Friday, October 30, 2015

When did we become a nation?

Just about three years ago now I penned an opinion where I defined my cultural nationality as "English Canadian". I'm still still true to that; in general, that's the space I've moved into. But just lately I've started thinking about when and how that came about, and not just for me, but for the community with which I identify. When did we become "us", and how did we know it?

I'm increasingly persuaded that that moment came for us in the early 1980s with the patriation of the Constitution from Britain, and in particular, with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms entrenched in it. Getting our own unique flag did what it did; cementing O Canada over the egregiously anglophile The Maple Leaf Forever as the national anthem did what it did... but finally having a statement of principles and values spelled out that we could all point to and read and see clearly laid out is what I think has really defined us.

When my parents were still young, Canada... more particularly, English Canada... was still happy to conceive of itself as a fixture of the British Empire; a significant part of a much wider whole. But I think even by the 1950s, this conception was already threadbare. We hadn't really had much to do with Britain for rather a long time, even at that point. We had long conducted our own international affairs, we decided separately which wars we would and would not support, we had inaugurated a separate citizenship. We shared a monarchy and some military history (and, of course, still do), but that was largely it by the 50s, and had been so for a couple of generations. What did it even mean to "belong" to the British Empire? It was never a formal institution. It was a catch-all name for a hodge-podge of relationships Britain had with other countries, and through it, those countries with one another (what did Canada really have to do with Australia, for example?). Members were either dominions like Canada -- in which case, they were effectively independent -- or they were colonies and not "members" by choice. Who were you in such a system? Member? Citizen? Subject? None of those words seems correct, although I suspect "subject" comes closest. In any event, by the 1950s, war-torn Britain was stepping down from the mantle and divesting itself of its overseas colonies. By the time I came around, the British Empire was, literally, history.

So when I was a kid in the 1970s, there was a real vacuum in the English Canadian identity. People my parents' age came though it from one side to the other, but people my age were born into the midst of it. What I remember about my nationality, as a child, was how shaky and tottering it seemed. TV shows and magazine articles wrung their hands unceasingly about "who are we?" and "what does it mean to be Canadian?"

What they should have asked, but no one really had the courage to back then, what "what does it mean to be an English Canadian?" In the 1970s, French Canada, particularly in the form of the province of Quebec, with its state and institutions, knew very well who it was; that it had an identity and a future and a sense of destiny. When they asked "what does it mean to be Canadian?", they weren't asking it the same way. They were asking it in the sense of "do we still want to be a part of this bigger thing outside Quebec?" Quebec sovereigntists were forever lecturing us that were we simply more Americans who'd missed the boat in 1776 and once they left, we could drop the pretense and get on with it, and we'd all be much happier. And there were a lot of us who looked around and believed that (after all, in the early 1900s, French political author André Sigfried characterized Canadian politics as "American actors on an English stage", though he was more enthusiastic as time wore on). I lived in the Maritimes back then and the common wisdom was that if Quebec left, we'd be isolated, and would have no choice but to sue to join the Union and just become so much more New England. Our whole identity seemed... fake.

Then Pierre Trudeau came back from the dead. Defeated in the election in 1979, he got his chance to come back when Joe Clark's minority government fell in a vote of non-confidence in his first budget. The election in February, 1980, put Trudeau back in 24 Sussex Drive. "Well, welcome to the 1980s," he said the night of the election, winning it just in time for him to fight the first Quebec referendum on leaving Canada and win it that May. Promising Quebeckers a renewed federalism, he got back to work on the project he'd had since taking office in 1968: giving Canada its own constitution and having a bill of rights entrenched in it at last.

That finally happened in 1982. We finally agreed on an amending formula and the British were happy to hand the thing over to us instead of wasting their own parliamentary time every time we needed a nip and a tuck made to the British North America Act. Countrywide consultation had shaped the statement of principles that were added to the Constitution at the time of its patriation: the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. For English Canada it was important in two respects. One was, as I said earlier, that it provided us at last with a statement of our core values. The other was that it was, to be honest, a statement of our core values, not Quebec's. It embraced a multiculturalism and theory of individual rights that were largely at odds with Quebec's "two founding nations" principles and an emphasis on collective, rather than individual, rights -- that the good of the cultural group trumps those of the individual and permits for greater curtailing of the individual's latitude. No government in Quebec, separatist or federalist, has ever officially endorsed the 1982 Constitution.

But for English Canada, there it was. That's who were are. That's what we believe. There is what we can rally around and point to and nod to one another, and most importantly, recognize in one another. It gave us permission to be us, and the empowerment and embrace of judicial review to work out what that means when we disagree. The questions about who we were, and were we just Americans who were inordinately fond of the Queen or something, all dried up around the time I was in high school. Even when Quebec held its second referendum in 1995, which was defeated by a gnat's eyelash, I wasn't hearing the same doom predictions as in 1980 that without the Quebec glue, the rest of Canada would fall apart and just collapse into the arms of the United States. We'd get by. We would find a way to adjust to the new normal and move on. We knew who we were, and what we stood for, and what we wanted and didn't want, and Quebec leaving wasn't going to change that. We'd grown hard and proud like a spouse who's been threatened with the other's leaving once too often. We were finally brave enough to say, "then, if you really must... go." I do believe that when we stopped whining and begging Quebec at all costs not to leave us, but started talking about what the practicalities of that came down to, it shocked a lot of them. I think the quiet acceptance of federalism in Quebec in recent years, the recognition that they have a lot of elbow room in this federation and it's not all that bad a place to be, is in part a function of their partner, us, finally growing up. We are a good, strong, confident partner now, and maybe that's a little sexy. And even though we did it in a way that kind of alienated them, after a couple of generations, maybe that's what counts.

I'm ready to be "Canadian" for as long as Quebec stays, but fully functional as an "English Canadian" if they go. I think that's finally true for us all. Because in 1982, we declared to ourselves and the world who were are and what we stand for. Take it or leave it, everybody: this is us.

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