If you’re interested in history, there’s no better podcast than Mike Duncan’s “Revolutions,” which takes listeners through detailed accounts of the great historical upheavals of the last 400 years. Canada gets scant treatment, of course, since this country never truly witnessed a real revolution. But we do get a significant cameo during Duncan’s 15-episode arc on the American Revolution. And seeing Canada (or, more accurately, what would become Canada) through the eyes of late 18th-century American revolutionaries is instructive.
In America’s northern borderlands, “Canadians” — as we now call ourselves — broadly consisted of three separate groups: Indigenous societies, French Catholics in what would become Lower Canada, and (largely) English-speaking Protestants in what would become Upper Canada. For their own reasons, some First Nations participated in the American Revolutionary War, while French Catholics largely sat it out, having no particular interest in setting out from Montreal and Quebec City (which were already substantial towns with a well-developed civil society) to help two groups of anti-Catholic Anglophiles fight each over parochial trade and fiscal grievances.
As for English-speaking Canadians, on the other hand, Duncan points out that the question of our participation was somewhat moot, since we Anglos didn’t then comprise a critical mass in regard to either politics or war-making. For the most part, English Canada was little more just a string of scattered supply depots, military barracks, ports, trading posts and tiny settlements. What did Americans think of Canadians? The short answer is they didn’t. (And two and a half centuries later, they still don’t: over four days of covering the Democratic primaries in New Hampshire earlier this month, I heard Canada mentioned exactly twice — once by Bernie Sanders as a prop for socialized medicine, and then again by Amy Klobuchar for a laugh line about how Minnesotans could see our country from their front porches.)
This is not the first time I’ve heard early Canadian history explained in this humbling way. But I found it especially resonant in this particular moment, with anti-pipeline protesters out on the streets of Canadian cities decrying the very presumption that our governments can assert sovereignty over Canada’s own land mass, even with the explicit permission of elected First Nations band councils.
Twenty years ago, we bashed America. In 2020, we bash us.
Canada Is Fake, read the title of a widely circulated article published last week. Just a few years ago, that kind of headline might have seemed absurd to most of us. But in the current environment, I’m reminded that, insofar as history goes, it’s hardly a novel claim. To many Quebecers, Anglo Canada was always simply the moral successor to a hated colonial occupier. To many Indigenous societies, we were genocidaires. To the United States, we remain the half-forgotten residue of whatever British military supply chain remained operational following the fall of Yorktown. Seen from the outside — and even some part of the inside — English Canada is indeed kind of “fake.”
I grew up as an anglophone in Montreal and, following the expected Canadian journalistic practice, spent much of my career fretting and columnizing about the resurgence of Quebec separatism. This always felt like important work, because I’d spent my whole life assuming the French-English divide to represent the main threat to Canada’s continued survival. But even as governments now move to break up the rail blockades, it now seems clear to me that this is no longer true. While it’s convenient to blame Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s indecisive leadership for the crisis, these events do not arise in a vacuum. Rather, they follow on years during which our political, academic and journalistic elites denounced Canada itself as an ugly scar on traditional Indigenous lands. Trudeau himself has spent much of his time in office pledging himself to somehow absolve Canada of this original sin, and one suspects that his exit plan from politics involves him becoming some kind of dean of reconciliationology at a Canadian university.
Canada survived Quebec separatism in part because our elites mobilized a massive campaign of propaganda to convince citizens of the enduring importance of the Canadian project. But in regard to resolving the grievances of Indigenous peoples, those same elites are now committed to the exact opposite project: a whole vocabulary (“settler,” “neocolonial,” “appropriation,” etc.) and daily land-acknowledgment liturgy is broadcast 24/7 on the CBC, fetishized on social media and even broadcast as part of the morning announcements at public schools. Ultimately, this is why Trudeau felt checkmated by five Wet’suwet’en activists trying to torpedo a pipeline deal negotiated by their own legitimate elected band council. We’ve spent years declaring that Canada is garbage, hoping that an attitude of self-abasement would somehow lead us to “reconciliation.” We forgot that when garbage talks, no one listens.
