'A working non-nation'?

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Imagine an Ontario schoolboy in 1951, giving a talk on Canada's future in his grade five public speaking contest. The speech resonates with cliched predictions of national greatness that John A. Macdonald, Wilfrid Laurier and hundreds of other Canadian dreamers and seers before and after would recognize: Canada is bound to enjoy fantastic economic growth thanks to our amazing endowment of natural resources. A distinct Canadian identity based on a vibrant Canadian culture is beginning to take shape. Canada will be a model to the world of peace, order and good government. The 20th century will belong to Canada. We will outpace the United States. And so on.
Now, after a career of lecturing and writing about Canada, I am beginning to revisit those old dreams -- yes, I was that schoolboy orator, with a lot of help from my mother -- with a view to asking how well they worked out, especially in the last half of the century. What can we say in 2006 about the economic, cultural and political aspirations that guided generations of Canadians from Confederation into our times? Have they come to pass? If not, what has happened to Canada, and why?
THE NORTHERN ECONOMIC GIANT
Most of the Fathers of Canada's Confederation in 1867 envisaged that the four provinces they were uniting would evolve into a great economic power like the United States. The serious development of the top half of the North American continent was about to begin.
Like the development of the United States, it would involve expansion from sea to sea, the building of railroad and other communication links, massive immigration and the creation of vast amounts of northern wealth. Canada's wonderful geographic endowment -- fertile soil, trees, minerals, rushing waters, seaports and central global location in relation to Europe, the United States and Asia -- would be the foundation for the construction of a great national economy.
It took some time, and some hard times, but every Canadian schoolchild knows that at about the beginning of the 20th century Canada seemed to have hit its stride.
In the early years of the 20th century, Canadians seemed to be moving north, adding new layers to the birthday cake of the country. They built railroads to the Klondike and Lake Athabasca and James Bay and Hudson Bay. Promoters dreamed of Chicoutimi as the Chicago of Quebec, processing the agricultural bounty of the Lac St. Jean region. Such dreams seemed no more implausible in those days than, say, the idea of creating great cities in the malarial swamps of Florida or on the deserts of Arizona.
Between 1900 and 1910, Canada's gross national product more than doubled and its population grew by 40%. At the peak of the Laurier boom, the country was adding 4% per annum to its population through immigration. One could extrapolate from that rate of growth to predict that by 2000 Canada would be inhabited by upwards of 145 million people. Such were the calculations that fostered Laurier's famous prediction that 20th-century Canada could match U.S. growth in the 19th century.
We know how quickly the dream faltered. The Laurier boom had ended even before the coming of the Great War in 1914 led to a major diversion of Canadian energies and resources, as well as to distortions in our economic development that persisted for two decades and into another war. Nature's benignity had cruel limits: As every Prairie sod-busting family learned, it was not so easy to overcome the hardships of life in a harsh climate north of the 49th parallel. It was not so easy to bring all those resources to market competitively. And it seemed to take great quantities of wood and water and minerals to support large numbers of lasting jobs or very big cities in the wilderness.
The image of the North in Canadian history oscillates wildly. In one period, the North is pregnant with possibilities. In another, it is a barren wasteland, thinly peopled, the land God gave to Cain. Similarly, the image of Canada as a whole shifts from being a northern giant in the making to taking on the appearance of an out-lying northern suburb of the United States.
Still, after the Second World War and in the early years of the Cold War, it seemed as though the northern dream was finally about to come true -- this time, for real.
Canada's future as a treasure trove of natural resources to feed the American economy seemed secure. We were pioneers in atomic energy. Our northern territories were even strategically important in Cold War planning and became the home of several lines of radar stations. My 1951 speech, all about Canada's unlimited national resources and the north as a new frontier, typified the national mood.
That vision almost immediately expired in a major recession during which the North was again transformed into a frozen wilderness. By the 1960s, it seemed that the world was moving into an information age that would highly value human intelligence and human resources, leaving traditional hewers of wood and drawers of water to decline into backwoods irrelevance -- unless they were also pumpers of oil. Canada's dreams of northern development were reduced to petro-possibilities, which did seem attractive in the energy crisis of the 1970s.
In the 1980s, the price of oil and Canada's northern visions again collapsed. The 20th century ended with the Canadian dollar close to an all-time low against the U.S. dollar, with nobody paying much attention to the North, and nobody saying that the century had belonged to Canada, certainly not in the Laurier sense. By 2000, 30-million Canadians were outnumbered by the population of one American state, California. Canada remained the northern fringe country, its people concentrated close to its southern border.
