ON JULY the First, as Canadians, we keep our seventieth birthday. What thought does it bring for us? Shall it be again, as so often before, an occasion for empty rhetoric, for exercises in the externals of patriotism, for the telling of pious hopes? Or shall we, coming of age, subject ourselves for once to honest self-analysis, look back over the road we have travelled, seek to know our bearings, scan the horizon ahead?
Canadians, one fears, think too seldom of their history. Of the beginnings of the land they live in; of its origin and background; of the mighty pageantry of its story. Let us go back, if only briefly, to its beginnings.
Europe turned to the Americas at a time when, intellectually, the world was at exploding point. The grandeur of the creative age usually associated with the name of Elizabeth had set a match to the powder of man’s imagination. The Old Continent could not contain all the dreams. Ideas struck sparks from each other, and fires burned within the souls of men as red and scorching as the fires of the battlefields.
Out of this magnificent age of explosive renaissance, the Old World cast its bolder dreamers over the seas into the New. The possibility of the great drama and greater fortune challenged the restless spirit of an awakened day. And with the dreamers went ambition, cupidity, knowledge, inherited animosities, courage, and a newly-painted vision of the capacity of mankind. It was the musketry of ideas that rattled up and down the New World coast—and rattles yet.
Spain grasped at the luxuriant South. The French went to the cold North, whence, in time, they pushed down to meet the Virginian English. Each nation claimed all, and ruled all within the carry of its gun.
These are generalizations; but the textbooks are filled with the incidents of the struggles; mostly biased. Freed minds were working out demonstrations of political society. It was a new world everywhere, Europe as well as America—but liberty needed space.
They Quested West and South
THE AROMA of heroism bathed all. Jacques Cartier, claiming half a continent for the French, was followed by soldiers and priests of the Louis kings. They quested west and south, seeking a road to India and far Cathay, seeking furs from the forests, seeking Indian souls for salvation, seeking sheer adventure. They pressed into the wilderness by lake and river, and left sometimes their names and sometimes their bones in a savage land of savages.
Came the peasants of France, men and women to fill the great valley of the St. Lawrence with the race that dwells there today. Theirs was the adventure of toil and danger; they had the axe and the spade with which to win the land, the fusil with which to save it from the bloody Iroquois. For a century and a half they struggled with the wilderness, with the natives, with their English-speaking neighbors colonizing in the South.
Wolfe took the land for the English on the Plains of Abraham; the Frenchman, Vaudreuil, gave Montreal to the Englishman, Amherst; the Treaty of Paris gave Canada, Acadia and Newfoundland to England.
Pontiac and his allies sought to sweep the white man from the land, and failed. Rebelling American colonists, in a Northern adventure, captured Montreal but lost at Quebec. Loyalists left their homes in the United States; landed in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Ontario; began anew to hew habitations for man out of Northern wilds.
Explorers came to the Pacific. Bering came from Russia and planted a community of hunters in Alaska; Cook and Vancouver came from England; Hecete came from Mexico —all of them by sea. Alexander Mackenzie, going down the great river of his name to the Arctic Ocean, came by a journey across land. It was the Briton who stayed, first as a fur-gatherer, then as a gold-seeker. The two held the coast for the British.
Uneasy pioneers could not live easily together. There was strife, politics in abundance. It burned the Parliament Buildings in Montreal; brought Ontario and Quebec together; drove them apart and brought them together again; led to faction lights and duels in elections; drove a British Governor-General home. The Capital was hunted from Quebec to Montreal, to Kingston, to Toronto, finally to both Quebec and Kingston, and then to Ottawa.
There were differences between French and English communities; there were deadlocks and demagogues. Faction .brought exhaustion. Almost it seemed as though the dream of a new age would end in chaos and failure. Men stood bewildered, aghast.
Yet progress, with its incessant mutations, could not be stayed. New forces, new impulses, new passions were being liberated, which in the course of time were to lead out to unimagined convulsions and the liberation of greater forces still. In Germany, in Italy, in a Japan emerging from centuries of isolation, men reached out for wider horizons. A dark and prolonged drama of blood had forever abolished slavery and preserved the Union on the American continent. Everywhere vital forces were making their first movements, forces which in seven decades have transformed society over the whole face of the globe. They gave birth to and cradled Confederation.
Thus the background of our story. The origin of the event we mark on July the first.
Have We Built a Nation?
CONFEDERATION brought peace, unity. It lifted four uncombined provinces of scattered communities and diverse creeds and races, into a federation with one common aspiration. There was in it the flavor of a heroic age. From the sea to the mountains, from the rivers of the North to the rivers of the South, men had formed a new nation of free people. In the long future ahead they would nurture that freedom, develop and use their common resources, preserve their memories and milestones.
What of those hopes today?
Seventy years have fulfilled them—in part. Power has multiplied, wealth increased, responsibility expanded. Canadian cities rank among the great cities of the continent; Canadian trade embraces the earth; Canadian wheat feeds much of Europe. The land has been girdled with rails; a Canadian company has realized the dream of the old explorers. To the first four, five more provinces have been added, and all are greater than at Confederation. Great factories today smoke throughout the land. Schools and churches and hospitals are everywhere. Canals have been dug; great harbors throng with commerce; sea and mine and forest and field yield riches; mighty water powers have been developed for gain.
