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Once More: What is Canada?

Once More: What is Canada?
Logo for Canada 150: Composed of a series of diamonds arranged in the shape of the maple leaf. The four diamonds at the base represent the four original provinces that formed Confederation in 1867: Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. Additional diamonds extend out from the base to create nine more points—in total representing the 13 provinces and territories.Ross Dunn

In November 1964, the venerable American magazine The Atlantic published a special supplement on Canadian politics and society. It featured excellent, almost exclusively Canadian-authored articles: by John W. Holmes, the wordy Canadian diplomat, on “The Diplomacy of a Middle Power”; by sociologist Brian Stock, on Canada’s emigration — not immigration — problem; by Gérard Pelletier, editor-in-chief of La Presse, the largest-circulating French newspaper in North America, on “The Trouble with Quebec”; a piece on Canadian art by that world’s celebrity gadfly Alan Jarvis; two provocative reflections on the Canadian economy; plus more than a few beautiful poems, illustrations, and cartoons.  Sixty-two pages in total, framed by an introduction by historian John Conway, who summoned the concept of political culture to tackle the most basic question of all: “What is Canada?”

The collection offers a valuable foray into the mainstream, elite-level discourse on the meanings of Canada in the run-up to the country’s Centennial in 1967; a celebration of the origins — in a local convention and a piece of British legislation — of Canadian Confederation. For Conway, Canada was fundamentally a condominium built by Franco-Anglo pragmatists, not New World revolutionaries, as in the superpower to the south. This also meant, he argued, that Canadians were politically immature, continuously confused about whether we were one nation or two, and forever yearning for actual popular sovereignty: “We are traditionalists with an unbroken continuity with Europe, and that is what we will continue to be. But we must cease to live in a state of psychological and emotional dependence on a structure of symbols that no longer express our common experience.”

The Liberal government of the day, led by Lester B. Pearson, winner of the 1957 Nobel Peace Prize for championing a United Nations peacekeeping force, was very interested in national re-branding. “God Save the Queen” no longer seemed appropriate as the anthem, and neither did the Red Ensign as the flag. Why, wondered Pearson, would we want a flag that to the untrained eye looked exactly like the flags of various British dependencies, of at least one colonial-era corporation, of all British merchant vessels, and also of several Royal yacht clubs? The answer was not obvious to most, however. A 1964 Gallup poll showed that the new flag was supported by a majority of respondents in Quebec but barely a third elsewhere. Leader of the opposition at the time, former Tory Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, actually went on CBC television to disparage the Maple Leaf: “it would be the Peruvian flag. At a distance of 100 yards, you wouldn’t know which was which. If we ever get that flag, we would have the Peruvians saluting it anyway.”

From the perspective of 2017, as we mark the sesquicentennial year, these debates appear remarkably quaint. While most Canadians embraced the official and officious #Canada150 iconography with gusto, a large minority countered with #Colonial150 — a set of symbols that expressed “our common experience” from the perspective of Indigenous people in Canada. The contrast with the 1960s could not be sharper. The elites who spoke on behalf of Canada and Canadians were neither able nor willing to recognize that Indigenous polities existed on “Turtle Island” long, long before Confederation, much less to acknowledge the country’s identity as a vicious settler colony.

The Liberal government of Justin Trudeau has shown that it is possible to mark both #Canada150 and #Colonial150 — that is, to exalt Canada’s “peace, order, and good government,” while also lamenting the sordid history and enduring legacy of colonialism. Crucially, the government has also argued that the country’s most pressing task, right alongside efforts to mitigate climate change, is a new “nation-to-nation relationship” as an essential component of fostering reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.

This discourse builds on a host of key court rulings, negotiation processes, and commission work, such as, most recently, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and its 94 “calls to action.” As of last year, it also builds on the 2007 UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) — an international document that specifies both individual and collective rights of Indigenous peoples, including rights to equality, self-determination, cultural autonomy, financial compensation for confiscated lands, and to freely consent to decisions that impact them — the building of pipelines on Indigenous lands, for example.

In her CIPS talk on global indigenous rights and politics on 7 December 2017, Sheryl Lightfoot addressed the history of this declaration and its transformational potential for Canadian politics. Her talk was timely. In what amounts to a U-turn, the Trudeau government recently announced that it would support Bill C-262, a piece of legislation that seeks to harmonize UNDRIP with Canadian laws. This is a new development in the House of Common considering that none of the five or six previous versions of this bill — all sponsored by New Democratic Party MP Roméo Saganash — made it to second reading.

As Lightfoot explained, the global Indigenous rights regime is already shaping “What is Canada?” debates, especially the meanings of sovereignty and territoriality. How the current and future Canadian governments responds to the emerging global norms and standards in these areas will have significant ramifications for the next stage of Canadian political development. The character of the ­­­bicentennial of Confederation in 2067 depends on it as well. Indeed, one way to get a sense of what #Canada200 might look like is to follow #C262 debates.

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