Some countries were born out of the fire of revolution or the chaos of armed conflict. Others reflect an enduring geographical logic or stand testament to unique cultural roots or ethnic identities that date back millennia. Canada is none of these.
This great country of ours was instead forged through cooperation, compromise and accommodation upon a foundation of constitutionalism. And because of this, the Canadian experience is properly understood as a triumph of the better angels of the human spirit. Canada stands as an exemplar for a modern, pluralistic society. It is an accomplishment worthy of great celebration. And this is true even if many Canadians today are unwilling to accept it.
From its earliest moments, the Canadian nation-state accepted and codified minority rights and eschewed centralized power in order to allow diversity to flourish. Confederation of 1867 was a grand bargain between disparate colonies that allowed the seemingly eternal foes of French and English (loosely, Catholic and Protestant) to live together under one roof. This was a singular achievement by our first prime minister and master negotiator, Sir John A. Macdonald. It also knitted together Maritime and Continental elements into a single federal system, later adding Pacific representation as well. This willingness to cooperate became a distinctively Canadian imperative, yet its roots lie much deeper than Confederation.
In 1759, on the eve of the battle of the Plains of Abraham that would decide whether North America was to be dominated by the French or the English, Major-General James Wolfe left instructions that, in the event of a British victory, the rights of French Catholics should be protected. “There shall be no innovations in religious matters, or any interruption of Divine service, as it is now preach’d in the Colony,” Wolfe wrote the night before the battle. This was an act of great magnanimity, for it had typically been the habit of victorious armies of this era to expel, dominate, enslave or exterminate the vanquished.
Wolfe, of course, died on the battlefield, but his generous intentions were carried out posthumously. Why? Because in such a fragile colony, it made more sense to accommodate than to subjugate. This spirit of acceptance can be found in the subsequent peace treaty that brought the Seven Years War to a close, the Royal Proclamation of 1763 and most significantly the Quebec Act of 1774. Accommodation is properly considered the thread that connects the entire Canadian experience – from 1759 through 1867 to the present day.
In 1960, Progressive Conservative Prime Minister John Diefenbaker began the process of legally enshrining protection against discrimination with the Canadian Bill of Rights. “I am Canadian,” he declared in the House of Commons on July 1, 1960, “A free Canadian, free to speak without fear, free to worship God in my own way, free to stand for what I think right, free to oppose what I believe wrong, free to choose those who govern my country. This heritage of freedom I pledge to uphold for myself and all mankind.” This commitment was fully codified with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982.
Given the attention currently paid to Indigenous concerns, it is salutary to note that the Royal Proclamation of 1763 enshrined substantial rights for natives and committed the British Crown to a treaty process with the land’s original inhabitants. This commitment continues today, the Royal Proclamation making frequent contemporary appearances in Supreme Court rulings regarding Indigenous rights and the adjudication of historical treaties. Moreover, Canada’s deep respect for the treaty process, even centuries later, stands in stark contrast with the American experience in which treaties were often violated after just a few years, and with frequently bloody consequences.
We preface our Canada Day message to C2C Journal readers with this brief history lesson because detailed and factual knowledge of our past – and the resulting ability to evaluate current events and the meaning of competing claims with broader perspective and context – has become a dispiritingly rare thing today. Indeed, it would have been unthinkable even 25 years ago for a journal like ours to feel the need to describe what the Plains of Abraham was about or which party Diefenbaker belonged to. As former Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin once lamented, “Do we teach Canadian history well in the classroom? And the answer to that is no.”
Forgetting our past comes with a price. Ignorance facilitates such calumnies as the tearing down of statues, the burning of churches (words that we thought we would never see written in relation to Canada), the destruction of historical reputations and the current #CancelCanadaDay social media campaign, which has occasioned this editorial. The newly-woke mob insists on living in unschooled “presentism,” ignorantly marching the great men and women of our past before their ahistorical, anachronistic tribunals.
