Love Letter to a Country

Dear Canada,

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.

Brady-Handy_John_A_Macdonald_-_cropped

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.

Sincerely,

A Friend.

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The Power of Humility

If the universe is infinite then you are at its very centre. The notion is momentarily intoxicating until you realize that so is everywhere and everyone else. Twin that thought with the three or four score we’ll be here while the universe celebrates its 13.8 billionth birthday. Both facts invite humility just as we need more of the stuff.

Humility is not the surrender of self-confidence or the abandonment of ambition. Rather, it is the conquering of the self-defeating twin demons of ego and narcissism. Humility offers the road to happiness and ticket to redemption.

With humility, accomplishment can be celebrated as the team effort it always is; the immediate team with which you attained the goal and the accident of your birth that put you at the right time in history, the right place on Earth, and with the right genes and health and doses of luck and ability to work in the first place. No team can thrive without humility. Without humility, a boss can only be a bully and a parent only a boss.

The Power of Humility

(Photo: postjesusonline.wordpress.com)

These, I believe, are humility’s three most important lessons:

1. Cool is a Myth: I recall the day it happened. I was with colleagues on a Friday afternoon when it was whispered, “Look over there. All the young people are deciding what they’re going to do tonight.” My eyes widened. How did that happen? I thought I was one of the young people.

Most people in their twenties think they’re cool. Most in their thirties worry that they are no longer cool. In their forties, many swear they don’t care about no longer being cool. Most folks in their fifties realize they were never really cool at all.

Test yourself at the next wedding or party. Try to find that person on the dance floor that made you giggle as a teenager. Can’t find him? Then it’s probably you.

Rather than standing as King Canute on the thundering, relentless shore, humility offers the option of laughter, the tranquility of acceptance, and comfort in one’s inevitably aging skin.

2. There’s Always Someone Better: I have played guitar since I was nine years old. I’ve played and sung in bars, clubs, and coffee houses and my band still plays a monthly gig at Lakefield’s Canoe and Paddle pub.

Last Sunday I was plugged in and enjoying a loping run along the river when Brian Setzer’s version of Mystery Train stopped me in my sweaty tracks. His guitar work was stunning, masterful, and unearthly. I clicked over to YouTube to hear more of his work of which I had always been sort of aware but never paid adequate attention to. He makes the guitar sing.

Back home, my trusty Gretsch felt like a fence post in my arms. I resisted the urge to put it on eBay. Only slowly did I regain my composure and re-dedicate myself to the instrument.

Humility allows the realization that not being the best, or even in the same ballpark as the best, is never a reason to quit or stop trying to improve. Humility invites us to imagine the tragic silence of a forest where only birds with the best voices sing and then find our song.

3. Some Things Can’t Be Fixed: Last Wednesday I held my three and a half month old granddaughter. I know how lucky I am that she and her sister live so close and that I see them nearly every day. On this morning, however, she was screaming. Tears flooded her squinting eyes as she launched into the vibrating cry that shakes parent’s and grandparent’s souls.

Her first tooth was poking through with the pain that, I am told, would drop any adult to their knees. Worse, is that infants live in the moment and so, in their minds, the agony will never go away. Worse still, for me at least, was that beyond the gel, teething toy, and cooing comfort of the gentle sway, there was nothing I could do, nothing.

Sometimes there is, indeed, nothing you can do. Sometimes, no matter who we are or who in our society to whom we turn, it can be neither avoided nor fixed. Pain will be suffered, disease will strike, an accident will happen, and a loss so devastating as to urge quitting it all will occur. Character is not made in those moments, it is revealed. Humility is character’s handmaiden.

The Power of Humility..

(Photo: http://www.discoveryplace.info)

So let’s praise the examined life, the charm of folly, the seeking of goals rather than credit, the experience rather than the picture, and the humble acceptance that we are what we are for the speck of time we’re here. With humility as our guide, our brief journey will be a whole lot happier for ourselves, for those with whom we work and play, and especially for those we love and love us back and make the trip worth taking.

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The Little Known Canadian Links to Lincoln’s Assassination

One hundred and fifty years ago this week, on April 15, 1865, famous actor John Wilkes Booth placed a small derringer behind Abraham Lincoln’s left ear. Several hours later, the president who had led the United States through the horrific Civil War that had ended only days before, was dead.

With Lincoln went his goal of treating Southerners not as conquered but countrymen. The Senate’s Radical Republicans ran roughshod over a new and weak president to impose their program of punishment and retribution. To a large degree, America’s regional, political, and racial divisions are echoes of the botched reconstruction that Lincoln would not have allowed. We understand the assassination’s consequences for America but few know of its Canadian connections.

Canada and Lincoln Assassination

(Photo: en.wikipedia.org)

A virulent racist and staunch believer in the Southern cause, Booth gathered a group of like-minded people at Mary Surratt’s Washington boarding house and hatched a plan to kidnap Lincoln. They would release him when the United States, seen by Southerners as a foreign country that had invaded theirs, withdrew its forces. To help organize the plot, Booth travelled to Montreal.

Like many other Canadian cities, Montreal was a hotbed of Confederate activity. A year before, Confederate President Jefferson Davis had appointed Jacob Thompson, a former federal cabinet secretary, to save the South by going north. Thompson established offices in Montreal and Toronto. He organized Confederate deserters, escaped prisoners, and sympathetic Canadians who then harassed Lincoln’s Union with daring raids, Great Lakes piracy, and fifth column intrigues.

Booth arrived in Montreal in October 1864. He took a room at the swanky St. Lawrence Hall hotel that served as Thompson’s headquarters. He met with Confederate spies and gun and blockade-runners. At the Bank of Ontario, he exchanged $300 for gold sterling. Booth worked for 10 days making plans and contacts.

Booth’s failed kidnapping plot and the war’s end led to a new idea. On a single night they would kill Lincoln, Vice President Johnson, Secretary of State Seward, and General Grant. The government would be decapitated and the South inspired to rise again. However, at the appointed hour, Grant had left Washington, Johnson’s assassin got drunk, and Seward survived his stab wounds. Only Booth succeeded.

Booth was hunted down and shot by a 26-man detail led by Quebec-born First Lieutenant Edward Doherty. On May 2, a proclamation stated that the government was seeking a number of Booth’s accomplices, including “rebels and traitors against the United States, harboured in Canada.” Among those listed was John Surratt. He had fled to Canada and was being hidden by priests, first in a Village north of Montreal and then in the city. Canadians helped him to escape to Europe.

Booth’s other conspirators were captured and brought to trial. The prosecution sought to prove their guilt along with the complicity of what it called the Confederacy’s “Canadian Cabinet”. The first words spoken in testimony were by a War Department spy, “I visited Canada in the summer of 1864, and except for the time I have going backward and forward, have remained there for almost two years.” Canada was central to the majority of testimony that followed, including that of a spy posing as a Montreal businessman who later arrived to clear his name. The trial’s final words went to Special Judge Advocate Bingham, “Surely no word further need be spoken to show that…[Booth, Surratt] and Davis and his several agents named in Canada, were in this conspiracy.”

Sensational American newspaper coverage spoke of Canada’s complicity in their president’s murder. Public meetings and vicious letters to editors revealed even greater anti-Canadian sentiment than had developed during the war. There were calls for retribution. The rising tide of hatred led Canadians and Maritimers to renew their demand for Confederation that the Civil War had turned from a good idea to a necessity. Canada had to create itself to save itself.

Today’s divided America and united Canada are the twin legacies of Booth’s smoking gun.

For more on this story and of Canada and the American Civil War please check out “Blood and Daring: How Canada Fought the American Civil War and Forged a Nation”. It’s available everywhere including here: http://www.chapters.indigo.ca/en-ca/home/contributor/author/john-boyko/#page=0&pid=978030736146

Happy is a Decision

Happy is not a goal. It’s not a destination. Happy is not a dream or some Hallmark card hokum. Happy is a decision. I once enjoyed a lecture by a Tibetan monk. He said a great deal that rang of declarative knowledge, that is, he dragged things I already knew into the light where, for the first time, I could see them clearly. Of all that he said that day, the one thing that resonated most was, “If you want to be happy, go ahead.”

It sounds easy, but it’s not. Many people struggle with depression or other ailments that make happiness frustratingly illusive. Thankfully, I am not among them. But, for a long time, I might as well have been. I simply refused to see that if happiness is indeed a decision, then it implies responsibility. I had work to do. I had to differentiate between those things that make me happy from those that do not. Like changing one’s diet rather than going on a diet, the challenge suggested a long-term life-style change. The idea that happiness is a decision forced me to redefine happy.

I have, for instance, taught myself to avoid what Germans call schadenfreude; taking pleasure in the misfortune of others. Shameful joy is too easy. It’s what makes slapstick comedy fun, from Charlie Chaplin to Jim Carrey. But in real life, it’s a sad and shabby pleasure. Shameful joy’s price is shame and its reward is not joy. Like the emptiness of envy or materialist consumption, it is an abdication of responsibility; it is the outsourcing of one’s happiness.

Like an alcoholic summoning the strength to avoid a sip of that rich double malt, I sometimes still struggle to avoid drinking from the sour nectar of shameful joy. But I force myself to keep that old habit locked in the cage with other happiness-draining habits such as succumbing to the media’s fear du jour, or the tug of an advertiser’s appeal, or the succulence of the latest celebrity, neighbourhood, or office gossip. I guard the cage’s frail and fragile bars. I heed the monk.

trail

Last week I was running along the trail near my home. It is a beautiful place. There are fields and woods along one side and a river along the other. On this particular afternoon, the sun was striking the river so that it shone as diamonds. The sky was a deep and vivid blue. I had just passed the 6K-mark where the endorphins kick in and my mind begins to float and even my Clydesdale-like gait feels graceful. I said, out loud and to no one, “This is a good moment.” And it was.

My practice of quietly announcing good moments has helped me to see life as a bonsai tree. I snip off the parts that ruin its symmetry; the situations, people, and places that bring me no happiness. After all, consider how many people lie on their death bed and whisper, “I wish I had spent more time at the office, or in lineups, or in traffic, or buying stuff, or with people whose insecurities or inner demons poisoned rooms.” How many, on the other hand, say with their last breaths, “I wish I had filled my life with more moments that filled my heart?”

Try it. Wait for a moment that offers true tranquility, pure enjoyment, heart-skipping joy, or tear-inducing warmth. Then say it: “This is a good moment.” It won’t count unless you mean it and it won’t count unless you say it out loud. Say it although others may hear it. Say it because others may hear it. Say it because you have decided to be happy.

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Robert Kennedy and Mỹ Lai; A Coincidence That Matters

Talented Canadian singer-songwriter Alanis Morissette enjoyed a hit song a few years ago listing a number of things she found ironic. Actually, the things about which she sang were not ironic at all but merely unfortunate or at best coincidences. Coincidences are fun. Sometimes they matter. Let’s consider one that resonates today.

The Coincidence of March 16, 1968.

The Americanized portion of the Vietnam War had been grinding on for nearly four years. Despite President Johnson’s repeated assurances, there was no end in sight. The people trying to carry on with their lives in tiny, rural villages were regularly terrorized by men fighting for one or the other of the war’s many sides. The horrors felt by the men doing the terrorizing were overwhelming. By the spring of 1968 it was clear to everyone but the willfully blind that the war would have victims but no victors.

