Canada's Way

Clio's Current is launching today, July 1, 2013. Our first post, since it is Canada Day, looks at Canada and the world. As we celebrate 146 years since Confederation, it is important to look back towards the Canada that was, but also to look towards the Canada that will be.  Today we examine briefly three ways Canadians thought about the world a century ago and look at some ways Canadians see it in 2013. 

How did Canadians in the early 20th century conceive their place in the world?  In 1913, Canada was at a crossroads for its future.  Though now we know what path it took, through world wars and decades of change, to become the Canada of 2013, a hundred years ago it was not so clear what Canada's place in the world would be.  There were three primary perspectives on the subject.  They can be defined simply as Imperialism, Continentalism and Nationalism.  Imperialism, not to be confused with the term that has colonial implications, was largely supported by a group of Protestant English Canadians.  Primarily a conservative movement, it had its roots in the Loyalists who had arrived in Canada in the aftermath of the American Revolutionary War.  By the late 19th century, George Grant, George Parkin and George Denison were some of the social and intellectual elites that formed the core of Canadian Imperialism.  They, and others, sought to push the newly formed Dominion west to achieve its inevitable greatness, and later formed the Imperial Federation League, which supported a greater role for Canada in the British Empire.  By the early 1900s, Imperialism had proposed the idea that Canada could one day become the centre of a new British Empire, first among Dominions, and have a significant role not simply as a colony of Great Britain, but as an Imperial member in a great federation of former colonies.  At its core, this represented an international conception of Canada's role in the world as part of a larger, global hierarchy that would guide its national interests and values.  

Paralleling this idea was Continentalism, which similarly had its roots among the Americans and republicans who had also arrived in Canada in the earlier half of the 19th century.  Continentalists, such as Goldwin Smith, believed that Canada's best future lay in closer ties with the United States.  It was often expressed in the 1890s and 1900s through the idea of free trade with the US, but given the reality of Canada's ties with Britain, was more often simply the call for separation connections with Britain, particularly its foreign policy.  Though less easily defined than Imperialism, traces of it can be found among French Canadians who opposed Canada's participation in the British Empire, and among English Canadians who believed that prosperity could be better achieved through Canada’s trade and identity as a North American country rather than a dominion of the British Empire.  Its opponents deemed it as "annexationist," though realistically it represented an understanding of Canada as a North American nation that looked south for inspiration, rather than across the Atlantic.  This was still an international basis for Canadian interests and values, but one based in the New World rather than the Old one.   

The final school of thought can be termed as Nationalism.  It is a bit of a misnomer, as it seems to deny the patriotism and nationalism that did in fact exist within Imperialism and Continentalism, but rather it describes those who believed that Canada's future required a more “Canadian” nation.  Those who were neither an Imperial nationalist nor a continental nationalist were by default simply Canadian nationalists.  J. S. Ewart, an English Canadian lawyer, believed that Canada had to forge its own path away from British policy, but did not believe that America was the answer.  French Canadian Henri Bourassa, perhaps the most eloquent and articulate Canadian nationalist of the early 20th century, emphasized long before the 1960s a bicultural idea of the Canadian nation that depended not on international ties, but on the cultural compact of French and English.  This Canadian nationalism came from within its borders.  It was product of Canadian history and produced a national vision that did not necessarily align with American or British interests.  Thus, nationalists believed that not only did Canada have to forge its own path, but that it had the historic, cultural and social background to forge a path that was uniquely Canadian.  This simplification of these streams of thought is important as each intertwines throughout the history of twentieth century Canada to the present. 

In many ways, current contemporary discussions continue to include these three understandings of Canada's place in the world, though in an understandably different form.   We can examine three streams of thought among those looking to shape Canada's place in the 21st century, though they do not describe all views on the subject by any means.  

