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Review

The Labyrinth of North American Identities

By Philip Resnick

March 6, 2014

Review By Cole Harris

Much writing on early Canada has sought to explain why Canada is not the United States. The roots of the two countries are alleged to have been very different, and to explain different contemporary societies. Harold Innis posited a northern society built around the staple trades of the Canadian Shield, and John Ralston Saul, to take a contemporary example, posits a Canadian society that is a particular Métis blend of European and Native ways. Given the proximity and power of the United States, and the relative frailty of the country stretched along its northern border, such writing is understandable, but it is not what Philip Resnick is about in The Labyrinth of North American Identities. His focus, rather, is on North America, and there he considers to what extent the three countries that comprise almost all of it — Canada, the United States, and Mexico — share a common North American identity.

This is a short book, and Resnick moves quickly through complex terrain. His first five chapters deal with the European appropriation of the continent: the relationship with Native peoples, the idea of a chosen people, trajectories from colony to independence, language and empire, manifest destiny. Then he considers some of the basic institutions of North American life: market economies, democracy, the state. He gives a chapter to New World utopias and dystopias, then turns in three final chapters to the regional structure of North America, to the question of a North American civilization, and to the labyrinth as a North American metaphor. All of this is a tall order. Resnick reads widely and has written a lively if somewhat breathless book that is perhaps best described as a sophisticated primer for those interested in the similarities among and differences between Canada, the United States, and Mexico.

            In this exploration he finds elements of a common North American identity.   Canada, the United States, and Mexico are all New World societies, products of the European appropriation of Aboriginal lands, yet each retaining elements of the societies and cultures that settler colonialism displaced. In each country, colonial regimes have yielded to independent states. The European languages that quickly dominated these new societies were all modified by their New World circumstances. The energy and momentum of the continent’s dominant power, the United States, and the pragmatic individualism, capitalism, and popular culture associated with it, have considerably Americanized both Canada and Mexico. Migrations across international borders have also blurred national differences.

Overall, however, Resnick’s analysis leaves this reader — and also, I think, Resnick himself — with the sense that Canada, the United States, and Mexico are very different countries. Even where the case for similarity is strongest, the details suggest otherwise. In both Mexico and the United States, for example, Aboriginal voices remain, but the weight and place of these voices in the two countries is vastly different. Canada sits somewhere between. Although the three countries are former colonies, in detail their trajectories to independence have little in common. Resnick is a political scientist; his chapter on the state is essentially an inventory of differences that constitute “a major distinguishing characteristic among the three North American countries.” And he is well aware that these states are composed of many regions, and uses the metaphor of the archipelago to suggest something of this variety.

Of course, Canada, the United States, and Mexico are North American countries, common products of European overseas expansion, settler colonialism, and some of the basic institutions of the modernizing world. It is useful to be reminded of these commonalities, and also, as this analysis reveals, of their limitations. Resnick turns in conclusion to the metaphor of the labyrinth to suggest the variety of North American ways. But one gets lost in labyrinths, and he and his readers can easily be lost in the complexity of North America. There is no simplifying, overriding argument. Rather, The Labyrinth of North American Identities stands as a brave, short summary of the ways in which North America’s three largest countries resemble and diverge from each other.

The Labyrinth of North American Identities
Philip Resnick
Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2012. 176pp. $22.95 paper