Hub Dialogue

Is Canada losing itself? Author Lydia Perović on her adopted country’s political and cultural decline

The head of a statue of Sir John A. MacDonald is shown torn down following a demonstration in Montreal, Saturday, Aug. 29, 2020, where they protested to defund the police with a goal to end all systemic racism within all sectors of the Canadian government. Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press.

Today’s episode of Hub Dialogues features host Sean Speer in conversation with Lydia Perović, a writer and the author of the new book Lost in Canada: An Immigrants Second Thoughts, published by Sutherland Books.

They discuss her journey as an immigrant from Montenegro, the primacy of racial identity in modern society, and how Canada has changed since she arrived, including its declining culture and its troubling turn towards illiberalism.

You can listen to this episode of Hub Dialogues on Acast, Amazon, Apple, Google, Spotify, or YouTube. A transcript of the episode is available below.

Transcripts of our podcast episodes are not fully edited for grammar or spelling.

SEAN SPEER: Welcome to the Hub Dialogues. I’m your host, Sean Speer, editor-at-large at The Hub. I’m honoured to be joined today by Lydia Perović, a writer and journalist whose new book Lost in Canada: An Immigrants Second Thoughts, published by Sutherland Books, tells her story of immigrating to Canada from Montenegro in 1999, and the questions about identity and place that she’s grappled with ever since. I’m grateful to speak with her about the book, and, among other lines of inquiry, some of its cultural and political criticisms of her adopted home. Lydia, thanks for joining us at Hub Dialogues and congratulations on the book.

LYDIA PEROVIĆ: Thanks so much.

SEAN SPEER: There’s a tendency in our popular discourse to either romanticize the immigrant experience or focus on negative cases of alienation, discrimination, and struggle. I interpret Lost in Canada as something of a midpoint on that spectrum where you’ve been successful in your adopted country but feel increasingly disappointed with its cultural and political direction. Do you agree with my characterization of the existing literature and your own book? If so, why do you think these extreme narratives about the immigrant experience are the ones that tend to get published?

LYDIA PEROVIĆ: I do agree with your diagnosis. Why do we prefer the narratives of disintegration? I’m hoping it’s just a trend. I think our publishing wants these narratives now. I think we’re not really into stories about our successes as a country, our hopefulness, our optimism. The country was much more optimistic when I came here in ’99. All countries have issues and it’s a fluctuation through history, but back then, it was interested in this culture, for example. We had built some good institutions, but today, I don’t think we’ve ever been more American both in political obsessions and in what we read and what we discuss, so-called water cooler discussions, and what we talk about on the internet. It’s a combination of these things that I wanted to write about.

SEAN SPEER: We’ll come to your observations about Canada’s culture, society, and politics in a minute, but before we do, let’s talk about your own immigrant experience. What brought you to Canada in 1999, and what initially drew you to the country’s culture and politics?

LYDIA PEROVIĆ: In 1999, just the last war of the several Balkan Wars of the ’90s was wrapping up, which was NATO bombing of Serbia and Montenegro over the war in Kosovo. Milošević was still the head of the state called Serbia and Montenegro. Montenegro was yet to regain its independence in 2006. It was a very unfortunate time and the ’90s were a terribly unfortunate time. Hundreds of thousands of young people from the region had sought to leave it and to continue their lives somewhere else.

I got a scholarship to study political theory in Dalhousie, and I just jumped at the opportunity. Had no idea where Nova Scotia was. Had to open the map and look for it. I finished that and got my first part-time job in publishing, and then just, you switch from visa to visa. Used to be an extremely long process. Credit to the Harper Conservatives’, they fixed the immigration problem that the Liberal governments created, with backlogs that you’d have to wait three years for your application to be processed and so on. It’s a bit faster now, but then you’d have to put your life on pause and wait for several years. It’s tricky and demanding, but one persists.

SEAN SPEER: You’ve written that you were in part rejecting the “blood and belonging” of Eastern Europe, and were attracted to the political pluralism that Canada represented. You’ve since grown more skeptical of the Canadian model. You write, “There is no Canada for all, no political cause for all, and no arts for all.” Here’s my question: Did Canada change or did you change?

LYDIA PEROVIĆ: Canada has changed in the last 20 years. A lot of us moved Westward in search of liberal democracy. Now, people who grew up in a liberal democracy don’t find it particularly interesting. As Fukuyama said, it’s possibly quite boring not to have a radical political private life. That’s something we’ve been struggling with in the Western Balkan region, which always has an intrusion of history and politics into your private life. You cannot pursue your private obsessions.

