What makes a nation? 4 creative thinkers talk art, nationhood with Matt Galloway

AGO Creative Minds brings artist Christi Belcourt, architect Sir David Adjaye, author Junot Diaz, and filmmaker Paul Gross to Massey Hall.

AGO Creative Minds brings Christi Belcourt, Sir David Adjaye, Junot Diaz, and Paul Gross to Massey Hall

CBC's Metro Morning host Matt Galloway (far left) moderated the Creative Minds debate on Friday night, featuring (left to right) artist Christi Belcourt, architect Sir David Adjaye, author Junot Diaz, and filmmaker Paul Gross. (CBC)

Creative thinkers from four different fields came together on Friday night to discuss the link between politics and art, and ask an important question: What makes a nation?

CBC Metro Morning host Matt Galloway moderated the AGO Creative Minds debate at Massey Hall, featuring award-winning Indigenous artist Christi Belcourt, internationally-known architect Sir David Adjaye, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Junot Diaz, and Canadian filmmaker Paul Gross.

The full conversation was around 90 minutes, but here's a glimpse of what happened on stage:

Matt Galloway: You have Brexit, you have the French elections, you have this idea of countries making themselves "great again," taking themselves back, you have Canada 150. There's a conversation about who we are and what makes a nation. What are the ingredients to make a nation?

Junot Diaz: That's a highly contested question. We're dealing with a rabid form of white supremacy that links all these situations together. When I think about what makes a nation, I always think of the counter-nation. A nation is made up not of the attributes it shares — it's [about] common languages, common histories — silences and who is left out of the formula.

Nations are very antagonistic. They pick enemies, they pick borders. They create characters and mythologies that exclude. And, I always think the nation silences, it's exclusion.

For someone like me in the art that I do, it's disavowed dead. Because the nations love to create cenotaphs for the good dead, the dead that it recognizes, the dead that want to help perpetuate the project of the nation. But there's also an enormous population of this disavowed dead, the victims of this national project, the people who are decimated by the national project.

I tend to define the nation by who's on the other side of the bayonet, who doesn't get a tomb, who doesn't get memorialised and who doesn't get mourned. That's as much a part of what a nation is as whoever is we decide to toast on whatever holiday.

David Adjaye: I think there is a kind of mythology that the nation is about the border, or the language, or the passport. But the notion of the nation is really a 19th century construction — it's really a recent idea. The notions of nations as identities like that were really city-states, which were different ideas from what we've constructed now.

What we've constructed now pushes us, sometimes, into really good areas where it allows identities and allows difference to find a commonality under a moral code. I define a nation as something that has a moral consciousness and a moral code that allows us to move past all our personal issues to a collective good or growth or edification. 

I think of the nation as sort of a stop gap on the way to something... to use it as a device to egg each other on to get better. If nations come together to use their moral codes to test each other's moral codes to make things better, it's a great thing.

Paul Gross: If I think about Canada, there's something particularly odd about how Canada came into the shape that it's in. It does seem to me that the entity we call Canada has been unfolding and changing and evolving, and is not finished. I think, in part, it can't be finished because it was never set in stone. 

We don't have a foundation myth, we haven't elevated the fathers of Confederation into some kind of pantheon. We have gradually, slowly expanded the enfranchisement of all citizens into participation. We're a long way from finishing it, if such a thing can be done. 

I feel that where we are in Canada right now is an extraordinarily important hinge or turning point in this odd, unfolding history. I started to see this shift with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. I think that was shattering to many Canadians — the horrors of the residential school system.

Personally, I was ashamed of my ignorance, and the national ignorance. 


Christi Belcourt: There are over 50 Indigenous nations in this country. My people, my ancestors, were buffalo hunters, buffalo people. We have ceremonies, songs, and respect for the buffalo — so much so that we refer to the buffalo as a nation. We consider the birds to be nations. We consider the trees to be nations.

Our view of nations is so much bigger and so much different than just to assume that human beings are the only ones. We always assume humans are at the top of the food chain, but we are at the bottom. Nothing needs us to survive, and we need absolutely everything else.

I'll say this: Canada was born on, first, the coveting, the desire of Indigenous lands, then the dispossession of Indigenous people through our lands. That is what happened. That is how Canada came about: Through the genocide of Indigenous people. If we don't reconcile that, then there will be no reconciliation in this country.

I mean this with the greatest respect: Indigenous nations want our lands back, we want our sovereignty, we want our self-determination, and our god-given right to decide for ourselves — with our own laws — how we are going to proceed and govern ourselves.

So do not refer to Indigenous people as Canadians. Do not think we can come under the umbrella of Canada. 

These conversations have been edited and condensed. For more on the series, visit