It’s been said that you have too little history and too much geography. It’s a nice quip but the first part just speaks of too many bad history teachers convincing generations of kids that your past is short, boring, and without inspiring heroes and snidely villains. None of it is true, of course, but once a myth takes hold, it’s hard to shake.
The geography bit is interesting and a trifle more accurate because Canada, you are indeed massive. While old, thankfully gone history classes were having us memorize dates and the deeds of dead white guys, geography teachers were bragging that only the Soviet Union was bigger than you. Since, no matter what anyone says, size does indeed matter, it was exciting when Mr. Gorbachev let the ailing Soviet giant fall. The sparkle of elation was followed, however, as often happens, by the snuffed candle of disappointment. Even when shorn of its satellites, Russia remained biggest. But that’s alright. Famously modest Canadians would have been embarrassed to chant “We’re Number One”, so perhaps it’s for the best. But you’re still big.
A fun exercise is to have a friend close her eyes and then place her index fingers on an imaginary map, starting at the western tip of Lake Superior. Then, slowly move east and west to St. John’s and Vancouver Island, and then turn north with both fingers, angling in by the Yukon and Labrador to finally meet at the North Pole. If she squints just the right way, she has just drawn homeland as a home plate. That’s kind of nice.
Like in baseball, home is where we start. And during the frantic efforts of love and loss and jobs and kids and moving and moving again and through the trails and trials and travails of constructing our scrapbooks of madness along the base paths of our own design, home remains the constant, home remains the goal. After all, through it all, through the problems we invent for ourselves or have visited upon us, all we really want is to get home, and to be safe. Plus, its kind of nice that Santa Claus is Canadian.
But your geography is deceiving, because while you’re big, you’re relatively empty. Of course there are people everywhere but the vast majority of Canadians live along a two hundred mile swath hugging the American border. It makes sense. It’s warmer there. Crops grow there. But not every country is organized according to those considerations. This is where geography meets history.
The land has been here forever and aboriginal peoples almost as long, but you are not even 150 years old. That fact, by the way, makes you among the world’s oldest countries; but I digress. In the 1860s, the Americans were butchering each other over whether to enslave each other and also threatening, for a host of reasons, to invade and take the British colonies on their northern border. They’d tried before and were ready to give it another go. The bitty, broke Brits with their dysfunctional governments and a mother country more interested in abandoning than embracing them needed to save themselves by creating themselves.
Your birth had many midwives, but primary among them was John A. Macdonald. He linked his ambition to that of the country he envisioned. The conferences that cobbled you together would have failed without him. Much of the constitution is written in his hand. As the first prime minister, he knew two things for sure. First, the Americans still yearned for more land. Second, if the infant country did not grow, the Americans would soon have it surrounded and suffocated. It was grow or be gone and the only way was north and west. And the only way to do that, was with a railway.
The idea was ludicrous. If completed, and experts lined up to say it could not be done; it would be the longest railway in the world. Not only that, it would be built over the world’s most inhospitable terrain. The rocks and thick forests of the Precambrian shield would be hard, the muskeg that could swallow men and machines whole would be harder, and the snow-peaked Rocky Mountains, well, they were impossible. Macdonald told the people of British Columbia that he would have the steel line to them in ten years and, based on that audacious pledge, they joined Canada rather than the United States which was bigger, richer and just next door. Now, the impossible had to be done.
There is a great deal about Macdonald that deserves admiration. There’s a lot that makes our twenty-first century selves squirm. To build his railway he exploited Chinese workers – the navvies. They were imported to build the line, given the worst and most dangerous jobs and, when finished, Macdonald acted to have them kicked out and the door barred. Native nations were in the way. Macdonald swept the plains by emptying bellies and filling schools in a slow-motioned cultural genocide. He was slapped into the opposition penalty box when caught swapping railway contracts for political donations, but was soon back.
Canadians preferred Macdonald drunk to the sobor alternative and him a little crooked than the less bold a little straighter. Beyond that, the building of the railway and the building of the country had become synonymous. It was both or neither. Without him, it looked like it would never get done.
When the railway was done the country was one. Try the imaginary map again. Start at Lake Superior and draw a straight line west and see if it touches nearly every major prairie city. That’s the line Sir John built. He built it on the backs of the forgotten and dispossessed, but all for the glory of the rest.
Too much Geography? No. you has just enough to hold your bursting potential. Too little History? No again. No one understands where they are unless they know where they’ve been. It is the marriage of geography and history that makes you and makes us. And together, our iron will to continue, to remain whole and strong and on guard for thee remains reflected in the unlikely but ultimately indestructible and now largely metaphorical long steel rail.