I talk about Richard Rorty writing about how he was obsessed with wild orchids while also being a Trotskyist. He couldn’t find what was the point of spruce, what was the point of the wild orchids. In fact, it was a question, what’s the point of the arts, what’s the point of love, friendship, all the things that you develop in the civic sphere that don’t necessarily enhance the cause of justice, for example? I actually came in search of a private life, a life that will let me not constantly be politically engaged. It’s a very important feature of liberal democracies.

People have written about this for ages, starting with Hobbes and the Leviathan, where you give away a sovereignty to a sovereign body or a sovereign and in exchange you get your private life. You have a unified law. You have a body that has a monopoly on violence. You don’t worry about warlords. You don’t worry about sectarians. You don’t worry about the politicians going to come one night and take your kids away. Maybe we romanticized that kind of a trade.

Of course, we romanticized the West. Nothing is ever set in stone. Of course, now 20 years later, free speech has fallen down the list of values, and freedom of assembly has fallen down the list of values. Police having the monopoly on violence and policing is being questioned. One set of laws for all is being questioned in Canada, both philosophically and practically and politically. All these things have been chipping away a Canadian liberal democracy profile and Canada seems to be okay with it.

SEAN SPEER: There’s so much insight there, Lydia, your comments about the creeping politicization of our lives at work, our lives at home, and our lives in other civil society settings are really well taken. As you observe, the purpose of our political system at its best is to harness political disputes and enable us to live out the rest of our lives free from that kind of omnipresent politicization.

LYDIA PEROVIĆ: We get represented.

SEAN SPEER: One more question about you and your experience before moving to some of your deeper cultural criticisms of Canada. You write beautifully about your complex attachment to your old country. For someone like me who hasn’t gone through the immigrant experience, can you talk about the lasting feelings that one has from where they left? What’s your relationship to your homeland today?

LYDIA PEROVIĆ: It has been changing. As a young person, I immigrated when I was 25, I thought it really doesn’t matter. You can just cut all the ties and reinvent yourself completely. This is a little bit the French model, like your ethnic background doesn’t matter. The U.S. is a little bit like that because they’re serious about the melting of the differences into something nice, something new, different. Canada was always a bit different, but it also had that as a project. It doesn’t matter what ethnicity you are. It really doesn’t matter. Not a lot of countries do have this.

We tend to forget this. You can’t go just from anywhere without having any family in a country that you move to and just create your own life from scratch. That was an interesting challenge for me. Again, not a lot of countries will give you that opportunity. That’s when you’re young. That’s when freedom matters the most. That’s when getting away from your parents, from your tradition, from everything that you feel is engulfing you matters the most.

Now that I’m middle age, you have a different idea. You have a different notion of what a good life is. What I miss, for example, now is having all kinds of ages in my life. It’s important for a good life. I think it’s good to have older people, boomers, children, teens, zoomers. If you’re an immigrant who immigrated without your family, you’ll have to create all that from scratch. Of course, I talked about the importance of friendship, and it’s a particular challenge for somebody who immigrated on their own because the conditions for the growth and thriving of friendship in North American large cities, I don’t think it’s very good. Again, I think the large cities in the Anglosphere have this in common, a lot high of multicultural cities of the Anglosphere. It’s a strange. I feel weirdly split because there’s a lot of things, elements in me that don’t communicate well with [chuckles] each other.

I have maybe two or three family members who can read English and only two family members have read my book. It’s a very interesting thing. It’s slightly divided down the middle. When two things connect—like E. M. Forster’s “Only connect!”—only connect because life will be fuller. It’s such an incredible pleasure. That’s, for example, what Alice Munro’s stories let me do. That’s, for example, what finding Northrop Frye’s analysis of a Montenegrin novelist helped me do. Finding these hooks is just so wonderful, whereas as a young person, I just didn’t care. It can just be international. Any culture can be yours.

SEAN SPEER: There’s so much there. Thanks, Lydia. Let’s shift the conversation now to some of your discussions of trends in Canadian culture, society, and politics. One of your criticisms of Canada is a growing tendency towards conformity. That Canadians have lost, in your view, “the independence of spirit and curiosity.” Do you want to elaborate on this idea? What do you think is behind it and how does it manifest itself?

LYDIA PEROVIĆ: It wouldn’t be as rude to say, or as generalizing to say, that the whole country has lost it but some of its institutions are clearly losing it. These are the important so-called meaning-making institutions: public schooling, arts organizations, media, the alternative media. Most of them have accepted the division, the irreconcilable differences approach to what is Canada.