The Liberal idea of internationalism first begun with Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson's peacekeeping mission to the Suez Canal in 1956.  It has evolved much over the years.  Former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Lloyd Axworthy, in his book  Navigating a New World: Canada's Global Future  (2004), calls on young Canadians to become "Citizens of the World."  Resurrecting the Pearsonian spirit of internationalism from the 1950s and 60s, he calls on Canada to use "soft power" to shape the world and continue its role as a peacekeeper and conciliator.  In the now globalized world of the Internet, Canada must remain committed to an international approach that emphasizes using its unique place. As neither a Great Power nor a small one, Canada can help by mediating the world's problems and keeping conflicts from spiraling out of control.  Young Canadians then must understand their place in a global context, not merely a Canadian one.  Axworthy's view, echoed by many other liberals in the aftermath of collapse of the Soviet Union, has an interesting link to Imperialism as defined above.  While Canadian internationalism is starkly different from an Imperialist view, both highlight a Canadian role as part of a larger international institution where Canadians must understand themselves as part of this larger world, be it one of Empire or the emerging global world. 

Meanwhile, others continue to focus on internal North American unity and a continental trade system.  The most obvious example comes from Conservatives, such as former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney or Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who believe that if Canada is to have a place a strength, it must impress its southern neighbours by being important to them. This can take the form of economic links, like signing the North American Free Trade Agreement, or contributing to military operations, like our presence in Afghanistan.  This "continentalism" has also changed much in the post-Cold War world, but still fundamentally aligns Canada within a North American context.  Other more liberal purveyors of this idea can be seen in the work of Jennifer Welsh's  Canada's Global Vision for the 21st Century .  There, Welsh argues that Canada must understand its place in the world not as a middle power or a wielder of soft power, but as  "America's Best Friend."  Unlike conservative "continentalists," Welsh rejects increased continental integration in favour of being "Canadian."  She raises the idea of support for global governance, promoting human rights, and other ideas that Axworthy would support as "Canadian interests," but maintains that Canadian interests cannot be separate from American ones. Only by pulling our weight with the United States can Canada rise to its full potential.  As with internationalism, Canada is defined by its duties to international obligations rather than domestic ones. 

Finally, what could be the modern "Nationalism" of the 21st century can be read in Ken Dryden's  Becoming Canada .  Dryden asks many questions of the modern Canadian identity.  He is asking his readers to consider: what is Canada?  He leaves the answer open ended in his book, though suggests some ideas to his readers.  He writes that Canada is a "multiculture" instead of the more common "multicultural," which means it allows for the existence of multiple cultures within one overarching Canadian culture, rather than integrating them all into one multicultural community.  Dryden says that Canada does best when it can influence the American superpower towards positive acts and being an example of how a global world could look.  Canada, he argues, needs a story to unite itself - it needs a new narrative that does not rely on American supremacy or internationalist concerns because the ongoing questions over Canadian identity and unity mean that these narratives have failed.  Reflecting Henri Bourassa's desire for a uniquely Canadian nation, Dryden states that Canadians must form a uniquely Canadian understanding of their purpose in the new global world.  It must be rooted in Canadian history, Canadian stories and Canadian ideas.

The post-Cold War world has once again led Canadians to old questions.  What is our place in the world?  Which region do we identify with? What are our national interests and national values?  What can bind together the many different Canadians from different races, religions, nationalities, histories, or provinces?  Again, the same answers are being presented, some look outwards while others look inwards, but all reflect a facet of our Canadian identity.  Canada perhaps has not formed, as so many other nations have, around an answer to a question, but rather the question itself: Who are we?  The struggle to create an identity for ourselves has never ceased, and it is that process that has created an identity, a nation and a history that is uniquely Canadian.  Which leads to another question altogether: how important is it that we find an answer?  Perhaps we should simply keep looking, and keep redefining ourselves in new ways for a new future.  Canada, though sometimes stereotyped as dull, passive, or overly polite, is anything but - Canadians are dynamic, constantly changing creatures that adapt to new realities, but equally must constantly face the stress of transforming ourselves.  Perhaps our goal might be to balance tension and resolution, answers and questions, and keep one Canadian perspective that has never changed: looking forward.