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Doug Saunders Headshot for calling cards (Randy Quan)
Doug Saunders Headshot for calling cards (Randy Quan)

Doug Saunders

Canada's mistaken identity Add to ...

Why are we so late to do anything in the Far North, when we consider ourselves such a fundamentally northern nation? It may well because we never really have considered ourselves a northern nation in any concrete way. In fact, most of us go out of our way to avoid ever thinking about the upper 80 per cent of the country.

That's the conclusion of two historians, Kenneth Coates at the University of Waterloo and William Morrison at the University of Northern British Columbia, whose work has examined everything written about the North in Canada during the past century.

In a series of extensive research papers and in the book Arctic Front: Defending Canada in the Far North , which they co-authored and has just won the prestigious Donner Prize, they find that the amount of time and energy we devote to the region is something like what we devote to, say, the Australian outback; in every practical, political or material sense, it is just as remote.

"Politicians of all parties have ignored the fact that decades of neglect have left the North vulnerable to foreign intrusions," the historians conclude in a new study. "They imagine that the history of northern Canada is the story of a country deeply committed to the North, rallying to the defence of an integral part of the country. The reality of Canada's involvement with its North is however quite different from this romantic nationalist fairy tale."

They find that information about the Far North has never really been taught in Canadian schools, from primary through to postgraduate level, or included in textbooks. When it's mentioned at all, it's through tales of explorers. In art, literature, political debate and scholarship, they conclude, the scene resembles that of the tundra: flat and empty, except for the rare outcropping making a surprise appearance every few years - like Mr. Harper's current thrust.

"The North remains, as in the past, to a considerable degree an artifact of southern creation," they conclude, "a snow-covered tabula rasa upon which Canadian writers, thinkers and artists have presented fanciful southern visions of the North."

2: 'We are the people of 1867'

Equally strong is our belief that Canada is built upon the communities that came from Britain and France in the years before and immediately after Confederation - a "core culture" that was much later supplemented by waves of non-British immigrants.

It's amazing that this assumption, held by people across the political spectrum, has been examined closely only recently - and found to be completely lacking.

David Verbeeten, a social scientist at Cambridge University who usually specializes in Middle Eastern matters, discovered two surprising facts: Those 19th-century arrivals didn't stick around long enough to become a major part of the population, and almost everyone in Canada is descended from the largely non-British immigrants who arrived during and after the Wilfrid Laurier years.

Until the 20th century, Canada was notable, among all the former colonies, in failing to retain immigrants from Britain. The hundreds of millions of English and Irish people who fled across the Atlantic during that century did everything they could to stay away from Canada.

They went to Australia and the U.S. in numbers 10 times higher, and even those who found themselves obligated to come to Canada, Mr. Verbeeten has found, most often got out quick: Between half and three-quarters of the colonists who came to Canada in the 19th century moved directly in a very few years to the United States. The Canada of the 19th century left little trace on the Canada of today.

"Over the course of four decades [1860 to 1900]- decades which were otherwise politically formative for the Dominion," Mr. Verbeeten writes, "the population of Canada actually expanded at a rate below that of natural increase. Immigration only began to contribute significantly to population growth after 1901. For much, if not most, of its formative history, Canada was not a country of immigrants, but rather a country of emigrants or transients."

Only in the Laurier era did Canada develop the "pull" factors that made people want to stay there. Canada began developing its core, sustainable population, the bulk of people who formed our culture, only in the 20th century.

And those immigrants, from the beginning, were very different from the strictly British and French faces of the Confederation era.

"To the chagrin of Canada's contemporary ethnocentrists," Mr. Verbeeten writes, "as the absolute number of immigrants from Britain went up, so did the relative proportion go down - from an average 60 per cent during the Victorian era to 35 per cent by 1914."

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