Mark Milke: Canada is far from perfect - as recent discoveries have made only too clear. But that doesn't mean there isn't much to celebrate about this country.
When Victoria City council under Mayor Lisa Helps decided recently to cancel Canada Day celebrations, it was a yet another blind endorsement of illiberalism, anti-individualism and identity politics. It also demonstrated a preference for utopian history over actual history, the result of which insults Canada’s war dead.
Let’s start with the troika of illiberalism, anti-individualism and identity politics.
Helps and others who symbolically snub Canada do so in response to a specific event (the discovery of 200 graves of children at the Kamloops residential school) and more generally as a signal that Canada cannot be celebrated because the country’s history is imperfect.
There is so much ill-advised anti-reason thinking here that it is hard to know where to start. But let’s start with reality, modesty and facts.
Shared humanity, both bad and good
As I wrote recently in The Orca on why British Columbia should retain the name British Columbia, everyone’s ancestors are flawed, as indeed are we today. It is popular today to idolize one’s ancestors and put them up against another group who were cruel to them, but the reality of human history is that everyone’s forebearers were flawed, to put it mildly.
In the Americas pre-contact, slavery was not unknown. That includes cohorts as diverse as the Aztecs (who removed hearts from the living as part of the sacrificial rites which included children), to slavery in the Pacific Northwest from Washington state to British Columbia to Alaska, and which the British progressively stamped out.
Some might respond with “but Europeans and the British have a sorry record on issue X”.
Right. Which is precisely my point. Everyone’s ancestors, be it some individual, family, cohort, country or empire, at some point in history, was damned awful to some other individual, or their family, cohort, country or empire. To not ground oneself in that reality is to engage in historical hubris and anti-reality romanticism about oneself and one’s own chosen clan.
Here’s a suggestion: Let’s grant that someone or some group connected to any of us only by colour, ethnicity, or some other unchangeable characteristic, made life difficult for others, or alternately, helped humanity along to a better world. Or that both characteristics existed in the same individuals and groups, in history and now.
That should point us in the direction of grasping that we all possess a shared humanity – warts, evil and good alike. And that ultimate shared humanity should lead us to be more modest, and cease with the endless identification based on unchangeable characteristics.
For those who think identity politics, the belief that our fates are largely determined by our identity is harmless, think again. I wrote an entire chapter in my last book, The Victim Cult, on how the indigenous Hutu majority in Rwanda saw the Tutsi minority as non-Indigenous and needing to pay for the past wrongs of their ancestors. That program in collective guilt ended rather badly in Rwanda.
Even without such extreme consequences, a focus on identities is illiberal given that none of us can change our colour, ethnicity or where we were born. An emphasis on the collective instead of respecting the rights of the individual was precisely the problem in the past. It is why it’s a mistake to again go down that road today. A more positive program is to focus on how to bring individuals up and into a flourishing life.
Canada Day and what Canada is
Back to Canada Day and the preference for condemning Canada as a country based on inevitable flaws in humanity.
Ellis Ross and I were on a panel recently where he remarked it was odd and ironic that he, from the Haisla First Nation, now represents a wider swath of Canadians in his role as a British Columbia MLA, though he was happy to do so. He then asked the rest of us on the panel “What is Canada?”
We had no insightful response at the time. My immediate response was that that question has been tossed around for decades. Americans know who they are; so too the French, Chinese and Australians. In Canada, we’ve instead navel-gazed about that question for as long as I can remember.
Upon reflection, though, it is quite clear. Canada has been a hodgepodge of regional cultures (Laurentian, Prairie, Quebec, British Columbian and Atlantic) forged in opposition to the United States. That initial oppositional melding may not have been ideal, but it has worked to mostly provide increasing freedom and flourishing for an ever-growing proportion of the population over time.
Also, with the exception of Quebec, Canada was (and still should be) derived from classic liberal assumptions derived from the British. These were positive but not, regrettably, always applied consistently to all individuals as individuals: equal treatment under the rule of law; the democratic vote; freedom of expression, enterprise, and religion, and so forth. Indigenous Canadians were the obvious exception until 1960, denied the right to vote until that year.
It is right here where the objections start with a list of those excluded from mainstream Canadian life: Women did not receive the vote until 1920; Indigenous peoples until 1960 and the like.
