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The glue that dissolved, and thoughts on a replacement

By Daniel M. Ryan
web posted July 13, 2009

Peter Brimelow's look at a creaky Confederation of Canada, The Patriot Game, had its insights but missed a crucial element in holding Canada together. He said explicitly that Canadian confederation was little more than a cut deal, and intimated that the spiritual glue holding Canada together was love of the British Empire. He concluded that the fade of the bond, encouraged somewhat by the U.K.'s decolonialist push, explains why Canadian politics is fractious and Canada's unity seems fragile.

Mr. Brimelow made his points well, and his book contains some needed insights. Nevertheless, he missed a crucial emotional bond that did hold Canada together until relatively recently. In a sense, his attempt at a diagnosis was like the British maxim about Canada being ridden by "colonial insecurities:" it contains a truth but only a partial truth.

John A. MacDonald and his 1886 cabinet
Sir John A. MacDonald (sitting at front right), Canada's first prime minister and Conservative, with his 1886 cabinet

The whole truth regarding Canadian patriotism has to be found through a survey of old Canadian history books, or older editions of the classic ones. Taking up a "history of histories" can be an eye-opening pursuit: Mr. Brimelow himself did so and found out how loyalist old Canadians really were. Yes, Liberals as well as Conservatives; francophones as well as Anglophones. Sir Wilfred Laurier was proud to declare, in the House of Commons, "I am a Canadian first, last and all the time. I am a British subject by birth, by tradition, by conviction – by the conviction that under British institutions my native land has found a measure of security and freedom it could have not found in any other regime." (The Patriot Game, p. 56 hc.) What would-be heir to Sir Wilfred's mantle dare declare, publicly, "I love Canada, and I love Canada's Queen"?

A Tory looking for continuity with the past, or to resurrect old Canadian Conservatives as role models, will be in for a surprise not disclosed by Mr. Brimelow. I tried doing so myself recently, looking specifically at Sir George Étienne-Cartier. After digging through a biography, I stopped cold because of a plainly evident fact that doesn't quite gibe with our times: Sir George was explicitly, and proudly, anti-American.

So were a lot of other old Tories. If you liked America when Canada was young, there was only one party you could go along with: the Liberals. Even there, pro-Americanism was mostly tolerated – much like social conservatism is in today's Conservative party. The higher ground in Canada was occupied by stalwart anti-Americans. There was even a French-Canadian version, attached to a warning about the American melting pot, traditional American anti-Catholicism, and the fate of the Cajuns.

I would like to believe the current explain-away of the old anti-American mainstream, but it rings as hollow as does "we Canadians only wanted to trade with the British." A reading of Brimelow is enough to dispel that conceit. Reading old Canadian histories about older Canadian politicians is enough to dispel the illusion that anti-Americanism was a mere front for Sir John A's National Policy. The old-style Canadian anti-Americanism was too visceral for that.

It was also a major ingredient in Canada's patriotic glue. More current history texts explain it away by saying that Canada's Founders were aghast at the U.S. Civil War. However, the disappearance of anti-Americanism does suspiciously track the disappearance of an unconscious but vital Canadian unity – one that earlier Canadians took for granted. In two senses, the rise of America has left us Canadians without a patriotic mooring. We can't count on solidarity of Empire, thanks to the Empire's fall, and we dare not tap into the old anti-Americanism for fear of ruining trade.

The rise of America colliding with Canadian anti-Americanism explains a lot of the current diffidence us Canadians show to Americans. We know, if only intuitively, that it was mainstream in an earlier Canada to be anti-American. We suspect that many Americans know it. So, we feel that we have to defuse any present-day American suspicion about Canadian anti-Americanism merely going on an extended holiday.

It's worth a look at the patriotism-substitutes that have been proffered in the last few decades. The "Canada Firsts" approach, one helped along by an American, has an uncomfortable resemblance to Russian braggartry. The emotionalistic attempts to 'define' Candianness as some collection of sentiments is easily debunked as a sales-cloak for a certain political party. The '70s-era "Canadian Nationalism" was debunked by Mr. Brimelow as mere rent-seeking by certain clients groups of a certain political party. Perhaps unsurprisingly, none of them started with Canada's governing motto: "Peace, Order and Good Government."

If we must start from scratch, our motto must be etched on the scratchboard. To put this point in perspective, a Frenchman would be astounded at any attempt to root a love of la patrie in anything other than Liberté, Égalité et Fraternité. The attempt of the Vichy regime to monkey with that motto, by substituting "Work, Family and Country," added to the imposed character of that short-lived regime. I need not invoke Americans and America's motto to make the point.

Finding a new patriotism, to replace the old anti-American brand, has to start with acknowledging that: we Canadians love peace, including civic peace; we prefer order, including the informal order of customs along with more formalized forms; and, we do aim at good government, even if this concern sometimes doesn't extend to the protection of the public treasury.

On paper, it's easy to see that we don't need to be anti-American to be pro-Canadian. America has been an ally for decades and a neighbour for longer. Americans are easy to like, and the American system seems to work well enough. The trouble comes from where to draw the line. Some draw it too far away, and end up pegging ostensibly Americanistic virtues as "American." Other draw too near, by assuming that any American policy or custom is easily transferable to Canada. Or, by assuming that the only way to be pro-American is to carefully hide any dislike of America that isn't shared by a large group of Americans.

We need not be crankish, nor servile – certainly not both. All we need is a distinctively Canadian leg to stand on. The problem with sentiments is they're shared by all human beings. Using particular ones to define "Canadianness" merely inculcates a subtle ethnocentrism, as it suggests that non-Canadians aren't swayed by them. Using a standard that isn't formally tied to the land leads to a disjointedness, like the kind that parachute candidates engender. Starting with "Peace, Order and Good Government" can never be deemed un-Canadian because it's Canada's motto. Its influence is palpable still…as any reading of Canadian history, whether current or old will confirm. ESR

Daniel M. Ryan blogs these days about low P/E stocks.


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