Don't Canadianize our history

I don't know what effect defenders of our historical tradition are having on its enemies, but by God they frighten me.

Consider Andrew Cohen's column supporting renaming Wellington Street for Sir John A. Macdonald. And he's president of the Historica-Dominion Institute, "the largest, independent organization dedicated to Canadian history, identity and citizenship." So what's he doing whiting out our past? (Uh, sorry, kids, a pre-computer reference about as relevant to you as Harold Godwinson's offer to King Harald of Norway.)

His most revealing argument was that having a street named for the Iron Duke reflected "the insecurity of an adolescent nation trapped in its neo-colonialism." Actually, adolescents are those who cannot bear to be in the presence of their parents because they yearn to be independent but lack the capacity. Hence Mark Twain's comment "When I was 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have him around. When I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years." Adults may not always like where they came from, but they don't pretend it's not there.

Consider that it's now been almost as long since Vimy as the 102 years between Vimy and Waterloo. Andrew said getting rid of Wellington Street "would be a natural step for a country that has been vigorously asserting itself in political, social and constitutional ways since Vimy Ridge in 1917." But do you think the men who made Canada a nation on that ghastly battlefield were embarrassed to stand in the line from Drake to Marlborough to the Iron Duke? Would they have taken the ridge if they had been?

Likewise, many accounts of D-Day have soldiers calming their pre-invasion jitters by recalling Shakespeare's Henry V's pre-Agincourt speech about how "gentlemen in England now a-bed/ Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,/ And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks/ That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day." To soldiers approaching Juno Beach these weren't just pretty words. They were a reminder of their heroic past.

Then there's this week's ruling by Commons speaker Peter Milliken that the executive branch may not refuse a parliamentary demand for documents. "Before us," he said, "are issues that question the very foundations upon which our parliamentary system is built. In a system of responsible government, the fundamental right of the House of Commons to hold the Government to account for its actions is an indisputable privilege and, in fact, an obligation."

These foundations were not laid 28 years ago, or 143. Nor even in the 17th-century quarrels with the Stuarts. They were laid before the Normans came to Hastings and if they are undermined or left to crumble, the building erected on them cannot stand. A paradox of trying to "Canadianize" our history is that the heroes of this endeavour, other than Trudeau, were fully aware of this fact.

There was a revolting touch of adolescent self-absorption in Lester Pearson telling a farewell banquet in England in June 1941 he was pleased "to be a Canadian, with a line of national development stretching 'from the Magna Carta to the Sirois Commission'." (I quote Andrew Cohen's biography.) Frankly, I should expect the Sirois Commission to hold its manhood cheap whilst any speaks of Magna Carta. But if even the guy who ditched the Red Ensign was proud of that line it may prove hard to erase entirely.

Suppose we did try to take seriously the concept of Canada as having no historical antecedents, as having sprung full-grown from the brow of Sir John A. That his is generally regarded as the boozy brow of a hack isn't exactly inspiring. But it's also not fair; Macdonald thought seriously about the British foundations of our liberty. It is disingenuous to try to purge British influence from our capital in the name of a man whose final campaign slogan was "A British subject I was born, a British subject I will die."

And what will students say when they learn that he prefaced this sentiment with: "Under the broad folds of the Union Jack, we enjoy the most ample liberty to govern ourselves as we please and at the same time we participate in the advantages which flow from association with the mightiest empire the world has ever seen."

I do not think we elevate ourselves by doing to Wellington symbolically what Napoleon could not do in fact. I'm reminded of Chesterton's line "It requires real courage to face the past, because the past is full of facts which cannot be got over; of men certainly wiser than we, and of things done which we could not do." Like saving freedom by defeating Napoleon. It takes real courage to face Wellington at Waterloo, and the men he commanded. But if we are a grown-up nation, I'm sure we can do it.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson