Love Letter to Canada on her Birthday

Dear Canada,

Birthdays are great. The friends, family, and food are marvelous as another marker is placed on the road to wisdom and understanding; the destination we seek and hope to recognize upon arrival. Of course, the fewer candles on the cake increase the chances of bouncy castles and donkey-pinning and the normally banned junk-food.

Your birthday is always special. What’s not to love about fireworks, music, and a day off in the middle of summer? For some reason we attach special significance to anniversaries ending in fives and zeroes so your biggest birthday bash was in 1967. The Centennial parks, fountains, buildings, and bridges from coast to coast are testament to your 100th birthday having been celebrated everywhere. The biggest bash was in Montreal. Expo ’67 invited the world and the world came. Magnificent national pavilions wove facts and myths in what other countries chose to display of themselves and how we cheered ourselves.

Dear Canada on her Birthday

(Photo: nmmc-co.com)

Your most powerful myth is your birthday itself. You became an independent state on July 1, 1867. But your independence was an act of the British parliament. Britain still controlled your constitution. A British committee could over rule your Supreme Court. A British company controlled what is now northern Ontario, Quebec, Manitoba, and the North West Territories. Britain still negotiated and co-signed treaties and trade deals. So you were independent but only like a teenager who moves out but only as far as Mom’s basement.

For a long while, we pouted and slammed doors from time to time but didn’t do much about it. After all, we still considered ourselves British. Our census form had nowhere to proclaim we were Canadian. We carried British passports. We voted for Sir John A. and his slogan: “A British subject I was born and a British subject I will die.”

It all changed when a European family spat led cousins with big navies and bigger egos and more pride than brains to trip the world into war. We called it the Great War because not until the next phase in what became a decades long European civil war would we begin to number them. Britain was in and all we could yell up the stairs was “Ready Aye Ready”. Boys who had never traveled more than fifty miles from home were stirred by a pull of patriotism, a yearning for adventure, and the hope that girls really do love a man in uniform. They were soon on trains to Val Cartier, Quebec, and then aboard crowded ships to Britain and then, the front.

They had no idea what they were in for. Picture digging a hole in your yard and living there for a year. Eat there, sleep there, and relieve yourself there, day after day and season after season. Watch for rats the size of spaniels, killing coughs, lice, maggot-infested food, and after standing for days in the open sewer, toes fall away when sodden boots were finally removed. It was a war against conditions and, too often, stupid officers more than the enemy.

Dear Canada on her Birthday.

(Photo: http://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca)

After years of using Canadians as shock-troop cannon fodder, our four divisions were joined and told to capture a ridge that the French and British had found impossible to take. We dug and planned. We ignored the British way and told every man his job. And men the boys had indeed become. Many still bore pimples but too much boredom punctuated by terror and too many trips on leave for bad booze and horizontal recreation made them older than their ages; older than anyone deserved to be. On Easter Sunday, a barrage that shook the earth and shattered the sky announced the attack and the Canadians soon had Vimy Ridge..

Back home, for the first time, we had not an allied, not even a British, but a Canadian victory. For the first time, Canadians considered themselves Canadians. When the war finally ended, Britain said it would take care of the peace. With a pat on the head we were to go back downstairs and wait quietly. No. Too many of our children, sent to kill their children, had died. Too many were home but broken. We had earned a place at the grown-up’s table. It took a while but we increasingly considered ourselves Canadian and one but one by one the vestiges of colonialism fell away, forgotten like other childish things.

So while a person’s birthday is easy to peg, a country’s is more a decision than fact. Perhaps, Canada, your birthday is really April 12, 1917; the day we made it to the top of that damned hill. But is it better to plant our patriotism at a Charlottetown conference table, in the British House of Commons, or on a blood-spattered Belgian ridge? Or is according too much significance to the tragic blunder of a crazy war affording too much recognition to the boneheads who started it, the profiteers who exploited it, and mankind’s predilection to slaughter rather than build?

Perhaps it’s better to stick with July 1, 1867. I guess, like Jimmy Stewart was told in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, when facts get in the way of the legend, print the legend. So this July, let’s enjoy the day off and with the sun’s surrender, let’s ooh and ahh at the fireworks. But this year, with these thoughts in mind, let’s offer ourselves a dare. Let’s see if any of us now can watch the colourful explosions over the park or lake and not think of the sky over Vimy.

Sincerely,

A Friend.

This is a few days late to stick with my Monday posting schedule but hopefully still invites consideration. If you enjoyed it, please send it along to others through Facebook or your social media of choice.

