A Structural Study of Canadian Myth

In “The Structural Study of Myth” Claude Lévi-Strauss examines the myth through the “Saussurean principle of the arbitrary character of the linguistic signs” (75). Lévi-Strauss explains the two referents of language, langue and parole, the “revertible” and “non-revertible,” the timeless and the timely: langue is the structure of language that preexists a speaker; parole is the application of langue by a speaker, an utterance (76). But in myth, there is a third referent, a combination of the two. Myth “always refers to events alleged to have taken place in time” but the “specific pattern described is everlasting” (76). Myth is both timeless and timely; that is to say, “myth is language: to be known, myth has to be told; it is a part of human speech” (75). Myth is the point of meeting for langue and parole, structure and utterance, the place where eternal forms and momentary instances become one. In the modern world, however, Lévi-Strauss argues that myth has been replaced by politics (76). He takes the French Revolution as his case, arguing that, like a myth, the Revolution is both a “sequence of past happenings” as well as an “everlasting pattern” (76). It is “historial and anhistorical” (76), revertible and non-revertible, which, in Lévi-Strauss’s terms, is to say, mythical. Political mythology replaces classical mythology, Robespierre replaces Oedipus, but the structure remains, a structure of meaning-making, of world-building: mythology and politics are concerned with nothing more.

On Wednesday, October 22^nd^, Corporal Nathan Cirillo was shot and killed while serving as ceremonial guard at the National War Memorial in Ottawa. After attacking Corporal Cirillo, the shooter entered the Parliament buildings where he was killed in a firefight with Parliament security. Just two days prior an attack in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Quebec, left one soldier dead and another critically injured. The attacker was killed in the subsequent police chase. On Wednesday night, Stephen Harper delivered a speech, addressing the recent violence. In the video he wears a black suit with a thick red tie, flanked on either side by Canadian flags. At just over three minutes long, the speech is economical and punchy, stripped to the minimum of necessary material. He briefly states the facts, expresses his condolences, and reassures Canadians that the government is already taking action. Harper is in classic form: practiced, stoic and mechanical. He does not seek to inflame passions or incite fear, but to quietly rally his people: he doesn’t break a sweat. Beneath and behind the words he employs, though, Harper appeals to a set of forms that preexist him, implicitly informing his position. Though the parole of myth has given way to the parole of politics, the langue, the structure, remains the same. Harper’s speech, like the Oedipus myth, is composed of “gross constituent units,” a set of categories that in themselves “produce a meaning” (77).

The contents of Harper’s speech can be organized into five of these gross constituent units: solidarity, condemnation, sanctity/virtue, perpetrator intent, and resolve/action. Solidarity includes such phrases as “my fellow Canadians,” “our soil,” and “thoughts and prayers.” Others, like “sacred place” and “compassion and courage” refer to the sanctity of Canadian values and the virtue of Canadian citizens. Condemnation includes phrases like “brutal and violent” and “despicable.” Perpetrator intent includes allegations like “ISIL inspired.” The final category, resolve/action, contains statement like, “we will not be intimidated,” and promises to “keep Canada safe at home.” Breaking the speech down in this way reveals Harper’s emphasis on resolve and action. Forty-five percent of his statements combine resolve in the face of adversity with actionable steps to be taken in the near future. As Prime Minister, Harper recognizes the symbolic power of tragedy. Canadian soldiers killed on Canadian soil by members of a potentially threatening ethnic community, the most recent killed on the very steps of the “sacred” war memorial honouring “those who gave their lives so that we can live in a free, democratic and safe society.” The attack is not just an attack against a man but against “our values” and “our society.” Thus, a shocking act of violence becomes a moment for the governing party to potentially push through controversial security measures in the name of safety, and to strengthen state power at home and abroad. The “law” of Harper’s “myth” (82), then, is the consolidation of power through the rhetoric of solidarity.

This is only a partial picture. As Lévi-Strauss argues, “we define the myth as consisting of all its versions. . . . structural analysis should take all of them into account” (81). We cannot look at Stephen Harper alone. On Wednesday night, Thomas Mulcair, leader of the New Democratic Party, the Official Opposition, and Justin Trudeau, leader of the Liberal Party, gave speeches as well. They retain the five-unit langue, with variations in parole. Harper’s speech stresses solidarity at the beginning (20%), moves to sanctity/virtue (25%), while only briefly touching on condemnation (7.5%) and intent (2.5%), before finishing with point after point of resolve/action (45%). Mulcair’s speech shares the same trajectory, solidarity (18.9%) through sanctity/virtue (27%) through resolve/action (29.7%), with slightly more condemnation (10.8%) and mention of intent (13.5%) than Harper. Trudeau differs more significantly, eschewing solidarity (4.3%) in favor of condemnation (23.9%). The final three categories, sanctity/virtue (26.1%), intent (8.7%), and resolve/action (37%), fall within the range of Harper and Mulcair. In terms of standard deviation, Harper’s speech has the greatest (6.67), Trudeau’s is next (6.14), and Mulcair’s is markedly lowest (3.05). This statistic betrays the ideological move Harper makes at the close of his speech. Harper uses the resolve/action unit to leverage the power of his position, the practical ability to take action. Solidarity is a means to this end. Mulcair also leverages power, but more passively (as the low deviation indicates). He aligns himself with power, balancing the five gross constituent units of his address to consolidate his own power through moderation. This gives his appeals to solidarity and sanctity/virtue more relative weight, while letting Harper do the ideological work. Both Harper and Mulcair deploy variations of the same “law,” the same “myth.”

