By Ryan Bianco
In an October 2015 interview, Justin Trudeau put forward his conception of modern Canada:‘There is no core identity, no mainstream in Canada. There are shared values — openness, respect, compassion, willingness to work hard, to be there for each other, to search for equality and justice. Those qualities are what make us the first postnational state.’ This disturbing concept of postnationalism makes little sense: common values come from a common culture—a core identity. But the question does remain: what is Canada today? In order to answer that question, another one will first be examined: what was the Canada of yesterday?
‘There is no core identity, no mainstream in Canada. There are shared values — openness, respect, compassion, willingness to work hard, to be there for each other, to search for equality and justice. Those qualities are what make us the first postnational state.’ -Justin Trudeau
The Canadian political project has, throughout its history been one under threat of American hegemony, whether it be by overt means of invasion. Or by way of absorption into the American Empire by economic, cultural and political forces. The Canadian philosopher George Grant described the latter scenario in 1965 via his prescient essay, Lament for a Nation, wherein he outlines Canada’s loss of sovereignty and its betrayal by its own political and economic elites.
In Grant’s mind, Diefenbaker was the last Canadian Prime Minister to govern in an independent manner rather than as a subsidiary of the Americans. This best demonstrated in Diefenbaker’s opposition to America determining Canadian security policy via NORAD.,This position resulted in the Canadian political and economic elites, particularly those of Toronto, exercising their collective power against him. Grant notes the viciousness at which the urbane journalists and academics of the time attacked Diefenbaker: “The man had a conception of Canada that threatened the dominant classes ... The political actions of men are ultimately more serious than the gossip of Time and Newsweek will allow. Their loyalties, or rather their economic interests, had changed from alignment with the British economy to the American one. To that end, they were more interested in greater integration into the American economic sphere than they were with continuing the Canadian project. From its inception, one of the core aspects of Canadian identity has been ‘Not American’. In Grant’s words, “To be a Canadian was to build, along with the French, a more ordered and stable society than the liberal experiment of the United States.” Canada, at its foundation, was an expressly illiberal project.
“The man had a conception of Canada that threatened the dominant classes. - The political actions of men are ultimately more serious than the gossip of Time and Newsweek will allow. - George Grant
Canada was illiberal in the sense that it rejected the radical enlightenment philosophies being espoused by the Americans in favour of stability and order. The phrase, “Peace, Order, and good Government” in the British North America Act contrasts with the famous line from America’s Declaration, “ “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,”. The latter assertion was quickly delegitimized by the American elites via the suppression of the Whiskey rebellion.
The Canadian sentiment of the day was best summarized by John A Macondald, in a quote taken from Richard Gwyn’s biography: “ ‘It is of more consequence to endeavour to develop its resources and improve its physical advantage than to waste the time of the legislature and the money of the people on abstract and theoretical questions of government.’ ” In this regard, the Canadian nation has always placed stability and order over revolution. Gwyn notes that the roots of Canada’s historic anti-Americanism are found in the Canadian rejection not only of the liberal but of American intervention into Canadian space: “The Americans were revolutionaries who had rebelled against their King. They had tried twice to tear Canadians away from their loyalty to the crown … in 1775 … and 1812”. American aspirations to Canadian annexation had solidified Canadian rejection despite the overwhelming economic benefit that could have come from unity. To early Canadians, there was value in that which could not be economically quantified, in independence from the American corpus.
In terms of economics, the Conservatives of Canada’s origin were decidedly illiberal. When the liberals of old advocated for greater economic integration with the United States it was the Conservatives under John A. Macdonald that sought to maintain a distinct independence from America. Managing to implement an economic policy that would last from 1879 to the 1950s wherein nascent Canadian manufacturing industries and their workers would be protected via high tariffs on foreign goods. This in addition to securing sovereign control of the Canadian west with the Canadian Pacific railway. Which would in turn open up the west for mass settlement. In matters of deficit spending the politicians of the day took a decidedly different approach than do their modern contemporaries today. Bishop John Strachan, head of the Family Compact (an extremely conservative organization of the Macdonald era) claimed that “the existence of a national debt may be perfectly consistent with the interests and prosperity of the country.” This sentiment was reflected in the Conservatives’ use of the debt to bankroll massive public works that quite literally built the nation. Japan wields their deficit in a similar manner, using it to strengthen and expand the nation via public projects rather than chasing deficits that will never be paid.
Beyond the political there is the question of the social. A common understanding of historic Canada is that prior to its amalgamation into the American cultural sphere it was essentially British culture situated in North America, complete with the accents and mannerisms of the mother country. While this was to a degree true, the peculiarities of the Canadian experience had significant impacts on developing an identity and culture distinct from both those of the Americans and the British. In Pierre Berton’s ‘Vimy’ he notes that “In the eyes of many Englishmen, the Canadians were a wild, undisciplined lot - There was nothing sheep-like about them.” British officers often complained of the constant brawling, boisterousness and general lack of reverence exhibited by Canadian soldiers in the Great War.
Preceding the industrialized era, Canadians were extremely independent people, having little interaction with the government. Due to the rooted nature of most Canadian citizens, the majority of politics concerned local affairs. Most of the era, Canadians operated without policing and domestically produced the majority of their consumed goods. Marriages were performed without the presence of government representation. Education and poverty were issues left to the churches. The only issues that would transcend the local and evolve into national questions were prompted by religious sectarianism or by anti-Americanism. In short the old Canada was one of profound independence from the government. That which unified the colonies of British North America was their collective rejection of the American. The rejection of the revolutionary spirit which had grasped the hearts of the continental aristocrat and compelled them into revolution. It was this rejection of the American, the love of the practical, the ordered, the stable that would serve as the foundation upon which Canadian identity and subsequently unity would be built.
Canada was, is, and always has been ‘Not American’. Far too many Canadian conservatives today make the critical error of taking their political cues from the Americans and fail to recognize the vastly different history and political climate of their own nation. Canada has always been consciously distinct from the American project, its attempted—and perhaps failed—antithesis. The Canadian conservative, at least in its heritage, is not the modern Tory, who is fiscally ‘conservative’ and socially ‘liberal’, but rather a Red Tory of Macdonald and Grant, for whom social conservatism was a given, necessary for the stability, order, and happiness of a society. Meanwhile, prudent use of the state’s economic powers could be employed for the betterment of the nation as a whole. The founding men of this nation held a now rare position of being fiscally liberal and socially conservative.
Even in an age of extreme absorption, wherein Canadians mostly consume American culture, media, and politics, there remains no significant popular support for American annexation. To that end, while Grant is correct regarding Canada’s eventual absorption into the American sphere, that absorption is not complete, nor is it irreversible. Canadians continue to conceive of themselves as distinct and reject annexation. This sentiment travels from the common Canadian to the Canadian elite as the disruptive wave of populism which puts them at odds with large factions of American elites, and puts Canadian economic interests at odds with American ones.
To be Canadian in the 21st century cannot mean a nostalgic return to some poorly imagined Britishness, nor is it desirable to become citizens of the 51st state. Perhaps it seems adversarial for Canada to be defined more by what it is not than what it is. But such a definition has in fact been central to Canada’s identity for its entire history. Today, however, those who love Canada must determine what it means to be Canadian in the 21st century or risk further absorption into American culture, economics, and politics. In conclusion Canada was constructed upon the rejection of the American. The nation formed as its explicit antithesis. Yet this distinctness has faded as our economy, our politics, our culture have all become more incorporated into the American mass. The question remains, Who are we now?