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Exalted Subjects: Studies in the Making of Race and Nation in Canada

By Sunera Thobani

November 4, 2013

Review By Frances Henry

This is an interesting and provocative book that will motivate readers to rethink the role of the state in directing and managing a multicultural society. Exalted Subjects is divided into a number of sections labelled Law, Citizenship, Compassion, Diversity, Reform, and Terror, and each contains a major essay. The basic question Thobani attempts to answer is how people come to be “constituted as Canadian nationals” (4). Exalted subjects are those who hold power, and, in fact, the dynamic of power “has been central to the processes of modern national formation”(5). Exalted subjects, or those who hold power, are distinct from “strangers to this community.” Drawing upon Anderson’s communities of imagination, Thobani raises a number of questions about what constitutes Canadian nationality. For example, what are the characteristics that the Canadian nation imagines itself to have? What impact have these articulations of Canadian nationhood had on its Native peoples and on its settlers, colonizers, and immigrants, all of whom were citizens or subjects of other states? What disciplinary and regulatory practices helped in the reproduction of these kinds of human subjects? She notes that the Canadian national character is defined by the belief that the national obeys laws whereas the outsider is disposed to lawlessness; that the national is compassionate, while the outsider “has a tendency to resort to deceit”; that the national is tolerant regarding cultural diversity, while the outsider is intolerant; and that the national is tolerant regarding gender equality, while the outsider is inclined towards patriarchy. These beliefs constitute the master narrative of Canadian nationality. Nationals who do not live up to these characteristics are aberrant, and the weaknesses of outsiders is a result of their cultural characteristics and even of their “race.” 

The goal of Exalted Subjects is to show how Canadian society, using the dynamic of “politicized social processes,” governs and manages its population through state policies and popular practices that fall into three categories: exalted nationals, “Indians” who are marked for either extinction or extreme marginalization, and immigrants, migrants, and refugees who are either estranged or only conditionally included in Canadian society. 

Thobani discusses at length the unequal relationship between Native Canadians and the Canadian state, and she demonstrates convincingly that the former are basically subdued colonials in Canada. She challenges migration policies by noting that many of the underdeveloped areas of the world are also prime targets for Canadian investment and “high-flying” trade missions, yet their nationals either have difficulty migrating to Canada or are treated as different when they do arrive. Thobani states categorically that the real crisis in migration today is the problem of controlling “persons-of-colour-on-the-move, those who refuse to stay where they belong.” She makes the familiar point that multiculturalism has less to do with humanitarian concerns and more to do with Canadian labour needs. The point system that opened up immigration was put into practice only after the “racial character of nationals, and national institutions” (147) had been consolidated. Multicultural policies demonstrate a more politically acceptable form of white supremacy. Of particular interest is Thobani’s view that the racist and fascist dynamics that motivated the Second World War had to be disavowed by other Western countries, whose policies also reflected racialized politics. Multiculturalism met that need because it maintained white privilege. I basically agree with all these assertions, but I do find major weaknesses in this book, and these undermine its value.

The problem in dealing with the idea of a “master narrative” or even a “national character” involves trying to fit every detail and historical dynamic within its framework. Thobani’s approach clearly highlights the problem of grand theory and implicitly calls attention to the importance of middle-range theorizing. The overall grand theory is made to work by dismissing or ignoring what does not fit and including all of what does fit. To demonstrate that a master narrative really exists, supporting empirical evidence is selectively chosen. This is the major weakness of Exalted Subjects. The master narrative and its major instrument, the Canadian state, are made into a pervasive and evil presence that is largely responsible for all that ails Canadian nation building. This approach is too limited, in my opinion, because it neglects not only what is positive about the state but also the many tensions that occur in the institutions, communities, and other divisions of this society – tensions that also lead to the marginalization and exclusion of those who are not part of the elite. 

The chapter on multiculturalism, in particular, makes many assertions without providing evidence. For example, Thobani states that the discourse of multiculturalism suppresses references to race and racism but wholeheartedly accepts the “dubious assumptions regarding the immutability of cultural differences” (156), but she provides no empirical evidence for this. Furthermore, she states that the socio-economic problems of immigrants have been defined as being the result of their cultural deficiencies. Again, she provides little evidence to support this assertion. She relies heavily on Himani Bannerjee’s critique of multiculturalism but appears to ignore the empirical evidence that her writings provide. It is unfair to blame only multiculturalism for the co-option and derailment of explicitly anti-racist activism on the part of peoples of colour. Long before the proclamation of multiculturalism, historical colonialism played a strong role in creating enmities among groups of “natives” in their home societies – enmities that were brought to the new country. Witness the famous divide-and-rule policies of colonizers, which, through utilizing earlier colonial and precolonial experiences, result in some ethnic groups being biased and even racist towards other ethnic groups. In fact, the whole issue of differences within ethnic communities is not handled well by Thobani, and many salient facts are omitted. 

There are numerous statements in this book that involve huge leaps of the imagination. For example, Thobani notes that multiculturalism helps middle-class immigrants become mobile and also helps Canadian firms maximize overseas assets. The “costs of such advancements,” however, lead “to the marginality of Aboriginal peoples” (162). 

Another weakness of Exalted Subjects is that many of the references listed in the notes are from non-Canadian sources, such as the United Kingdom and Australia. I agree with the use of comparative materials, but not to the exclusion of relevant Canadian sources. For a book whose main focus is the exclusion of peoples of colour from access to desired social resources in Canada, it is curious that so much Canadian literature on this subject is neither cited nor noted. Aside from being a sign of inadequate scholarship, this practice limits the book’s usefulness for students. 

In sum, its rather limited theoretical perspective on the making of race and nation in Canada results in the many weaknesses of this book. Its subject is extremely important, both for students and for professionals, but its analysis is narrow, one-sided, and open to considerable criticism.