The idea that Indigenous political agitation would lead to Canada’s break-up is not new. But the shocking thing about what we are now witnessing is that the main threat doesn’t actually come from Indigenous peoples, who increasingly are becoming active partners in resource development. As many have noted, the Coastal GasLink project that was the subject of protests was approved by 20 out of 20 elected band councils in affected First Nations territories. Moreover, a Mohawk grand chief personally called for the end of rail blockades in Ontario a week ago (before having his own office then barricaded by protesters). Even amid this crisis, the Government of Alberta struck a deal with two Alberta First Nations for an open-pit oilsands mine. When Vancouver-based Teck Resources announced its withdrawal from the $20 billion project on Sunday, the cited reason wasn’t Indigenous opposition — as Teck Frontier already had entered into agreements with 14 Indigenous groups in the affected era. Rather, the CEO (somewhat euphemistically) blamed the “much broader issues” now at play.
The political problem for Trudeau was never really the Indigenous activists themselves, so much as their urban white supporters. Indeed, it was never really a political problem at all, at least in the ordinary sense of balancing one interest group against another. The urban protesters who took to the streets exhibit Manichean tendencies, having been conditioned to regard resource development as an inherently evil form of geographic contamination, and to view Indigenous environmentalists — even those who oppose their own tribes’ interests — as high prophets channelling a message of salvation. Consider a recent article that appeared in the Toronto Star, suggesting that our secular souls may hang in the balance: “The important step we need to take as Canadians is to inform ourselves about the history of genocide of Indigenous people. The blood is on our hands if we choose to ignore the people who lived on the land before us.” This isn’t the language of politics. It’s the language of Sunday sermons.
It isn’t clear how we an extract ourselves from this situation, since the way the GasLink deal was done in the first place — years of consultations, informed consent from affected bands, a fair distribution of economic benefits — is exactly what Indigenous groups themselves have always (rightly) demanded. And even if the immediate issue is definitively resolved in coming days, it won’t solve the larger problem, which is that an enormous number of progressive Canadians have substituted the aforementioned enviro-spiritual creed in place of any baseline sense of national belonging. Specifically, they no longer accept the idea that our country has the moral right to insist on basic elements of nationhood: territorial sovereignty, the rule of law, the state’s monopoly on the use of force, the integrity of internal trade and transportation networks, and the legitimacy of democratically elected representatives.
This is a much bigger problem than the blockades themselves, and it forces us to revisit the question of why Canada exists and what it’s supposed to be. We’ve all been having a good laugh at Peter MacKay’s attempts to use Twitter to stir up some kind of groundswell of old-school conservative patriotism. But think about his dilemma for a moment: how do you arouse patriotism in a country that has been instructed to regard itself — quite literally — as an ongoing “genocide” state? This is one of the farcical oddities of Trudeau’s campaign to get a seat on the United Nations Security Council. By lazy cultural reflex, we have been conditioned to believe — to quote the 2017-era Indigo book-store slogan — “The World Needs More Canada.” But in the wake of the MMIWG report, whose conclusions Trudeau accepted, that branding is now obsolete. Our new slogan is basically “Stop Us Before We Kill Again.”
Years before a country falls apart in a formal way, it typically begins a process of cultural disintegration — which, if you look at the data, has been going on for some time in Canada. For one thing, we no longer have any kind of national literature, or at least none that people want to read. In 2005, 27 per cent of the books bought by English Canadians were written by Canadian authors. By 2019, that figure was down to 13 per cent, and I’d be surprised if it didn’t soon drop to single digits. Similar patterns, I can attest, exist in the magazine industry. In the halls of Canadians arts and letters, I observed a powerful malaise born of the notion that the white grandees who still run the presses and own the galleries no longer have any moral authority to create, or even curate, any kind of national conversation that doesn’t consist entirely of turgid and repetitive confession kabuki.
If there’s a ray of hope, it lies in the next generation of leaders.
On Canadian campuses, meanwhile, many students are now programmed in the belief that an informed person demonstrates his or her commitment to reconciliation through acts of righteous “resistance” that align with Indigenous demands (or, at least, a certain kind of white-approved Indigenous demand). Rylan Higgins, a professor of anthropology at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, for instance, recently suggested that even “laid-off CN Rail workers could show solidarity” with the Indigenous protesters whose barricades got them thrown out of work. This is “urgent,” he says, because “non-Indigenous people currently living on Turtle Island” — he means Canada — “(must) seek deep understanding of (Indigenous) resistance. (T)his resistance should form the cornerstone of attempts to educate young non-Indigenous people about Turtle Island. And this is because gaining this knowledge is the initial step toward an obligation that we non-Indigenous people must fulfil.” And at Queens University in Ontario, commerce students now go through smudging ceremonies, which the university approvingly describes as a “ceremony for purifying or cleansing soul of negative thoughts of a person or place” — religious rituals, in other words.
