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Thursday, July 01, 2004

Standing in the shadow of Empire...


Photo Credit:Library and Archives Canada

It is Canada Day. Our country is 137 years old (although it doesn't look a day over 100...).

Good for us.

I think it was around 1992 that I started noticing that attitudes toward Canada Day, rather than being regarded as a celebration of the nation's birthday, seemed to be more of the attitude of a middle-aged person; either "I made it through another year!", or behaving like the national equivalent of Jack Benny ("I'm 129.").

We, as a nation, have long existed under the influence of Empire; from the French, supplanted by the English, and currently shadowed (from the 1840's onward) by America's concept of "manifest destiny". Throughout the latter we have despaired of the "American influence" on our country, mocking it, criticising it, and trying to cope with it. Since 1867 we have made our way in the world, trying to define what and who we are, never really coming to a consensus, but always ending (and sometimes starting) our deliberations with the phrase "Thank God we're not Americans!"

We (well, most of us) distrust America. We distrust its power, whether through ambitions of empire (both open and covert), or its ever-broadening corporatist ethos.

It is a distrust that has been part of the fabric of Canada from the beginning. Our distrust of Empire comes from the first-hand knowledge that Empires just don't care about the colonials. The Québécois learned this when the English took over and France let Canada go without so much as a sniff of regret. As a nation, we learned how much the British Empire cared about us through several confrontations with the U.S. (If it weren't for British indifference in the 1800's, Canada would include almost everything west of the Missouri River, along the Wisconsin and Illinois borders, and north of the Kansas and Platte Rivers from Independence, Missouri through to Fort Vancouver in Washington state. And let's just not get into 1812, okay?). Our distrust of corporatism (particularly in the Prairies) comes from the fact that much of Canada owes its existence to two companies: The Hudson's Bay Co. and the Canadian Pacific Railway (read Peter Newman's and Pierre Berton's books on them).

In our history we have had those who have fought against the "American idea" (with varying degrees, some of them quite plaintively): Sir John A. Macdonald, Sir Wilfred Laurier, Walter Gordon, George Grant, Pierre Elliot Trudeau (John Diefenbaker counts...if you ignore the Avro Arrow and the Bomarc missle). Since WWII voices raised in defence of the "Canadian idea" have become increasingly marginalised, and our country has become more Americanised, by the actions and attitudes of such folk as C.D. Howe, Brian Mulroney, Stephen Harper, the Business Council on National Issues (which has it's origins in corporate opposition to Walter Gordon's first budget under Lester Pearson), Mike Harris, Gordon Campbell and, yes, Paul Martin (dishonourable mention must go to Bryce Mackasey - of Mulroney's "old whore" comment fame - and his behaviour during the attempt by the New York City Bank to take over the Mercantile Bank. You can read the sorry story on pp.72-74 of Judy LaMarsh's Memoirs of a Bird in a Gilded Cage, if you can scare up a copy).

There is still hope for the Peaceable Kingdom. According to a recent poll some of the upcoming generation are showing considerably more sense than many of their elders. Good for them.

Through it all, we (as a nation) are still here (and without a civil war, no less). We are (humbly) proud of ourselves and our accomplishments, and while we may not be able to fully articulate who or what we are, we try to do it (amidst all the bitching and sulking) with humour (even if it is occasionally annoying).

At least we know what we are not...