Scorned Heritage: How the Laurentian Elite Erased English Canada

John Weissenberger
February 14, 2021
Any Canadian possessed of a basic curiosity and sensitivity who ventures abroad will notice the tendency of locals to extol their country’s achievements and their culture’s delights, rendered with an enthusiasm and detail that quickly make it plain what the place and its people are all about. So why should Canadians be condemned to inhabit a country that has been engineered not even to have a culture all its own? John Weissenberger, a Montreal native and son of postwar refugees, chronicles the disturbing decisions of an increasingly self-loathing governing elite, how it spurned the legacy of a once-confident millennium-old society and offered millions of newcomers a hollowed-out shell.

Scorned Heritage: How the Laurentian Elite Erased English Canada

John Weissenberger
February 14, 2021
Any Canadian possessed of a basic curiosity and sensitivity who ventures abroad will notice the tendency of locals to extol their country’s achievements and their culture’s delights, rendered with an enthusiasm and detail that quickly make it plain what the place and its people are all about. So why should Canadians be condemned to inhabit a country that has been engineered not even to have a culture all its own? John Weissenberger, a Montreal native and son of postwar refugees, chronicles the disturbing decisions of an increasingly self-loathing governing elite, how it spurned the legacy of a once-confident millennium-old society and offered millions of newcomers a hollowed-out shell.
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Late in the last century, just before Pierre Trudeau’s explosive arrival on the national political scene, a remarkable book was published. Called The Great Heritage, it was a junior high school textbook described as a “history of Britain for Canadians”. Few artifacts could better illustrate how far removed we are from that bygone age. So deep and yawning is the chasm between then and now that the principal author of this positive history, Richard S. Lambert, could actually work for the CBC!

The text begins with the (then rhetorical) question of why young Canadians should learn the history of Great Britain. “The answer is simple,” Lambert declared. “In a world increasingly threatened by tyranny, our priceless liberties and institutions, to a great degree, come from Britain.” He listed some of these priceless things: “Popular responsible government, our tradition of individual freedom, our incorruptible law courts, the useful and often beautiful English language, the bonds of the Commonwealth and our beloved monarchy”. To protect them, said Lambert, “we must understand them”. Note also the priceless nugget buried in the prior sentence. The principal “tyranny” the CBC’s Lambert warned of was, of course, international Communism as led by the Soviet Union and China.

“In a world increasingly threatened by tyranny, our priceless liberties and institutions, to a great degree, come from Britain.” That was why, wrote co-author Richard S. Lambert, schoolkids needed to learn the history of Great Britain. Lambert was an employee of the CBC.

What followed was a sweeping survey of the thousand years from Roman times, through Saxon Britain, the Norman Conquest in 1066, the formal assertion of rights and limits on government power in the Magna Carta, the Plantagenets, Tudors, Stuarts, Cromwell, the Glorious Revolution, the Industrial one, to Empire, world wars and decolonization. A prodigious amount of material to cram the minds of unsuspecting 11-year-olds.

But it was all a royal waste of time. Not only was knowledge of the Roundheads and Cavaliers, as most schoolboys suspected, essentially useless. It turned out there was no “Great Heritage” at all – at least not one worth keeping. Within 10 years of the book’s release the highest levels of Canadian society and government threw out the whole stale mess. In its place was inserted a bilingual, multicultural land concocted from pure theory and unmoored from its past.

 

Cast Adrift

In 1962 Donald Gordon, the formidable President of CN Rail, was burned in effigy in front of Montreal’s Queen Elizabeth Hotel. The conflagration proved a mild affair compared to later Separatist bombings, murders and the FLQ Crisis. It was organized by a group of Université de Montréal students led by Bernard Landry, later the Parti Québécois Premier of Quebec. Gordon was a convenient target, being a stereotypical Anglo grandee, one might even say an embodiment of the “Great Heritage”: born in Scotland, successful banker and head of the Wartime Prices and Trade Board, his 16-year tenure at Canadian National was impactful, reorganizing the company and making it profitable.

