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‘We are a nation that does big tragedy better than big triumph’

On the eve of Canada’s 130th birthday, Maclean’s editor Robert Lewis looks back at the people and events that shaped our identity


 

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It was the start of something magical. The time was 10 seconds before 9:30 a.m. on April 27, and the crowd started a bilingual countdown: “Ten-neuf-eight-sept-six-cinq-four-trois-two...” A roar from 5,000 people drowned out the last second and, as a howitzer fired the flags of 62 participating nations into a brilliant blue sky on miniparachutes, Expo 67 opened in Montreal. With uncharacteristic hyperbole, Prime Minister Lester Pearson declared: “Anyone who says we aren’t a spectacular people should see this.”

Now, 30 years later, the spirit of Expo lives on in the memories of those over 40—and, too infrequently, is rekindled in the hearts of all Canadians. We are a nation that does big tragedy better than big triumph: the Halifax fire, Westray, the October Crisis, the Red River Flood. To be sure, when Canadians win in international hockey, soar into space or claim Olympic gold, the nation pulls together. But mostly, we revert to our bickering, bitching selves, with regions and races pitted against one another in bitter rivalries and old feuds.

Mercifully, the navel-gazing was interrupted last week when the United Nations reported that, for the fourth year in a row, Canada claimed the top rank for human development among the nations of the earth. The scale measured life expectancy, adult literacy, education enrolments and personal wealth—and Canada’s combined score made it first overall.

Hard to believe? For world travellers, the ranking was not surprising. Poverty, disease, famine and hostilities grip many parts of the Third World where, according to the United Nations, one in five lives on less than $1 per day. But even in the wealthiest countries, more than 100 million people are poverty stricken. And at home, unemployment—double that of the U.S. rate—remains the biggest problem facing the Liberal government.

Still, as the nation’s 130th birthday approaches next week, there are many good things to celebrate. On the economic front, the signs are encouraging. Canada’s growth is second only to that of the United States among the G-7. Indeed, Canada may become the first among the group to eliminate the budgetary deficit and start paying off its national debt.

More important, in matters of the human spirit, the land is strong. The outpouring of support across the country for Manitobans during the flood of the century was a heartwarming reminder of our pioneering roots and an era when neighbours helped each other without questions asked. The strong commitment to social programs was evident during the federal election.

And despite glaring acts of intolerance and racism, Canada is a welcoming place for people of the world who are making a major contribution to our success. It is only 50 years since Canada established its own citizenship act, independent of Britain, yet another reminder of what a young nation we are. That anniversary will be marked in a special Parliament Hill ceremony on July 1. It may not be an event marked by howitzers or superlatives. But it certainly is worthy of a salute. And if there is a countdown, this time it will have to be in several languages.

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