A Country Worth Fighting For

Being Canadian is tough. It takes work. Since long before Confederation, Canadians have experienced periods of existential re-examination in which we have struggled to determine just what it is about being Canadian that is worth proclaiming and protecting. Strong leaders do not shrink from those moments. In fact, they seek them, shape them, and have us learn from them.

The first such moment emerged from the First World War’s muck of Flanders and the ridge at Vimy. Before the war, most Canadians considered themselves British. Afterwards, we were Canadian. Prime Minister Borden insisted that Canada sign the Treaty of Versailles and have its own seat in the ill-fated League of Nations. It was the beginning of Canada’s shift from, as noted historian A. R. M. Lower entitled his seminal 1953 book, Colony to Nation.

Vimy Ridge Memorial Vimy Ridge Memorial

It was a nice thought. But nothing is as simple as it seems. The First World War also saw the middle of the end of Britain’s reign as the world’s paramount power and the passing of that torch to the initially reluctant Americans. Canada was forced to accept that change when, in 1917, Britain told a surprised Borden that it could no longer help finance Canada’s war effort. He was forced to turn to the United States for help in order to keep helping Britain. In the two decades after the war, American investment in Canada’s economy surpassed Britain’s. Canada bought and sold more stuff over the border than across the Atlantic.

Another moment came in the awful spring and early summer of 1940. France and most of Western Europe had fallen to Hitler’s blitzkrieg. It looked like Britain would be next. Prime Minister Mackenzie King met with President Roosevelt near the border at Ogdensburg, New York and agreed upon a continental defence strategy. A Permanent Joint Board on Defence was created. A year later they met again, this time at Roosevelt’s posh Hyde Park estate. The Hyde Park Agreement further linked Canada’s economy to America’s with pledges of wartime purchasing and financing.

With Canada’s economy already dominated by the United States, and its culture being swamped by American books, magazines, radio, and movies, Canadian nationalists were infuriated. It appeared that Canada was selling out to a new master in order to shell out to the old one. With the Cold War’s legitimate fear of communism, Soviet aggression, and nuclear destruction, and Canada’s old parents enfeebled, it was good to have a friendly neighbour who just happened to have the biggest, meanest dog in town.

Maybe Lower was wrong. Perhaps Canada had not moved from colony to nation but from colony to nation and then to colony again. An important Canadian leader challenged the trend and forced a new existential moment of self-examination: John Diefenbaker. Like Canada’s founding fathers, he was not anti-American, but pro-Canadian. Canada, he argued, was in danger of losing all that Canadians held dear unless action was taken to establish a greater pride in being Canadian and more independence. Diefenbaker argued that Canadians needed to determine if they had a country worth fighting for and were up for the scrap. Canada, he said, must stand up for its sovereignty and declare itself a colony no more.

Diefenbaker was prime minister from 1957 to 1963. His nationalist vision led him to stand up to Eisenhower and then Kennedy in ways that frustrated both. President Kennedy wanted Canada to join the Organization of American States, stop trading with Cuba and China, back Britain’s joining the European Common Market, and accept American nuclear weapons for its weapon systems in Canada and Europe. Diefenbaker said no, no, no, and no. Despite having ignored Diefenbaker while deliberating options during the early days of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy demanded an immediate and obedient response to his order regarding the alert level of Canadian troops. Diefenbaker said no.

kennedy and diefenbaker  Kennedy and Diefenbaker

The highly respected George Grant noted in his influential book Lament for a Nation, that Diefenbaker’s standing up to the Americans represented the “last gasp of Canadian nationalism.” After Diefenbaker’s defeat, his nationalist vision was shunted to one side for Lester Pearson’s economic integration and the fluffy patriotism of his flag and fair.

Sparks of patriotism always flare and fizzle. Patriotism is about celebration. Nationalism is about identity. Patriotism can dance merrily along without autonomy, but nationalism demands it. Unlike the bread and circuses of patriotism, or jingoist chest-thumping, or empty-headed chauvinist aggression, nationalism reflects a quiet, self-assured confidence in what is unique, valued, and valuable. It is inspirational and aspirational in defining what deserves to be cherished. It’s what is worth fighting for long after the “We’re Number One” chants are forgotten. That was the pro-Canadian, historically and ideologically-based nationalism that Diefenbaker proposed.

John Diefenbaker was a flawed Prime Minister and, in many ways, a flawed man. However, we cannot allow those flaws to blind us the importance of the existential moment he offered. Perhaps, as we pause to consider the sacrifices of those who fought in long ago wars and the battles of yesterday, we can reflect on the Diefenbaker moment. Maybe we can ponder the questions he asked and the vision he proposed. Do we have a country worth fighting for?

This column was originally published on the site Leaders and Legacies. If you liked it, please share it with others through the social media of your choice and consider checking out Leaders and Legacies.