The great thing about Canada, to me, isn’t what it is or has been but what it might yet become and, given our history and culture that could be pretty much anything it wants to be.
My social media feed today, Canada Day, the 150th anniversary of Confederation has been a mixed bag. There have been many celebratory posts, many condemning Canada’s history and many which try to strike a balance between the two.
I suppose that I belong to the latter camp. Obviously, there are things in Canada’s history and even in its present that are worthy of condemnation. However, Canada as a whole can’t be condemned any more than a toddler can be wholly condemned. The truth is that 150 years isn’t a very long time and very little about what kind of country this is, is set in stone.
Being an immigrant from the United States, I can see the stark difference in Canadian history, culture, and identity (or lack thereof). Anytime you attempt anything progressive in the United States you are going up against history. You have to find justification for the change in American history and ingrained American culture. It’s as if you are going to court with an issue and need to find precedent to proceed.
America cannot be understood without its history: From the Pilgrims to the Founding Fathers, the Revolution, slavery, the Civil War, Westward Expansion, Native American genocide, the great depression and the World Wars, history hangs heavy around America’s neck. When you talk about what the United States might become, most Americans look to the past for continuity with what it has been before. People like Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and FDR and many others have an almost cult-like status; as if they were wiser than anyone else is today and any current changes must be ones they would approve of. There are places in the US where the Civil War and even the Revolution are treated, almost, as current events.
Canada does not bear the same weight, at least not in the same way. Yes, John A. McDonald is held in some regard but the Fathers of Confederation are hardly considered infallible. In addition to their patriotism and anti-Americanism, most of Canada’s founders were well known for alcoholism, corruption, and racism. Most Canadians revere important historical figures from around the world as much as, if not more than, our own founders.
Canada’s “dominant culture” barely exists. It has become, primarily, a dog whistle for small groups of white nationalists. The truth is that, while 150 years isn’t very long, very few settlers can trace their roots in this country back that far. According to Statistics Canada more than 12 million people, roughly one-third of Canada’s population, are either first or second generation. Each year 300 thousand to 400 thousand new immigrants arrive here, which is roughly equal to the number of people born here. Meanwhile, thousands of Canadians move abroad anually. As of 2014, there were more than 2.8 million Canadian citizens living abroad. So, “Canadian culture” is constantly being defined, or redefined.
All of this means that many of the most important chapters in Canadian history have yet to be written and these chapters are likely to be good ones. One of the few things that unite Canada’s settlers from around the world is that most of them came fleeing war, economic or environmental hardship or persecution (due to race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation). The history of the world’s conflicts and disasters is written in the stories of Canada’s settlers. And one of the requirements for coming to Canada is that they leave their old religious, ethnic and national conflicts behind.
Canada has few enemies in the world because Canadians come from everywhere in the world. Canadians understand many of the world’s conflicts first hand but play an active role in few of those conflicts (Canada invented peacekeeping).
In the coming decades, Canada’s tolerance and openness to newcomers will be tested by the waves of immigration caused by climate change, sea level rise, food and water shortages and the political and economic instability that will accompany it. But it is also over that time that Canada will decide what kind of country it wants to be. The most diverse population in the history of the world; immigrants, refugees and their children and grandchildren will make that decision.
Obviously, reconciliation with Canada’s Indigenous people will be a big part of the near-term future. However, there is a growing consensus that a true, just and lasting peace with First Nations people is necessary and a growing willingness to work toward that goal.
Beyond that, Canada can become whatever kind of country we choose. Canada is fluid. Even our constitution, which Quebec has never signed, is only 35 years old. We, collectively, have a great deal of history but it is not a history that defines or dictates who we can become. In many ways Canada, where the world’s people come together in a mosaic, not a melting pot, is the best hope for humanity’s future and that is worth celebrating; Not our past but our future potential.