Milestone: Canada's 75th anniversary - Macleans.ca
 

Milestone: Canada’s 75th anniversary

From 1942: A reflection on Confederation’s first three-quarters of a century


 

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    Seventy-five years ago, on the first day of July, 1867, was born the nation of Canada. It was the child of crisis, of political deadlock, but also of men’s will to freedom and a fierce new hope that ran swiftly along the fringes of the wilderness. It was the child of an instinct so urgent that it could sweep impatiently aside all the restrictions of constitution, all the reasonings of mere logic, could defy geography, could face the unknown lands, the awful barrier of the mountains, and glimpse the ultimate western seas.

    As the document of our birth was signed in ¡ London the Colonial Secretary, Lord Carnarvon, could say: “We are laying the foundation of a great state—perhaps one which at a future day may even overshadow this country.”

    But you solemn gentlemen in frock coats from Canada, you bearded Fathers of Confederation— how many of you believed this prophecy? And how well has the prophecy turned out after seventyfive years?

    In a material way, considering that it was made but three generations ago, it has been exceeded. The physical shape of Canada, the cities, railways, factories, farms, mines, camps, fisheries, homes of Canada are greater by far than the simple dreams of the Fathers. How could they imagine then the sky line of Toronto, the harbor of Vancouver, the web of steel rails glistening on the prairies, the thunder of machinery in Windsor and Hamilton, the deep scar of the Welland Canal, the dart of airplanes across the Rockies?

    But the greater hope of the Fathers, the thing larger than any physical shape and more precious than any material success the hope of a united, single-minded and happy Canadian people— what of that? After three generations how far have we come in the deep organic growth of real nationhood?

    “The Will to Build”

    AS NATIONS are measured in history, our time has been short. At our birth the bison herds still moved like a vast shadow across the prairies and only a few white men had seen them. Of that rich land but a few acres had felt the bile of plow, and a mad half-breed could still challenge the British Crown and set up his own government. The Rockies were yet silent in the silence of a billion years. West of them a few settlers huddled beside the sea and washed gold in the river gravels. The whole North was a mystery from which not many men returned. All this only seventy-five years ago.

    At birth, as if a dam had broken, the new nation felt the surge of its freedom and power. No time now to map out patterns, to 1 raw the shape; of the future Canada. No doubts either in the hearts of our grandfathers— only the ravenous appetite of expansion, only the will to build, to clear, to move on.

    Out over the badlands of rock and little trees crawled the railway and on across the prairies in an

    unbroken line of dust, the Indians watching, and the buffalo. 1 n the Rockies the clang of hammer on steel beat against the virgin cliffs that had heard no such sound before. Under the axes of the railway builders the dark coastal forest fell like wheat under the scythe.

    So, ravening and dreaming, they reached the western ocean and their railway, like a spinal column, like a giant artery, could maintain life in a sprawling nation which could not have existed in any earlier age. From the first Canada was the product of the modern age of steel and machinery, and men rejoiced in them as if they contained the secret of life;, the answer to all problems.

    A few miles off our neighbour had just fought a civil war, bleeding its veins white, to establish forever the unity of its several parts, but we had no fear of such dangers.

    So let the hungry men move westward! Till the soil, chop down the forest, blast the rocks, pierce the mountains!

    The body of the nation, its sinews, bones, organs, mind would grow of themselves. The land, the endless empty land of Canada, the rivers, mountains, rich soil and brooding plains they were enough.

    No time to think where this nation belonged in the scheme of the world.

    Almost before the railway was finished the second era ol our nationhood began. Across the prairies spread in ever-widening pattern the dark line of the

    plowed furrow. Against the flat horizon sprang up in the night the dark shapes of little towns and the stark thrust of grain elevators. Through the railway stations swarmed bearded men in sheepskin coats with their toilworn women and wondering children. They spoke in strange tongues, they came from so many lands and in such numbers that, by our seventy-fifth birthday, Canada would be only half Anglo-Saxon. A new people was slowly emerging, a people unseen in the world before and day by day the shape of the Fathers’ dream was being changed.

    Then the first World War. Canada came out of it proudly, its status as a nation recognized among the nations of the earth. But still intent on its own land, Canada was not ready to make good that status, to accept its responsibilities among its equals. In 1917 we had seen for a moment a fissure open in our national foundations but in the victory, m the mad days that followed, we forgot it or, if we remembered, hoped it would heal. Now across the Dominion, as across its neighbour, swept a sudden wave of materialism, the triumph of money, the lust for luxury, the brittle seeming-substance of prosperity which ended one night when stocks fell in the exchange of Wall Street.

    Baffled, Canadians asked how this could be, why men should go hungry in Vancouver, why farmers could not sell their wheat in Winnipeg because figures had altered in a ledger among the canyons of New York. We had learned—oh, how well—to work with our hands, to move the solid masses of mountains, to shape metal and wood cunningly, to dig minerals out of the rocks, to build, to manipulate all material things to our desire. But here was something we had never prepared for and did not understand, a crisis in ideas which would not yield to our skill.

    Where have men lived better,been better served with freedom, been

    Of things we were now a master. But of ideas and their handling, of all the strange new ferments yeasting in a world in turmoil we were innocent and afraid. While our neighbour attempted desperate experiments we waited for the storm to pass, not knowing what else to do.

    It seemed to pass for a little time, but the illusion of a return to our old ways only hid the more terrible shape ahead. Presently we were at war once mare and we knew at last that our old ways and our old skills would never suffice again.

    Once more the cunning of our hands, the energy of our muscles, the marvellous ingenuity of our invention could make the tools of war, and our young men could fight as their fathers had fought. Yet blindly we groped for something more, the management of a human revolution, the organization of a new society, the mastery of a new idea.