You now see writers-in-residence ads that advertise for Canadian and Indigenous writers, so somehow now, these are two different cultures. This is completely new. Then you see ads for jobs that specify preferred ethnicity. Maybe I’m naive, but that’s very unexpected. I understand people want to redress historical injustices. They want to improve diversity in their organizations. Having it as a public policy, “Only ethnicity X and ethnicity Y need apply”, maybe either I’m crazy and find this unusual or the Canadian institutions have gone a little bit crazy. Things like that are a little bit puzzling.

SEAN SPEER: I cited the book earlier when I talked about how one of the reasons that you chose to come to North America and Canada was to reject a system of blood and belonging. Yet it’s striking that after being here for 20 years, there are these elements of blood and belonging emerging in our society counterintuitively in the name of liberalism which is, as you say, something that may not have been anticipated.

You mentioned in a previous answer the way you’ve come to think about the cities in Canada and the Anglosphere. Let’s take that up. You observe in the book that there seems to be a narrowing of opportunity in Canada for those outside of major cities and certain professional careers. What do you think are the sociopolitical consequences of these trends and why isn’t it getting more attention in our political life?

LYDIA PEROVIĆ: I know it is a big issue. Post-secondary education is now a completely middle-class affair because you have to have quite a bit of money to continue it. And also graduate education. Arts education—I covered opera a lot. I love opera. I love literature. I spent a lot of time with writers, singers. They not only come from upper-middle-class and middle-class, or tend to, but also from really wealthy families now. It’s extremely difficult to put a kid through this kind of schooling, to have a degree that’s not immediately profitable, that requires further professional development, that requires travel, that requires coaching in languages. It’s just extremely hard.

What we’re seeing in our journalism, in our fiction writing, and our art and music is this middle classization. I don’t think that’s useful. You can see it in journalism. Books have been written recently about this, that if you have journalists from elite schools running the media, the issues are going to narrow down. The values are going to narrow down. There’ll be a lot of things like luxury beliefs and some peculiar conversations that only happen on Twitter among journalists that have [chuckles] nothing to do with anything else. It affects the institutions if only one class is being recruited for them. That’s one issue.

Of course, the hunkering down within our own ethnicity. If you’re a large ethnic group and you’ve just immigrated to Canada, you have all these pre-existing venues that your own ethnic group is offering you. Of course, you’re going to stick with your own group. Canada is agnostic about that. It says, “Oh, well, whatever you do. If you want to do your own separate cultural institutions, fine. We’re not going to offer any unifying narratives to you. You just do your own Kathak dance or Chinese opera. Separate yourselves, we’re fine.” I think it’s a thing that a serious society and serious culture should look at and wonder about what unifying narratives do we have. Because as the situation is now, our one unified narratives are those that come from the US. We’re just mad about American culture and that’s what’s mostly available.

SEAN SPEER: I promise I’ll ask you about the influence of American culture including the growing importation of American ideas and debates about race and social justice and so on. Before we get there, I just want to follow up on the role of cities and place. You have this fascinating observation in the book where you call your home of Toronto a hybrid of Dubai and Vancouver. I don’t think it’s meant to be a compliment. Help me and listeners understand what you mean.

LYDIA PEROVIĆ: This is going to get a little municipal nerdy now. Bear with me [chuckles]. It’s the city zoning that we just inherited from so-called colonial practices. That’s really an expression of how colonial country was built in that we’ve divided into parcels. We’ve divided ourselves into these lots. In Toronto, you’re only allowed to develop within, let’s say, a three kilometers square. Outside of that, it’s all single-family houses, which are often detached, often very big, with front and backyards, and that’s become our normal. The city planners call this the Yellow Belt and of course, those residents’ associations are the only and the most active associations.

Tenants are not particularly active in municipal life. I live in this downtown where you’re allowed to develop. We’re tearing down mid-rise buildings to build towers of 50 stories because that’s the only place you can develop. There’s considerable resistance to gentle densification in the single-family areas. I think it affects how we see our society and how we see ourselves. I think it slightly atomizes us. I think it goes back to the concept that the Englishman’s home is his castle. Now, that’s come from British Empire.

I think everybody wants to have their own home and own their plot of land and own front, backyard, cars, and all that. Dubai is this overdeveloped centre, and also in Vancouver and you can say also in Moscow, you can say also in London—the unifying element is the extreme cost of housing. Just extreme. The availability of rental is very low. That will affect, of course, the so-called research and development ecosystem of every culture which is arts and so-called Bohemian classes and just cafe culture, small business culture. COVID did not help with the main street businesses.