Gordon’s symbolic immolation stemmed from comments he’d made to a parliamentary committee, implying that CN’s Board of Directors lacked any French-Canadians (that is what they were called) because there were none to be found with the needed qualifications. His statements triggered widespread outrage in Quebec and the student protest was simply a notable example.

For future Prime Minister Lester Pearson, the incident represented another example of incipient national crisis related to Quebec’s Quiet Revolution, the overturning of the province’s traditional politics and culture that began in the 1950’s. Premier Jean Lesage’s 1960 election slogan, “Maîtres Chez Nous” – masters in our own house – implied not only winning political power but also supplanting the perceived Anglo dominance of Quebec’s economy. How to understand and diffuse the upheaval became a top priority for Pearson.

His response, upon taking power in 1963, would become standard Canadian fare: set up a Royal Commission headed by two personages from Montreal, one French, one English. The sternly-named Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism was given the ambitious task of recommending “what steps should be taken to develop the Canadian Confederation on the basis of an equal partnership between the two founding races.” The contributions of “the other ethnic groups” should also be taken into account.

Winds of change: Quebec’s Quiet Revolution (at left) was as profound as it was unchallenged by our country’s elites, while the FLQ Crisis (at right, the murdered Quebec Deputy Premier, Pierre Laporte) merely upped the pressure to be accommodationist towards Quebec. “English” Canada’s culture, meanwhile, could be dismissed and ditched.

The B&B Commission, as it became known, was a remarkable thing. It is, perhaps thankfully, difficult to imagine today having a group of wise men (and one woman) taking six years to produce ambitious recommendations on how to change the country and have them, in short order, implemented through sweeping legislation.

The Commission’s recommendations included an officially bilingual Parliament and federal government, agencies and Crown corporations; official recognition of French minorities outside Quebec; creation of officially bilingual districts like the capital region; promotion of minority language education and instruction in the other official language. The report ensured Canadians that all these measures would “for the most part…cost little”. They were largely enshrined by the new Trudeau government in the Official Languages Act of 1969.

In an historic instance of what later would be termed “scope creep”, the B&B Commission also recommended ambitious policies aimed at Canadians whose origins were neither French nor English. These included elimination of discrimination due to ethnicity, as it might still exist, support for instruction, broadcasting and film-making in minority languages, and money for culture and folklore. This laid the foundation for the Liberals’ multiculturalism bill of 1971.

The challenge of Quebec nationalism facing Pearson was significant, but the ensuing cultural revolution partly instigated by the B&B Commission reached far beyond linguistic matters. The upheaval of the late 1960s was as swift as it was unchallenged by our country’s elites. From one year to the next, it seemed, all right-thinking Canadians – as they were similarly abandoning church pews for a Sunday morning game of golf – cast aside their historical baggage.

Even more remarkable is that the transformation was made, not by long-haired Boomers, but by what we now call the Greatest Generation – people who had been through the Second World War. Why would a member nation of a soaring civilization that had just triumphed over global totalitarianism and was now delivering unprecedented advances in space exploration, medicine, electronics and sheer economic productivity choose to repudiate its foundational heritage?

 

Us, Them and the Irish

The feel of Pearson’s Canada was captured in a vintage cartoon by the Montreal Gazette’s famous Aislin. Two old Montreal Anglos walk along a snowy sidewalk, discussing the never-ending linguistic turmoil in Quebec, when one says to the other, “It was so much easier when it was just us, them and the Irish.”

What’s an earnest Liberal Prime Minister to do? Why, appoint a Royal Commission! Lester Pearson (above) instigated the famous Bilingualism and Biculturalism exercise, which was to recommend policy ideas “on the basis of an equal partnership between the two founding races.” It went far beyond that. Below, a contemporary political cartoon on Canada’s then-accepted French-English bicultural identity. It was not to last. (Top image by BiblioArchives / LibraryArchives, licensed under CC BY 2.0)

The Canada of 1961 was pretty much that – especially Eastern Canada – and it worked just about the way you might think. It also functioned with a reliable and reassuringly light touch by government upon the average Joe. So, despite the Montreal Canadiens having recently won five straight Stanley Cups, because most Canadians spoke English, most people listened to the nasal tenor of Foster Hewitt on the radio.

