What is Canada?

"If our centenary celebration is to mean anything, it must be about what we are, rather than about what we are not. And this problem of our identity we have yet to solve."
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On July 1, 1967, Canada will celebrate its one-hundredth birthday. In many parts of the country the form of the celebration has yet to be decided. This is not surprising since a great many Canadians are not sure what we are supposed to be celebrating. Is it the foundation of a great bicultural nation united in a common purpose? A glance at the headlines in any newspaper from Halifax to Vancouver will show the absurdity of the idea. We cannot even decide on a national flag. Is it the maintenance in Quebec of the French language and culture against the encroachments of the Anglo-Saxon majority? If so, the Anglo-Saxon majority can hardly be expected to take part with enthusiasm. Is it the maintenance of the sovereignty of the Crown and the British connection against French-Canadian particularism? The province of Quebec can hardly be expected to rejoice. And for the four million Canadians of neither French nor British origin, either achievement is irrelevant. Is it then simply the fact that we have maintained our political independence against the usually friendly but always staggering pressures from the United States? Possibly. But so negative an achievement will not, three years hence, bring about an emotional response in any way comparable with the response on an ordinary American Fourth of July. If our centenary celebration is to mean anything, it must be about what we are, rather than about what we are not. And this problem of our identity we have yet to solve.

After a century of effort we are more seriously divided than we have ever been since Queen Victoria created the country by signing the British North America Act in 1867. A sizable minority in Quebec is committed to bringing about quasi or total independence for French Canada. On the other hand, the Anglo-Saxon majority is still reluctant to accept the idea that Canada must become in fact what she is in theory, bilingual and bicultural. Nor is the drive toward provincial autonomy confined to Quebec. At the other end of the country the Social Credit premier of British Columbia, W.A.C. Bennett, seems to view his province almost as an independent principality. The three prairie provinces, with their agricultural and oil-producing economy, constitute a distinctive territory of their own. The Maritime Provinces, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island, poor in resources and a geographical extension of New England rather than of the rest of Canada, were reluctant to come into Confederation in the first place and are dubious to this day of the wisdom of their decision. In the absence of a unifying idea the provinces tend to assert the identity which emerges from their own geography and circumstances. We have so far failed at Ottawa to agree about the nature of our country and its people. If our citizens cannot define themselves in terms of Canada, they will define themselves in terms of British Columbia, or Nova Scotia, or Alberta, or Quebec. French-Canadian particularism is only the most dramatic expression of a particularisin that afflicts the whole of our country.

The question for Canada today is this: Are we simply a variant of the American republic, shaped by the same forces, governed by the same beliefs, based upon a political philosophy which is all but the same? If we are, we should use up no more energy on squabbles between French and English. We should not spend money in a vain attempt to foster Canadian literature, Canadian art, a Canadian theater. We should not try to maintain armed forces of our own or endeavor to construct an independent foreign policy. We should stop worrying about American ownership of our resources and our industries. We should stop wasting our time in arguments about a Canadian flag. Instead, we should admit that our honorable century-old experiment has been a failure, and we should direct our best efforts toward coming to a political and economic accommodation with Washington. If as a people we have nothing distinctive of value to contribute to the world, we should be prepared to throw in our lot, if we are permitted, with those who have. We live in too desperate a century to indulge in the frivolity of false independence. We may be a confused people. We are not an emerging, underdeveloped nation.

However, I do not believe that Canada is a variant of the United States. Had such been the case, economic and geographic forces would long ago have brought about the absorption of the Dominion into the Union. There were many on both sides of the border who would have tolerated or welcomed such a development. The French-Canadian habitants were neutral when the armies of the Continental Congress invaded Canada in 1776. The Anglo-Scots merchants of Montreal in 1849 signed a manifesto urging annexation with the United States. Later in the century Goldwin Smith, who had resigned the Regius Professorship of History at Oxford to settle in Toronto, spent his distinguished career urging the futility and foolishness of Canadian insistence on independence. American leaders expressed themselves even more forcefully. It seemed to them only common sense that Canada should be ceded to settle the Alabama claims. Theodore Roosevelt believed that American demands in the Oregon boundary dispute had been too modest. The whole of British Columbia and. the prairie provinces should have been taken. "We were the people who could have used it best and we should have taken it all." During the Venezuelan crisis in 1895 Richard Olney informed Whitehall that three thousand miles of ocean "make any permanent union between an European and an American state 'Unnatural and inexpedient." Whitehall itself, until the imperialist wave struck in the 1880s, showed little interest in the North American dependency and hoped that Canada would either go out on its own or join the United States.

This, contrary to all the laws of determinism, did not happen. It did not happen precisely because the Canadian people were different from the Americans and they knew it. Official oratory about the undefended frontier is misleading. The frontier has been undefended in large part because it is undefendable, not because of any profound similarity between the two peoples, who are, in tact, different in their historical experience, their political philosophy, and their view of the world outside North America. They are complementary to each other, but they are not identical. Both may legitimately claim to be the legatees of British' notions of free government, but the legacy is not a unified one. The American people entered into their legacy by a revolutionary act in 1776. By that act they defined their identity and released the energies that would during the next century and a half create a great nation and a great literature, a new vision of the nature and destiny of man.

We Canadians have so far failed to enter fully into our legacy, and this is our one great, overreaching problem as our centennial approaches. On its solution everything else depends. We have failed to vest sovereignty where it properly belongs—in the Canadian people. Instead, we have allowed it to remain in the British monarchy, and in doing so we have divided our country and inhibited, our emotional and creative development as a people. A nation, like an individual, can achieve integrity and identity only out of its own experience and not derivatively from a parent. This, and not French-Canadian particularism, is at the root of our present difficulties. Our internal dissensions are intrinsically less serious than those that plagued the thirteen colonies when their leaders were laboring to create the American Union, but because of our failure to recognize a national identity distinct from that of Great Britain, they have been allowed to assume proportions that have come close to paralyzing our parliamentary machinery. Our identity cannot emerge clear and dominant until sovereignty, both real and symbolic, is brought to rest in ourselves.

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