After 125 years of Confederation, and centuries of settlement before that, Canadians celebrate their heroes and their history selectively—by region, language and racial origin. Even in 1927, when Canada marked newly won autonomy from Britain in Confederation’s Diamond Jubilee year, the heroes and events listed in The Canadian Flag Day Book, a collection of school agendas for 24 patriotic ceremonies, are mostly British, as is the flag. The book skips such formative events as the rebellions in the Canadas in 1837, and on the post-Confederation Prairies. As author W. Everard Edmonds, an Edmonton history teacher explains, “An attempt has been made to avoid any anniversary whose observance would wound sectional pride or excite unprofitable controversy.” Now, 65 years later, although the flag is Canada’s own, little has changed in the matter of celebrating its home-made heroes and its history.
Some studies attribute the scarcity of national historic idols in Canada to the absence of any of the revolutions or civil wars that, in other nations, have created heroes of liberty and legends to live by. Canada’s largely lawful transition to freedom, in contrast, placed a premium on orderliness. As Edmonds wrote, “Order is the more fundamental because, without it, freedom degenerates into licence and destroys itself.” That culture taints the record of such radical reformers as William Lyon Mackenzie and Louis-Joseph Papineau, defeated rebels of 1837, and Louis Riel, hanged for treason in 1885 over the protests of French Canada. As a result, a federation divided from its beginnings has been left with too much history that has wounded the pride of some section or other of its people. And in trying to heal the wounds by earnest efforts to alter the Constitution and to create national touchstones, Canada has sometimes seemed intent on spuming its past, and the “unprofitable controversy” that it often provokes.
Even the national symbols given official status by Parliament (Canadian citizenship itself only in 1947) are not everywhere and always more acceptable than the old colonial trappings. The maple leaf, adapted for the flag in 1965, flourishes in few places beyond the original four provinces of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Quebec and Ontario. 0 Canada, the official anthem only since 1980, causes sectional wounds, and sexist complaints, if sung in either official language, or both. Traditionalists, and perhaps grammarians, chafe at the disuse of “Dominion” in the country’s title and the use of “Canada” as an adjective, both before and after the noun, as in Canada Day and Statistics Canada.
Scenery is safer. Applauding the vastness and variety of the land is less risky than singling out as heroic a figure who may be another Canadian’s villain. Safely, the 12 designs of “Canada 125” quarters being issued by the Royal Canadian Mint depict scenes, one for each of the 10 provinces and two territories (the order of their month-by-month issue carefully determined by draw). Landscapes reproduced on 12 anniversary postage stamps “reflect the geography, diversity and beauty of our provinces and territories [that are] really a mirror of who and what we are as Canadians,” says Louise Maffett, a Canada Post manager.
For some historians, it is the other way around: Canadians, in their culture, mirror the land. Simply to survive in its forbidding expanse and climate, the people fostered bonds of communication and mutual help for “peace, order and good government.” The country’s icons have been unifying institutions: the railway, the telegraph, the telephone and the CBC, along with the cooperative movement, medicare, bilingualism and the practice of rich provinces assisting the havenots through monetary transfers.
That culture was challenged as the country grew and changed from a scattered, largely rural population of about 3.3 million at Confederation to 27.3 million mostly urban people, almost one third of them in the Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver metropolitan areas alone. But the historical impulse to build systems that unite the regions remains powerful. More than seven out of 10 Canadians (at least slightly more proportionately than in other major industrial countries) work in service industries: transport, communications, commerce, finance and public administration.
Throughout Canada’s difficult century and a quarter, the seldom-sung heroes include the workaday men and women who have nurtured such unifying ties. Some of their stories, collected on a cross-country journey by rail into Canada’s past and present, and in other reporting, are told in the following pages. Often, and now again, when sectional interests seem to have overwhelmed the idea of building societies that serve the greater good, Canadians have faced daunting odds against Confederation’s very survival. It is a time when Canada needs its history.
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