First there is the land. We love Canada as a special place – each of us has such a favourite spot, a lake or a street corner, a mountain top or a river bank, a sunset or a fog lifting on an open shoreline. We feel a special connection as well to its people and to the communities we have built.
A Canadian is anyone who loves this land and its people and has chosen to make it home. Period.
There is no “Un-Canadian Affairs Committee” of the House of Commons. There are two official languages, dozens of languages and dialects indigenous to the land, and hundreds more spoken in families, on street corners, and in churches, temples, synagogues and mosques.
The diversity of opinion expressed in these places could only threaten the security and civility of Canada if people forget the underlying values we share as citizens.
We know from hard experience how countries can explode with violence, and in turn find ways to put themselves back together.
Canada is real to me in countless ways – in the thousands of conversations about our history, our conflicts, our achievements, our stories.
We like to think of ourselves as a peaceable kingdom, whose history is as dull as ditchwater and whose politicians are full of it. Yet conflict and its resolution have been an indelible part of our story.
The meeting several hundred year ago between priests, soldiers, explorers and aboriginal people was hardly a friendly event – it was shattering, a defining encounter whose trauma we continue to feel to this day.
And on: the multi-year conflict between English and French was not resolved in 1759 . It took over a hundred more years to build a new way of living together. It is an issue we continue to work through every day.
1867 was a “coming apart” as well as a “coming together”. Ontario and Quebec had been artificially fused into one by the British after the rebellions of 1837. It a quarter century of Canadian argument and dialogue to let people be themselves in their own provinces, and at the same time recognise the need for co-operation and unity in Confederation. It is a lesson to be re-learned in each generation.
The morality of federalism triumphed over other visions because it alone allowed different people and groups to live together without submerging their own identity. The Supreme Court of Canada put it this way in their landmark unanimous opinion on secession “a thousand strands of accommodation make a nation”.
Nor should anyone think that these acts of accomodation are signs of weakness. This active celebration of diversity, this recognition of difference, this acknowledgment of the integrity of “the other” – all these imply a rejection of something else: simplistic bumper sticker slogans that fail to reflect the complexity of things.
Nor do we have to define ourselves by what we are not: our self-definition includes that we are North Americans, that we share a continent with others who are at once more populous and powerful than we are. Anti-Americanism, with its roots going back to the very formation of our country, is too limiting, too narrow, too carping, to really reflect who we are today. We are alike, and we are different. We shouldn’t be preoccupied with proving either.
Lester Pearson knew that when he insisted on Canada retaining an independent perspective on both the Middle East and Vietnam. He knew it when he crafted the Canada Pension Plan and the framework for our national health care system.
Pierre Trudeau and Jean Chretien each knew it instinctively as they kept Canada on the path of a sovereign foreign policy as the basis of their approach to politics. Canadians want a voice, and not an echo.
It should be a firm voice, and not a strident one.
The country’s commitment to diversity should not be confused with a reluctance to insist on shared values as well. Far more than we realised at the moment of patriation, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms expresses these values. Due process, respect for the judiciary, democracy, equality before the law, pluralism, the recognition of diversity : at key points both parliament and the courts have gone out of their way to reassert the common values that matter,
I spent today at four events in Toronto – a celebration of multiculturalism in Dundas Square, another for the St Lawrence Neighbourhood Association, a third Punjabi Mela in Brampton, and finally a celebration with the Ahmadiyya movement in Mississauga. Each was very different, but in all we celebrated Canada. What a truly remarkable country.
Bob Rae is a former member of Parliament and former premier of Ontario.