Remaking Canadian History

Over the last several years, the Canadian government under Prime Minister Stephen Harper has been trying to revive Canadian history.  They have provided millions of dollars to celebrate the bicentenary of the War of 1812.  They have reattached the Royal prefix to our armed forces for the first time since 1968.  These changes are trying to recreate, or at least reemphasize, an older British Canadian identity that has been on the decline for the last fifty years. The “British” Canada that once defined our nation was marginalized in the 1960s and 70s when it lost its resonance with most Canadians.  Since the time of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, Canada has moved away from its British past.

In 1965, George C. Grant's Lament for a Nation eulogized the passing of the conservative and non-American Canadian nation that had occupied the North American continent for nearly a century.  American capitalism and liberalism was becoming more and more influential on its northern neighbour, and at the time Grant believed that populist Canadian nationalism was a dying force.  The downfall of Prime Minister John Diefenbaker over the BOMARC missile crisis heralded the end of the last true conservative in Canadian politics, and consequently, the end of a Canadian identity tied to Britain rather than North America. 

Grant's fear that Canada was shifting to be seemingly subservient to the United States was forestalled though.  Canadians celebrated their centenary in 1967 as well as the International and Universal Exposition in Montreal, or Expo '67.  The mood was one of optimism and national pride as Canadians watched the lighting of the Centennial Flame in front of the Parliament and listened to iconic folk singer Gordon Lightfoot's Canadian Railroad Trilogy, which had been commissioned by the CBC for the centenary.  Grant had seen the end of British-Canada as the end of Canadian nationalism and could not have predicted that a new national identity would emerge over the next decade.

One of the most influential figures in shaping the new Canadian identity was Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau.  Elected in 1968 after succeeding Lester B. Pearson as leader of the Liberal Party, Trudeau had a clear idea of how to “fix” the problems of Canadian nationalism.  Even as Grant lamented the end of nationalism or as Canadians celebrated their country in 1967, Quebecois terrorists called the Front de Libération du Québec (FLQ) planted mail bombs to protest the “colonial” domination of English Canada over the French-speaking province.  The October Crisis in 1970, when members of the FLQ kidnapped Quebec Cabinet Minister Pierre Laporte and British Trade Commission James Cross, further underlined the dangerous friction between French and English Canadians.  Political separatists, such as those found in the newly formed Parti Québecois led by René Lévesque, were opposed to violence but their demands for Quebec independence remained relevant.

To Trudeau, the division between French and English Canadians was a result of their disparate nationalisms – one focused on Quebec's unique history and culture, the other cultural and historical links to Britain.  Both were legitimate in their own right, at the very least as expressions of their experience of Canadian history over the last century. Still, by the 1960s it was clear that something had to bring the two founding peoples of Canada together.  Prime Minister Pearson had enthusiastically supported bilingualism and biculturalism as an attempt to better integrate Quebec into Confederation.  It was not successful.  Trudeau had another solution: eliminate the two nationalisms in Canada. 

Arguably, Trudeau's entire time as Prime Minister could be discussed as part of his ambitious project to minimize Canadian nationalism.  In 1968, his government removed the 'royal' prefix as it combined all arms of the Canadian forces. In 1971 he introduced an official policy of multiculturalism for Canadians.   The Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism had recommended the integration of other ethnic groups into Canadian society and the new policy of multiculturalism sought to assist these groups retain their identity and encourage their participation in Canadian society.   Trudeau hoped that by creating an identity focused on multiculturalism, he could undo the schism between French and English nationalism.  Other acts, like the repatriation of the Canadian Constitution and the creation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, were also meant to focus Canadians' identity on themselves, rather than on international or regional identities. 

By the end of his time as Prime Minister in 1984, though Canada was a very different place than it had been fifteen years earlier, it was still one divided between French and English.  By and large, English Canadians seem to have adopted his idea of multiculturalism but integrated it into their own national identity rather than step away from it as Trudeau had hoped.  Quebec had narrowly avoided voting in favour of leaving Confederation in 1980 and still remained perilously separated from the rest of the country. Trudeau had remade Canada but was unable to unite it.  Nevertheless, he was successful in undoing the British-Canadian identity and replacing it with something perhaps more uniquely Canadian.

Today, Prime Minister Stephen Harper seems to be undertaking a similar, if less ambitious, project.  Whereas Trudeau tried to quench Canada's British connection, Harper is trying to revive it.  It is unclear yet whether it will be successful, though for the most part his campaign to revive Canada's old identity has not struck a chord with most Canadians. The Conservative government's commemoration of 1812 as a unifying conflict for Canada's three founding peoples, French, English and Aboriginal, has seen millions of dollars poured into it but few results.  “Royal” is once again attached to our armed forces for the first time in fifty years, but few Canadians feel close to the British-Canada it is meant to evoke. 

Instead, Canadians have remained indifferent.  Prime Minister Harper's attempt to “remake” Canada is far less compelling than the actions of Trudeau.  Trudeau's Canada was a divided nation, beset by terrorism and growing American cultural influence, that required revitalization.  His remaking of Canadian identity, for better or for worse, had a reason to occur that was evident as the 1960s drew to a close.  Harper's Canada of 2013 is not in such dire straits.  It is difficult to understand why it is necessary to revive British-Canadian connections at a time when Canada has moved beyond it.  There is no crisis of Canadian identity per se, though some might argue the discrepancy between our current identity and our historic one has been detrimental to Canadians.  For most Canadians alive today we are in Trudeau's Canada – multicultural, independent, and certainly not British.  If Prime Minister Harper wants his campaign to succeed, he will have to make a case to Canadians as to why anyone should care.  So far, it seems more akin to political narcissism than the political necessity that compelled Trudeau to act.