Thursday, July 4, 2013


Let’s pretend that it’s Canada Day.  I was proactive, and weeks earlier, I began to draft the text which would become this post.  In part, that is true.  Believe it or not, on May 25, I scrawled 'Blog Post for Canada Day' atop a fresh notebook page, along with a few ideas that might be relevant.  I have even added to it since then.   My intention was to return to it closer to the day.   Well, it’s closer to the day, isn’t it?

I won the lottery almost sixty years ago.  I was born in Canada. 

To live in Canada means 

· to have confidence in safety;
· to have access to universal health care regardless of financial status;
· to be part of a culture of caring and generosity whose images are always before us:  in the Albertans who opened their homes to 75 000 neighbors displaced in the flooding,  leaving only 1 500 Calgarians needing shelters (although the city had provided for 2 500 places);  in the millions of dollars Saskatchewan people raise each year for Kinsmen Telemiracle, $5 546 712 in 2013, to support fellow citizens who need special needs equipment or medical treatment;
· to have access to a public education system of the highest quality;
· to be able to speak my language(s) and practice my religion without fear of reprisal;
· to have potable water;
· to breathe reasonably fresh air;
· to live and work alongside people who arrive from other countries, and who contribute a strong work ethic and a desire to succeed;
· to rejoice that people arriving in this country can preserve their own identity while integrating themselves into the mores of their new land;
· to know that a parliamentary system of government means we can change our leaders without massive demonstrations leading to an army coup;
·  to be part of a grand experiment, largely successful, where people of diverse backgrounds and religions can live together in peace and prosper (as John Ralston Saul says in the work cited below, We have learned to accept that people are capable of sorting out how to be more than one thing at once, knowing that their children will be yet another mixture or blend.  People are capable of staying the same and changing at the same time (p. 145));
· to seek mediation and negotiation to settle conflict, rather than violence;
·  to be vulnerable to our freedoms being used by some to plot destruction in the name of radical causes;
· to live with some black marks:   the mistreatment of the First Nations people; the internment of Ukrainian Canadians  during World War I, and Japanese Canadians during World War II;  a disappointing record in the protection of the natural environment.

Until a few years ago, I really didn’t understand how it is that Canada became a nation of negotiators, or what besides survival in a forbidding natural environment could inculcate in people such a profound sense of community.  Then, I read John Ralston Saul’s A Fair Country:  Telling Truths About Canada.  

Saul maintains that 'we are a métis civilization.'  Indeed, this description would characterize our future as much as our past, I think, as ethnicities mix, cultures combine, and we become more and more a hybrid society.  However, Saul traces the origins of our defining characteristics—inclusion and mediation—to our aboriginal roots.  His is a gripping account of the interactions between the First Nations and the Europeans in the sixteenth centuries, and of the repercussions of those interactions throughout the evolution of Canada to the present day.  To summarize what I have learned would be an injustice to the careful scaffolding of complex ideas and the powerful narrative of Saul’s book.  It’s best if you read it for yourselves.  The book will change you, as it did me.  Once you begin,  you will be captivated, incapable of putting it down until you finish, like your favorite mystery novel.

Allow me to whet your appetites, however, with a few nuggets:

o       The newcomers did not discover the interior of Canada.  They were shown it, thanks to alliances, treaties and commercial agreements.  And most of it was shown to them by canoe.  Writer John Jennings has demonstrated that Canada is the only country invested in by the Europeans in which the local means of transport and much of the way of life was maintained.  Everywhere else the Europeans introduced their own boats, carriages or horses. . . . Why?  Because the First Nations had developed the appropriate means of transport for our road system, that is, our rivers and lakes. (p. 38)

o       the metaphor of the common bowl:  The idea of both [the Great Peace of Montreal (1701) and Sir William Johnston’s gathering of two thousand chiefs at Niagara in 1764] was to establish a continuous equilibrium, shared interests and shared welfare.  The phrase in the Great Peace was that they would all ‘Eat from a Common Bowl.’  Which is to say that relationships were about looking after one another.  This is the shared foundation for equalization payments and single-tier health care and public education. (p. 69)

o       The oscillation between ‘Peace, Welfare and Good Government,’ and 'Peace, Order, and Good Government’ in our official documents:  Through all of our history, through all of our legal and constitutional documents, all of the precedent-setting declarations, the phrase Peace, Order and Good Government has been used only twice.  The rest of the time, from official documents to proto-constitutions to political instructions, the phrase was fundamentally different—Peace, Welfare and Good Government.'  (p. 114, and following, for the story of why Peace, Order and Good Government prevailed.)

o       Canada was the first colony in any empire to extract full democracy from the central power without having to go to war.  I think of this as an early illustration of the manipulative skills and patient toughness needed to accomplish what we would come to think of as the middle way. (p. 152)

My interaction with these ideas and the entire story in which Saul engages the reader in A Fair Country has infused Canada Day not only with a deep sense of connection to our rich history, but also with a recognition of my own unique identity as a Canadian.

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