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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 ...

We are not the Canada we think we are.

The country of our imagination - northern, colonial, rooted in a history of British settlement and only recently becoming pluralistic and multihued - is an illusion.

It is often a happy one, a tale that has held us together and propelled our art and politics for generations.

It is held together, though, by the thinnest tissue of beliefs and assumptions.

Turn up the brightness and you begin to see through this gauzy film another more interesting and confounding Canada, one that locates us in a far different place in history and world culture.

Historians and observers have begun to penetrate the crust of mythology that covers this far-more-real Canada only in recent years.

I think it's significant that a good number of them are located overseas - as if from a dozen paces back a new silhouette emerges. To employ what seems like an appropriate cliché, it becomes possible to see the forest for the trees.

On the threshold of this country's 142nd birthday, then, let's take a look at three of our most dearly held assumptions and the new revelations that they are little more than happy lies.

1: 'WE ARE A NORTHERN NATION'

It is the most memorable line in our national anthem, and the cornerstone of our government's foreign policy: The true north is strong and free, and it is what we are all about.

"Canada is an Arctic nation and an Arctic power," Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon said in one of dozens of such statements this year.

"The Arctic and the North make up 40 per cent of our land mass. The Arctic and the North are part of our national identity."

To that end, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has announced big projects in the Arctic: a deep-water port, a new icebreaker, a fleet of patrol ships, military bases - none of them delivered yet, but all designed to reinforce the message that the resource-rich Far North has always been part of the Canadian soul.

To most Canadians, this sounded perfectly natural: Of course, it is. The Far North is central to our culture; it helped to forge our national identity. Why wouldn't the Northwest Passage and a good chunk of the Arctic Ocean belong to us, when we've always been a northern people?

In fact, it is emerging that the North never really has been a major part of the Canadian identity. A more accurate representation was outlined two years before Confederation by British Liberal leader and future prime minister William Gladstone. He stood in the House of Commons, during an 1865 debate about whether to grant semi-independence to the colony, and dismissed Canada glibly as a "long and comparatively thin strip of occupied territory between the States on one side, and the sterility of pinching winter on the other."

In the century and a half since then, we have occupied ourselves almost exclusively with that narrow strip, ignoring the frozen distance beyond. Only in the past decade, with the creation of the Inuit territory of Nunavut, and especially in the past two years, with the heavy militarization of the North, have Canadian officials belatedly begun to acknowledge it.

Christoph Seidler, a German international-relations scholar, has just published a book-length analysis called Arctic Monopoly: The Battle for Natural Resources in the Polar Region . He examines the positions of each of the six countries with territory within the Arctic Circle, and their prospects for making a legitimate claim on sovereignty. Canada, by several measures, fares the worst.

"Canada has not made the decision to invest money and shift priorities into the arctic, not the way other northern nations like Norway and Russia have, so it appears to be missing from the region," he told me in an interview, noting that the petroleum reserves being opened up by climate change could make us very prosperous - if we can persuade the world that we own these undersea lands.

But we haven't done any of the things that Norway, Russia or Finland have done - populated and urbanized our Arctic Circle cities with big investments, set up huge military bases in the region or displayed more than a token presence in the contested waterways.

"Canada especially would stand to benefit if its infrastructure in the Arctic weren't so thin on the ground," Mr. Seidler says. "For decades, Canadian politicians have spun out brilliant rhetoric about the country's Far North, yet hardly any actual investments have been made in the region. … In the legal fight over the status of the Northwest Passage, now opening due to the shrinkage of Arctic ice, Canada's position looks likely to worsen in the long run."

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."

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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