One afternoon a group of Americans walked into two small hamlets and went insane. They ceased to be soldiers. They ceased to be human. They murdered between 350 and 500 unarmed men, women, and children. It took a long time. Many were shot and some were hacked the death; many were tortured. Children watched their mothers being gang-raped. A few soldiers laughed as one of their comrades took three shots to kill a baby who was lying on the ground. It became known as the Mỹ Lai Massacre.

On that same day, Robert F. Kennedy announced his candidacy for the presidency of the United States. Everyone knew him because he had been his brother’s attorney general and in many ways the co-president. While John Kennedy was a realist disguised as a dreamer, Robert was a true romantic with a realist’s understanding of how to get things done. After the assassination in Dallas, he became a New York senator. He led a number of initiatives including the reconstruction of Brooklyn’s tough Bedford-Stuyvesant neighbourhood through partnerships with three levels of government, banks, corporations, and community organizers. He got things done.

As he stood before a bank of microphones that March afternoon he didn’t know about the massacre. But he knew that Vietnam was among many things that were wrong as he announced that he would run to be president in an effort to end the war and make some of those other things right. He said, “I run to seek new policies – policies to end the bloodshed in Vietnam and in our cities, policies to close the gaps that now exist between black and white, between rich and poor, between young and old, in this country and around the rest of the world.  I run for the presidency because I want the Democratic Party and the United States of America to stand for hope instead of despair, for reconciliation of men instead of the growing risk of world war. I run because it is now unmistakably clear that we can change these disastrous, divisive policies only by changing the men who are now making them.”

RFK

As he campaigned he spoke to Black audiences about taking more responsibility for their families. He spoke to university students about the unfairness of their draft deferments. He spoke to business leaders about being responsible to more than just their bottom lines. He made people mad. He made people think.

Consider his beliefs regarding how we measure wealth: “Our Gross National Product, now, is over $800 billion dollars a year, but that…counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities.  It counts Whitman’s rifle and Speck’s knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children. Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”

On the same day that some men were visiting unspeakable horror on people they did not know, another man was pledging himself to help people he would never meet. It was not ironic. It was a coincidence. It is a coincidence that matters because it enabled Americans then and us today to consider the dark side that lurks within us all and right alongside it our yearning to do better; to be better, to do good.

The March 16, 1968 coincidence challenges us to ask whether we can accept horrors that make us cringe without losing faith. Can we remain idealistic without being naïve? Can we remain realistic without being cynical? Today we are inundated by images of hatred and despair and there are plenty that match Mỹ Lai’s power. Can we reject those who use the images to sell themselves and their divisive views and instead remain convinced that our public discourse is a place for respect, for alternate opinions, the telling of hard truths, calm determination, and for hope and even for love?

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John F. Kennedy and My Mother’s Tears

I recall the first time I saw my mother cry. You need to understand that my mom was a tough woman, as tough as burnished leather, at least on the outside, the side she allowed most folks to see. But on this day she was sobbing. It was the afternoon of November 22, 1963. I was a middle-class Canadian kid in a brush cut just rolled home from the rigours of grade one but now standing in my living room, still and stunned at the sight of my mother, slumped into the couch, red-eyed and weeping before the flickering television.

She explained that a man had died, a good man, and that he had been shot by a crazy man. I remember that I cried too. It was not for him – I had no idea who the good man was – but for her, for her grief, and for my addled efforts to understand. Today, for the same three reasons, I cried again.

You see, the little boy grew up to be an author and this week I’m doing research at Boston’s John F. Kennedy Library and Museum. Boston is a terrific city. On my first morning I jumped the red line to Pawk Street, that’s right, that’s what the man said. Within 200 steps of the subway stop I glommed on to a walking tour of the Freedom Trail led by a gentleman in period costume who was among the best guides I have ever experienced. It was marvelous; there were great sites and greater stories. I then watched a legalize marijuana rally in the Commons and laughed out loud when at the count of three the thousand or so folks splayed on blankets on the grass lit up their grass. I told a yellow T-shirted volunteer about Justin Trudeau’s pledge up in Canada but she didn’t care.

