Former Canadian diplomat and now social entrepreneur, Scott Gilmore, writing in MacLean’s magazine, says that Canada remains “the same colour on the map not because of a strong sense of shared identity or a common purpose, but because we simply haven’t had much of a reason to split up. Yet.” We’re not a real nation or even a nation-state, he asserts, we’re just a federation of powerful provinces that, 150 years ago, didn’t want to be Americans.
He complains, with only some justification, that “Some definitions of statehood refer to having a monopoly on violence. We meet that criteria: there is only one Canadian military. But it has atrophied to the point that our Navy is no longer able to fully assert sovereignty over our maritime boundaries, and our Army doesn’t even make an attempt in the Arctic … [and] … in one important regard, Ottawa is perhaps not even a legitimate power. Consider that fully democratic governments are only found in provinces and cities, not at the federal level. There are no un-elected, unaccountable lawmakers in our provincial legislatures and our city halls. Thank god.” That we retain an unelected legislature, appointed at the whim of the prime minister is, indeed, a disgrace and the state of our armed forces is worse than a disgrace: it is a clear sign that Canadians don’t care about being a country.
That, Canadians’ indifference to Canada, not inter-provincial trade barriers or disputes over pipelines is our national problem. Back in 1946 the great liberal-nationalist historian Arthur Lower famously wrote about a Canada that had gone from colony to nation … and so we had, briefly. But by 1967, only 100 years after Confederation we, Canadians, were, already tired of exercise of sovereignty ~ or, at least, we were tired of paying for it. An emerging vision of Canada, shared, albeit not always with equal fervour, by Laurier, Borden, Meighen, Bennett, King, St Laurent. Diefenbaker and Pearson was eroded by the costs of the great depression and wars, hot and cold ~ and the cost in blood was sometimes overtaken by a sense of lost opportunities. By about 1960 Canadians were looking, with envy, to a richer, more vibrant United States which had, arguably, reached the zenith of its powers in the 1950s. But Canadians, “informed” by television were enamoured by “Camelot” ~ John F and Jacqueline Kennedy’s mythical (in reality) America ~ and wished to have the same. But, just like the Camelot in the Lancelot-Grail cycle, the 20th century American Camelot was a sham, a myth put out by public relations agents and celebrity journalists, the modern equivalents of 12th-century bards and troubadours. But it flickered past us, on our black and white TV screens … a hopeful contrast to the growing darkness of America’s Vietnam war which would end with even less nobility than did France’s. But we wanted America to be Camelot, we wanted to believe what we saw on TV and read in tabloids, and we wanted the same thing for ourselves … not earnest, cautious, principled 60 and 70-year-old, First World War veteran political leaders like John Diefenbaker and Lester Pearson. That picture, on the right, is Prime Minister Lester B Pearson in the Royal Flying Corps in England in 1917 … he began his wartime service as a private soldier, as a stretcher-bearer, having enlisted while at the University of Toronto.
But Mike Pearson and Dief the Chief were old fashioned, whistle-stop and newspaper politicians and the world was changing … television was king, it had made John Kennedy, and it was kind to neither Canadian. Canada fell in love with its own version of Kennedy: Pierre Elliot Trudeau. But, unlike John Kennedy, who was 100% American, Pierre Trudeau was uncomfortable in Canada. he was, certainly, a pure laine Québecois but he never quite found himself at home in Canada … not, except, perhaps, as a tourist of sorts. As I have said before, he could not, it always seemed to me, persuade Québec that they, French-speaking Canadians, were better off in Canada than they would be as a small, weak, rather pointless independent country, because, I think, he couldn’t make a “case” for Canada … it was, always, almost a foreign land to him.
And Canada is “foreign” to many Canadians. Scott Gilmore says that “Douglas Coupland once described British Columbia as part of a “cultural Chile”, a west coast community that ran from San Diego to Prince Rupert, tied together with an integrated economy, a similar lifestyle and a common worldview. Growing up in Alberta, this resonated with me, as I felt I had more in common with someone in Montana than I did with a Montrealer or a Haligonian, two cities I had never even visited … [and] … Whether Canada’s cultural communities run north-south into the United States is less important than the fact they do not run east-west. We often talk about the “two solitudes”, based on the idea that French and Anglo Canadians live very different and unconnected lives. This is indisputable. We watch different shows, listen to different music (name any of the current top 10 musicians in Quebec), hold different values. If you don’t believe that last point, consider any public opinion survey—Quebec is an outlier on nearly every question from abortion to world affairs … [but, he adds] … there are other solitudes, too. Less than 10 per cent of Canadians have ever visited the north. And those who have come from only a handful of cities, such as Winnipeg. Remove the language, and there are fewer cultural similarities between Newfoundland and Saskatchewan than you would find between France and Belgium. What is more, the proportion of Regina residents who have actually been to St. John’s is a fraction of the Parisians who have been to Brussels (or Berlin) … [and] … Stephen Harper anointed Quebec a nation. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has announced that Indigenous Canadians are a nation. Conceivably a future prime minister may continue the trend and for some political advantage describe Maritimers as a nation, or South Asian Canadians as separate cultural identity. And why not? No one has ever successfully argued that Canadians are a people.” That, of course, has been our problem since Mike Pearson hopped on the bilingual-bicultural bandwagon back in the early 1960s as a way to counter growing French-Quebec nationalism which was exemplified by Premier Jean Lesage’s slogan of “maîtres chez nous!” But Quebec nationalists didn’t want a bilingual Canada, they didn’t much care about Canada, at all, they wanted a French Quebec and their ambitions extended to an independent French Quebec. Pierre Trudeau, in his youth, had been part of the French-Quebec nationalist, a movement led by historian Abbé Lionel Groulx, which promoted the fear that the French language and French culture and every trace of the history of the French in North America were going to drown in a sea of English in North America, and only an independent, religious, French nation-state could save all that. Pierre Trudeau abandoned that doctrine when he came to believe in anti-nationalism, but he never lost his belief in the overarching need to protect and promote the French language in Canada. And Pierre Trudeau’s enduring legacy, even more powerful and destructive than a culture of entitlement, is the notion of a fully and functionally bilingual Canada … a goal which is, to be charitable, elusive and, most likely, nothing more than pie in the sky.
