In 1959, Queen Elizabeth II made a 45-day visit to Canada. One of CBC television’s top personalities then was Joyce Davidson; during the royal visit, she was a guest on NBC’s Today show in the United States, and was asked what she thought. “Like most Canadians,” she said, “I am indifferent to the visit of the Queen.”
Many Canadians of 1959 were similarly indifferent. Many more were not. The CBC – and advertisers, and politicians – were flooded with angry letters and phone calls. Ms. Davidson was taken off the air for few days, sponsors dropped her and she ended up moving to the United States. It was such a big story that news editors later named her Canada’s most newsworthy woman of the year.
Half a century later, in 2007, an Ipsos-Reid poll for the Dominion Institute found that only 8 per cent of Canadians knew that the Queen was Canada’s head of state. From an excess of reverence for monarchy to a surfeit of ignorance, in barely a generation.
The Queen was our head of state for 70 years. The world changed around her.
So did Canada.
Everyone knows that Quebec went through the Quiet Revolution in the 1960s, involving a sharp break with the province’s past, including its status as the most devoutly Catholic place on the planet. Less remembered, or rather not remembered, is that English Canada went through an even quieter revolution, whose victory was so complete that the Canada it replaced is no longer history, if history is defined as the memory of what was.
From Confederation until the 1950s, Canadian politics was often a tug-of-war between Liberals wanting ever greater distance from Britain and the Empire, and Conservatives wanting to hold tight the ties. Many Canadians were in the second camp, understanding themselves as both Canadians and citizens of the British Empire, in the same way that someone from Texas is also an American.
That Canada was psychologically tied to Britain. Canada, or rather English Canada, saw itself as the people who had remained loyal after 1776 and who confederated in 1867 to stay that way. Sir John A. Macdonald’s 1891 election manifesto said: “A British subject I was born, a British subject I will die.” It may not make sense to modern Canadian ears, but the past is always another country.
Even in the late 1950s, with the Empire in the last stages of its going-out-of-business sale, Prime Minister John Diefenbaker was still desperately trying to hang on to as much of the link as possible. He went so far as to try to stop Britain from joining what would become the European Union.
Succeeding Liberal governments under Lester Pearson and Pierre Trudeau had other ideas, driven in large part by the need to make Canada fully welcoming to its French fact. They reimagined Canadian identity, starting with a new flag. The maple leaf flag is universally loved today, but it was born into heavy opposition. Ontario and Manitoba were so unhappy they created provincial flags featuring the old flag, the British Union Jack.
As part of this remaking of Canadian culture into something post-British, Royal Mail Canada became Canada Post; The Royal Canadian Air Force, Army and Royal Canadian Navy were amalgamated into the Canadian Armed Forces. Ties to Britain were understandably played down, as were ties to the monarchy.
Not all of it was necessary, but a lot of it probably was. It did, however, yield some odd and uniquely Canadian results – such as that 2007 poll showing most Canadians had no idea who was their head of state.
After so much history fought over and now forgotten, it was good to see the Prime Minister in London for the Queen’s funeral, along with former prime ministers, honouring the late head of state without embarrassment or reservation. There seems to have been no fear – which previous generations of Liberal politicians might have had – that being too eager in showing respect for a monarch would trigger a debate over how “British” Canada was or wasn’t. That debate ended so long ago few Canadians know it existed.
On display over the last couple of weeks was a different Canada, where honouring the late sovereign – who was Queen of Canada independent of her title as Queen of the United Kingdom – was about celebrating her life and her role. No more, no less. Maybe it’s a sign of national maturity.