The dawn brought work. The Kennedy Library’s enormous, white, flat tower soars like a sail into the sky and overlooks the bay that reminds visitors of Kennedy’s love of the sea. The commissionaire found my name on the list, led me to an elevator in the back and with the turn his special key I was lifted to the fourth floor archives. For the rest of the day and the next two I time travelled to the 1960s. Tapping away on my laptop I recorded notes from box after box and file after file.

Kennedy library archives

My spot on the 4th floor.

On the afternoon of the third day I declared a break to finally see the museum. I stood with a group of women enchanted by home movie clips showing the Kennedys at play in Hyannisport. Kennedy smiled as he swung a golf club, sailed, swam, and at one point drove a gaggle of laughing, bare-chested, sun-tanned children far too fast on a bouncing golf cart. They were pictures of a family and life about which only the stone-hearted could not feel warmth. It was then on to politics. Films and artifacts depicted the nomination and then the election. No wonder people watching the debate thought he wiped the floor with Nixon. No kidding, did people really wear those goofy buttons and hats?

It was all good. I wandered with the gentle acceptance that like most museums its analysis was skimming as a stone over very deep ponds with its focus on entertainment more than education. But then I arrived at the gallery dedicated to the inauguration. The large screen with seating before it invited you to suspend belief and imagine you were there. About fifteen people were doing just that. There was a clutch of teenage boys with their big caps and big feet, three or four couples about my age, and a young man and woman whose eyes and hands betrayed either a honeymoon trip or one in the offing. I stood at the side not expecting to stay for the whole thing but I became entranced. There was Kennedy, tanned on that freezing January afternoon so long ago and speaking in that Boston twang. And here were these people, generations later sitting silent, eyes wide, many mouths agape, drinking in the idealism of his message as if cool water in a steaming desert oasis. I listened to him but watched them.

Kennedy inauguration

It was then it happened; a tear found my eye. I smiled and my lip quivered. I let it hang there and then run down my cheek, closed my eyes, and nodded. My mother has been gone for years now and I had not felt so close to her in a long while. The tear was not mine – it was hers. After all this time I think I finally understood that November afternoon.

The day Kennedy was murdered tore time. For millions of people the irreparable rending forever split the before and after. The violence in Dallas was visited not just upon the man but also on the very idea that everything was possible and all problems solvable. As I watched the people watching him and smudged my cheek I realized that in the final analysis, Kennedy’s gift was not his programs and polices but himself. His contribution, and the one that brought my mother to him then and the people to his museum now, was the courageous determination that idealism is not naive, hope is not silly, that acting collectively is not surrendering liberty, and that community can extend beyond one’s family, or city, or even country.

Of course Kennedy was a flawed man. The museum is silent about his hiding crippling health issues and the cocktail of drugs with which he was injected each day to carry on. It did not mention the women. He was a flawed leader. The museum ignored his ballooning the deficit to build a mammoth military and glanced over his being late in joining the march to civil rights and his having started the march to Vietnam. But that’s okay. There is no such thing as a perfect man or leader.

Now I’m back in my hotel scrunching notes into prose. When this book is published I hope that readers will understand Kennedy’s time a little better and consider the effects that his policies and personality had on Canada. What they will not know is our secret; that in the book’s writing I came to an understanding far more profound. In a city far from home, and for just a moment, I was once again my mother’s little boy.

Lessons Learned from Fear, Vision and Tradition

On a cool September afternoon a group of Canadians aboard a luxury ship arrived at the picturesque Charlottetown harbour. They dressed in their best finery and awaited a grand welcome. It didn’t come. Instead, a lone man appeared in a row boat far below and shouted up an invitation to dinner. It was an unexpected beginning to a week that for many would have an unexpected end. Within nine days, most of it spent dining, drinking, and dancing, a new country would be born.

