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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 ...

Huge numbers of people from Germany as well as Eastern and Northern Europe were central to this influx, arriving from increasingly easterly points of origin as the century went on.

So before the supposedly original Anglo culture of Canada had been formed, it was undermined: Those "second-wave" Canadians were, in fact, the fundamental wave.

3. 'First we were colonial, then we became multicultural'

Nevertheless, we know that Canadians thought of themselves as British subjects for decades after Confederation. This is undeniable: Right up to the 1960s, English-speaking Canadians almost universally expressed loyalty to the "motherland," Britain, often ahead of any Canadian loyalty.

But we make the mistake of believing that the end of this colonial self-image, in the 1960s, also signalled the dawn of a multicultural era.

It sounds simple enough: We stopped being British subjects and started being a patchwork of ethnic enclaves. Whether this was caused by the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism in the 1960s or by Pierre Trudeau's belief in official multiculturalism or just by the new values and identity politics of the time, we believe our colonial past is in stark opposition to our polyglot present.

But Peter Henshaw, a historian at the University of Western Ontario, has built a career out of demolishing this notion. He has done so, fascinatingly, by focusing on John Buchan, the Scotsman who most people know only for writing the thriller The Thirty-Nine Steps and other gung-ho books of the mid-century.

However, Mr. Buchan was also known to many by his title Lord Tweedsmuir and was governor-general of Canada from 1935 to 1940, one of the last of the British-appointed vice-regents who were expected to oversee the semi-colony as an active caretaker.

What John Buchan spent all of that time doing, with considerable zeal, was formulating and promoting the idea of multiculturalism. That is, he encouraged ethnic groups not to give up their own cultures and to maintain divided loyalties between their originating country and their new home - this, he said, was the path to success in the Commonwealth, the way to hold the former empire together.

Indeed, when he was installed as governor-general in Quebec City in November, 1935, he declared: "It is the glory of our empire to embrace within its confines many races and traditions. It is in its variety that its strength lies."

He then amplified this message, taking it to every ethnic enclave. In Fraserwood, Man., for example, he gave an address to a big crowd of Ukrainian Canadians in September of 1936: "You will all be better Canadians for being also good Ukrainians. … The strongest nations are those that are made up of different racial elements."

In radio addresses and speaking tours across the country, he encouraged groups to keep their "authentic," "racial" identities: Icelanders in Gimli, Acadians in Annapolis Royal, Québécois in Montreal, Scots in Ontario.

He used a Canadian Club address in Toronto to declare that Canada's many ethnic groups "should retain their individuality and each make its contribution to the national character." He added that each should learn "from the other, and that while they cherish their own special loyalties and traditions, they cherish not less that new loyalty and tradition which springs from their union."

In other words, the notion of multiple identities and ambiguous loyalties, a concept that is attacked today by anti-multiculturalists, was central to his vision as a promoter of the British Empire.

"The development of multiculturalism in Canada," Mr. Henshaw writes, "starts to look less like a decisive step away from a colonial past and more like an unwitting acceptance of a sly strategy to enmesh Canada more effectively within the empire."

Other historians, such as C.P. Champion at McGill University in Montreal, have found that Buchan's ideas of cultural patchwork were promoted even more actively, right through the 1960s, by members of Canada's Anglo elite - specifically as a way to maintain the values of the Commonwealth by rejecting homegrown culture in favour of mixed, competing loyalties.

That notion presents us with a Canada that confounds our understandings, on the right and the left, of the tensions and polarities whose friction supposedly formed our modern consciousness. Yet it is, when you step away, one that seems strikingly familiar. In its simultaneous commitment to colonial and vividly anti-colonial values, it's true to the human narrative of Canada.

It may not be what we were taught in school, or what we are supposed to say about ourselves, but it all makes sense, in an oddly Canadian way.

Doug Saunders is a member of The Globe's European bureau.

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