Trudeau is the same, but his implementation of the “myth” differs more substantially from Harper and Mulcair than they do from each other. The standard deviation of his speech is not far behind Harper’s, suggesting that he, too, is doing ideological work, but his ideological emphasis is on condemnation. This would appear to undermine the law of power through solidarity, but rather, it supports it. By hammering on the tragedy itself, Trudeau turns the attacks into an us versus them conflict, the most primal form of communal unity, the fear of the Other. As head of the former opposition and son of a former Prime Minister, Trudeau has the most to gain from the situation. His position as leader of the Liberal Party has no significant power like the Prime Minister, nor, even, does his role fall within the Orders of Precedence like Mulcair’s. All he has is a legacy upon which he must build something new. The failure of his party in the last election, coupled with the legacy of his father, looms over him. The murder of Corporal Cirillo presents itself as the ideal platform. Trudeau does not, like Mulcair, align with the Prime Minister to consolidate his power: he makes a political move to gain power. His emphasis on condemnation, his radicalization of solidarity, is a daring play, an outlier play. He wants to win.

This positioning, conscious or unconscious, happens around the central myth of the political address. The politicization, the mythologization, of death, is encoded in the form. Words like “sacrifice” and “duty” and “courage” are rhetorical hooks for meaning-making, the ordering of a chaos within a normative world. Harper, Mulcair, and Trudeau each begin their speech with the same three words: “my fellow Canadians.” They praise the virtue and valour of Canadians. They promise action. They remind Canadians of their shared nomos, the norm, seek a return to and restoration of it, while simultaneously defining what the norm is. The myth of the nomos is shared but iterative. Each politician imposes a different ideology, a different frame, on the shared norm. Each man presents himself differently, but each man presents himself as Canadian, as a member of the collective we. Harper emphasizes action, while the balance of Mulcair’s speech suggests a sort of everyman status, just another witness to a terrible crime. Trudeau is the one with passion, outraged at such “heinous acts.” He angles hardest, but all three are deliberate in their words. Each positions himself around the key unit of solidarity.

What is revealed here, then, is a splintering of the concept of Canadian solidarity under the pressure of a security emergency. The Canadian mythos is defined by peaceableness and inclusiveness. Multiculturalism, bilingualism, and “peace, order, and good government” are enshrined in Canadian law. These ideas constitute the Canadian nomos, the perceived norm that each politician claims to represent. Violent acts committed by Canadians against Canadians are “brutal,” “despicable,” and “cowardly,” but they are also autonomously carried out. No true Canadian would stoop so low. But because of the multifocal ideal of the Canadian nomos, Harper and Mulcair, the two with the most to lose, dance around the messy issue of blame. Mulcair makes no mention of any greater, competing structure at work than the individual, and Harper only once refers to the potential ISIL inspiration of the attacks. They avoid the topic of internal division altogether. Trudeau, as the outlier, violates this unspoken rule. He speaks directly to the Islamic community (the two perpetrators were recent converts), identifying their structure, their nomos. By pointing at them, he implicitly tells them, warns them, threatens them, that if any others think to copy the recent attacks, there will be reprisal. Such crimes are an “aberration of your faith,” he says, “distorted ideological propaganda posing as religion.” His words are couched in the sanctity and virtue of Canada and its citizens, but the structure reveals a Canada less sanctified, less virtuous, and less unified than the “myth” would have people believe. When a man in Moncton shoots five RCMP officers in the same day it is a tragedy. When a Muslim man (with a history of addiction) shoots a soldier it is terrorism.

Power is consolidated through the rhetoric of solidarity. This is the myth that Harper, Mulcair, and Trudeau use, the myth that all political leaders use. But in Trudeau’s political move the distinctly Canadian variation of the myth is made manifest. Canadian solidarity spans religion, culture, and ethnicity. Division is a source of strength, not weakness. We are all Canadians. Trudeau’s impolitic language implies otherwise. Canadian is, in itself, a divided term. The myth of solidarity is just that: a myth. The fear of the Other is not assuaged by acts of law. Leaders will continue to give speeches, new parties will come into power, crises will occur: the structure, and the fear, will remain. The myth of solidarity only holds when there is an Other to be excluded from it, an Other to fear. But this Other that sustains the myth threatens to tear the system down from the inside. It lurks behind the screen, behind the teleprompter, behind the flag, and despite the best efforts of our politicians, refuses to go away. The myth of solidarity is simply the myth of the Other, but, unlike roses, solidarity does not, by any other name, smell as sweet.

Works Cited

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. “The Structural Study of Myth.” Critical Theory. Ed. Robert Dale Parker. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012. 74-83. Print.

“Ottawa shooting: Harper, Mulcair, Trudeau speak about attack.” CBC. Web. 22 Oct. 2014.

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