According to that year’s census, about 44 percent of Canadians were of “British” origin, 30 percent were French and another 23 percent were of “other” origins, almost exclusively European. Canadians with origins outside Europe numbered just 0.8 percent and our Indigenous population was about 220,000, or 1.2 percent of the population (the figures add up to 99 percent due to rounding).

More significantly, almost two-thirds with non-French-or-English backgrounds gave English as their mother tongue. This reflected the experience (and, as for my own family, the desire) of prior immigrant waves to “fit into” society as it existed. This meant learning English, adapting to prevailing mores – and, importantly, leaving the old country’s politics far behind. The efficacy of integration was disputed by some, notably Liberal Prime Minister MacKenzie King. In the 1930s he was quoted as saying, “The Slavs in Canada never assimilated with the people and never became good citizens.” (Page 343 of linked book.) Presumably he mainly meant the Ukrainians who largely settled on the Prairies, and he could hardly have been more mistaken.

Canada received another massive wave of immigration after the Second World War, including generously large numbers from her wartime enemies. From 1941 to 1971, our population of Germans increased from 464,000 to 1.3 million. Italians numbered 730,000 in 1971, almost seven times as many as 30 years before. These newcomers integrated almost entirely into “English” Canada, a fact not lost on French-Canadians. The French proportion decreased from just over 30 of Canada’s total population in 1941 to 28.6 percent in 1971. Today they are down to 22 percent. It’s no surprise that this era’s dominant dynamic would be the issue the B&B Commission grappled with: the friction between the “two founding peoples”.

In truth, significant aspects of Canada’s earlier immigration policy had been explicitly racist – notably the Chinese head tax and the Chinese Immigration Act of 1923. And as we have seen, some Europeans were also seen as less “desirable”. This was to our nation’s discredit and it was right and proper to make the needed reforms. The Liberal remaking of Canada, however, became a vastly more ambitious project, much of it having nothing to do with correcting such obvious inequities.

Begun by Pearson with the adoption of a new flag and the bizarre, technocratic merging of the armed forces, it went into high gear under the senior Trudeau. To Official Bilingualism was added Official Multiculturalism. Standing up in the House of Commons in early 1971 – just months before the birth of his first son – Trudeau introduced that characteristically Canadian chimera – “multiculturalism within a bilingual framework”. Despite the recognition of two official languages, declared the Prime Minister, “there is no official culture”. This assertion must have surprised some, most obviously French-Canadians, who’d defended their rights since the British Conquest in 1763, English Canadians who thought they might actually have a culture, and the generations of immigrants who liked what they’d found and tried their best to fit in.

Although Trudeau claimed multiculturalism would help immigrants integrate into one of Canada’s main linguistic groups, it prompts the question how integration could happen when tax dollars were being spent to preserve the newcomers’ language and culture. Canadians of a certain age will remember how these policies were sold. Unlike the American “melting pot”, Canada was a “cultural mosaic”. It was a little bewildering to contemplate a “mosaic” having 74 percent of its area comprising the English and French stones, and then a bunch of little stones each representing 0 to 6 percent of the whole. Multiculturalism policy then, was aspirational rather than representative of Canadian history or contemporary society.

In 1971 Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau (seen here giving a speech in Port Aux Basques, Newfoundland) introduced a new policy, “multiculturalism within a bilingual framework.” As for English Canada, “there is no official culture.” He meant it. (CP PHOTO/ Peter Bregg)

Still, as Canada increasingly and rightly opened its doors to immigrants from around the world, the new policies meant that we no longer asserted a traditional vision of the nation – one that, until then, newcomers had encountered. As there was no “official” Canadian culture any longer, none would be foisted upon immigrants, despite the clear desire of most for a new life with circumstances and opportunities better than where they came from.