Now, in Toronto, every third door is a pot shop. There’s something weirdly dystopian that has been happening in the last two years in Toronto when the streets were empty. It was under shutdown. There were pot shops. A lot of businesses had to close and there was no live culture. Somehow Ontario decided even rehearsing is not allowed. Most other countries had performing arts. People, they have rehearsed. They have planned. We just shut everything down. Some film industry continued. Somebody smartly lobbied the Ford government in Ontario to get the designation of the essential industry so that at least filming continued, but live arts was just a Dead Sea. It was very strange over the last couple of years. I possibly wrote those words in the middle of those last two years when it was very dead and very sad. It’s getting better now. A lot of my planner is feeling back up as if it’s 2019, the good old 2019, but we’ll see what survives and what doesn’t survive.

SEAN SPEER: You mentioned a sense of dystopia. One expression of that is evidence from the scholar Mike Moffatt and others that the conditions in cities like Toronto are increasingly forcing families to have to move to communities on the periphery. The consequence of that is that we increasingly have, not just in Canada, but really in North America, what have been described as “childless cities.” It reminds me of the novel and the film Children of Men in which we have cities that are not places where people feel like they can possibly raise families due to among other issues, as you say, high housing costs.

LYDIA PEROVIĆ: Absolutely. If I can just add one footnote to that is, it’s not only municipal. It’s federal as well, in that childcare is extremely expensive in Ontario and hard to find. If two people are working, one salary will go practically to childcare. I got to give them credit where credits is due, the current Liberal federal government is trying to do something about a federally organized and sponsored child care.

As a European from continental Europe, this is a very, very exotic conversation to me because [chuckles] there, childcare has been state-funded. It’s extremely cheap and available for everybody. It’s part of life. It wasn’t a political issue. It wasn’t an issue of who gets to send what money and what stuff. It was just like Medicare here is. I think we should definitely go for that whatever is required. So we wouldn’t be childless cities because the other best jobs are in the cities. In order to afford to live outside, you have to commute back in.

SEAN SPEER: You’re writing the book that freedom of speech used to be a left-liberal cause in Canada, but it’s no longer what you described as a “top drawer value”. What do you think happened?

LYDIA PEROVIĆ: Oh, that’s the hard question. You could make an argument that some of the key institutions that are in charge of keeping that as a top value have changed management. Let’s think of it. Maybe Jonathan Haidt, The Coddling of the American Mind generation has gotten these jobs. That’s one of the arguments. These kids have grown up, gotten really good jobs in these institutions. They’re changing the cultures of these institutions, including the media, which is extraordinary to me. The NGO sector is always prone to this, the fads of what’s the hottest issue and all that.

Luckily, the libraries in big cities are steadfast in their support for reader choice and freedom of expression and assembly. For example, libraries now are a good example of how an institution withstands these kinds of attempts of so-called progressive capture. Also, we see in the U.S. attempts at reactionary capture of libraries, in which actually from the other side of the political spectrum, you have people very unhappy that the libraries are carrying books like I Am Jazz, or I Have Seven Genders, or the discourse around “groomer”.

Here in Canada, we have the progressives against the libraries. In the U.S., we have the right wing of the Republican Party against libraries. My theory is the coddled generation has gotten jobs. The coddled generation has gotten power, and this is what’s happening. I talked with people in these institutions, and I recently talked to a teacher in Ontario Public School System. She says the evangelizers are a minority, that everybody’s terrified of them. Of course, whoever’s near the retirement age, they don’t want to rock the boat. They just look forward to retirement. This is what’s happening in our media. This is what’s happening in our other institutions. A very vocal, very ardent minority, a whole bunch of polite Canadians who don’t want to offend, and then a bunch of people just waiting to retire. I suppose that’s what happened.

SEAN SPEER: Yes, that’s a lot of insight there, Lydia. You mentioned in your answer and in previous answers the place of the United States in understanding some of these cultural and political developments in Canada. I’ll just ask you to expand: what in your view is the role of American cultural influence here? What if anything can be done so that Canadians spend more time assessing their own issues and shortcomings without importing America’s problems?

LYDIA PEROVIĆ: We remember when Roe v. Wade was suspended, it was a crisis in Canada too. It was a crisis in the U.K. Do really think that Boris Johnson is going to abolish contraception? [chuckles] Just be serious. Let’s be serious. Let’s be adults. I understand that people want to show solidarity. This is one of the unbelievable things. Montenegro had a Black Lives Matter solidarity march, and there are practically no Black people in Montenegro. There occasionally may be an NGO or a journalist or a digital nomad, although there have been Black people in the port cities from antiquity to about early modernity. Since then, there have been no Black people in Montenegro.