    Partly we succeeded, even better than our neighbours. To our own surprise we found that we could devise by our own invention, according to our own model, without help from anyone, the

    new mechanisms of a war economy, the control of prices, wages, goods, living ways. Wo could forge them all into a single weapon.

    Dimly at first, but with increasing clarity, we saw that this was a new world rising all around us. a world of which our grandfathers never dreamed, of which our fathers had heard no warning. As best we could, we tried to fit ourselves into its weird and twisted shape.

    Success and Failure

    THUS WE stand on our seventy-fifth birthday, young as a nation but old in experience, our short life crammed with the strangest events of men’s history. This is our record. Out of the Fathers’ conference in Quebec, through the years of hungry expansion, through two world wars, through the dawning of a new human era thus we have come again to the anniversary of our beginning. What can we say of that record?

    Success we have had certainly in the ordinary concerns of life. Let us not undervalue it, nor compare it unfavourably with the success of any other nation. Where have men on the whole lived better than in Canada? Richer they may have been in the country of our neighbour, but not better served with freedom, with the protection of law and the obedience to it, not more content than we have been. Beside most of the earth’s nations, ours has been a land of milk and honey and nowhere in an imperfect world has the individual soul of man been safer than here.

    Success we have won in political freedom also. The British Commonwealth of Nations in its present form is essentially our product, is the outcome of our perpetual striving for freedom by ballot, by revolt, by the patient, unremitting will to rule ourselves. Statute of Westminster—league of free nations under one King, proof that the peoples of many races can be independent and yet work together as one this is our achievement more than any other nation’s. Also half ours at least the demonstration that nations without political bonds can live in peace without fortifications on a common boundary; and ours the stubborn demand for a life of our own which could resist all the glittering attraction, wealth, power -and prosperity of our neigh bor.

    Yet no honest Canadian can say on our birthday that we have solved the deeper problems of our society, of man’s relations with his fellows, of Canada’s relations with the world.

    We find ourselves today ill-prepared for the world about us and for the forces aflame within us. The world about us is not the world the Fathers expected, nor the world we wanted, nor the world we imagined while our eyes were turned to the frontier. 11 is a world so interdependent, so complex and tightly integrated, that our old solutions will not serve us now. Our old dependence on our own earth is not enough. Our old retreat to the wilderness has been barred against us.

    We see now that there is no escape from the wold, that the attempt to escape it in the twenty years between the wars was folly, paid for dearly in blood and treasure. We see that our essential problem now is one of interdependence—how to adjust our life, our economy, our daily ways to the friendly forces which can protect us, the evil forces that can overwhelm us—how we can play our part, and a great part for our size, in the future combination of democratic nations.

    Independent status we have won, hut independent status is not enough. It must be integrated into a larger world grouping if it is to be saved from annihilation.

    Within our boundaries we find ourselves, like all nations, facing newer ways of management, new social patterns, new economic methods, but here we find something else far more ominous.

    We find that the old division of race has not dissolved, as our grandfathers had believed it would, under the erosion of the years. While we laboured, while we reshaped half a continent and built all the physical equipment of a nation, the miracle of racial integration was not working as we had cheerfully supposed. The hope that in the common act of subduing the wilderness and building cities our two great races would learn how to work, live and govern together, would finally melt into one greater race, has proved a false hope.

    More false still is the theory that the problem of race should he left alone to solve itself—the policy of delay, procrastination, the Micawber policy of equivocation, the theory which held that it was too dangerous for the Canadian races to discuss and settle their differences. The theory by which Canadian prime ministers have dealt with French Canada for a quarter of a century as with a foreign country, through an ambassador, a French minister, and seldom ventured even to make a speech to the minister’s people while the French minister seldom was seen among the English-speaking people. The fatal theory that the great gap could be bridged, the gulf of the Ottawa River spanned by political arrangements, party caucuses, by a thin facade of unity which is now found to have inadequate foundation and lies broken in the dust.

    The Unseen Forces

    THESE things face us on our birthday, no longer vague, far-off shapes, no longer the talk of cloistered students and innocent professors, but the immediate realities of life, as real as the war, as imminent as tomorrow, and as inescapable. The subtle, unseen forces so long ignored have grown and hardened and caught up with us at last.

    In some places today timorous voices are heard, the mice-squeak of frightened little men who say that the obstacles are too big for us, the currents too fierce to be crossed, the forces too great for us to control—us whose fathers begot a nation out of nothing, who would not join another larger nation but, with a song on their lips, took their chance in the wilderness and the unknown. These were the men whose grandsons now hear the coward’s whisper of ultimate disintegration, racial schism and national absorption by a more powerful breed.

    Our grandfathers would not be alarmed by such whisperings. They heard them often in their time, saw

    movements of annexation and defeatism come and go, saw underneath all the shifting surface of Canadian life a hard core that would not alter and would not yield—a feeling for Canada, a love of this land so deep, so blind and unreasoning that no allurements of riches or fame could touch it. That feeling shone in the hearts of the men who first saw the immensity of this land and the richness and the loneliness, and they made their covenant with it.

    Seventy-five years old are we now, a youth among the nations, and on this day we need to renew that covenant, to recapture that splendid dream. Renewing it, recapturing it, the follies of the past behind us, we shall see that we can never finish the work that was started here on the first day of July, 1867, except as Canadians and the creatures of this soil—not in pale imitation of any other nation but with our minds, hearts and hands, bred here.

    Too long have we looked elsewhere for our salvation—and it has not come. After three generations we must see that it can come only from ourselves out of this particular land. No other men and no other nation can do the exact thing we can do, or give the world precisely what we can give it, or make the kind of life that we want.

    Seventy-five years only confirm what our grandfathers proclaimed at our beginning, that this land belongs to Canadians and they to it, inseparably, forever.

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