Politically, too, the march has been forward. Canada, from being a Dominion limited in external and internal power, has become a sovereign nation, controlling her own destiny. Through seventy years she has advanced to a point where her right and power to deal with all her foreign interests can no longer be questioned. Today Canada nominates her own Governor-General; appoints her own ministers to foreign capitals; negotiates her own treaties. Those rights, christened in the blood of the Great War, confirmed after the Great War, crown the constitutional growth of seven decades. From self-government in domestic matters under sharp limitations, to complete self-mastery; from a state of non-existence in world affairs to full rights of participation in world politics; from submission to external executive authority to a position where the final power is the King advised by his Canadian ministers; from a colony to a nation such is the story of seventy years.
And yet ... ?
Can we today, subjecting ourselves to honest self-analysis, conclude that we have vindicated all the hopes or realized all the dreams out of which Confederation was fashioned? That we have built on this North American land a nation, united, clearly conscious of its origin and past, purposeful about its future, proud of its own history for its own history’s sake?
Candor shouts back in the negative.
The Three Canadas
THERE ARE three Canadas, or, to be perhaps more precise, three distinct and conflicting forces within Canada. There is the Canada of Quebec, which nothing in these seventy years has altered. There is the Canada of England, which looks to and seeks its inspiration from Europe. And there is the Canada of North America—of geography.
In seventy years, despite all our wit—or perhaps because of our lack of it—these forces have not much changed. Men of good will have preached unity, or sought to impose uniformity, or extolled diversity; but, though through the preachings of all of them there has run like a sure instinct the refrain of a distinctive Canadian personality, that reality of a Canadian personality, of a Canadian nationality, distinct from Europe and the United States alike, has lingered. Yet, in Quebec City today, the English-speaking citizen of Ontario is less at home than in New York. In Toronto, the French-Canadian feels a foreigner.
Two trends have marked Canada’s modern history. One has been a straight line progression toward a North American nation. The other has been a clinging—alone among all the peoples of the New World—to the parent stem in Europe. Born of these two trends is a dualism in our lives which has been hard on Canadian unity. Canadians, unable to achieve a compelling consciousness of a Canadian ideal upon which they could focus their nonselfish desires, have lacked that spiritual oneness which, all through history, has made for the solidarity of peoples.
This does not mean we should cease co-operation with England, turn our backs definitely upon Europe. One may understand the impulse to be quit of the turmoil, the complication, the violence, the expense, and, above all, the unintelligibility of Europe’s problems. To a Canadian it is not unnatural, or should not be, to retort to the actions of European statesmanship; “Rot, then, in your own malice, and we will go our way—
“Remote from Europe; from her blasted hopes;
Her fields of carnage, and polluted air.’’
But when Canada recalls what Europe has meant to her, what Europe, the mother of art and of knowledge, in spite of everything, still is and still will be, isolation becomes hard.
Yet this cannot deny Canadian nationality. Cannot deny that consciousness of separate being, of separate Canadian personality, history, tradition, existence and ideals, around which, and around which alone, there can come Canadian unity. To argue otherwise is to argue against geography—and history.
Materialism Not Enough
SOME WILL say that this is separatism. Is it separatism to plead for something that will keep our own country united? For something that will hold together the Confederation we are lauding today—that will preserve us on this continent as a separate nation? As the years go on, then, inevitably, our ties with Europe will weaken. They will weaken as a natural evolution. What substitute will be with us then, deriving from the realities of Canadian existence, to hold us together, to offset the weight of a powerful neighbor?
Not economic self-interest. Economic self-interest, potent thing that it is, is not enough. Indeed, if there be one truth on this earth today more self-evident than another, it is that peoples are held together by things and emotions more powerful than bread; that vastly more powerful than economics are traditions, the love of a common fatherland, the symbols of nationality, the attitudes behind the symbols. Even Hitler and Mussolini, with all their madness, perceive this.
Materialism is not the answer. It cannot be. When, during the past six years, our materialist idols toppled, what came to us? We had become proficient in handling things, but not ideas. When the handling of ideas became the dominant need of the moment, we were lost.
There must be some other way—a Canadian way. A way by and through which Canada will find some common denominator for Canadian loyalty and Canadian unity; a way which, never scorning co-operation with other lands for world good, will yet achieve that unity in Canada, for Canada and because of Canada, which does not exist today.
Such unity cannot come from across the seas. It must spring from Canadian soil, be attached to Canadian soil. It must be native. It must come from Canadian understanding of the rich soil and background of Canada’s own history; of what treasures that history possesses for a pure Canadian literature; for Canadian art, music, painting, sculpture. It must have its roots in the heritage of heroism, of authentic deeds and fascinating lore, and of the solid, substantial contributions flowing from the work of the early pioneers and explorers for the enrichment and strengthening and beautifying of Canadian life and culture.
Only by this means, we are convinced, will Canada come to the destiny visioned by her founders. Materialism alone will not save us, nor mere attachment to Europe, no matter how understandable. Our task, if we are to survive, is to build in this land a Canadian personality, existing by and through itself and for its own sake and aims; deriving its strength and its growth from Canada’s own soil and history. To that end our educational system, our political concepts, our economic and social theories, should be directed.
On this day much more might be said about these seventy years of our existence, about what they have brought for us, about what they challenge for us. We could write of education, of our place in literature, of our place in art and science, of our attitude toward liberty, toward government, toward democracy. Enough to say that regarding these there is but one thing to hope for; that, above all, we be preserved from smug complacency.
Enjoy more great stories from The Maclean’s Archives. Start your 30-day free trial today.