Canada: A 21st Century Nation

“Canadians often point out that while the American constitution promises “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” the constitution of Canada–written in the 1860s in England–sets a more modest goal: “Peace, order, and good government.” This difference reaches into every corner of the two nations. My favorite example is a book of medical advice. It was written by a Canadian, Judylaine Fine, and published in Toronto under an extremely modest title, Your Guide to Coping with Back Pain. Later, American rights were acquired by New York publishers; they brought out precisely the same book under a new title, Conquering Back Pain. And there, in a grain of sand, to borrow from William Blake, we can see a world of differing attitudes. Our language reveals how we think, and what we are capable of thinking. Canadians cope. Americans conquer. Canadian readers of that book will assume that back pain will always be with them. Americans will assume that it can be destroyed, annihilated, abolished, conquered. Americans expect life, liberty, happiness, and total freedom from back pain. Canadians can only imagine peace, order, good government, and moderate back pain.”– Robert Fulford

Canada shouldn’t even exist because we’ve broken virtually every rule where it applies to nation building. Countries are normally fairly simple and straight-forward things—one language, one history, one people. By contrast Canada isn’t one people but many; it is arguably the only genuinely multicultural nation state in history. Yet, appearances are deceiving: according to a 2016 Angus Reid poll Canadians are becoming less and less tolerant of Muslims compared to Americans.[1] The United States breaks a number of rules when it comes to nation building, too; they are a nation of immigrants and just as culturally diverse as Canada. However, Canada is officially multicultural whereas America typically encourages new immigrants to assimilate. This is why the Angus Reid poll is so intriguing: Americans are comparatively more supportive of new immigrants keeping their customs, language, etc. than Canadians are.

Pinpointing when modern nations first appear is difficult. Some scholars assert England was the first nation state by drawing our attention to the year 1689. In this year, England adopted the Bill of Rights which effectively limited the power of the king while centralizing authority around the English people themselves through a constitution. Some scholars suggest the French Revolution (1789) brought into existence the first truly national identity: people residing in Republican France no longer identified first and foremost with their province but with their nation as a whole. This view is not without its challenges; that is, only 50% of France’s people actually spoke French in 1789.[2] If one of the hallmarks of a nation is linguistic unity then France fails this test. No country is without contradictions like France’s: Canadians don’t have one official language, they have two…and counting. Canada’s history is not a single narrative; it’s a shared collection of stories.

Despite Canadian’s living as a patchwork of cultures, Canada has a rich history of intolerance. In shades of Plato’s “one and the many”[3] dichotomy, there are numerous examples in Canada’s history where the English majority (the “one”) attempted to push out or assimilate minorities (the “many”). In 1837 and 1838, rebellions broke out in both French and English Canada. Once the English authorities quelled the revolts, Queen Victoria sent Lord Durham to investigate the causes of the discontent in British North America. Durham, an Englishman, argued English Canadians rebelled because they were tired of being dominated by an unresponsive, selfish governor and ruling oligarchy. So Durham recommended England grant English Canadians more decision-making power and responsible government. However, when it came to the French they didn’t rebel for the same reasons as the English; rather, the French were, according to Durham, simply incapable of loyalty because of their race. Durham recommended the French be assimilated as soon as possible. The rebellions led to a lot of property damage in both English and French Canada. To help English Canadians pay for the damage a bill was passed by the United Assembly of Canada approving the appropriate funds. The French were denied similar compensation (because they were French). In 1848 the Canadian Government experienced some reform under the leadership of an Englishman named Robert Baldwin (1804-1858) and a Frenchman, Louis-Hippolyte Lafontaine (1807-1864). The two men worked to end the French-English tension by passing the Rebellion Losses Bill into law. The bill granted French Canadians compensation for damage caused by England’s army during the 1838 uprising. English Canada didn’t respond well to the bill—a hoard of them responded to the bill’s passing by burning the colony’s assembly to the ground.

French Canada has at times acted a little on the tribal side, as well. The Quebec nationalist cleric and writer Lionel Groulx (1878-1967) romanticized France and emphasized the racial purity of the people of Quebec; he asserted the French were victims of English Canada. Although there was some truth to Groulx’s claim, e.g. during the Manitoba Schools crisis in the 1890s English Canadians successfully limited French language and education rights outside of Quebec, etc. the cleric was somewhat paranoid. Later French historians from the so-called “Montreal School”, and even the Parti Quebecois,[4] used Groulx’s thinking to justify Quebec’s separation from Canada. John Raulston Saul, author of Reflections of a Siamese Twin, described Groulx’s influence in the following way:

All [the Montreal School] took from Groulx was the negative. The result was a victim psychosis in the extreme. It is now somehow assumed that the Montreal School is just the past. No longer relevant. But in fact their selecting reworking of Groulx became the intellectual foundation of the current separatist/sovereigntist school…This movement—indeed, the Parti Quebecois itself—has within it two very different, often contradictory, parts. One is social democratic and reform oriented. The other comes from the Montreal School, which was conservative, in many ways reactionary, and was tied to the old clerical nationalism…[sic] anchored their catastrophic view firmly in a highly selective editing and interpretation of the past.[5]

Lionel Groulx argued the racial differences between French and English Canadians was insurmountable.[6] These differences continued to play a role through two world wars, the Quiet Revolution[7] of the 1960s, and during two referendums on separation from Canada (held in 1980 and 1995 respectively). Yet, Baldwin and Lafontaine’s example of cooperation at least suggested Groulx’s pessimism wasn’t entirely justified: when there’s a willingness to compromise and work together people—even ones belonging to different ethnic or religious groups—can live and flourish together.

