Canada

Friday at noon, Profs. Judith Irvine, Peter Bromstad, Graham Johnson, and Jonathan Good, the four Canadians by birth on the Reinhardt faculty, talked about their homeland at the International Coffee Hour. My own contribution went something like this:

When you go to Canada, you’ll find that it’s just like the United States, but different enough to be disconcerting – like the characters in the Simpsons having only four digits. Someone once said that Canada sits in the uncanny valley. It looks and feels the same as the US, but there will be a bunch of little differences. For example, in Ontario at any rate, you’ll notice a plethora of British place-names, and the Union Jack on the provincial flag. But you’ll also see French everywhere. There will be no billboards along the freeway, or those corporate logos atop tall poles at highway interchanges. You’ll be excited to see that the speed limit is 100, and gas only 1.53, before you realize that the first number designates kilometres per hour, and the second the cost per litre. When you go in to pay for your gas you’ll be curious about the coloured, polymer notes, the dollar and two dollar coins, and the lack of pennies. You also might want to try some of the exotic candy bars or, if you smoke, a pack of “Players” or “DuMaurier.” The locals will have a slightly different accent and use the occasional Canadianism, like “hydro,” “chesterfield,” or “grade two.” And so on.

But really, you’d experience much the same thing if you went to Texas. The money and units of measurement might be the same, but you’d hear a different accent, see Spanish all over the place, and see regional brands that you might not find in your own state. In other words, if Texas is just a state, then how does Canada presume to be its own country? Why did this place, which is by rights just another American region, escape being annexed?

To answer that question you have to look to history, of course. And when you do you realize there are a couple of pretty big differences between Canada and the United States that are not immediately apparent. In the eighteenth century, as you are probably aware, there were two rival European colonial empires in North America: the British and the French. As a result of the Seven Years’ War, the British annexed French Canada, and for a brief while pretty much all of eastern North America was under British suzerainty. But that war sowed the seeds of the American revolution, as the British colonists did not want to help pay for it, and were offended by how solicitous the British government was of the French colonists, who were allowed to keep their religion and their civil law, and of the Indians, who were protected from settlement by the Proclamation line of 1763.

Anger at these things, plus some inept moves by the British government, eventually led to the American Revolution, which the colonists won by 1783. But not everyone in the colonies supported the Revolution, as Canadians are fond of pointing out – some people even refer to the Revolution as America’s First Civil War. Certainly the French Canadians, invited to join the American Revolution, refused, preferring instead to take their chances with British rule. And up to a third of the English colonists actively opposed the Revolution, on the principle that independence was not the only solution to any colonial grievances (and suspecting that it was all a project of the cool kids, who stood to benefit the most from it). What to do with these types? Well, you expel them, of course, and the period immediately after 1783 saw a great exodus of Loyalists from the American colonies. Some went to the Caribbean, others back to Great Britain, but the vast majority of them went to the other British colony in North America, i.e. Quebec! The British kindly split Quebec in two, giving “Upper Canada” to the Loyalists, and reserving “Lower Canada” for the French. These two colonies were reunited in 1841, and then granted independence in 1867.

This is the fundamental fact of Canadian history. English Canada was founded by refugees from the American revolution who were happy to remain part of the British Empire. They ended up dominating Canada, which means that they reduced the French to a second-class status. This has given us Canada’s National Obsession: the issue of Language, and the Constitutional place of Quebec in Canadian confederation. (In America, the national obsession is race, but in Canada it is language.) The Loyalism of the early Anglophone settlers has had another long-term political effect. English Canada might not be as oriented to Britain as it once was, but those settlers simply trusted the government in a way that the American revolutionaries did not. As a consequence Canada has always been more “statist” than the United States. This has given us our prized national health care system… and an economy that is not as dynamic as America’s and a docile population that tends to do what it’s told. (Q: How do you get 42 Canadians out of a swimming pool? A: “OK, 42 Canadians, out of the swimming pool”)