Although nobody asked me to write one of the Citizen's summer-time “What If” historical pieces, I thought I'd throw in my four cents anyway (yes, four; two today and two Thursday). Asking the question: What if Canadians and Quebecers were more patriotic than nationalist?
The idea of differences between patriotism and nationalism was suggested to me by a throw-away comment by independent Quebec City MP André Arthur in early April when I interviewed him for Western Standard. The long-time radio host turned parliamentarian has spent decades observing his fellow bipeds - mostly in Quebec but also elsewhere in North America in his second job as tour-bus driver - and you could fill a bookshelf with his perceptively idiosyncratic commentaries.
During our interview we were discussing English Canadians who spend so much time and energy trying to “understand” Quebecers and be nice to them. He said he found Ontarians in particular to be very pleasant except for their annoying driving habits (say, cluttering up the passing lane going 10 km/h below the speed limit) and their anti-Americanism. Then, out of the red, white and blue, Mr. Arthur said he considered Americans more patriotic than nationalistic, meaning proud instead of jealous.
This remark came back to me forcefully during the “Is Quebec a nation or not” debate and the traditional Dominion vs. Canada Day business. I think he has a point very relevant to Quebec nationalists, which we'll discuss on Thursday. But I also think that in the rest of Canada, positive expressions of patriotism are less common, and less noticed, than the overwhelmingly negative, envy-driven aspects of modern nationalism.
I have noticed over the years that there are two major occasions for most English Canadians to get passionate about their country. When they worry about losing something (especially if they complain that it's being taken away from them), and when it comes to defining themselves as what they're not, i.e. Americans.
We don't need to rehash the latter except to note that there's no way to make it sound positive. But on the former, think the 1995 Montreal love-in or resentment over the aggressive revisionism that insists on ditching old symbols like the Red Ensign, the Royal Mail and Dominion Day for bland, meaningless stuff like a maple leaf and really red mailboxes just so we stop annoying Quebecers with anything even remotely British. (I happen to agree such revisionism is highly infuriating, disingenuous and disrespectful. But that's neither here nor there.)
Or think of how stridently we complain that Quebec always gets preferential treatment - for instance the famous CF-18 maintenance contract that went to Montreal instead of Winnipeg. Remember that one? Sure you do. Now that's nationalism. But when's the last time you noticed Canadians proudly displaying their patriotism in a way that didn't scream “we are not Americans”? When they celebrated something we did right? I don't mean something fake and put-on, like Pearsonian peacekeeping, or something that doesn't work, like the health care system. I mean something genuine.
Though I pontificate, I should really be the one being pontificated to. I am as guilty as the next, er, nationalist in my lack of patriotism. I never felt at home in Quebec, and I don't really fit in as a Canadian, either. I was never proud of being born the one, or the other. I am forever complaining about the bad stuff; I almost never focus on the good things this country has to offer. Well, the absolutely stunning natural splendors are excepted, but hey, I didn't create the Great Lakes or the Rockies and neither did you. There are many good people here. But somehow, in my heart and in my mind, they - we - don't add up to a great people.
No, it doesn't make me happy to grouch like that. I'd rather focus on the positive. But here our history presents serious difficulties. Good old Lord Durham said, over 165 years ago, that Lower Canada's problem was that it consisted of “two nations warring in the bosom of a single state”. He recommended one be assimilated into the other, but for reasons we need not get into that didn't happen.
Instead, where America's mission is to hold high the torch of liberty, Canada's is to refrain from annoying Quebec too much. It's an attitude that fosters nationalism rather than patriotism and also, you'll notice, doesn't really work as French and English Canada jealously guard against encroachments from the other side.
What if we celebrated instead individual Canadians' capacity to carve peaceful prosperity out of a magnificent but unforgiving landscape in spite of over-bearing and over-taxing governments? My, that would sure be different.