Following the 1995 referendum a separatist politician named Lucien Bouchard (1938 to present) was elected premier of Quebec. He ruffled a lot of Canadian feathers when he observed “Canada wasn’t a real country”.[8]  In a sense, Bouchard was right: Canada was too complicated a creature to constitute a nation as defined.[9] He was of course appealing to 19th century standards about nationhood. Bouchard didn’t view diversity as a strength so much as a watering down of the French Canadian culture and identity. In the 2001, Prime Minister Paul Martin (1938 to present) argued the opposite observing in an interview “Canada is the world’s only truly post-modernist nation”. Ultimately, he was saying there wasn’t one right way to go about building a country:

I think it is that individuals can actually control their own destiny. That you just don’t simply have to [lie] back and be rolled over by the huge forces of globalization that you can’t control. That it is possible for nation states acting collectively to, in fact, deal with the problems they face. I also have to say something else that really didn’t come out of this meeting, but that this meeting certainly confirmed, and that is that Canada is really, I think, the world’s first 21st century country. We have a very post-modern view. Not only is our economy open, but in fact the waves of immigrants have changed the way Canadians look at the world. I think that we are by far a more modern country than almost any other, and that there is a huge opportunity for Canada to play a leadership role. We are not a dominant power such as the United States. We are not narcissistic as are so many Europeans in the process of building Europe…And we have this much more progressive view of the way in which the world ought to evolve.[10]

Canadian nationalism, with its focus on openness, was the opposite of the nationalism that pushed the great powers of Europe to destroy one another in two world wars during the 20th century.[11] Diversity, tolerance, pluralism, openness, etc. should all be considered strengths; and despite the Angus Reid poll Canada is a multicultural society. We have our challenges (as do all nations, even ones with homogeneous populations). But I’m confident, invoking Abraham Lincoln, that the better angels of our nature will eventually win out and the irrational fear some Canadians have of Muslims will abate. Yet, optimism notwithstanding, tolerance is almost always tied to how well the economy is doing. People aren’t rational but emotional by nature: so when we are personally doing well financially we project a sense of wellness on to others; however, when we aren’t doing well we are more likely to blame others for our own misfortune.

Ultimately, nations are not created simply by passing legislation limiting the power of the King (England) or by lopping off his head (France). Nations are multi-headed and complex creatures. In the Canadian context, Canada breaks the rules and is successful primarily because, to quote John Raulston Saul, “[Canadians] accept their non-conformity with some ease. They live it and so it makes sense”.[12] So, while not every Canadian is necessarily on-board with multiculturalism, at some level most Canadians appreciate why it’s so important that it succeeds: with the rise of racism and nationalist movements in the 21st century in both Europe and North America, Canada is one of the few countries capable of acting as an example of what peace can accomplish when there’s such a huge temptation to go to war with our neighbors.



[2] William T. Cavanaugh, Migrations of the Holy, p.4.

[3] In philosophy, the question of the “one” and the “many” concerns whether or not reality can be accurately described as a “single, united whole” or as a something that is “multiple, divisible”. For example, the theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking (1942 to present), just like Albert Einstein (1879-1955) before him, attempted to establish a single so-called “theory of everything” to describe reality; however, all attempts so far to describe physical reality through a single formula (or theory) has proven impossible. Instead, scientists are forced to describe reality through many different models.

[4] The Parti Quebecois was a French separatist political party founded by the journalist Rene Levesque (1922-1987) in 1968.

[5] John Raulston Saul, Reflections of a Siamese Twin, p. 19.

[6] The French and English do not belong to separate races as defined. Instead, they belong to different ethnic groups within the same race.

[7] The Quiet Revolution was a period of intense socio-political and socio-cultural change in Quebec characterized by the effective secularization of society, the creation of a welfare state, and realignment of politics into federalist and sovereigntist factions.

[8] Steven Jay Schneider and Tony Williams, Horror International, p.239.

[9] Nations are supposed to be simple things. Canada is far from simple. According to 19th century standards, nations consist of one ethnic group speaking the same language, worshiping the same God (in the same way), and sharing a common history. For example, Germans and Japanese nationalists insisted their respective countries were the greatest in the world in the 1930s. Around the same time Italians under Mussolini reminded the world his country was once the seat of Roman power. In some respects deserved and in others not so much, France has persisted insisting it possesses a certain je ne sais quoi which sets itself apart from other nations. Turning our attention to China, the Chinese historically have referred to their country as the “Middle Kingdom” (a place existing mystically between Heaven and earth) while Americans are notorious for thinking themselves exceptional in absolutely every way. Canadians are different (or at least they think they are); they love their country while not holding themselves up as the standard by which all other countries are measured. Canadians admit they do some things well while acknowledging other countries do, too.

[10] Interview of Paul Martin by Candida Tamar Paltiel (G8 Research Group), November 18, 2001, Ottawa.

[11] Wars make nationalists and nationalists make nations. In the case of the United States, it took two major wars—the American Revolution (1776-1783) and the Civil War (1861-1865)—for it to become a modern nation state. In the case of the Dominion of Canada, it became a country in form with the passage of the British North America Act in 1867; however, Canada did not become a nation in fact until its success at the Battle of Vimy Ridge in France (1917) during World War I. The shared sacrifice of Canada’s soldiers (French, English, German, Jewish, First Nation, Chinese, Japanese, etc.) gave Canadians a shared sense of pride resulting in a shared sense of identity. Although war is not the only way to build a nation, it seems to play a huge part in the development of national identity.

[12] John Raulston Saul, p.9.