At least that’s what English Canada was saying. Quebec had other ideas.

 

The Other Solitude

To paraphrase well-known philosopher and banjo player Steve Martin, it’s like those French have a different way with everything. There was no cultural confusion or ambivalence in La Belle Province. Preservation of French language and culture was Job One, and it was championed by Separatists and Federalists alike.

The measures taken to advance French within and outside Quebec resulted in what Conservative MP Scott Reid would later term “asymmetrical bilingualism” – a bilingual Canada and a unilingual Quebec. And if Quebec is insufficiently French today, it’s not from lack of trying.

Even before official federal bilingualism, the province in 1968 began restricting immigrant access to English education, and in 1974 Quebec’s Liberals ditched English as an official language. The PQ’s Charter of the French Language, Bill 101, set the linguistic fox amongst the Anglo pigeons, further restricting educational choice. English signage was largely banned and the Office de la Langue Française – which wielded the infamous language police – monitored everything down to the font sizes on remaining English signage. Even more bureaucrats were charged with “Francization” of place-names.

“The Slavs in Canada never assimilated with the people and never became good citizens.” So said Liberal Prime Minister Mackenzie King in the 1930s, presumably referring to the Ukrainians, who settled largely on the Prairies, like these women cutting logs near Athabasca, Alberta. King could hardly have been more wrong. (Source: Library and Archives Canada/Canadian National Railway Company fonds/C-019134)

This had the predictable and perhaps intended result of driving Anglo-Quebeckers out of the province. Quebec’s population of “British” origin slid by almost half, from 13 percent in 1971 to 7.7 percent in 2001. Quebec simultaneously wrested more control over immigration from Ottawa. As described by Brian Crowley in Fearful Symmetry, the province sought to attract immigrants inclined to adopt French and integrate into Québécois culture. Crowley notes that Quebec’s proposed policy of interculturalisme assumed immigrants were under a moral obligation to integrate and accept French as “the common language of public life”.

There were a few speed bumps on the road to Quebec’s monoculture, notably the testy debate around “reasonable accommodation”. The Supreme Court ruled in 1985 that governments and employers were obliged to “accommodate” individual beliefs and practices – but how much did Quebec have to do? It seemed some of the immigrants were not as francophonisable as desired. Friction erupted in the early 2000s involving various minorities, notably Sikhs, Muslims and Hassidic Jews. At least one Quebec village adopted a code of conduct for newcomers.

Was there no value whatsoever to English-Canada’s culture? Was it necessary it be reduced to a kind of grey grout amongst which the innumerable colourful mosaic stones would be set?

To resolve these conflicts, yet another commission was formed – called Bouchard-Taylor – this time by the province. While finding that much of the public and media concern over recalcitrant immigrants was exaggerated, the learned gentlemen affirmed interculturalisme, the objective being to “reconcile ethno-cultural diversity with the continuity of the French core”. As the debate morphed into one over public display of religious symbols, the province passed legislation affirming secularism, including prohibition of religious garb and symbols in the public service.

The contrast with English Canada could not be clearer. As New Brunswick became officially bilingual, Quebec became officially unilingual. As recommended by B&B, the “National Capital Region” became bilingual and Montreal, once our most bilingual city, suppressed English. Various problematic Canadian place names were changed, often in response to Indigenous concerns. Quebec, meanwhile, was cleansed of historical English names: Burnside Ave. and Dorchester Blvd. in Montreal disappeared, while the Eastern Townships were replaced by the neologism “L’Estrie”. And, in contrast to the rest of Canada, Quebec sought to integrate immigrants into its existing culture.

While Quebec’s cultural outlook came with some heavy-handed policies, the shortcomings don’t explain the completely opposite approach taken in English Canada.

