Happy birthday, Canada. Don’t celebrate too loudly.
Canadian writer Jonathan Kay on the ambivalence he feels about the history of his country
As a journalist who occasionally travels abroad, I’ve had the chance to see how foreign countries commemorate important historical milestones. Inevitably, they look backward, to important pivot points in their pasts. Americans recall the Revolutionary War and the Civil War; Washington freed the American colonies from foreign rule, and Lincoln, who freed the slaves, ended a conflict that killed 1 in 50 Americans and set brother against brother. In France, they celebrate the storming of the Bastille and the liberation of Paris from the Nazis. In Taiwan, they celebrate their decades of freedom from both Japanese occupation and mainland communism. In Israel, it’s the War of Independence (as they call it) and the Six-Day War. In August, India and Pakistan will both — in their very separate ways — commemorate the 70th anniversary of an act of partition that ended colonial rule in South Asia, displaced more than 10 million people, killed hundreds of thousands more, and set in motion a series of wars that are still being fought, in some form, to this day.
It’s one of the constants of our species, going back to the “Iliad”: When we take stock of our past, we focus on those moments when history narrowed to a knife edge — when the fate of whole nations, or even whole categories of human beings, depended on a single battle, an act of politics, the judgment of God or a single human soul, such as Nelson Mandela or Winston Churchill. These acts of collective memory can be lurid, self-aggrandizing and even profoundly ahistorical. But they have value as instruments of national bonding. They help convince citizens that their country has some purpose in the grand sweep of history, that it is not just an organizing principle for stamps and bank notes that originated as a random accident of mapmakers and politicians.
Canada’s national identity crisis — on full display as we celebrate our 150th birthday this weekend — is rooted in the fact that there is nothing in the past that allows us to celebrate history in this way. The most consequential military battle in our history was fought on the Plains of Abraham, more than a century before Canada even came into existence. And because of the accommodations that emerged between English and French, many of us consider it bad form to talk about it too much in mixed company. It’s our anti-Gettysburg.
Nor was Canada the site of any sort of sustained or systematic struggle against British rule. (Indeed, much of my own province, Ontario, was populated by loyalists to the crown who fled the American colonies.) Canadians eventually did part ways with the Brits — but reluctantly and gradually, the way a semi-employed 30-year-old moves out of his parents’ basement after his mother tells him they’re downsizing to a condo.
In the lead-up to Canada Day on Saturday, there has been an enormous focus in Canada’s media on the sins visited upon the country’s original peoples. Our national broadcaster, in particular, has focused repeatedly on the narratives of indigenous men and women who see nothing to celebrate in Canada 150. “The principal excitement of our sesquicentennial so far has been the fury of national self-critique it has inspired,” Canadian novelist Stephen Marche wrote in the New York Times. “Why is Canada so bad at celebrating itself?”
Marche answers the question, in part, by saying that “the virtues of this country are mostly negative . . . . Canada’s real glories are its hospitals and its public schools, but those, unlike the Marine Corps, cannot be paraded. Canada is, according to several international surveys, the most tolerant country in the world. But it’s absurd to celebrate not being quite as insane as the rest of the world.”
My own view is that it goes far deeper than Canada’s current virtues: Our whole history is so lacking in drama as to defy celebration. On the entire planet, what other country has led such a blandly charmed life as my own? Iceland? New Zealand? Switzerland, perhaps? It’s a short list.
In its 150-year history, Canada has never been the scene of large-scale civil war or foreign invasion, revolution, coup, violent religious schism or even epic natural disaster. The big military battles in every modern war we’ve fought have been thousands of miles away. And so the usual narrative that binds nations together — our enemies came for us, but they could not defeat us — has no relevance. The closest Canada ever came to breaking up was in a referendum (over the state of Quebec). In true Canadian style, we responded to the crisis with a densely argued Supreme Court judgment that codified the legal criteria governing the result.
But Canadian history is the very opposite of bland and peaceful if you look at the country’s roots from the point of view of, say, the Beothuk people of Newfoundland — who were declared extinct as Canada was coming into being.
No matter what you think about the best way forward for indigenous peoples in Canada, you cannot dispute that the past four centuries of history have been, for them, largely a long series of slaughters, forced migrations, botched efforts at assimilation and, in some cases, complete eradication. This isn’t just sad and horrible and cruel. It is dramatic, in the way that all stories of tragedy — and attempts at rescue and redemption — are dramatic.
