Tuesday, June 26, 2007

After 140 Years

Jacques Cartier was not impressed when he sailed down the St. Lawrence in 1534. "The land God gave to Cain" he concluded as he looked at the landscape. John A. MacDonald also acknowledged the difficulties inherent in the place he called home. But, after cobbling together the British North America Act with the other founding fathers, he turned to Isaiah for inspiration: "The wolf and the lamb will graze together and the lion shall eat straw like the bullock . . . . They will do no evil or harm in all My holy mountain."

One hundred and forty years has not changed the physical geography of the place. Anyone who has stood on the open prairie and watched a winter blizzard blow in, or who has tried to navigate the Bay of Fundy when the fog is a blanket thrown over the bow of the vessel, knows the feeling of insignificance -- and terror -- Nature can unleash on this, North America's attic. And the lion and the lamb have never coexisted as idyllically as MacDonald hoped they would. Just ask David Suzuki, who spent part of his youth in an internment camp during World War II. Or ask native Canadians to retell the sad history of life on a reserve or in a residential school.

And yet -- and yet -- as we celebrate Canada's birth for the one hundredth and fortieth time, there is much to be proud of -- in the usual unobtrusive Canadian way. Many claim that Canada should have disintegrated decades ago -- and, during what is almost a century and a half, it frequently appeared to be ready to do so. Yet the country has weathered the First World War, The Depression, World War II and two referendums whose purpose was to determine whether or not the citizens wished to tear the house down. From its three founding races -- British, French and Native -- it has evolved into a mosaic of races and cultures which bear little resemblance to the country's original inhabitants.

And what is most remarkable is that in a world which has been torn asunder by ethnic rivalries -- from Rwanda, to Bosnia to Iraq -- Canadians, despite their occasional lapses into ethnic insanity, have continued to strive for for that vision of tolerance which MacDonald found in Isaiah. As John Ibbitson writes in his book, The Polite Revolution, "We are a nation of strangers, bringing in more strangers by the hundreds of thousands each year, from every region of the globe, who then learn to live together as friends."

There is always something a little messy about this mix. To those who have not taken the time to understand how the country works, it appears to leave us without a clear sense of identity or history, where region counts more than country and where urban neighbourhoods function, at times, like city states. But it is that autonomy to act as free agents, while agreeing that somethings -- like the longest railway in the world, Medicare, the CBC, public higher education and the Canada (or Quebec) Pension Plan -- are national institutions and the product of the national will which make the country unique.

And make no mistake: Canada is unique. If its environment can make one feel insignificant, that same environment -- in different circumstances -- can soothe the soul. The same prairie landscape looks different under a summer sky, stretching out to infinity. And the Fundy mudflats are a source of wonder when the tides roll in on a clear day. Then there are Niagara, the Rockies, Payto Lake and the Fraser Canyon. There are no other places like them on earth.

But, most of all, it is the dream of the peaceable kingdom which drives the vision of Canada as a nation. The American humorist, Josh Billings, said: "There may come a time when the lion and the lamb will lie down together but I'm still betting on the lion." For the last one hundred and forty years Canadians have placed bets on both beasts, convinced that they will be able to work something out. They haven't always succeeded -- at least immediately. But Canada was never a done deal. Canadians know that each generation has to renegotiate the bargain. It is that commitment to renegotiate the terms of nationhood that we celebrate this Sunday. We are all the better for it.

On an entirely different subject, I want to thank Ron Hart for his advice. His comment on last week's post is actually attached to my post of June 5th. I have followed his recommendation. I recommend that readers of this blog visit his website at www.safewatergroup.org.

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