Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Andrew Coyne on Canadian History

A brilliant piece by Andrew Coyne. Senator Serge Joyal has helped bring portraits of all of Canada's Monarchs French and English to grace the Rotunda of the Senate. I heard him speak at a Canadian Royal Heritage trust event on just this subject.

But if the history of Canada is an unbroken chain of sovereignty, Francis to Elizabeth, Champlain to Johnston; if what is important about it is not the change from French to British rule but the continuity between them—if we are not a British monarchy, or even a French monarchy and then a British one, but simply a monarchy, throughout—then the Conquest is not the pivotal event in our history: it is just an event. The effect, in turn, is to deracinate the British inheritance. What is valuable is the inheritance—Crown, Parliament, the common law, the Constitution—not its Britishness.

If that sounds like a lot to load onto a few words, it certainly didn’t strike Quebec nationalists that way. When Harper first started talking about Quebec City as the birthplace of Canada, around the time of the 400th anniversary, the nationalists were fairly purple with rage, accusing him in the most acrid terms of rewriting history for political ends.

But then, they should know. The nationalist project, notably in the use of the neologism “Québécois” in place of “French-Canadian,” was a conscious attempt to shunt the history of Quebec off onto a siding, separate and apart from the history of Canada, whose logical terminus was a separate Quebec. The logic of Harper’s language is to wrench it back on to the same track as the rest of us: while Champlain could hardly have known he was founding Canada, it is certainly true that the history of present-day Canada leads inexorably back to him.


been around the block said...

As usual, Prime Minister Stephen Harper is ahead of the pack. OF COURSE Quebec is NOT separate and apart from the history of Canada; it and the French-Canadians are an integral part of our history.

I'm somewhat surprised that the extraordinary joint Lower-Upper Canada government, forged by two remarkable Canadians, one French, one English, is never mentioned in this regard.

I'm talking about the Baldwin-Lafontaine "Great Experiment" in the early 1800s, many years before Confederation, which brought responsible government to Canada without one drop of blood, an extraordinary accomplishment.

Robert Baldwin and Louis Hippolyte Lafontaine forged an English/French alliance long before Confederation, but for some unknown reason they seem to have been pretty much airbrushed out of Canadian history. At least there's a touching statue of these two Canadian statesmen behind the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa, but it's a little obscure to the passing public. (The Royal Bank Newsletter of 1999, commemorating the Baldwin family's landing in Muddy York in 1799, referred to Robert Baldwin as Canada's "Washington," and wondered that public squares and freeways, let alone a city, hadn't been named after him.)

Disclaimer: Robert Baldwin is one of my ancestors, which may be the only reason I know who he is. Unfortunately, unlike our neighbours to the South, who take great pride in their history and their heroes, Canadians seem to take a perverse pride in rewriting our history, depending on who's in power and on which side of the French/English divide one sits.

I'm very happy to see that Prime Minister Harper is doing his best to heal the breach, which, sadly, the Separatists in Quebec have been attempting to widen in the past 40 years. I suspect that Louis Hippolyte Lafontaine (and Robert Baldwin) are rolling over in their graves.

Roy Eappen said...

What a great comment BATB You can be very proud of your ancestor. I am an immigrant to this wonderful land. I was taught about Canad's symbols and history. Unfortunately Canadians don't seem to learn these things in school anymore.

been around the block said...

Thanks, Dr. Roy. I AM proud of my great-great-great grandfather because of his tenacity in the face of all sorts of hardships, one of the principle ones being the untimely death of his beloved wife.

In addition, he and his family were, in fact, part of the Family Compact by their position as legislators and land owners in Upper Canada. They chose, however, a different path -- that of not using their privilege to their own advantage but to fight for responsible government in the colonies while remaining loyal to the crown. Naturally, they were castigated by other members of the Family Compact. (It is William Lyon Mackenzie King who is now lion/lyonized in Canadian history books for his republican tendencies.)

I have a video produced by the NFB many years ago about Robert Baldwin's achievements. It's in black and white and called "A Man of Principle" -- and this is why I am proud of him: He was not in politics for the glory of it nor for what it might profit him -- in fact, he was a rather diffident man, a man of deep Christian faith -- he was in it because he wanted to broaden government to include more than just the privileged.

Except for Canada's Natives, we are all immigrants to Canada, some of us just for a longer time than others! Immigration has immeasurably enriched our nation and I am particularly heartened when more recent immigrants to Canada, like you, have a deep appreciation of our rich and varied history.