NATIONAL IDENTITY, NATIONAL ASSERTION
The cultural aspect of the Canadian dream, at Confederation and into the 1950s, was that we would create a distinct Canadian society with an identity reflecting continuous and important cultural ties with Europe, ties that the United States had violently ruptured in the 18th century. Canada was loyal. Canada was part of the British Empire. Canada was, for the most part, ethnically and culturally British. Of course, there was a major French fact in Canada, dominating one big province. But the French Canadian minority seemed to have made its accommodation with the country's majority generations ago, enjoying a large niche status in a federation that respected its language and the legal and religious distinctiveness of Quebec.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the quest for the Canadian identity continued to be vigorously pursued. Some still located it in British institutions, others sought it in the dual ethnicity of English and French, a few in the old dream of the true North strong and free, uniting the sons and daughters of Norse and Normans alike. In the southern Ontario culture of the 1950s, as expressed in our school curriculum, it seemed that we had struck an ideal balance in being partly British, partly American, partly Canadian, and with a light Gallic seasoning thanks to mandatory high school French.
It had also been assumed, both by imperialists and by independantistes, that when Canada grew up as a country its persona, whether British or distinct, would express itself through the country's role on the stage of the world. In the autumn of 1914 the Dominion of Canada, at war against the German Empire, sent 30,000 soldiers to Europe as its first contribution to the British Empire's war effort. This was the largest army that had ever crossed the Atlantic from west to east.
It happened at a time when the United States, a divided and isolationist country, had decided to stay neutral. Eventually, Canada sent half a million men to the Great War, 60,000 of whom died. Proportionately this was a far greater contribution to the defeat of Germany than was made by the U.S., a latecomer to the war in 1917. That war effort seemed to many Canadians (many English Canadians, at least) to have been a major expression of the maturing Canadian nationality.
The nation expressed itself even more clearly in World War Two, as Canada declared war on Germany in its own right in September 1939, and stood at Britain's side from the beginning. During the bleak months between the fall of France in 1940 and the invasion of Russia a year later, Canada was the most powerful ally that Britain had. In World War Two Canada put a million men and women in uniform and lost 40,000 of them, and Canadians were once more immensely proud that they had been fighting tyranny from the beginning, unlike the neutral, isolationist U.S. In the early years of the Cold War, Canada was also a full participant in the global struggle to contain Communist totalitarianism.
Then the country gradually changed. The British Empire dissolved. The Britishness of Canadian culture also steadily eroded. It was challenged not only by awakened Quebec nationalism in the 1960s, but also by American popular culture and, most significantly, by the claim of ethnic minorities to the effect that Canada should have no official culture.
Canada, it was said, consisted of not one people, not two peoples, but a multiplicity of peoples, each with its own cultural identity, all of them on an equal footing. As well, the resurgent aboriginal tribes, reinventing themselves as Canada's First Nations, had remarkable success in arguing for the continuation of separate status based on prior habitation and treaties. Multiculturalism was officially instituted by the Trudeau government in the early 1970s.
The search for the Canadian identity necessarily ground to a halt. We began talking about Canadians having multiple or limited or regional identities. A few diehard nationalists, usually of NDP persuasion, still try to insist that distinct Canadian values can be located in, say, the healthcare system, or in being anti-American, but such views seem increasingly archaic.
It is now often said that Canadians' identity lies in commitment to human rights as expressed in the 1982 Charter of Rights and Freedoms. But this new cliche conceals problems that Canadians have hardly begun to address. Given radical cultural pluralism, is there anything other than language for an immigrant to assimilate? Do history and tradition lose their meaning except as the record of the bad old days? Could we not logically replace the existing population with an entirely new immigrant population and still have Canada? Is Canada, as the distinguished novelist Yann Martel put it, simply the world's greatest hotel? You bring your cultural baggage with you and the government provides room service, heat, water and, on television, those quaint Heritage Minutes.
On the world stage, by the 1960s Canada was shifting its public face away from Cold Warriorism and in the new direction of international policing and peacekeeping. Peacekeeping missions, beginning with the aftermath of the Suez Crisis in the late 1950s, were presented as both an assertion of the pacific Canadian temperament and a sign of our commitment to global institutions. They also served as cover for the deliberate shrinkage of the country's war-making capacity and its growing lack of interest in taking hard attitudes toward Communist expansionism.
From the Cuban Missile Crisis through Vietnam and the Reagan campaign against the "evil empire," Canada gradually slid away from the idea of standing militarily with the United States. Expressions of Canadian foreign policy collapsed into peacekeeping seasoned with mantras and moralism boosting the United Nations.
In the long scope of history, Canada would garner little credit in helping foster the defeat and collapse of communism, the other great evil of the 20th century. We did our share against Nazism -- we did better than the Americans -- but in the struggle against communism we alternated between sitting on the fence and sitting on the beaches of Cuba.
