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Canada at 150: It’s Time for Inspirational Stories

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By David Warrick

Think of tributes to charismatic Canadians from the past and you may have some difficulty.

Think for a moment about tributes to noteworthy leaders of the United States and the task is much easier. As Canadians are led to believe, the U.S. does things much bigger because they have more money, creativity and confidence. And yet there are some hard truths to absorb here. Americans are more patriotic. Their national identity was forged mainly during the War of Independence and the Civil War. In the short history of the United States of America, armed struggle has helped firm a national resolve, but it has also left well over one million dead on American soil.

In contrast, Canada is the product of an 18th century global war known as the Seven Years’ War. It was seized from France in several decisive battles and became the most northerly colonies in a long chain of British territories extending from Hudson’s Bay to Florida. We often don’t discuss our history so we don’t often mention the fact that les Canadiens were a people at one time, or that Canada and the United States were merged as British North America prior to the War of Independence. Canadian history — Aboriginal, French and British — is inextricably linked with the United States. We have much in common with our neighbours to the south, but the consolidation of our own nation was largely a product of policy, not war.

Consider this for a moment: didn’t the founding fathers of Confederation settle their differences and form a coalition prior to writing the constitution in 1867? There was no declaration of war and independence there. No bold gestures to fight external threats. We are a people of conversations and compromises. It’s famously summed up in the answer to the CBC question: what is a Canadian? Peter Gzowski’s contest winner was “…as Canadian as possible under the circumstances.” But how do you celebrate that legacy except through self-deprecating comedy?

So with these thoughts in mind, my wife and I visited Mount Rushmore last month. We wanted to see how the U.S. and Canada compared in the celebration of our respective histories.

We were taken aback with the grandeur and the muscularity of it all. After all, it took over 14 years to carve out nearly half a million tons of granite from the Black Hills of South Dakota during the Great Depression. The details are extraordinary. They were finished over years with jackhammers and hand chisels. And the result: it hosts over three million visitors a year. It’s a magnificent tribute to four great U.S. presidents. American visitors go there on a pilgrimage to experience the monumental iconography of Rushmore and drink deeply of the national narrative. Canadian visitors wonder what happened to us. Where is our drama and our inspiration?

American bravado is displayed in major cities across the U.S. from New York to Los Angeles. All 44 U.S. presidents are celebrated in naming rituals. There are literally thousands of highways, bridges, mountains, hospitals, cities, educational institutions and other landmarks named after great Americans — especially George Washington.  Not surprisingly, the capital city is named after him. And the Washington monument is an obelisk around which the nation turns. Battles are commemorated all over the U.S. from Gettysburg to Custer’s Last Stand.

It’s likely that President Obama and Reverend King will receive their monuments soon for their struggles to honour the core values of the constitution. It’s all part of the ever-expanding narrative of the struggles for liberty and freedom in the United States of America. I say struggles because narrative needs conflict and that’s how plots work. If there is one thing that Americans excel in, it’s story telling.

What can we say in comparison? Are the Rockies and the Canadian Pacific Railway the Canadian equivalent to Rushmore? Think of grand vistas, untrammeled parkland, and a functional railway. If you’ve seen them in person (like Niagara Falls) once you’ve done them, you needn’t go back again. Isn’t that the Canadian experience?

Think for a moment about what visitors find in Canada in the way of grand monuments. We simply don’t like to talk about it that much. Why? Because we’re more inclined to worry about offending someone rather than celebrating the values we share as a nation. These values are famously summed up simply in our constitution as “peace order and good government.” And yet even this isn’t uniquely Canadian. Several Commonwealth countries have the same imperial phrase in their early constitutions, including New Zealand, Australia, and South Africa.

Unlike Americans, we aren’t searching for a more perfect union — whatever that may be. Canadians are instead working to create a land of peace, stability and justice in the midst of an imperfect world. Canada is the envy of the world today for many reasons, not the least of which is the unity of our nation and the democratic institutions that were set in place by our founders.

When you think about it, aren’t we still (sort of) working on our common history? Is it a work in progress, or are we really unwittingly trying to avoid it? It’s much easier and perhaps safer to show allegiance to sports, or political teams, than to historical narratives that may get you into trouble. Besides — judging from our news headlines, we do have a tendency to find fault, rather than common ground. One thing is for certain, however: most of our history tends to be documentary, and literal. It lacks drama and excitement. It also lacks pride and confidence.

What do national sites such as the Klondike, Kicking-Horse-Pass, Fort Garry, Batoche, Sainte-Marie among the Hurons, Fort York, Parliament Hill, Mount Royale, the Citadelle, Louisbourg, L’Anse aux Meadows and Charlottetown have in common? What is the story that binds? How do we create stories about peace, order and good government?  Anyone familiar with English 101 knows that all dramatic narratives need conflict to function and central characters. Art doesn’t grow from endless conversations and wishful thinking.

One thing is for certain, however: all Canadians coast-to-coast honour those who have sacrificed their lives for Canada. Mention the war dead and all goes quiet. There is no finger pointing on Remembrance Day. We don’t celebrate multiculturalism, nor difference, on this solemn day. We reflect on the profanity of war and the sacrifice of Canadians abroad. Grief is a great leveler. It is the price we pay for love, as Queen Elizabeth once said.

Retired Lieutenant-General Roméo Dallaire knows well the devastating consequences of armed conflict from his experiences in Rwanda. He recommends that a replica of Canada Bereft, the mournful mother figure from Canada’s most famous war memorial at Vimy Ridge in France, be placed in Jacques-Cartier Park in Gatineau, Quebec, facing Parliament Hill to remind parliamentarians that their decisions have consequences.

Farther along in the process is the 24-metre-high Mother Canada statue proposed for Cape Breton Island. It remains to be seen whether these ideas for national monuments gel with Canadians and meet the standards of good taste and good judgement. One thing is for certain: on November 11th at ceremonies all across the country and overseas, Canadians gather to honour their war dead in silent moments of remembrance.

As we approach the 150th anniversary of the birth of Canada in 2017, we will be looking for stories to express our common identity. Presently on our journey, we are recounting the many events associated with the War of 1812 as part of the commemoration of the 200th anniversary of this event. This year also coincidentally marks the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the First World War. Next year, marks the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War and the bicentennial of the birth of our first and greatest prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald.

As we commemorate these events, let’s not lament our nation, nor dwell on difference.  We are a proud people in one great confederation. Let’s, therefore, celebrate our common values as one people. We should all be justly proud of our founding peoples and the democratic institutions they helped create. We are all especially proud of our constitution, which defines our Canadian confederation and our fundamental freedoms, rights and responsibilities. We owe a debt of gratitude to all those who sacrificed so much to make us who and what we are today.  We can repay it by teaching more history in schools and by promoting the study of it at all levels. We should promote the dramatic and narrative arts also because they are more philosophical than the historical record – something we often overlook. But let’s settle only for the best. Above all, we need to look up to the leaders from the past, not down on them from the present. Let’s set aside our mournful dirges and burlesque comedies and tell some inspirational stories for a change.

 – David Warrick is chair of the Macdonald Project for Prince Edward County. He also taught Communications and Humanities at Humber College for 29 years.

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One comment

  1. David
    You astound me with your rhetoric. Congratulations!

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