But past failure in Canada was not, mostly, because of the wrong foundational ideas. Equal treatment under the rule of law, the democratic vote, and freedom of expression, enterprise, and religion were the proper deals including in the British North American Act and in the 1982 Constitution. The problem was in the initial lack of respect for every individual, the initial lack of extension of those ideas and rights to everyone. The ideas were not the problem; the exclusion from participation in mainstream Canadian life was the problem.
Canada compared to what, exactly?
The inability or unwillingness by cancel-Canada types to grasp that distinction is one problem. Another is in the lack of contemporary comparisons when discussions of Canada’s history arise. Canada in 1867, 1920 and 1960 was imperfect, but that’s unsurprising except for utopians. The question in looking back, and for Canada Day, is Canada compared to what?
Comparing Canada to some utopian vision of the past or now is not the proper comparison. It is better to compare Canada in 1867 to the same time in the United States, where only four years previous slavery was abolished by Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation. In Canada, opposition to slavery from the highest levels began in 1791 with John Graves Simcoe, the governor of Upper Canada (1791-1796). Simcoe pledged from the start of his governorship that any laws and policies in his domain that provided a framework and supported slavery were henceforth under attack. Slavery was in practical terms extinguished by 1820 in Canada and officially illegal by 1834 with Great Britain’s empire-wide edict against the practice (passed in 1833 and effective in 1834).
Or in 1920, compare Canada to the Soviet Union where a three-year old Bolshevik revolutionary regime was already killing people for resisting a murderously intolerant ideological regime. That nation-state and empire, the Soviet Union, had much worse in store for its own citizens and others until 1989.
Compare Canada in 1960 to Mao’s China where Mao’s “Great Leap Forward” was in full swing. There, collectivization—the forcing of Chinese farmers into state-owned collectives and much else—created a man-made famine that took as many as 40 million lives.
Or compare Canada in 2021 to real countries not utopian figments of imaginations: Saudi Arabia and its treatment of women and religious and other minorities; Russia’s (or more specifically, the Kremlin’s) attempted murder of Russian Opposition leader Alexei Navalny; and the Venezuelan regime and its ideological, economic war on its own people.
Here’s who built Canada
More positively, and as rebuke to Victoria’s council, consider what else Canada has been and why cancelling Canada Day is an insult to all Canadians:
- Few people probably know that the first Canadian laws against racial and gender discrimination as applied to accommodation, employment, and pay were enacted seven decades ago in Ontario in the early 1950s.
- The immigrants to Canada, from the first indigenous arrivals
- The entrepreneurs in our history, from the earliest Metis fur traders to Montreal merchants in the 20th century and on to Calgary capitalists, central Canadian exporters, and Vancouver’s Pacific Rim business class now.
Put another way, the notion that modern Canada is a result of theft misunderstands both capitalism—lasting wealth is created and has been, by everyone—and the brick-by-brick contribution of every person who set foot on this land, be it 20,000 years ago or two. That includes my maternal grandfather and grandmother who fed other Canadians from their Saskatchewan farm. It includes my paternal grandparents who cleaned homes and build houses from the late 1920 until the 1970s.
- Lastly, ponder the 120,000 men and women who died in multiple wars to preserve Canada as a free country and thus allowed for the possibility of further freedom and flourishing over time. Now ask yourself what Victoria Mayor Lisa Phelps’s “cancellation” of Canada Day says to Canada’s war-dead: “Sorry, but your sacrifice was not enough.”
A summary: Go celebrate Canada—all of it
Canada in 2021 is not Canada in 1867, 1920 or 1960—though it as also preferable to most places on earth even then. Today, with a few politically-inspired exceptions, and with relentlessly negative and loud cancel-everything crowd, Canada is a superb country that beats most nations in human history on most measurements, flawed as we all yet are.
Here’s the thing: We arrived at this point to this better country because of the past challenges, past wrongs corrected, and past work of others and perhaps even due to some work by those of us alive today. More critical to understand: We mainly arrived here because of the reforms and sacrifices of the tens of millions of Canadians no longer with us.
They made Canada what it is in 2021 and that is why we should celebrate Canada in 2021.
Happy Canada Day.
Mark Milke wears many hats and one is that of an author. His most recent book is The Victim Cult: How the culture of blame hurts everyone and wrecks civilizations.