Canada Day 2020… eh?*

Canada’s complicated history

July 1 – Canada’s birthday. Appropriately, there are no parades this year. We are hiding covidly. Not just in the country, but regionally, for Canada is not so much a nation, but a community of jurisdictions united by an amorphous set of ideals, history and legal frameworks.

* Let’s clarify ‘eh’. Endemic to the English Canadian accent (and something I inadvertently use all the time), ‘eh’ is not at all complicated. It is simply a result of our bilingual formation. Latin languages tend to inflect upwards when asking a question. ‘Eh’ is a question of affirmation: “How’s it goin’, eh?” Not too tough.


I abhor patriotism, or specifically being patriotic simply for the love of one’s country. Hugging flags, marching to war or blindly embracing a leader – or worse, a monarch – can best be defined as fascism. This is not good, providing you think general human rights are appealing.

Canada’s history has honourable moments but is marred by genocide and colonialism. We’ve fallen down environmentally and let far too many children grow up in poverty. Somehow, a hereditary queen of a little island is actually Canada’s sovereign. There are aspects to dislike about Canada. Perhaps even more importantly, there is nothing organic about Canada – this is no nation-state. Yet somehow it is a space that generally works.

As my dear friend Rod F. Likes to say about Canada, “I hate the climate, but love the democracy.” I concur. These last few decades have made me somewhat proud because Canada – whatever that means – seems to get a lot of things right.

During these unprecedented – however totally predictable – times of global pandemic, this sparsely populated northern union has done alright. Too many people have died, and the disease has exposed failings in seniors’ living conditions and intergovernmental coordination, yet communication has been open, mostly transparent and pro-science.

Even the right-wing populist types – most notably in Ontario – have stood up to the nutty fringe elements. Few Canadians worry about healthcare, and for the first time in my life I have applied for – and quickly received – government support.

All of this is complicated but, generally, this loose union has managed to address the needs of its citizens without suppressing truth or basic human dignity – at least during this phase of our history.

Looking around the world

There are core aspects of modern Canadian society worth celebrating. Equal marriage is barely a debate, diversity is celebrated, healthcare is good, education is almost universal and there is a national pension plan.

Cannabis is legal (though of no interest to me), the police are generally not corrupt, the minimum wage is respectable and the central bank is independent. There is strict gun control. The judiciary is independent and not elected.

While certainly not always true, Canadians are proud of a reputation for politeness. Not a bad moniker. Canada has also encouraged a rich artistic tradition, often dominating musical charts.

The country itself is huge, with so much beauty. Canadians are wealthy enough to be able to travel and, in global terms, Canada provides reasonably well for its citizens.

Canada can also be so very boring. Vast distances between small, nondescript towns is monotonous. As a conglomeration of contrived jurisdictions (for example none of Saskatchewan’s borders are natural), Canada is a large space on a map barely united by a set of ideals. Over time, many have rejected those ideals as the concept of country has changed.

Quebec obviously springs to mind. The heart of French speaking North America has its own easily dissected history. French Canadians were second-class citizens during much of Canada’s history, but Quebec’s own elite – and deep Catholic structure – was complicit.

The Quebec nationalist movement raised the stature of French Canadian culture. Today, hundreds of thousands of non-French speaking Canadian children are educated in the French language. Canada is officially bilingual and a clear majority of people support this reality.

Yet Quebec’s nationalist movement can be as ugly as all nationalist movements. It speaks of ‘pure laine’ (pure wool) – a really exclusive concept. It is painfully intolerant and deeply superior. I like the fact this has never appealed to a majority.

And a really personal pet peeve – Prince Edward Island remains a province! With about 150k inhabitants, PEI has four seats in parliament and four senators – in Canada’s ridiculously appointed upper chamber. While regions will vary according to size and population, it has to be time to merge this little island with New Brunswick or Nova Scotia.

Celebrating Canada

Canadian Museum for Human Rights

So, despite all the misery, crime and intolerance in Canadian history, there is something to celebrate. We are not a nation-state. Not one language or ethnicity. We applaud the successes of Scandinavia and even Singapore, but Canada is a bigger story.

Knitting a national tapestry out of colonial exploration is complicated. It may have happened from necessity or a few good people – or even due to low population density and an abundance of resources. Somehow in this current world of nearly 8 billion people, Canada has become a model. This matters.

I do not want to celebrate Canada for a few current successes. I want to celebrate being part of a community united around applied principles: principles of rights, participation and inclusion; secular values of gender equality, income distribution and respect.

The Maple Leaf is not a thing to respect (and there are no maple trees where I live), but a flag with a leaf is nicer than one with a cross or something military. The national anthem is not interesting and outrightly offensive in French, but recently Canada changed the anthem to be more inclusive. This is a little change, but I am glad to live in a society where these ‘little’ things matter.

Moving on

On this July 1, 2020, Canada will celebrate its birthday virtually, and there is a lot to celebrate.

In 1867, when four colonies decided to unite, women could not vote. Nor could First Nations people. The Acadians had been expelled.

Now Canada has gone through a Truth and Reconciliation process. There is a Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Suffrage is virtually universal and our political leaders take questions directly from a free press. A leader of a major political party is a visible minority and comes from a non-Christian religious background.

These are all the little steps upon which an inclusive, civil society are built.

Nevertheless, when ‘celebrating’ Canada, here are a few things to remember:

  1. Canada was united by the train. It is said that for every mile of train line, a Chinese person lost his life. The Chinese were paid far below European wages and had to pay a head tax for bringing their wives.
  2. Early French and British Canada did have slavery.
  3. Ukrainians and eastern Europeans were considered foreign radicals in World War I and were put in work camps – we drive on some of the roads they were forced to build.
  4. Canada was fully aware of the rampant antisemitism leading to WW2, yet resisted Jewish immigration.
  5. With regard to the First Nations, there is no other term but genocide. Exclusion, murder, and the residential school system that lasted until the 1990s… it is all that bad. I feel it very important to stress that the only overt racism I grew up knowing was towards the First Nations.
  6. Japanese Canadians were interned during WW2 – before this happened elsewhere.
  7. Many Canadian provinces managed a system of eugenics (controlled breeding) – look it up!
  8. Canada has not achieved the environmental targets it signed onto.
  9. Canada has failed to live up to its obligations to foreign aid and development.
  10. Canada continues to sell arms to Saudi Arabia – a country with which we share almost no common values.

We are living in a strange world where people complain about statues coming down. Canada has done better with its new $10 note. The history of segregation should be part of national discourse. As another good friend pointed out, “A statue is not history; the toppling of a statue is.

Canada is not a case of ‘love it or leave it,’ rather understand it and join the conversation. This makes me proud.

Happy Canada Day!

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