Who We Are: A Guide for Perplexed Canadians

Today marks the 141th recurrence of the coming into force of the British North America Act of 1867 and thus the transition of the colonies known as the Provinces of Canada, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia into this new creation, the Dominion of Canada. It is for this reason that this day has been historically known as “Dominion Day” — and so I still call it.

I do not wish to rant about Pierre Trudeau and his underhanded stealing of our national symbols and heritage in an afternoon, shovelling three readings of his act to, amongst other things, change the name of our national holiday to the insipid “Canada Day”, through both the House of Commons and the Senate in the space of an hour or so, then driving the act for Royal Assent to the Governor-General’s residence so that, between lunch and dinner, our history as a nation was disposed of. Just let it be said that I disagree fundamentally with his actions and refuse to recognise his changes. (Perhaps one day I shall be blessed with a Government in Ottawa that will undo this travesty — but I’m not holding my breath waiting for it.)

Instead, today, to celebrate Dominion Day, I want to reflect on what makes Canadians “Canadian”. This is as true of the newest immigrant who chooses to remain here, landed (even if never becoming a citizen), as of those of us who (unlike me) can trace their Canadian roots back hundreds of years to before the coming of European settler colonists.

We are the land of multiple identities, overlaid and interacting one with another.

Few nations have consciously chosen to be so, especially since the American and French Revolutions, which brought forth the notion of (to use Eric Voegelin’s words) a “civic theology” to bind their inhabitants together. The United Kingdom attempted something less deep, overlaying the notion of being British on the top of being (at one level) Irish, Welsh, Scottish or English, and at another level being of a particular shire or county.

When our Fathers of Confederation met — and we should not forget that it was the Maritime colonies who called that meeting to discuss forming a unitary state, and that the representatives of the Province of Canada who came then discussed a larger project (but one that could not be carried out in the context of a unitary state, thus requiring a Federal model — they recognised the pre-existing identities of the parts of what would become Canada. They also recognised that the British model would serve a Confederated Canada well: Queen-in-Parliament would apply at two levels of government, and each would have their respective domains.

In choosing to name our land, the original idea was “Kingdom of Canada”. (The Queen is Queen of Canada in her own right; if the United Kingdom became a republic tomorrow and overthrew the monarchy, the Queen would still be our Queen. Indeed, the first Act of Parliament following the death of King George VI was one to recognise Queen Elizabeth as having ascended the throne — and to style her “Elizabeth II” to avoid confusion [England’s Queen Elizabeth I having reigned long before the Canadian monarchy existed, or, indeed, settler colonies in what is now Canada]. At the passing of our current monarch, we may choose to enthrone someone other than the inheritor of the British throne — but we will remain King-or-Queen-in-Parliament for all that.)

A good name, but there were worries about the reaction across the border in the United States, where the Union Army, having just won the Civil War, could be remobilised easily. The choice that was made, therefore, was “Dominion of Canada”, a new term in political parlance, to recognise the monarchical principle without suggesting that a royal house was being settled in North America. The name was used by others: the Dominion of Newfoundland and the Dominion of New Zealand come to mind — but we were the first.

We fail, often, to remember that our formative constitutional document, and our form of government, falls amongst the oldest continuous ones on earth. France, for instance, has been through an empire, three republics and the Vichy interregnum in the same time we have governed ourselves. Germany was proclaimed in 1871, when BC became Canada’s sixth province and four years after the Dominion was proclaimed, and has been through an empire, two republics plus the Soviet republic in the east, the Reich and occupation by the Allies since then. In other words, long-standing governmental systems are quite rare. We should be proud of how well our forefathers built.

From the beginning, it was expected that we would be citizens of our country, of our province, perhaps even of our region within that province. Rather than subsuming all into one “love of country”, as a civic theology impresses upon citizens born and naturalised alike, we have always accommodated the notion, so well expressed originally in Plato and as echoed in the works of Canadian philosopher George Grant, that love of the whole is built up from love of particulars. We are called, in other words, to have multiple identities, multiple loyalties, and to (as a mathematician might note) to have these be fractal structures and form a complex adaptive system of evolving identity at the national level.

Multiculturalism (yet another “gift” of the Cartesian-inspired rational Trudeauvian recreation of Canada) plays its role in this as well, as long as the multicultural community comes to share in the fractal Canadian identity (and so, to CKNW’s Christy Clark, who won an award for her shriek at a guest over whether or not “New Canadians” needed to become “Europeans”, I say “to the extent that Canada is European in its civilisation and culture then, yes, all of us do, to some extent. That’s the nice part about the Canadian identity: it is not one that replaces or encompasses other identities one has: it is just another part of the person who holds it.)

The Welsh have a wonderful word — cynefin — that means (more or less) “the place where your multiple identities dwell”. That is what the Dominion of Canada means (as opposed to the half-flag wordmark “Canada” that replaced it under Trudeau). The Trudeau change was one to create a single identity, to rationalise the others out of existence. This, in turn, backfired, and created a void in its place.

The next time you despair at pointing to “single-payer public-sector health care” or the theme for Hockey Night in Canada as symbols of the Canadian identity, saying “is that all there is?”, know that you are living in the world’s first state designed for identities that are a rich tapestry of parts that may not fit perfectly together — and was meant to allow you to be human in this way, rather than moulded to fit an invariant model of what you are to be. Americans, for instance, might say “America: Love It or Leave It”. That thought is alien to the core of a Canadian: we both love and despair, exult and wonder why, with every breath we take — and we do it regardless of what part of the country we are in, or how long we have been here.

We are a land of many nations — many First Nations, the Québécois nation, our various “English Speaking” nations, the Newfoundland nation, and on and on threads taken from around the world — interacting in a kalidoscopic interplay of light and colour. All within a set of traditions that do go back to Europe, and are a part of Western civilisation: this is the inheritance of our founding fathers, and all those who have led this country since. (Even Trudeau, whom I abhor, drew on this: simply different parts.)

We have much, indeed, to be proud of, in our quiet and unassuming way. (It is why, when I bumped into a Francophone Quebecker at the Citadel in Cannes, France, in 1991, he said “In Québec, I am from the Saguenay; in Canada, I am a Québécois; in the world, I am un Canadien”. He was an ardent supporter of both the Bloc Québécois and the Parti Québécois — and yet said this freely and with passion.) This is who we are.

May you have a joyous Dominion Day, my fellow journeyers on the pathway known as “being Canadian”.

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3 responses to “Who We Are: A Guide for Perplexed Canadians

  1. Bruce, you are far and away the best political writer I’ve come across. It just goes to show that popularity is meaningless. Substantive writing, like a Van Gogh to painting, can often go unnoticed by the imperceptive.

  2. Thank you, Raphael.

  3. I agree (with both yourself and Raph).

    I’ve long struggled to reconcile my belief in the strengths of multiculturalism with my belief in a Diefenbaker-esque “One Canada”, and the only solution that has ever occurred to me is this:

    One Canada is more than the sum of its parts.

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