It happened today - July 1, 2015

Plains of AbrahamHappy Canada Day! On July 1 we celebrate our nation’s independence and its glorious history… apart from the stuff we think isn’t really compatible with modern sensibilities, like the wars and tradition of British liberty and particularly where the two intersect like um the Plains of Abraham.

Now it has been objected, including by me, that Canadian history has a certain dullness, highly desirable when living through it but less riveting to read about. We have no battlefield in Canada to rival Gettysburg and I sure wouldn’t trade our peaceful recent past for the American Civil War to get one. If you believe as I do that our history stretches back way before 1867 and includes great struggles and great men like Stephen Langton and Alfred the Great (and incidentally I just discovered that my grandfather gave a series of radio talks on “Stories from Canadian History” in the latter part of World War II that included such people without embarrassment) then we do have some humdingers but they of course are far from our home and native land and hard to visit.

Which brings to mind the words Macaulay puts in the mouth of Horatius as he and two companions hold the Sublician bridge against the Etruscans: “And how can man die better/ Than facing fearful odds,/ For the ashes of his fathers,/ And the temples of his Gods”. For it strikes me that, all else being equal, it is best for your national heroics to be performed far from your hearths and homes rather than with the enemy at the gates.

Canadian history is partly dull because, through a combination of luck and sound geopolitical judgement, those Canadians who fought and died for our freedom and security did so overseas. Not always, of course; some Canadians in both World Wars died close to home, including in training accidents that lack glory but are part of successful defence, but also fighting U-boats in our coastal waters and in the St. Lawrence. Still, by and large if we want to celebrate our version of Little Round Top we must go abroad and, all things considered, it’s better that way.

There is much to celebrate in Canada’s non-violent success. Our construction of a prosperous economy based on property rights and the rule of law, our general observance of free speech and free assembly until recently without needing to take up arms, our tradition of civility and self-restraint, make for good living if dull reading. But we should be patriotic about it no matter how old-fashioned it might sound.

Back in 2005, can it really be a decade since his 21st birthday, Canada’s Prince Harry (yes, Canada’s, as well as Britain’s) said that his military training at Sandhurst had not been pleasant but wasn’t meant to be. And he said that like his older brother William he intended to serve actively. Then he added that he’d told William “’There’s no way I’m going to put myself through Sandhurst and then sit on my arse back home while my boys are out fighting for their country.’ That may sound very patriotic, but it’s true. It’s not the way anyone should work.’”

How extraordinary that even the grandson of the reigning Queen should feel obliged to apologize for sounding patriotic. If nothing else, it proves he’s very Canadian. But we should be patriotic and not apologetic about it.

That Canadians fought their most glorious battles far from home is good fortune and good geopolitics and better by far for the nation. But they are no less glorious for having held off the Nazis and others far from the last bridge into the city.