Despite what noisy activists might claim, Canadian history is, on balance, a remarkably positive and uplifting affair. Yes, there were incidents, episodes and policies in our past that we now find objectionable, disturbing or even horrific – some prompted by naked racism and nativism. These deserve to be called out as such. And if the past two months are any guide, there is no shortage of Canadians willing to do so. Other times, however, ineffective policies were the result of misguided but well-intentioned efforts. And in many other cases, the whole process from start to finish – idea, intention, implementation and outcome – was worthy by both historical and contemporary standards, but is ignored or denied today.
It is telling that some of the historical figures most reviled today, including Macdonald and educator Egerton Ryerson, espoused policies that their age considered decidedly progressive. Consider, for example, the fact Macdonald vigorously carried forward the vaccination of essentially all of Canada’s Indigenous population against deadly smallpox, an objective set by Liberal Prime Minister Sir Alexander Mackenzie and one that followed on an earlier campaign originated before Confederation by Macdonald and Georges-Etienne Cartier – bipartisan cooperation in the service of moral and humane ends. Such a resounding public health victory should be far better known and celebrated than it is today.
A proper appreciation of history requires an appropriately lofty vantage point, not the myopia of a microscope. No country’s history is beyond criticism. But any informed critique must survey the entirety of the past – from glorious to ignominious, from uplifting to degrading – rather than focus on single utterances or actions presented without context. Further, we should judge our predecessors in good part by what they left us and what we have made of their efforts. With regard to their personal actions, the test should be how they reflected, rose above or fell short of the standards of their day, not by how they measure up to the self-proclaimed social justice standards of 2021.
We need to ask those who are so hostile to our past: by what historical yardstick do you find Canada wanting? To what nation are we being compared? As the old Charley Pride song put it, “When they say their life is rough, I wonder compared to what?” With the possible exception of Iceland, Switzerland and a few other obscure and lucky enclaves, the study of history is replete with eras and incidents of violence, injustice, tyranny, oppression and corruption of a kind and on a scale that have never been approached in Canada. By any historical or current measure, Canada has a superb track record. It should be a source of pride for all Canadians rather than a reason for the self-abasement that the woke ideologues and so many of our elites currently propound.
If, as Canada-hating critics claim today, we are a society riven with systemic racism and hate, why do so many immigrants from all over the world – people who will likely become minorities the moment they arrive – still choose to flock to our shores? The reason, of course, is that Canada is seen worldwide as a land of opportunity, acceptance and shared experiences – as well as a society of peace and safety. This is another thing that all Canadians can and should take great pride in.
The liberal ideology of our age has given us what the British writer David Goodheart calls “anywhere people,” a redefining of citizenship into globalized deracinated individuals, abstracted and disconnected from their history, traditions, families and communities. “Anywhereism” denies the importance of the local and the particular and paves the way for faceless globalism. We must push back against this ill wind.
All Canadians share a vitally important heritage and collective memory that cannot be enjoyed by the inhabitants of any other nation. Our ancestors created a great country by means of a pluralistic, advanced democracy that joins diverse groups and peoples across a vast geography. We are the inheritors of an honourable and ongoing enterprise. We deserve to enjoy what we have. And we should dedicate ourselves to keep on building without tearing down.
What unites Canadians most of all is a quiet decency and a basic decorum that originated in the spirit of accommodation and compromise that lie at the foundation of the very concept of Canada. And this basic civility is recognized worldwide, even if our naysaying politicians, academics, activists and journalists refuse to admit it.
As an acquaintance of one of ours put it recently: “On Canada Day, I will be waving my flag and smiling with pride that I am Canadian and that I have the opportunity to choose my friends from such a vast pool of cultures and beliefs.” It is time for the polite majority of Canadians to express themselves likewise, and speak out in defence of their country.
Like all countries, Canada is clearly imperfect. We can no longer claim it is one of the very best-governed nations in the world. But it is our home, and it is still one of the best places on Earth to live – perhaps the very best. That is worth celebrating. We certainly will be.
Happy Canada Day!
George Koch, editor-in-chief
Peter Shawn Taylor, senior features editor
Patrick Keeney, associate editor