 

The Psyche of the Laurentian Elite

In late 2007, the Canadian Friends of Scotland held a dinner in Toronto to help fund the repatriation of artifacts from Governor-General Lord Elgin’s estate. Present were a famous University of Toronto historian, the brother of a failed federal Liberal leader and other luminaries. When the host, a Canadian member of the Elgin family, extolled the Scottish legacy in Canada, her remarks were met with enthusiastic applause. Perhaps it was the wine. The attendees were, after all, among the gravediggers of Canada’s Scottish heritage, or at least of its appreciation.

This says much about the “Laurentian Elite” and how they’ve done even worse on the cultural front over the last two generations than in economics or governance. The Laurentian Elite is our very own local chapter of the Anywheres, the mobile, educated international class defined by David Goodheart and analyzed by Stephen Harper whose adherents increasingly discard loyalty and cultural ties to their own country. Their internationalism and view of Canadian culture stretch back beyond Pearson and the B&B Commission.

At the height of 19th century Victorian Imperialism, W.S. Gilbert’s lyrics from The Mikado derided “the idiot who praises in enthusiastic tone, all centuries but this, and every country but his own”. What once was lampooned as mindless soon became the dominant elite attitude, particularly after the First World War. Two of our great homegrown academics – Stephen Leacock and J.K. Galbraith – matured on either side of that war and viewed their upbringing in rural Canada very differently.

Differences of vision: Stephen Leacock (left), John Kenneth Galbraith (centre; source: CC BY-SA 3.0 nl), Sir Roger Scruton (right; source: CC BY-SA 3.0).

While Leacock’s Sunshine Sketches is imbued with a wry, forgiving nostalgia, Galbraith’s memoir of his own “Scotch” upbringing in southwestern Ontario smacks more of sardonic condescension. The Harvard professor acknowledged traits like thrift and hard work but was much more the farm boy “done good”. Like generations of right-thinking Canadians after him, Galbraith got himself educated in the big city and left the small-minded rubes behind.

The physical move from “home” became an ideological one as well, first from farm to city, then from nation to the world. The ideological divide between those striving always outward and the parochials left behind is what the late English philosopher, Sir Roger Scruton, called oikophobia versus oikophilia – spurning one’s home rather than embracing it. The Anywheres, including our own Laurentians, are among the haters. To them, the “Canadian mosaic” used our existing culture for a purely utilitarian function: as a kind of monochrome grout into which new colourful stones were set, the grout itself becoming all-but unnoticeable.

This mirrors elite attitudes in Western Europe, as described by historian and journalist Douglas Murray. According to Murray, “European…[is]… the sort of totally uninteresting base paint, to which you need to add things in order to produce any colour at all.” In this view, Europeans are “uninteresting, uncolourful individuals, to whom you must add this mix of the world’s other identities to produce anything of worth.” No less a Laurentian than Margaret Atwood anticipated these comments in saying, “The beginning of Canadian cultural nationalism was not ‘Am I that oppressed?’ but ‘Am I really that boring?’”

Needless to say, this topic and the toxic politics surrounding it can barely be discussed in Canada. The blame for this lies on both the Right and Left. Any such debate typically conflates culture and ethnicity, which suits the Left just fine. It provides them with the simple formula: oikophilia or patriotism = nativism = racism. End of discussion. Pierre Trudeau expressed this precisely, saying: “What could be more absurd than the concept of an ‘all-Canadian’ boy or girl? A society that emphasizes uniformity is one which creates intolerance and hate.”

Seeking a better life and willing to adapt to the new culture. Left to right: Sikh immigrants, 1938, German immigrants, 1950s, a black immigrants’ association tea reception, 1954.

This political weapon has been brutally effective over the last 50 years, as the high-minded rhetoric of the Left often conceals cynicism. A 2009 article in London’s Evening Standard by Andrew Neather, a Labour activist and speechwriter, reveals the mindset with rare candour. Neather confirmed a key goal of the Tony Blair government’s immigration policy: to “make the UK truly multicultural.” Neather extolled London’s new cosmopolitanism, “so much more international now”, and – the required shot at the rubes – “so much more heterogeneous than the provinces.”