Modern multicultural Canada is no more sure of its role in the world than it is of its identity. There is a symbiosis between the unclarity of cultural pluralism and the incoherence of foreign policy. When ethnic groups differ sharply, a community is reduced to either taking no policy or counting votes. In the global struggle against Islamic fundamentalist terrorism, Canada, where the Muslim population outnumbers and is growing faster than the Jewish population, veers uncertainly. Canadians want to stand with the U.S., but they know they have little to contribute militarily and they have immense distaste for truly messy situations like Iraq, notwithstanding the positions of traditional allies such as Britain and Australia.
The former Martin government even gave notice to the U.S. that Canada would not participate in the next generation's efforts at serious continental defence. Before the recent change of government Canada was no longer seen in Washington as an influential or even trustworthy power and not as important to Americans and the world as it was in 1914, 1939 or 1951.
Good Government
Whatever its other problems, Canada has seemed to be pretty well governed -- better than the United States in most Canadians' eyes. This has been perhaps the greatest Canadian dream. We might fall short of the American republic in the accumulation of wealth or the rhetoric of equality or the ability to influence other countries, but we would at least create a North American model of a country enjoying peace, order and good government.
Canadian visions of community revolved around notions of greater social and political stability -- the stability provided by a British constitutional monarchy and parliamentary system, enforced by appropriate use of police power to safeguard liberty, all in the context of a North American community a little more hierarchical and elite-driven and deferential than the United States. To Canadians the headless, ultra--democratic American republic seemed too unstable, too chaotic, too libertarian, too violent to be an acceptable alternative.
Canada would have to be a federation, like the U.S., for geographic and other reasons. Because of the circumstances of the Dominion's birth at a time when American federalism had palpably failed, the Fathers of Confederation envisaged a more perfect federal system. In Canada, there would be less decentralization and much more power vested in the central government. The whole would be greater than the sum of its parts.
That was then. But by the beginning of the 21st century Canadians had become increasingly doubtful that they were receiving good government by advanced democratic standards. A host of problems with traditional Canadian institutions, including frustration with excessive prime ministerial powers, systemic corruption and the perpetual scandal of the Canadian Senate, seemed to foster a bitter turning away from public life and values, as expressed in falling voter turnouts at elections and increasing interest in reforming an unsatisfactory political system.
The national government, under fire from the forces of provincial particularism since virtually the day after Confederation, effectively abandoned its dream of supremacy in the Canadian federalism system, and in recent years has become almost desperate in its eagerness to accommodate the provinces, notably Quebec. With the former Paul Martin government's recent adoption of the bizarre, possibly lunatic, notion of "asymmetrical federalism," almost all sense of coherence in Canadian federal-provincial relations seems to have disappeared.
The continuing strength of separatist sentiment in Quebec and quasi-separatist tendencies in other provinces coincides with a time when national sentiment erodes along with the idea of a national culture. These forces, now accepted by most national politicians, seem likely to drive the federation further toward extreme decentralization or a dissolution that is bound to be very messy. The post-Civil War American republic has proven to be far more stable than, and arguably as well governed as, the drifting, fractious "Kingdom" of Canada.
Who Cares?
Where are we some 140 years after the Fathers of Confederation dreamed of creating a great and powerful and well-governed British nation in the northern half of North America and 50 years after innocent schoolboys parroted their visions? It can be fairly said that many of the dreams of Macdonald, Laurier, Diefenbaker, even Trudeau, have not come true and are unlikely ever to come true. Economically our destiny appears to be wary, friction-fraught continental integration rather than northern sufficiency. Economic uncertainty is paralleled by cultural and political confusion as polycultural Canada appears to be increasingly unable to develop a sense of national "self" or national interest in global affairs.
This is not necessarily a lament for a nation, not necessarily any kind of lament. Deviations from national dreams may not matter in the slightest to a prosperous people, who enjoy a very high standard of living, adequate social programs and fairly constant economic growth in a time of peace and harmony. It may even be possible that Canada is evolving beyond the traditional nation-state, transcending, bursting the old wineskin and becoming one of the world's first working non-nations. Possibly this marks a further advance in humans' approaches to living peaceably together, in which case Canada (or at least multicultural Toronto, absent its violent ghettos) is a beacon of success to the world.
From a more traditionalist perspective Canada's evolution may appear to be moving increasingly toward decline into global irrelevance and social and political incoherence. In either case, it is not the country its founders hoped to create. For better or worse, many of their dreams did not come true. In the histories of the contemporary world written outside of Canada, this country does almost nothing worth noticing. I am not as optimistic about Canada's future in 2006 as my mother and I were in 1951.
Michael Bliss, Literary Review of Canada


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