It is this imbalance in drama between Canada’s story as a nation and the story of its indigenous peoples — and not any cynical effort on the part of the media or the left — that is causing this moment to feel sour for those hoping for a more traditionally patriotic 150th birthday party.
Much of this crystallized for me when I was visited recently by a Polish magazine writer who wanted to interview me about the state of Canada on its sesquicentennial. “Everyone in Poland is tired of articles about Justin Trudeau,” she said. “What fascinates us now is this issue of ‘cultural appropriation’ [of the heritage of Canadian indigenous peoples] that everyone here is talking about. This is not something people understand in Europe. No one knows why Canadians are getting so upset about it.”
She seemed legitimately confused. Just an hour before our conversation, Governor General David Johnston apologized after Canadian Twitter went into an uproar over comments he’d made about indigenous peoples “who were immigrants as well, 10, 12, 14,000 years ago.”
While such controversies over word usage were making national headlines in Canada, my guest explained, Poland was being swept up in a far more frightening — and, in her view, more consequential — national discussion. The country’s ruling Law and Justice party openly baits Muslims and fuels nationalist paranoia. In one recent episode, locals called the police to report a terrorist; he turned out to be a Portuguese journalist with darker skin and so was suspected of being a Turk. During a visit to Auschwitz, the country’s prime minister used the occasion to make comments interpreted as an attack on refugees. Amid reports of spiking anti-Semitism, Poland’s public broadcaster continues the country’s efforts to play down the crimes committed by Poles against Jews during World War II. As in other countries in the region, conservatives fret over the supposed hidden hand of the Jewish financier George Soros, who exists in anti-Semitic propaganda as a sort of universal Jew. The overarching theme in all cases is that Poland is the victim of conspiracies and that foreigners, Jews and Muslims are corroding the proud Polish nation from within.
Compared with Poland and its paranoid fantasies, the visiting journalist told me, Canada seemed to lack tribalized conflict between religions and political sects. So why are its intellectuals fretting over comparatively minor, or simply historical, sins?
Answering her was a challenge — not only because I am not indigenous myself but also because, with scattered exceptions (such as the Sami communities of northern Scandinavia), indigenous peoples in Europe were completely assimilated or exterminated centuries ago. Most Europeans have little understanding of North American indigenous peoples as they now exist. They still imagine our continent’s First Nations as characters out of old-fashioned spaghetti Westerns.
That explains the gap in perspectives. In Europe, the collective narrative is one of national survival and resilience in the face of external threats from foreign enemies — such as the Nazis and Soviet communism. Where historical commemoration is concerned, the Polish (like many European peoples) swing in the opposite direction from Canada: They focus closely on the periods when they were victimized and slaughtered — but persevered. And it grates on many of them when that narrative is reversed and historians explore the crimes committed by Poles themselves, such as the murder of Jews during the Nazi occupation. The result is a form of nationalistic historical celebration that often seems infused with defensiveness and xenophobia. We see this, too, in Russia, China, Japan, Turkey and even the United States.
For non-indigenous Canadians, there is no equivalent of these narratives of invasion and survival. And so we have been drawn strongly into the moral orbit of the indigenous peoples who do have those narratives: First Nations, Métis and Inuit. It is only in recent years that Canadian writers and academics have learned to pay proper respect to the legends, stories and research compiled by indigenous scholars. And on this 150th birthday, many of these facts and narratives are pouring into the public conversation about Canada’s national history and character.
Given how much positive attention Canada is now getting on the world stage, thanks to Trudeau and his rejection of populism and xenophobia, it seems strange that the dominant mood within our own borders is guilt. That joke about how Canadians are always apologizing: Is it just a stereotype, or is perpetual contrition etched onto our national soul?
My view is that the current mood in Canada should be seen as a symptom of our nation’s historical good fortune. In the bloodlands of Eastern Europe, where history has been full of violence, it is difficult for nations to look back and see anything beyond their trauma and scars — which is why nationalists in those countries often react hysterically when historians deviate from a patriotic script. Canadians, by contrast, have the moral luxury of examining their past from the perspective of the least fortunate and most brutalized.
When it comes to Canada’s national political discourse, its successful immigration policies, and, yes, its health-care and education systems, we do have much to celebrate — even if such celebrations seem dull and earnest. And that’s the Canada my Polish visitor sees. But for Canadians themselves, a big number like 150 makes us look at the newsreel of our past. And as with a scene from a dramatic film, the viewer’s eye is drawn not to the tasteful drapes and furniture we inherited from our British and French forebears, but to the bloodstains on the carpet and to the urgent question of where they lead.