Neather happily concluded that the process was well along. “It’s pretty much unimaginable for us to go back [now],” he wrote, “either to the past or the sticks.” And just to be clear about the overall purpose: “It’s a question of genuine diversity now, not just tacking Afro-Caribbean and Bengali events on a white British mainstream.” With a bonus goal thrown in: “To rub the Right’s nose in diversity and render their arguments out of date.”

That pretty much sums it up.

Back home in Canada, our nation’s conservatives have proved impotent in the face of this strategy and, more broadly, Canadians skeptical of the Left-liberal program have been unable to articulate their concerns in any meaningful way. The difficulty in defining English-speaking Canada’s identity and culture is of course not eased by our elites’ open disdain for it. Attempts to challenge Liberal policy on integration of new Canadians and to discuss cultural norms, such as by the Reform Party in the 1990s or in the 2015 election campaign’s ham-fisted “barbaric practices” rhetoric, have generally been ill-conceived and counterproductive.

 

Yann’s Hotel

Novelist Martel’s global hotel.

It was a near-run thing. English Canada was clearly not enamored of Trudeau Sr.’s first government and its “transformative” agenda, amongst other things. The Liberals came within two seats of losing the 1972 election, holding power largely due to the 56 ridings Quebec granted its native son. Regardless, the resulting Liberal-NDP coalition set Canada onto its new path.

One can only admire the consistent red thread running from Pierre Trudeau’s assertion that Canada would have “no official culture” to his son’s contention – basically a reaffirmation – that we have no “core identity”. The current Prime Minister simply layers on his own postmodern sensibilities when he says Canada has a “pan-cultural heritage” and is becoming the “first post-national state”. As per novelist Yann Martel, welcome to Canada, “the greatest hotel on earth.”

There was nothing preordained about this cultural trajectory – as the counter-example of Quebec within our own borders demonstrates. While all European countries are under pressure to repudiate their heritage and culture, some are fighting stubbornly to preserve it. Indeed, entire political movements and governments have been built around this endeavour.

Whether the great cultural repudiation of English Canada was instigated deliberately is open for debate. Electoral gain awaited the party that could best garner new Canadians’ votes. In today’s charged environment, no reasonable discussion of culture and integration can even occur. Our elites could have chosen a rather less obtuse path: just acknowledge that we had an existing culture in 1971 – for better or worse – while warmly welcoming the millions of new citizens into it. We had done that up to then, generally with success and, as noted, some unjustifiable exceptions. But somehow, an elite consensus emerged: that valuing one’s own past and culture while appreciating and welcoming new ones were mutually exclusive.

Finishing the job dad started. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau regards Canada as the “first post-national state”. But will Quebeckers agree? And is a country without its own unique identity even what most immigrants want?

In this regard, Canada seems to have tagged along with the rest of the Anglosphere. With our sister countries, we adopted what Scruton called a “Culture of Repudiation”, embracing other cultures while dismissing and denigrating that of the West. Consequently, it should surprise no-one that our own Laurentian Elite’s longstanding ambivalence to historical Canadian values and heritage should evolve into active contempt. It’s an easy slide from condescension to condemnation.

We are at a strange juncture. Indigenous Canadians rightly honour their elders and ancestors, who survived unforgiving nature to build and maintain their societies. Immigrant Canadians work to preserve the valued aspects and hard-fought lessons of their own heritage. Only one culture seems uniquely deserving of contempt and extirpation, its heritage increasingly seen as oppressive and criminal.

It remains to be seen whether the millions of new Canadians, if they even learn of it, will mine valuable nuggets from what once was considered a Great Heritage. They will certainly not be encouraged by those who scorn and erase it.

John Weissenberger, the son of refugees, is a Calgary geologist.

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