The men assembled embarked on an audacious experiment that remains underway. In the shadow of a brutal war and the demands of an unforgiving clock they attempted to improve on what the British had bequeathed and the Americans seemed intent on burning. We can better understand today by considering what they created then.

Wily politician and political survivor John A. Macdonald led the Canadian delegation. At that moment – September 1, 1864, 150 years ago – Canada was a dysfunctional amalgam of what are now the southern bits of Ontario and Quebec. They were crashing a previously arranged meeting of delegates from New Brunswick, PEI, and Nova Scotia who were gathering to discuss a possible Maritime union.

photo

 

Author with Sir John A. and George Brown (OK, not really)

 
Confederation had been discussed and dismissed for years. But changes in the United States and Britain meant that to save itself Canada had to create itself. America had fallen into Civil War. It left cities burned and families destroyed. If we extrapolated the population then for now it would claim the equivalent of over six million lives.

Canada and the Maritimes were officially neutral but most newspapers were pro-South, Halifax and Saint John ports sold goods to both sides, factories ran weapons to the South, an anti-Lincoln political party operated from Windsor, and a Confederate spy ring organized raids from Toronto and Montreal. American newspapers and generals threatened and Lincoln hinted that when the war ended, the Northern army would turn north.

Britain had dispatched 11,000 troops to the border but a powerful group of British politicians were questioning the cost of that defence and of imperialism itself. They wanted the expensive and troublesome British North American colonies to find their own way.

Canada resembled a teenager whose parents were kicking her out of the house. She wouldn’t move in with the neighbours because their house was on fire. She needed to build a new house. The architects met in Charlottetown. They were government and opposition members who had pledged to surrender partisanship for the greater good.

The United States was the world’s first and most successful manifestation of John Locke’s 18th century Enlightenment ideas. But the men (and they were all men) in Charlottetown believed that while the sentiments were noble, the Civil War was demonstrating that America’s attempt to create an enlightened republic was a blazing failure. They channelled Irish nationalist and British Member of Parliament Edmund Burke. He believed that governments should not be based upon temporary popularity which he equated to shouts from a mob, but on tested and respected tradition. Facts and the circumstances of the day should dictate reasonable solutions; decisions should never be based on blind adherence to an ideology. With admiration for Burke and Britain and America as their negative example they envisioned Canada.

Power, they said, should not rest with the executive – they derided the American president as a four-year dictator – but with parliament. Through free elections, they argued, the people should not pick a prime minister or even a government. Rather, voters should create a House and the House would choose the government according to which group could earn support. Members of parliament must not be delegates merely echoing the views of their constituents but thoughtful free thinkers unencumbered by the often un- or ill-informed electorate or partisan newspapers. The Senate must be appointed to keep it illegitimate so that real power remained where it belonged – in the House. The struggle for State’s rights had led to the Civil War so they insisted that the federal government alone speak for Canada. They saw provinces as municipal in nature and restricted their power to areas on a short, proscriptive list. The British monarch should oversee it all as Head of State.

Anniversaries, and a 150th is one of significance, are invitations to reflect on the past and ponder the future. Canada was born of fear, vision and tradition. What of the old fear? The Americans may not be ready to bomb us anymore but have they bought us? What of the old vision? A democratic state locates power to best serve the nation but are we happy with where power has been relocated? What of the old tradition? Should we pursue our sovereignty by eschewing the sovereign? What would Sir John say? More importantly, on our collective anniversary, what do you say?

An edited version of this article appeared last week in the Ottawa Citizen, Montreal Gazette and Vancouver Sun. To discover more about Canada’s birth in the shadow of the American Civil War and about Canada’s involvement in that war please see “Blood and Daring: How Canada Fought the American Civil War and Forged a Nation”.

http://www.amazon.ca/Blood-Daring-Canada-Fought-American/dp/0307361462/ref=sr_1_1_title_2_pap?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1410174613&sr=1-1