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Letters to the EditorCanada: Where are we?

Canada: Where are we?

by John Clinton

Recent discourse has revealed some millennials asking the question: “How do I identify as Canadian?”

Does this questioning have a reply? Surely not a simple one. Identity implies many attributes (physical and emotional); sentiments, experiences, wisdom, knowing, practices, feeling, tradition, memories, beliefs, relationships, values, purpose.

Perhaps one way to explain our culture and society is the use of the country’s geography, its politics, its people and languages, its institutions, its struggles, and its past.

There are distinguishing characteristics that afford Canadian people an identity and an awareness that is unique in the greater world.

Canada is the second largest country in area after Russia. Distance east to west is 5300+ kilometres.

Canada has some of the largest lakes in the world; Lake Superior, Lake Huron, Great Slave and Great Bear lakes. Five of Canada’s rivers are among the world’s largest; St. Lawrence, Mackenzie, Yukon, Fraser, Nelson.

The northern boreal forest stretches from Newfoundland to Alaska.

Native species include moose, beaver, Canada lynx.

Officially the country has two languages, French and English. Unofficially there are first nations’ languages as well as the ones used by immigrants.

The population is a diversity of national and cultural groups. It is one of the most multicultural countries in the world. Most people identify as ‘Canadian’ or ‘Indigenous.’ Ethnic groups include: English, French, Scots, Irish, German, Chinese, Italian, East Indian, Ukrainian, Dutch, Polish, Filipino, Russian, Portuguese, Welsh, Norwegian.

Canada is ranked in the top ten of wealthiest countries in the world. The Gross National Product (value added by all Canadian producers) in 2022 was greater than two trillion dollars.

Canada is one of the world’s grain producers. It is a leading exporter of wood and wood products. Canada also exports fish and furs, beef, pulp and paper products, maple syrup. The mineral industry is one of Canada’s largest export contributors; natural gas, petroleum, copper, nickel, lead, zinc, iron ore, steel, uranium, cobalt, molybdenum, cadmium, potash.
Canada’s market-based economy depends heavily on exports.

These have been exploited by foreign corporations to Canada’s benefit in the past. More recently Canadians are becoming aware of the control of industry by international interests.
Ninety+ percent of Canada’s exports went to these trading partners in order of value: U.S., China, U.K., Japan, Mexico, South Korea, Germany, Netherlands, India, Belgium, Brazil, France, Norway, Switzerland, Hong Kong.

Trade unionism has been undermined for years by economic and political changes but they still influence wages, income distribution and labour policy to a degree. Trade union density has been stable this century relative to other OECD countries (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.)

Canada is a federation (not a republic) using a Westminster parliamentary political system based on the British North America Act (1867.) Canadians do not elect a prime minister, as Americans do a president. Federally we elect a delegate (Member of Parliament – MP) to represent our riding’s interests. The British influence in Canada’s constitution ended in the 1982 Constitution Act (also called the Canada Act) brought home by PET (the pirouette). His vision ‘one Canada with two official languages.’ Part of the act was The Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which has been quite controversial since. Supreme authority rests with a Senate and a House of Commons. Canada still supports the British monarchy by appointing a representative, chosen by the Prime Minister; the Governor General.
The House of Commons has 330+ members of parliament (MPs) elected, by universal adult suffrage, to five-year terms. The Senate has 105 senators who are appointed by the Governor General on the advice of the Prime Minister.

As well as the ten provinces Canada has three territories; Yukon (Whitehorse), Northwest (Yellowknife) and Nunavut (Iqaluit). These have control over education, property laws and natural resources. Responsibility for social welfare and health care is divided between provincial/territorial and federal governments.

Tim Cook’s book ‘The Secret History of Soldiers’, states the Canadian Expeditionary Force enlisted or conscripted 619,636 Canadians in support of the Allies against the Germans during the Great War (1914 – 1918), this in a country of less than eight million. About 4,000 of these were First Nations people. The Canadian Corps (four divisions) was part of the Dominion contingent on the Western Front and in 1917 the Corps attacked the German positions on Vimy Ridge. John Keegan’s book ‘The First World War’ states: “The success of the Canadians was sensational. In a single bound the awful bare, broken slopes of Vimy Ridge, on which the French had bled to death in thousands in 1915, was taken …” For the full story read Pierre Burton’s ‘Vimy.’

Canada’s participation in the Second World War was also a defining moment in the history of the country. Parliament declared war on Germany in September 1939. Initially, Canada was to be a raw materials supplier to the British war effort and to provide training facilities. The British Commonwealth Air Training Plan was successful in training Royal Air Force pilots and Royal Canadian Air Force pilots for serving overseas. In 1940 Canada entered an agreement with the U.S. for the defence of North America. This was before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, in 1941. The country was now at the forefront of the war. Over one million Canadian personnel served. Many more RCAF pilots flew under the RAF. Starting in 1940, RCAF squadrons engaged German aircraft in the ‘Battle of Britain.’ The raid on Dieppe (Operation Jubilee) in northern France (1942) was heavily manned with Canadian commandos; Royal Hamilton Light Infantry, Essex Scottish Regiment, Les Fusiliers Mont-Royal, Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders, South Saskatchewan Regiment, King’s Own Calgary Regiment, Royal Regiment of Canada, The Black Watch. More than 6,000 soldiers of which almost 5,000 were Canadian. The raid was not successful and Canadian losses were heavy (killed, wounded, prisoner). There are memorials remembering the Canadians who fought including the Dieppe Canadian War Cemetery.

