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History often deals with our intentions the way a turbulent spring river deals with flotsam and jetsam.
In the second half of the eighteenth century, an Enlightenment idea of the nation-state emerged. It was abstract and based on principles that were said to be rational. History carried this concept forward into the socially turbulent, nationalist nineteenth century, during which the whole concept of the nation-state was cannibalized into one of people and place as revealed truth. For the next two centuries, Western civilization frantically abandoned the broader humanist idea of multiple identities. This was replaced with a belief in sacred borders. God and destiny had apparently ordained that these borders should divide us, for our own good so that we could flower, each as a pure people with monolithic destinies.
All over the West political mechanisms were put in place to eliminate the complexities of co-existing multiple races, languages, religions and, in particular, multiple mythologies. Local differences were increasingly denigrated. In various nation-states, central ministries of education had schoolchildren on their feet at the same moment everywhere within their particular borders reciting the same texts.
This nationalism produced a wide range of positive outcomes. There was an explosion in both egalitarian education and public services. Clean water and sewer systems virtually rid our cities of rampant deadly diseases. Fairer law enforcement and more accessible courts made a broad public life possible for many. Unfortunately, this same nationalism also encouraged and unleashed that eternal human weakness known as fear. Worse still, it focused much of that fear on the unknown other— that human who does not fit into our monolithic definition of ourselves. And so racism and other forms of national myopia were increasingly normalized through the nineteenth century until in the twentieth they produced unprecedented levels of violence.
Canada was a peculiar player and non-player through all of this. We had our fair share of Protestant–Catholic riots, as the Orange Order and the Ultramontanes imported their European prejudices into Canada’s complexity. The situation began to spin out of control as early as the 1840s when the British government deliberately blocked Robert Baldwin’s law aimed at stopping in its tracks the Orange Order’s spread of racist evil. Empires almost always play the minorities in their colonies off against each other. Occasionally this may have the happy outcome of protecting a fragile minority. But even then the method used is aimed at aborting the development of healthy local societal relationships. And that is, of course, the conscious imperial intent.
But the responsibility of Canadians was also great. You have only to look at the flowering of anti-Aboriginal policies after Confederation and the insidious growth of anti-Semitism. There was a long list of other expressions of classic negative nationalism in Canada. We embraced precisely the same sort of exclusionary policies being put in place in varying degrees everywhere in the West.
The LaFontaine-Baldwin Symposium is an attempt not to draw on the idea that people and place are a revealed truth. There was always another Canada. Not a country of revealed truth, but one truer to the complexity of its place and its peoples. This was a profoundly non-monolithic idea of the nation-state, running at counter-current to the dominant Western monolithic approach. What’s more, I believe that this was a constant and determining undercurrent, which made and continues to make the country what it is: non-monolithic because it continues to be built on its triangular foundation of English, French and Aboriginal cultures; a triangle strengthened by the continuing return in presence and power of the First Nations. What comes with this is the ability to take pleasure in a complexity of multiple loyalties; the ability to see regional tensions as often in a positive light as a negative one; and a growing linguistic sophistication. The continual waves of immigrants who inherit the best and worst of what they find, then find themselves rolling into the evolution of the whole. This complexity has been rolling on for more than four centuries without the forces of monolithic purity ever approaching positions of real power. Constantly rolling and yet doing so in a way that is an unbroken form of stability.
Since 1848, our democracy has been constant, flawed, yet capable of improving itself. Our historic mechanism for this improvement has two faces. The first is the non-monolithic undercurrent which does create a sense of social agility—of positive tension. Where does it come from? We can only speculate. Perhaps the basis was the absence of a clear majority for any one group, combined with the difficulty of surviving here. The other mechanism grew out of this non-monolithic tradition. It was and remains the conscious intellectual expression of public policy structures put in place from 1848 on by the reform movements of Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine and Robert Baldwin in the Canadas and by Joseph Howe in Nova Scotia. During the turbulent years from 1848 to 1851, the foundations of modern Canada were institutionalized, enshrining the notion of the public good. From justice systems to public education and public universities, from a professional civil service to the beginnings of labour law, from government involvement in cutting-edge private-sector programs to the removal of European-style class structures, more than a hundred key initiatives set us on our current track.
