What is a Canadian?

Perhaps it was Irvin Studin’s unusual birth that was an augur of things to come. Born in Rome, Italy, while his Russian-Jewish parents were in the process of immigrating to Canada from the Ukraine, Studin’s early beginnings were exotic to say the least.

Right: York University alumnus Irvin Studin

Growing up in North York, the eldest of three, Studin was an avid soccer player. After high school, he attended the Schulich School of Business at York University and graduated with a bachelor of business administration in 1999. His academic and athletic career were peppered with honours, including a prestigious Rhodes Scholarship to study in the United Kingdom at the London School of Economics and the University of Oxford. Added to his many accomplishments was a listing in 2000, by Maclean’s magazine, as one of the “100 Young Canadians to Watch”.

Studin is also an enthusiastic Canadian citizen. Inspired by the 1958 book What is a Jew?, assembled by David Ben-Gurion, the first prime minister of Israel, Studin decided to turn the same basic question to his own nationality. As he says, “this Canadian is convinced that a frank assessment of the exact meaning of Canadian is not only long overdue in the Canadian discourse, but is a critical underpinning for any intelligent debate on the future of our increasingly complex national project.”

So he set out to find the answer to the question: What is a Canadian?

The result is a new book titled What is a Canadian? Forty-three Thought-Provoking Responses, published this fall by Douglas Gibson Books, McClelland & Stewart. Proceeds from the book will go to a series of scholarships in Canadian Studies across Canada. In Ontario, York will be the beneficiary, through the Robarts Centre for Canadian Studies.

In late September, Studin returned to York to officially launch the book and spoke of some of its other inspirations and why he decided to launch it at his alma mater.  “I went to school at York where I earned my first degree. I played football and soccer. And my memories of York are particularly fond ones. This is my ‘hood,” said Studin.

“The book is dedicated to my parents who were a great inspiration. I grew up not only playing soccer but sitting as my father’s captive audience driving to sports and cultural events and always debating what is Canadian identity; what is Canada, but the question that was never really put bluntly – What is a Canadian?” said Studin.

Those early discussions with his father played a formative role in What is a Canadian?, which Studin says, is the blunt approach he felt was necessary to understand the elusive appreciation Canadians have for their own nationality. In it, he challenged Canadian “sages” to write an essay beginning with the words “A Canadian is…”

The result is 42 essays plus a foreword and afterword by Studin (making for the 43 responses highlighted in the title). “What is a Canadian? It is a complex question that I posed bluntly to these Canadian sages,” said Studin. “I boxed them in and gave them a word limit of 1,500 to 2,000 words and instructed them to start their essays with the phrase ‘A Canadian is…’. The result is this unique set of essays.”

During the launch he also talked about Ben-Gurion’s What is a Jew? which offered a series of insightful essays penned by 50 leading Jewish thinkers. “Because of my Jewish background, I read it with fervour. The question was posed to 50 Jewish sages. The theme came through quite solidly…a Jew is X, Y and Z.”

Guided by advice from McClelland & Stewart publisher Douglas Gibson (who earlier told the launch crowd he assumed Studin would go away and never be heard from again), Studin sought out men and women of all ages and experiences to act as his sages. He avoided elected politicians and selected those he thought could crystallize their view of what it was to be a Canadian. The people who responded eagerly, to produce an essay of 1,500 to 2,000 words, are, in his words, “all distinguished Canadian thinkers and achievers from all walks of life — politics, the civil service, academia, literature, journalism, business, the arts — from both official language groups, and from all regions of the country, as well as from the Canadian diaspora.”

The end result is a book that approaches the answer to his question.

“A few observations on the book: I think it makes for an interesting read. There are a few strands that come through. We risk unless we are blunt about the debate either overstating the core identity we have, because we are a young nation and a young people,” said Studin. “If we are too evasive about the question, we risk understating. I asked a question, I wanted a sincere answer. Some are separatists, some are patriots. Please ask the question and be blunt about it.”

Included in the volume are responses from several sages with a definite York connection, including: York University President & Vice-Chancellor Lorna R. Marsden; political science professor and director of Atkinson’s School of Public Policy & Administration (SPPA) at York University, Saeed Rahnema; Peter Hogg (LLD ‘06), professor emeritus and former dean of Osgoode Hall Law School; Osgoode alumna and Saskatchewan Supreme Court Judge Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond (LLB ‘85); and, York alumna and novelist, Janet McNaughton (BA ‘78).

Here are some of their thoughts on what is a Canadian.

A Canadian is…one who is distinguished by being able, during the past century and a third, to contribute to the definition of this country and its culture; to create rather than simply to accept; to form and reform rather than being merely formed. – Lorna R. Marsden

A Canadian is…someone who finds it difficult to define, without reflection, “What is a Canadian?” – Saeed Rahnema

A Canadian is…a person who receives justice through the law. – Peter W. Hogg

A Canadian is…fascinated by how people survive in what can seem a harsh and unforgiving environment. – Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond

A Canadian is…a person whose national history and personal past may have very little overlap. – Janet McNaughton

A Canadian is…a fox, and therefore no more and no less than a citizen of the state called Canada. – Irvin Studin

Other contributors include: Allan Fotheringham, Thomas Homer-Dixon, Roch Carrier, Jake MacDonald, George Elliott Clarke, Margaret MacMillan, Thomas Franck, Rosemarie Kuptana, Gerald A. Beaudoin, George Bowering, Christian Dufour, Paul Heinbecker, John C. Crosbie, Audrey McLaughlin, Roy MacGregor, Charlotte Gray, Hugh Segal, Sujit Choudhry, Aritha van Herk, L. Yves Fortier, Catherine Ford, Mark Kingwell, Silver Donald Cameron, Guy Laforest, Maria Tippett, E. Kent Stetson, Louis Balthazar, Joy Kogawa, Wade MacLaughlan, Douglas Glover, Denis Stairs, Valerie Haig-Brown, Guy Saint-Pierre, William Watson, Doreen Barrie, Jennifer Welsh and Bob Rae.