who has turned a passion for this country into something called the Canadian Narrative Project (

Macdonald argues that our skills in mutual accommodation give us a way to solve our problems – although we need to recognize and harness those skills. Know yourself, and know each other.

That’s the point of the narrative project, intended as an online discussion about how we might use mutual accommodation to tackle issues from gender, security and reconciliation to global engagement and economic development.

It’s about hearing voices and stories, also the focus of events and projects being run through the Guelph Civic Museum to mark both Canada’s sesquicentennial and the city’s 190th anniversary. This Day in Guelph History is a social media campaign looking back at news headlines through the past century and a half. The museum will post headlines through Twitter, Facebook and an online archive.

Earlier this month, one 1893 headline described a visit by Lord Stanley, namesake of the Stanley Cup, to the Ontario Agricultural College. A couple of days later, the site posted news that the Guelph Maple Leafs won the Canadian professional hockey championship in 1878. Mon pays, c’est le hockey?

Along with the University of Guelph, the museum will run a monthly Building Canada lecture series. On Feb. 8, Anita Stewart will talk about Canadian cuisine. Monthly concerts at the museum run along with the Guelph Arts Council will include Oshungo Drum and Dance Feb. 24.

A Nuit Blanche-style event will mark Founders Day April 23. The city will run an expanded Aboriginal Day in June. Museum manager Tammy Adkin says organizers have reached out to First Nations, Métis and Inuit people especially this year.

“We want to acknowledge the successes and achievements through 150 and 190, but we’re also focused on making the next 150 and 190 better,” she says.

The museum also plans a signature exhibit called To the Gathering Place, to run from June to the end of the year. The exhibit will focus on migration and immigration from First Nations before European contact to today.

That exhibit will be based on stories in the museum collection as well as stories collected through interviews and research with Guelphites. That could mean any of us.

For Adkin, a fourth-generation Canadian, her story involves Ukrainian ancestors who arrived in Saskatchewan early in the 1900s to farm the prairies.

For me, the story also touches Saskatchewan, where my grandfather arrived from England as part of the Commonwealth Air Training Program during the Second World War. My grandmother and my mother – then a toddler – followed in an escorted convoy across the Atlantic.

They returned to England. But that early taste whetted their appetite for something different, including opportunities for their daughters that they couldn’t see back in England. They returned in the late 1950s to Hamilton, where my father joined them a year later.

What’s your story, and how does it fit into the wider narrative of this – yes, exceptional – land?


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About the Author: Andrew Vowles

Andrew Vowles writes on arts, culture and connections in Guelph. He has written about science, environment, arts, culture, health and travel.
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