But it does hark back to the very foundations of Canada. Back in the mid-1860s, there was no concerted rush to create a Canadian state, the British North American colonies were not suffering under imperial rule … in fact they, including Lower Canada, were pretty much fat and happy as British colonies. Nova Scotia and Quebec were not looking for a federation … but the British were tired of the costs of empire and were convinced that British North America could be a viable “dominion” and pay its own way. In this respect both Pierre and Justin Trudeau were right: there is no “core” to Canada, nothing, including Vimy Ridge, that binds us together … there is no Boston Common, no Lexington, no Yorktown to make us one nation. Our Constitution was drafted by cautious, conservative men ~ they were all men in both Charlottetown and London ~ who did not want a strong state – they wanted, and the Supreme Court has just confirmed that we have, a loose federation of powerful, nearly independent provinces that may put their local, parochial interests ahead of those of the country. That’s what we have because that’s what Macdonald and Cartier and Brown …
… and all the others wanted. No matter how much we want to be “like” America, our history dictates that we live in a different kind of country ~ mostly liberal and democratic, to be sure, but only loosely “united.”
So, Scott Gilmore is wrong: we are a real country but we are a very conservative nation which has enshrined in its constitution the notion of a weak national government that may only ‘govern,’ on its own,’ in a few (§91) well-defined areas … we are a state composed of different nations the peoples of which have, and are allowed to have, different socio-economic objectives. So, Lord Durham was right, as far as he went … but today we have more than just “two nations warring within the bosom of a single state,” we may have a nearly limitless number. Our Constitution, as the Supremes see it, seems to allow provinces considerable freedom of action or, perhaps more correctly, they require a sort of cooperative federalism that may be uncomfortable for many Canadians.
Is our federation too weak to survive? Are the North-South pulls stronger than the East-West ones? Was Michael Bliss being prophetic when, 18 years ago, he wrote about Old Canada vs New Canada? Are we, really two or three or four or even five quite different “nations?” I don’t know. I believe that Professor Bliss was, and still is right, about the socio-economic and, indeed, cultural differences between Old Canada, East of the Ottawa River and New Canada, West of it; and I also believe that Québec is a nation ~ whatever that means ~ but I doubt that it can be anything except a poor, weak, failed state if it opts for independence. Ditto for Alberta.
The key question, it seems to me, is: do we want to join the USA? I suspect the answer is: No!
Some years ago, someone, I cannot remember who quipped that Canada was faced with TINA². TINA Squared he (or she) said was the product squaring Prime Minister Thatcher’s famous line: “There Is No Alternative” because we are “Trapped In North America.” Some folks, mostly the Laurentian Elites who still worship at the alter of Pierre Trudeau, really want to cut Canada adrift from North America and anchor it to Europe, while some others, another minority, want to erase the Canada-US border. Neither is possible … first, notwithstanding what Pierre Trudeau’s acolytes might wish, we are Trapped In North America and, second, unless we want to totally disband Canada and join the USA, There Is No Alternative to making our federation work. Making our federation work means accepting the Constitution as it is … or changing it.
The aborted Meech Lake and Charlottetown accords dampened, I believe, almost every Canadian’s enthusiasm for Constitutional change … but it has been 35 years since those nightmares and, perhaps, there is some appetite for renewal, but I think not.
I believe that Canada is a country and can work, as is. I would rather that we did not have our current, written constitution, but I would also rather we had palm trees and warm winters … the fact is that we are who we are and where we are, and we are, by and large, blessed amongst the nations by having a strong dominant culture and equally strong liberal, democratic institutions. If we cannot make this work then, maybe, we are not as good citizens as we would like to believe.
It requires, I believe,
a little a lot of leadership from across the political spectrum and from national, regional, provincial and local levels.