Why would the Isle of Wight have the Black Lives Matter march in support? Why would Keir Starmer take the knee? Which I think is an incredibly moving gesture within an American context. I was really moved, for example, when Eminem did it in the middle of a Super Bowl concert without making much fuss about it. It’s a meaningful gesture in the American context. It has nothing to do with us.

Abolish the Police stuff. When we were all in the grip of Black Lives Matter just after the murder of George Floyd in 2020, our media were just chomping if the bits were a story of a police person being somehow implicated in a murder of a Black person. You can see. We want to have American problems. To that degree, we want to be American and we want to have their problems as well. There’s all this extensive vocabulary about how they’re dealing with a problem, what the problem is. It’s very tricky.

Of course, race discourse. Now, all the countries in the world talk about race. Countries in which the concept is completely useless have started talking about race. If you look at the Europeans, we hate each other on different bases, culture, language, any number of issues. Race is completely useless as a concept. If you look at inter-African relationships, look at the genocide in Rwanda. It was genocide between two Black ethnicities. There are a whole lot of countries in which the concept of race is useless, but it’s very hot now. Everybody’s using it. There’s no science behind it. Whereas ethnicity, of course, it’s a much more useful term. We’re all about race now. We’re just fabricating this.

There’s this word from the Canadian progressive catechism: racializing. That word has something. It’s the kernel of truth in there. Yes, it’s the process of racializing when you other somebody, that they’re a different race somehow. That’s what the progressives are doing as well. That’s what they’re doing when they say, “Okay, we need this race for this job. We’re advocating on behalf of this race.” Americans have a lot of writers who write about this, including Thomas Chatterton Williams. Starting with James Baldwin, starting with The Psychoanalysis of Race. It’s quite an admirable tradition there. People who have written the book Racecraft, it’s a process of production.

Basically, as Thomas Chatterton Williams keeps saying, “There’s no racism without the concept of race.” Just the two rely on each other. If you don’t have a concept of race, then it’s a little bit difficult to be racist. I’m glad to notice that we as a humanity have dropped the red and the yellow race concept. How quaint and weird did those words sound now? Somehow we’re still clinging to White and Black. There’s no White on the human body anywhere, really. It’s very strange. We’re in the grip of this fantasy because the U.S. is in the grip of this fantasy. Probably, it’s their foundational sin but we’ve got to get out of it. We totally need a new vocabulary that is not confined to the relationship between races.

SEAN SPEER: To your point about the emergence of a new lexicon, I’ve been struck recently that I keep seeing the phrase “equity-deserving groups” which just strikes me so bizarre as if there are some groups that ought not to be entitled to an expectation of equal treatment.

LYDIA PEROVIĆ: They used to be equity-seeking, so some EDI manager said, “Wait a minute, this is offensive. Let’s call it equity deserving.” It’s such a production of meaningless concepts. It’s just fascinating but people are making careers now in this, and this is the dangerous bit. You can have a really good middle-class salary being an EDI Manager now, a consultant or expert on indigenization.

SEAN SPEER: You’ve been so generous with your time, Lydia. Let me wrap up with one final question. In light of the issues that you are observing within your adopted country, do you think you’ll ultimately stay here?

LYDIA PEROVIĆ: I was hoping nobody would ask me that [chuckles] but you did. My ideal life currently, would probably maybe be two months in Montenegro and then back for the rest of the year. But it’s interesting, such are the ways of alienation of immigrants that it’d be very hard to me to find a good job in Montenegro at this point. I’m more foreign in my first country now than I am here. It’s going to be an ongoing project. It would be great if you can live a little bit there and then most of the year here and then nobody takes you for granted [chuckles].

You always keep yourself on your toes because it’s a process of code-switching. Whenever I could go back there, freedom of speech is just completely different. It’s the old state, right-wing, traditional. There the a church is very influential. It’s a well-worn model of fights in favour of free speech, in favour of sexual minority rights, in favour of women’s rights. It’s good. It’s familiar. In Canada, now it’s completely twisted. [chuckles] There’s a bit of a code-switching. Whenever I’m on the plane I think, “Okay, that’s a different set of problems.”

SEAN SPEER: A different set of words. Lydia Perović, thank you so much for joining us at Hub Dialogues. I want to commend your book, Lost in Canada: An Immigrant’s Second Thoughts, published by Sutherland Books to our listeners and readers at The Hub. As you’ve heard today, it’s such a powerful story about issues of identity in place and some of these new and evolving trends in Canadian life. Thank you for joining us today, Lydia.

LYDIA PEROVIĆ: This was such an honour. Thank you so much.

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