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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006

History's strange brew

Globe and Mail
Tuesday, Jun. 1, 2003

Something big is happening out there. There have been clues. We're living the Golden Age of Canadian literature, with books flying off the shelves, telling our stories and sharing the Canadian experience.

Despite being steeped in American media and culture, my daughters and their friends are more Canadian than ever. When the "I Am Canadian" ad, featuring Joe "Everyman" saying, "I speak French and English, I believe in peacekeeping, not guns" played in a movie theatre, the whole place burst into applause.

At the CBC, when we were producing Canada: A People's History, we started feeling the tremors. Prospecting in the terrain of national memory and identity, we seemed to strike a pressure dome of sentiment that stunned us with record viewing levels. There had been a new self-awareness that had been taking shape in Canada, and we had tapped into it.

Now, more pieces fall into place and clarify the picture. Michael Adams studies a mountain of social data and reports in his book Fire and Ice, that far from becoming more Americanized, we are diverging in values from our neighbours and building a society defined by tolerance and diversity. The Globe and Mail's series on the New Canada goes further: "We are creating a new, multiracial, multicultural boundary-free ethnic group called Canadian," writes Matthew Mendelsohn of Queen's University.

What we appear to be witnessing is the emergence of a post-national state, a country of people linked not by blood, race or religion, but by a set of ideas and principles. We are in the process of defining ourselves as a nation of peoples, a place of global refuge.

It's been suggested this phenomenon began in the Seventies, fed by waves of new immigration and nourished by the Charter of Rights. This is probably true, but there is a theme in Canadian history; a river does run through it.

We are the product of a particular New World experience. In the American Revolution, the colonies that formed the United States were overwhelmingly Protestant and English. Benjamin Franklin's vision was "one continent, one language." He didn't add one religion because he didn't have to. His American vision was unitarian.

History dealt us different cards. Before any European settlers, this was a continent of aboriginal peoples with their own political systems, cultures and gods (and at least 50 different languages).

Then came French settlers, and the American Revolution, and history took two quite different paths.

Imagine if the American republic, at its inception, had to embrace the people of Mexico in its union -- overwhelmingly Catholic and Spanish. The United States would have evolved in a radically different way: It would be more like Canada.

There was no English majority in Canada at the time -- just the British army and a handful of merchants. The English side of Canada's equation appeared overnight, Loyalist refugees fleeing the bitter civil strife of the revolution. French and English Canadians didn't like each other, and harboured deep prejudices, but the gene for diversity was set.

Canada would become a perpetual negotiation of our constituent parts.

These American English refugees were followed, over the next century and a half, by waves of the adventurous, the unwanted, the persecuted, the economically or politically marginalized. Tens of thousands of Irish families, fleeing famine, arrived on fever-ridden ships. They joined Scots displaced by the Highland clearances and the Industrial Revolution, and were followed by the young men of southern China who came to earn money to feed families back home whom they'd never see again.

Then came Ukrainians, Sikhs, Japanese, Scandinavians, and Dutch who sought nothing more than a better life for their children. The 20th century brought Jews fleeing the ruins of postwar Europe, Czechs, Poles and, in later years, Vietnamese boat people. Now, this country is being shaped by the displaced of the Sudan and Kosovo, and the hopeful from India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Korea. There has never been a time since the first European settlement in 1604 that this landscape has not been fundamentally shaped, in some way, by the search for sanctuary.

The gene bred into our early history has allowed the evolution of a constant: a cranky, litigious but fundamentally civil arbitration of our national values. When are we going to finally settle this? "Never," says Gene Allen, the senior producer of Canada: A People's History. "That's not the problem, that's the point." It's taken us two centuries to realize that this was not our weakness but our strength.

And it has bred some unique characteristics: The country has an egalitarian conscience. It will allow physical privilege based on acquired wealth, but is enraged by any privilege based on class. It is unacceptable, for example, to be rude to a waiter or a waitress in this country -- because your son or daughter is probably going to be one at some point in their working lives. In fact, we boast that our fathers were bricklayers and our mothers shop clerks, and try to outdo each other with our split-rail-fence provenance or arrived-with-one-suitcase origins.

Far from being deferential to authority, we treat our politicians as if they were on day parole (read the letters to the editor) and we are mortally suspicious of all governments, which we assume to be overbearing, or incompetent, or both.

More important, we have strong antibodies against political ideology -- understandable, since so many of our parents were victims of ideology and of governments. The only demagogue to have made any headway in Canada in the past quarter century is hockey commentator Don Cherry. Even former Quebec premier Jacques Parizeau, who nearly split the country through his leadership of millions of sincere Quebec sovereigntists, became a pariah when he attacked ethnic voters. He crossed the line.

We have launched a global experiment that mixes all kinds of Old World ethnic, religious and racial hatreds, the toxins that created Ulster and Kosovo, into a civility. The sheer improbability of this proposition has seized the national imagination and that of the world.

We may not understand this fully. Our children, however, do.

Mark Starowicz headed the Canadian History Project and wrote of it in Making History: The Remarkable Story behind Canada: A People's History. He heads the documentary production unit of the CBC. ROBTv Workopolis