That we can trace the practical ethical foundations of our society back to those three years around 1850 matters because it gives us a solid reference point. Those successful reform movements, with their clear verbal and written expressions of a just society, can be a constant mirror for our efforts today. Eighteen hundred and forty-eight gives us a trajectory—a line through our history—along which we can judge our failures and our successes and our need to move on in order to strengthen our egalitarian nature.
And that is what these first six lectures are all about. I launched the series with a lecture laying out the Great Ministry’s contribution between 1848 and 1851 and its relationship to today’s realities such as chronic homelessness, for example. Alain Dubuc then sent a shot across the anglophone bow, forcing us to face up to our unconscious nationalism. Georges Erasmus drew all of us into the single great continuum of our society—the evolving role of First Peoples and the implications for all Canadians. Beverley McLachlin reminded us of how cutting-edge our approach to living with differences is, yet how fragile it is and how much conscious effort is needed to accommodate this approach. David Malouf drew us into our mirror—Australia—the other country whose experience most resembles ours; whose successes and failures carry messages for Canadians. Here is an accurate reflection devoid of the deformed colonial images we often get from Britain, France and the United States. Louise Arbour then rounded out this first series by engaging in the sort of ethical and practical projection that LaFontaine, Baldwin and Howe would have recognized as true to their project. She pushed us towards a new, expanded understanding of rights and therefore of justice by focusing on the right to basic well-being.
In other words, here are six propositions about the nature of modern Canada. And they are enveloped by an informal, wide-ranging conversation among the six participants on all these issues.
What then is the book’s aim? It is an attempt by people who don’t need to take risks with ideas to do exactly that. Why are they such willing participants? Because this sort of debate about ideas and ethics and citizenship is exactly what a society like ours needs to keep us linked to our foundations, yet constantly moving forward. Stability requires the intellectual agility to keep on re-inventing yourself. That is the true nature of continuity.
Canada is one of the oldest continuous democracies, the second-oldest continuous federation, arguably the oldest continuous democratic federation. After all, the American Senate, as powerful as the president, often more powerful, was still appointed, not elected, until just before World War I.
And yet, in spite of almost 160 years of unbroken democratic experience, we somehow have difficulty seeing ourselves in this way. We rarely imagine ourselves as an old, stable society, let alone as the intellectual construct we are; one that has emerged from a muscular shaping of ideas. It is in good part thanks to those ideas that we have manoeuvred our way through repeated crises, making mistakes along the way, sometimes awful mistakes, but never fatal ones.
Political ambition and a strange incapacity to remember the reality of our experiences has led to a curious and constant insistence on talking about Canada as if it were new. I would call this an embarrassing and naïve insistence on our newness. We may continually add new elements to our society as we roll forward, but we are an old, stable civilization and highly experienced. And that is one of our key strengths.
There is one other related point. While we have survived our errors, all of our close friends in the Americas and in Europe have committed the sort of unforgiving mistakes that then dragged them down into civil war, and led to sustained internal violence, coups, dictatorships and profound political breakdown. The conclusion to be drawn is simple.
Since 1848, our American and European allies have slipped into these catastrophes, some several times. We have often come dangerously close to the precipice, but we have so far managed to draw back from it. To have avoided the worst suggests a certain talent for living with our complexity. But this has only been possible because we have assumed the intrinsically experimental and cutting-edge nature of our society in a conscious and intellectual way. We have acted, having thought and debated. This is why thinkers, historians and activists like Margaret Conrad, Anne Golden, Rudyard Griffiths, Gerry Friesen, Jocelyn Létourneau, Émile Martel and Bob Rae have made these lectures happen and have led the sustained public debates that emerge from them. They believe, as we do, that public policy grows out of ideas and debate.
John Ralston Saul