Tommy Douglas, in 1947, introduced universal hospitalisation for Saskatchewan residents. Douglas’s political opponents labelled him a communist. The rest of Canada gradually warmed to this policy and in 1958 Dief-the-Chief (Diefenbaker, Conservative) offered federal funds to provinces that implemented this program. Canada is known for Medicare; access to health care is to be based on need rather than ability to pay. Covid-19 has thrown a wrench into the gears of Medicare, highlighting the underfunding that has been occurring under late-capitalism.

French separatism was a major concern in the 1970s culminating in the October Crisis; Front de Liberation du Quebec (FLQ.) Pierre Laporte and James Cross were kidnapped; Laporte was murdered. Pierre Trudeau invoked the War Measures Act for the first time in peaceful Canada (‘just watch me’.)

The 1980 Quebec independence referendum invoked by the Parti Quebecois (Rene Levesque) was a failed attempt to negotiate a new agreement between Quebec and the rest of the country; close to sixty percent of Quebecers voted against independence. In 1995 a second referendum was held asking Quebecers to vote for negotiating a new relationship with the rest of Canada (Jacques Parizeau, Parti Quebecois). The ‘no’ option carried the day by just over one percent.

Canada has its own central bank (Bank of Canada Act 1934.) The central bank is the government’s fiscal agent. The bank and the federal government’s Minister of Finance direct the central bank’s operation. Currently the governor of the bank is Tiff Macklem and the Minister of Finance is Chrystia Freeland.

Canadian currency is sovereign, meaning it is a monopoly. The federal government is the issuer of Canada’s fiat currency. If Canada used some other country’s currency, it would not be able to manage its own economy (think Greece using the Euro.) Many people think that the only money available to fund government ultimately comes from taxes. Actually it is the federal government itself that issues currency, not the taxpayer, to finance expenditures, but that is another story.

Prime Minister Lester Pearson’s government proposed a new Canadian flag be designed in the middle 1960s. His reasons included many peoples’ opinion that Canada should have its own flag symbolising the country’s pride and distinctive identity; the maple leaf red and white. After heated debate in the House, the new flag, replacing the Union Jack, was inaugurated in February 1965.

Pearson rebuilt the Liberal Party at the time and defeated Diefenbaker’s Conservative Party to form a minority government in 1963. As well as a Canadian flag, his government’s legislative achievements include a Canada Pension Plan, a universal Medicare system, a unified Armed Forces.

A Canada-US trade agreement was negotiated by Brian Mulroney’s Conservative government, an agreement which came into effect in 1989. It was a hot election issue in 1988, when Mulroney won his second term as PM. The controversy at the time was passionate and led to much publishing. A notable book, If You Love This Country (1987), includes essays by worthy Canadians speaking out against the Free Trade Agreement.

“…the only position they’ve ever adopted toward us, country to country, has been the missionary position…” (Margaret Atwood)
“…what is being proposed now has been initiated, not by them, but by us ! Or have we, unbeknownst to ourselves, become them? One possible conclusion is that we are not us and they are not them, in which case, whether or not I am me, I don’t know whose side I’m on. The other possible conclusion is we are obliterating ourselves for no reason. On the other hand, if we do obliterate ourselves, we no longer have to worry about them becoming us.” (Matt Cohen)
“…it’s the acceptance of inequality that I fear most…” (Jack Layton)
The concern expressed by the various contributors to the book was the loss of our unique identity as Canadians.

Years ago I worked with two lab technicians, Brian and Dave.

Dave could talk your ear off. Brian was mute, but during the free trade controversy, Brian uttered the opinion that we, Canadians, who are so much like Americans, should simply become another state of the union. Well, Dave tore a strip off Brian for a good five minutes. And it continued after Brian had sulked back to his workstation. I was astonished by working-man Dave’s simple but effective arguments, his views of being Canadian, and pride of his identity as a citizen.

In 1994, Mexico and the U.S. entered an agreement liberalising investment and trade, and Canada was invited to join what became the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). NAFTA was replaced (modernised) by an agreement among the three nations in 2018 (USMCA.)

One can mention all manner of Canadian inventors; Banting, (insulin), Sicard (snow blower)…. too many to mention here.

Also artists; Joni Mitchell, Tom Thomson, Gordon Lightfoot, Oscar Peterson, Emily Carr, Farley Mowat, Leonard Cohen, ….

I have worked with American expats and some have asked me why Canadians are always apologising. I answer it is due to our polite desire to promote harmony amongst ourselves. It smooths the waters of community rather than blinkered self-involvement.
It is who we are.

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