By Trevor Busch
National unity has always been a complex issue in Canada, and it isn’t just because of our vast geography and low population — which often seems to coalesce into a fondness for small-minded regionalism — but stems from something deeper, more profound, and as many historians, sociologists, and political scientists have discovered, it is extremely difficult to put a finger on, if not impossible.
One explanation is probably our history: we lack many of the great revolutions, wars of independence, declarations of rights or oppressive tyrannies that have defined many of our neighbours down through the centuries. These events in a nation’s formative years seem to transmit to future generations a sense of place and mission, a oneness and a shared foundational myth. In Canada, by contrast, in keeping with the stoic British values of Peace, Order and Good Government — writ large — we witnessed a bureaucratic-like birth of a nation based largely on expediency, pressure from our colonial masters in London, trumped up fears about crazy militant Irish Fenians across the border, and a perfect storm battalion of upper crust Canadian legislators reared in the British tradition who in many ways felt Confederation was just the thing to do at the time. While that is obviously a dangerous oversimplification, in broad strokes it isn’t really that far off the mark.
The cracks that have appeared in that glorious remembering — at the time in 1867, and in the years and decades that have followed — have often been papered over as anomalies, or dismissed as the transgressions of traitorous lunatics who want to cast down the sacrosanct principles of Confederation for something less perfect. But the truth of the matter is rather something else entirely. Today, we see the overt manifestations of disunity — the ‘Wexit’ movement, and now a resurgent Bloc Quebecois in Parliament — but so-called ‘separatism’ has been around for a long time in Canada. The only difference is there are now growing voices in the wilderness suggesting that the deal forged at Confederation — still considered a ‘hands-off’ sacred cow in Canadian history — might not have been all it was cracked up to be.
With only rare exceptions in Canada, historians have always attempted to interpret the events of Confederation in the best possible light. Most students are still taught a version of history consistent with the notion of Canada as a progressive democracy and the ‘founding fathers’ as pillars of integrity and vision. We know today, for instance, that there was a lot more sordid backroom deals and manipulation involved than most would care to admit. What is remarkable is in considering the many questions surrounding unity that have dogged the nation since 1867, there has been a reluctance — even a bull-headedness — about re-examining the now-gilded events that led to that conclusion. The traditional interpretation, that Confederation was the product of specific political, economic and military problems in the 1860s, to which national unification offered solutions — has almost never been challenged.
It has only been in recent years that conservative interpretations of this nation-building myth have begun to dissipate. For decades, original opponents of Confederation were condemned for parochialism, negativism, cynicism, lack of vision and ignorance of the theory behind it. More recently, though, we’ve come to realize that the anti-Confederates had a perfectly legitimate case. It’s largely forgotten or ignored today that the Maritime colonies — Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, and later P.E.I.— were far from enthusiastic about the proposal, and Newfoundland wanted virtually nothing to do with it. Those colonies knew that the union was largely in the interests of the Province of Canada (what became Ontario and Quebec) and that they would become subsumed and weakened voices within that union based on population and economic factors. Due to a series of complex issues at the time (including the dangled plum of an Intercolonial Railway) they felt compelled to join Confederation, but they detested its terms. Now more than a 125 years after the fact, would any Canadian now seriously argue that the Maritimes haven’t become exactly what their leaders feared in 1867 — a politically-impotent afterthought for Ottawa?
And this is of course ignoring two other players that (in a perfect world, but not that of the 19th century) probably should have been at the table and never got a say: Western Canada (then Rupert’s Land, basically a Hudson’s Bay Company fiefdom), and British North America’s indigenous peoples. Not to mention the provinces that have joined since, who were never able to question the fundamental and structural aspects of the union and Confederation itself, but simply had to weld themselves onto a rigidly inflexible model. Nor was Confederation a popular mandate, or a grassroots swell from below. There is little concrete evidence to be found of public support for nation-building during the 1860s. In fact, the imposition of Confederation without consulting the people through a vote — usually explained away by the doctrine of parliamentary supremacy — has never really been explored for its anti-democratic implications.
We like to think of history as peopled by men of integrity unsullied by the grasping selfishness and lack of values we can see around us every day. Transversely, we know this interpretation of the past can only be a version of the truth corrupted by fictional yearnings for what we would like it to be, not what it actually is. We tend to bristle when anyone might suggest that Canada’s national unification was a goal pursued by self-interested politicians who manipulated the political process to their own ends. At the same time, we must now know that this was at least part of the story.
One of the paradoxes of this often bruised marriage is how we tend to marginalize the outrage of others in our union. Speak of Quebec separatism to many a Western Canadian, for instance, and you’re likely to hear a tirade about the privileged Quebecers who should be considered ‘traitors to the nation’ for their paltry and outrageous demands. Ask about Western separatism, on the other hand, and you’re much more likely to hear a passionate argument about how Ottawa has wronged us since inception and is guilty of sins beyond all measure, and little to nothing about being ‘traitors to the nation.’ Setting that hypocritical conundrum aside for a moment, there’s no doubt that professing yourself as a committed federalist in Alberta in 2020 might not win you a lot of friends in this province’s fetid atmosphere of Ottawa-bashing, pipeline politics and Wexit woes. That’s a sad indictment for anyone that chooses to refer to themselves as ‘Canadian’ in a country where asymmetrical federalism appears to be getting way too asymmetrical. And it would have shocked and appalled those who forged the nation together along, albeit imperfect, lines back in 1867.
Beyond the Confederation debate and whether a particular province might have got a raw deal, it is difficult to see what benefits independence might have that wouldn’t also saddle a new nation with more — and in some cases hugely larger — problems than it already has as a province within Canada. In a larger global context, now does not appear to be the time to be seeking devolution of power to a series of weaker regional geographical entities, such as Quebec or Western Canada. In an era when old alliances are slipping away, new powers are rising, and unilateralism is the new byword of authoritarian regimes, do we really want to try to defend our vast territory with our proportionally minuscule population against powerful aggressors who might view our resource wealth with envious eyes? Should we count on a post-Trump America to sweep in and defend our interests, or would they just occupy us as the new northern frontier of a neo-manifest destiny America? And what about currency, share of the national debt, foreign policy and a thousand other questions? Would we exchange the problems the Wexit movement are so hot and bothered about for a plethora of others on an international scale that might be even more unsolvable?
When it comes to Confederation in Canada, until recently revisionist interpretations have been virtually non-existent. Even more baffling, during the constitutional debates in the late 1970s and early 1980s, there was little thought given to non-traditional interpretations of the British North America Act. In short, Confederation was never perfect. And it still isn’t. But while the national myth has been compartmentalized and pre-packaged and served up to generations with a side of maple syrup, that doesn’t mean we aren’t ready for a big historical shake-up and a wider debate about the legal glue that still meshes us all together.