Happy birth­day, Canada. Don’t cel­e­brate too loudly.

Cana­dian writer Jonathan Kay on the am­biva­lence he feels about the his­tory of his coun­try

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Jonathan Kay, a free­lance writer based in Toronto, is a for­mer en­gi­neer, lawyer and ed­i­tor of the Wal­rus. Twit­ter: @jonkay

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.

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