Amazingly, this quasi-spiritual imperative now is seen as superseding the traditional demands of the Canadian left, which once were based in the rights of workers and unions. In the face of layoffs in the transportation sector, for instance, Higgins’ own labour-union umbrella group, the Canadian Association of University Teachers, put out a press release on Feb. 20 “express(ing) solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en Nation and its Hereditary Chiefs who are insisting upon respect for their autonomy and sovereignty over their unceded land.” When unions heap praise on the people putting unionized people out of work, you know that the forces of national self-hatred are reaching a tipping point.
Is it possible for Anglo Canada to rebuild some kind of positive national identity? If so, I think we will need to take stock of how our modern self-conception fell to pieces in the first place. Until roughly the late 2000s, Canada’s identity was rooted largely in the idea that we were a poorer but more conscientious sidekick to America. Our whole multilateral (and occasionally pacifistic) shtick on the world stage, not to mention our system of cultural subsidies, was based on the conceit that our relative smallness and poverty compared to the United States masked some kind of well-hidden reserve of moral superiority. It was an insecure, passive-aggressive posture that often expressed itself as peevish anti-Americanism. But at the very least, it acted as a binding agent for an English-speaking Canadian intellectual establishment whose common culture otherwise was confined to hockey, cold weather and universal health care.
But during the Obama years, all of this was thrown into confusion, because the housing-loan crisis smashed America without much affecting Canada. Suddenly, we were no longer the poor cousin. At almost exactly the same time, Barack Obama’s election in the United States, coupled with Stephen Harper’s rise in Canada, reversed the left-right political valence that had powered Canadians’ sense of moral superiority since the early years of the Cold War. Suddenly, we were the bad guys, and the whole organizing principle of Canadian intellectual life began to collapse. Into this vacuum came Idle No More, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the MMIWG report, the Indigenous backlash to Canada 150 — and Trudeau, whose political instincts are rooted in the confessional, self-lacerating spirit of political correctness that began to infect campus life at McGill University (and elsewhere) in the late 1980s and early ’90s. Twenty years ago, we bashed America. In 2020, we bash us.
These things move in cycles, and it is possible that in a few years we may be facing the opposite problem: a populist counter-revolt that leads to a real culture of nativism and xenophobia in Canada. But given the blurring of social justice and environmentalism into a de facto religious movement, it’s also possible to imagine that in my lifetime, B.C. will elect a hyper-progressive provincial government that truly does subordinate itself to some kind of as-yet-undefined overarching system of Indigenous spiritual or moral leadership. Even parts of Ontario and Atlantic Canada could succumb to this sort of phenomenon, with only Quebec, I think, being completely immune.
Ironically, many Indigenous people would themselves be horrified by such an economically regressive development, as they have just now gotten a seat at the table when it comes to pursing their just share of Canadian economic spoils. But recent developments show clearly that the Canadian left honours Indigenous people more as noble-savage protest mascots than as flesh-and-blood humans with real economic needs.
If there’s a ray of hope, it lies in the next generation of leaders, who will be today’s immigrants from China, India, Philippines, Syria and a hundred other places. These are people whose families came to Canada for a better life. And that better life did not include marching through the streets, ululating fidelity to Gaia and self-flagellating with barbed-wire dream-catchers. It wasn’t their grandparents who ran the residential schools, after all, and few of them are stained with the Canadian Mark of Cain. These are the people who will finally put a punctuation mark at the end of the mania for weeping contrition that’s taken hold of this country. They are the ones who will stand up and say, “there was a time for apologies, but that time is over.”
Trudeau and the people around him are clearly not capable of doing this. Nor is the aging crew of guilt-addled old-stock Canadians clinging to leadership in Canadian media and arts. If they’re looking for a way to demonstrate their “allyship” with both Indigenous people and new Canadian immigrants alike, the best option might be to simply pack up shop, let a new generation take over and retire to that great unspoiled Canadian wilderness whose sanctity they have long purported to protect.
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