Canada Day

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by L. G. William Chapman, B.A., LL.B.

One naturally becomes introspective about being Canadian on July 1st, Canada Day (or what in my memory was once called “Dominion Day”). The holiday was renamed Canada Day by Act of Parliament on October 27th, 1982, sidelining the name of the holiday commemorating the formation of Canada as a colonial territory of England on July 1st, 1867.

To be perfectly blunt when it comes to celebrating public holidays I generally dismiss the privilege. Admittedly this sounds both haughty and uncharitable but for me it captures the often frantic and congested character of the related events. In any event except once in my youth I have never attended the mass rallies dedicated to the celebration of Canada Day. This hasn’t, however, deterred me from reflecting upon what it means to me to be Canadian, an attribute which has lately acquired a greater relevance because we now spend six months each year in the United States. For good or bad the comparative review of Canada and the United States is ineluctable.

Foremost I am proud to observe that I consider myself truly Canadian.  Not only I am a 6th generation United Empire Loyalist on my father’s side but also I am a French Canadian on my mother’s side (whose Gallic ancestors also pointedly fled from Massachusetts).  Indeed I was born in Montréal, Quebec, an accident of birth which I have always quipped entitles me to dual citizenship in Canada. I reason that it lends me authority to weigh in upon the full texture and meaning of Canadian.

Much of what distinguishes a Canadian (aside from the superficial comic remarks of being excessively polite and correspondingly boring) has lately arisen from the perceived descent of the United States of America following the election of Donald Trump as its president (an unanticipated and unfortunate incident which has come to reflect poorly upon Americans generally). Apart from his patent sandbox tactics and horrid behaviour, the so-called greatest nation on earth is now being scrutinized under a microscope and discredited laughably for its glaring elemental failures of universal health care and education. This condemnation is especially pronounced due to the proximity of Canada. The image of Trump elbowing his way forward in a crowd of international leaders has left an indelible mark of embarrassment upon its people for having allowed such a buffoon to ascend to the White House. Even the Republicans are denouncing Trump’s discourtesies on many levels.

The Canada I know, while perhaps not as brash and vulgar as some other nations are implied or reputed to be, is certainly not a paradigm of either liberalism or propriety.  Though we appear to have escaped the mandatory “melting pot” strategy to dilute cultural differences to the point of mediocrity and uniformity, I believe it is a small victory. More to the point we have not had to confront either the need or the desire to accommodate differences. Basically we persist to ignore the plight of our indigenous people as effectively as the Americans and we’re still primarily a nation of white European ancestry. Certainly there are large urban enclaves in each of the provinces which exemplify a different reality but a mere detour to the surrounding countryside quickly begins the process of bleaching. Where for example the Americans succeeded to militarize conformity through religion, Canadians have instead opted to live in blissful ignorance of diversity by virtue not of morals but rather physical distance between them. Canada is a huge country with comparatively few people. And there’s a great deal which is out of sight and out of mind as a result. It requires but a scratch of the Arcadian surface to disclose the prejudice of colour and Christianity. Even the worldly advantage of entrenched bilingualism (French and English) is hotly contested and resisted in many parts of Canada, a thoroughly shameful and narrow-minded prejudice in light of the European experience for example.

On the contrary there are obvious exceptions to the pattern of platitude. People like our former Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau. Though he was born in 1919 just a year later than my father, he was by far more forward-thinking than most of his generation. The saturation of his rich Westmount roots did not inhibit his pioneering ambitions. Similarly the Provinces of Ontario and British Columbia are among the most advanced legislative bodies in the world. As a result both our federal and provincial governments have fostered enterprising and often avant-garde social change.  Combine this with a notoriety for peace keeping (as opposed to war mongering) and it is not difficult to understand why Canada enjoys a happy reputation in many instances.  I am not however convinced that Canadians are fully aware of this universal approbation.  If nothing else we’re perhaps too instinctively modest to proclaim ourselves.  I temper my gushing applause by noting that Canadians seldom if ever denounce the United States for its efforts to police the abuses of the world by sometimes forceful means.  Once again Canadians have the privilege of sitting on the bench in many respects so we shouldn’t get too carried away with our generosity which is often convenient only.

The analysis also runs into churning water is when addressing the reality of the brain and talent drain from Canada to the United States and elsewhere (such as England, Germany and China). In my own family for example, there have been no fewer than six whom I have known personally who have emigrated to the United States from Canada, all for strictly economic reasons and all of whom were rewarded accordingly. This fact must, of course, give one pause when singing the praise of Canada. For my part, as a well-educated professional, I have no misgivings. My motivation was always (and continues to be) performance to a high standard not just money. This dubious predilection drove me out of the homogeneity of a large firm in the city to a small firm in the country; and in turn from submission to the will of others to the conduct of my affairs strictly on my own terms. The result was a sole practice in a small town. On this low level of operation the opportunity for self-expression is immense but it is not necessarily productive of large-scale advancement. Certainly Canada built railroads and space craft like the United States – undertakings which afforded thousands with jobs – but we have clearly come nowhere near the scale of development which characterizes the United States.  Some would rightly question whether there is any need to compete with the United States (and I don’t for a minute think there is) but the point is that the comparison is part of what it is to be Canadian. And did I mention the business of well-paying jobs?

As a summary observation, I feel Canadians are less inclined to the primacy of nationality and family; that we haven’t the same unqualified perception of military service; that the good of the whole trumps the putative rights of the individual (especially in the context of gun control); that we have an instinctive mistrust of bogus national myths; and that arrogance (particularly among our social, economic and political leaders) is essentially unbecoming and intolerable.