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There's an old saw that goes something like this: The definition of news is what went wrong yesterday. It's largely true, and in a healthy society, it probably has to be. It's why we journalists spend time shining lights on this country's faults and failures, its discontents, disappointments and injustices. The supply is bountiful, at times giving the appearance of being an infinitely renewable resource.

But every once in a while, it's not such a bad idea to stop enumerating the defects of each tree, and to just stand back and take in the whole forest. Look how much it's grown.

This great experiment in nationhood that we've been running since 1867 is not without flaws. On this benighted earth, what is? But compared to the rest of the world, and the march of folly that is so much of human history, our country is a marvel.

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Canada has a leading claim to being, all things considered, relatively speaking, and with all apologies for such an outburst of immodesty, the most successful country on the planet, and the best place to be an average citizen, anywhere, ever. Our level of peace, order, good government, prosperity, liberty and justice isn't perfect. But there's no place where it's less imperfect.

The French version of O Canada describes our history as "une épopée des plus brillants exploits" – an epic of the most brilliant exploits. It sounds too grandiose, like it was pulled from the national song of a banana republic. But in the case of Canada, those words written nearly a century and a half ago have turned out to be true. Our brilliant exploit is avoiding all number of disastrous potential futures, and all the wonderful things made possible as a result.

For example, Canada could easily have been Ireland, or more particularly Northern Ireland. In the 1860s, Canada and Ireland were both colonies seeking self-government. Both were also wracked by seemingly unbridgeable ethnic and religious divisions that threatened to break into violence and tear the country apart.

Toronto, its politics dominated by the Irish Protestant Orange Order, was called the Belfast of Canada. Quebec, in contrast, was so intensely Catholic that at the time of Confederation, Bishop Ignace Bourget was able to raise an army of more than 500 francophone Catholics to defend the Papal States against the unification of Italy.

Over the next century and a half, Northern Ireland would suffer revolution, civil war, partition, the Troubles, terrorist bombings and counter terror. And Canada would not.

Or Canada could have been Hungary. In 1867, the Austrian Empire, just like the British Empire, was struggling with desires for autonomy from its component parts. The same year as our Confederation, it introduced self-government for Hungary. They built a grand, new parliament building in Budapest. Just like Canada's, it's a magnificent neo-gothic palace, overlooking a great river. Just like Canada, it had upper and lower houses, the latter elected and the former not.

Over the course of the twentieth century, Hungary would endure repeated episodes of societal breakdown: ethnic strife, a world war, partition, revolution, counter-revolution, fascism, a second world war, the extermination of its Jewish population, Soviet occupation, a failed anti-communist revolution, and more communism. Hundreds of thousands of Hungarians died violent deaths.

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Good luck and geographic good fortune are part of the reason why our story is different. But it's much more than that. For 150 years, thanks to the genius of the Fathers of Confederation and a certain level of reasonableness among Canadians and their politicians, this country has been extremely good at channelling violent conflict into peaceful, democratic politics. That's Canada's brilliant exploit.

Canada took the British parliamentary model and improved it. We ditched aristocracy, but kept monarchy. We gave the vote to everyone. We added to Britain's unwritten constitution with a written constitution. We introduced federalism, and used it to keep a linguistically and religiously divided country together – whereas in the United States, federalism carried the country into civil war. We welcomed immigrants in much greater numbers than the U.S., and over the last century, our population has grown faster than that of the U.S.

This country got things wrong, and did wrong. But instead of being the kind of country that says, to be a patriot, you must never apologize for your history, we've often been willing to face things, while trying to right them. In the 1960s and '70s, for example, it was Canada's francophones who deserved an acknowledgment of historical wrongs done, and a change of course. The Confederation bargain had promised them nation-wide protections for language and education, but steps taken in the late 19th and early 20th century largely denied them outside of Quebec. Today, it is Indigenous Canadians who are owed apology, acknowledgment and redress.

On our 150th anniversary, it feels as if Canada lacks the exuberant confidence about the future that marked Confederation in 1867, or the centenary in 1967. Around the world, fear and anxiety seem to be outpacing hope, and we have caught the bug. For an antidote, look to your fellow citizens. Look especially to new Canadians. No one knows better why this place is worth celebrating.

More than a hundred years ago, Sir Wilfrid Laurier said that Canada would one day be the star toward which all those who love progress and freedom would come. It was long taken as an absurd boast, but like the words of the anthem, it has turned out to be true. Around the world, people dream of a place like this. To live here is to be the recipient of incredible good fortune. It also makes you the trustee of a living thing that must be preserved, expanded, improved and enriched – and passed on to the next generation. Happy Canada Day.

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