We live in a strange land. Canada always seems to be developing into something, but never becoming sure of what that something should be. It is a welcoming and inspiring place, but can also be intolerant and closed. It prides itself on its peaceful reputation, and yet it tries to use wartime events to support its sense of nationhood. Perhaps it is the vastness of the territory and the relative smallness of the population that creates this sense of contradiction.
The wartime events are a case in point. Many point to Vimy Ridge in World War One as the place where “Canada became a Nation”, where Canadians began to find a sense of separate identity. But Canadians also said that, before 1917, about Canadian involvement in the Boer War. And before that, it was the 1885 Rebellion in the West. Before that, it was the Fenian Raids in 1866, or the War of 1812, or the United Empire Loyalists, etc. No single event seems to have finished the job.
I think that this is one of Canada’s strengths, in an odd way. By never really completing the definition of what Canada is, Canadians have been free to continue developing. This means that how we define what a Canadian is has been flexible enough to adapt to new arrivals and new ideas. It allowed Canadian politicians to help create the Commonwealth – a truly unique approach to post-Imperial relationships between countries. Perhaps this is what allowed Mike Pearson to come up with the very original concept of peacekeepers for the United Nations – soldiers whose job it was to prevent outbreaks of war, rather than carry them out.
And yet, the contradictions continue. The land of the peacekeepers is also the country that reverences its military and seeks identity in its military history, a history of which many are quite ignorant. Did you know that the last time Canadians died defending their land from invasion was not in the War of 1812, against the Americans? No, it was in 1866, against the Irish. The Irish, of course, were the largest ethnic group in Canada in the late nineteenth century. Canada even took one of most bigoted and racist organisations, the Orange Order, and somehow turned it into a relatively harmless social society, managing to forget its dubious origins. That says something good about Canada.
These characteristics are personified in Canada’s public figures too. The (in)famous Sir John A. Macdonald, Father of Confederation, never wanted a federation such as the one we have. He wanted a single federal government and sought to make the provincial governments as weak as possible, rather like municipalities. This strong Scot, so proud of both his ethnicity and his political talents, once said that Celts are incapable of self-government! Pierre Trudeau was often dismissed as a “hippy” intellectual, a spoiled rich kid who was just a political dilettante. That was until the FLQ and the famous “Just watch me!” comment on the War Measures Act. William Lyon Mackenzie King was a revered leader in wartime, guiding Canada through World War II. This was the man who talked to his dead mother and dog, and was named after Canada’s most famous rebel against the Crown. Contradictions abound.
Then there’s Canada’s relations with the Indigenous people. Canadians can be proud of the fact that there was no genocide of Indians here, as there was below the border. Historic land claims, Residential Schools issues, and other grievances are dealt with by Government through official policies and programs. Believe me, Europeans generally deal with historical grievances by dismissing them as just historical. “There was an Irish Famine because of British policies in the 1840’s? How sad: that’s history.” But in Canada, we try and acknowledge and deal with these things in a responsible manner.
But now the Indigenous people are the only minority ethnic groups in Canada to be governed by their own Act of Parliament, which puts them in a dependent position in law. Their land and their people are disadvantaged and have often become victims, not only of history, but of their own poverty and degradation. Canada, land of opportunity, tolerance and openness, has been taken to international courts on human rights violations against Indigenous people. Contradictions.
We are just the latest generation to deal with these things. It is strange, sometimes, to think of how many thousands of people have lived in this area over the centuries, and marked July 1, or some other anniversary, as we do. How did they see their country and community in 1830, or 1870, or 1900, or 1945? History is a movie, and we are the actors in this scene. How will others see us in future scenes? What strange contradictions will they see in us, when they look back?
So, Canada is another year older and still growing in every way. Serious issues are still unresolved, and that is also the Canadian way. Are we really multicultural deep down, or do we want everyone to adapt to Canadian ways. But what are Canadian ways? Issues about immigrants with their different languages, religions and customs are not new. They have been troubling Canadians since the Plains of Abraham. The origins of these newcomers has changed again and again over time, but the issues remain the same. Let’s not worry too much. Time passes, and nothing stays the same for long. Countries develop over time too. The key thing is that we all play our part in ensuring that Canada develops in the way we want. That we do by taking care of our local community first. Looking around on Canada Day, I think we’re doing a good job.