Our story begins long before 1867

Just how dull is Canada? Last month Citizen Editorial Pages Editor Leonard Stern said an HBO biography of America's second president, John Adams, "reminded me just how unremarkable the story of Canada is. I love being Canadian, but boy do I envy the Americans their history." I beg to differ.

American history is indeed glorious. It has towering heroes, great villains, magnificent achievements and what Barack Obama called the grotesque "original sin" of racial slavery. But ours is only dull if seen from the wrong vantage point: that it started in 1867 and was promptly put on hold pending Quebec's Quiet Revolution after which we became a western bastion of anti-Americanism.

It would be remarkable if Canada really had no history before 1867, and none worth mentioning afterward until Pierre Trudeau arrived like a rock through a stained glass window bringing us sex, bell bottoms and then, through the Charter, human rights at last. But that is not how Canada's founders saw things.

Sir John A. Macdonald famously declared in 1891 that "A British subject I was born, a British subject I will die." And he prefaced this boast, for such it was even if boasting is now deemed unCanadian, with less celebrated but remarkable words: "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 ... behind us towers the majesty of England."

And why not? Canada was conceived by most of its founders, not excluding some francophones, as a continuation of England's glorious past. And when they took vaguely unseemly shots at the Americans, listen to the context. As Brian Lee Crowley writes in Fearful Symmetry:

"Richard Cartwright, a prominent pre- and post-Confederation politician, spoke for almost all his contemporaries when he said in the United Province of Canada legislature in 1865, 'I think every true reformer, every real friend of liberty, will agree with me in saying that if we must erect safeguards, they should be rather for the security of the individual than of the mass ... For myself, sir, I own frankly I prefer British liberty to American equality'."

Whatever else one makes of this sentiment, it fits very poorly with the stifling modern orthodoxy that our defining national characteristic is a preference for Canadian equality over American liberty.

Even if we accept the strange proposition that Canada's history began in 1867, I do not see that D-Day, the Battle of the Atlantic, or Vimy and Passchendaele were dull or bureaucratic. If we had not considered Britain's wars our own in the 20th century we might have got to do some hard fighting on our own soil but it doesn't mean we missed the excitement.

Americans do history right, from the 1607 replica ships I just visited in Jamestown to the breathtaking Lincoln Memorial. I wouldn't trade the latter for a devastating civil war and the blight of racial slavery. But the Great Emancipator gazes across the Washington Mall reflecting pool toward a stunning Second World War memorial we cannot match. And that same trip took us past a sign in rural western Virginia to a D-Day Memorial. Where in Canada does one find such a thing? We also saw a live bait vending machine and I admit we don't have those either. But we do have a history. We're just ashamed of it.

Here we touch on the most awkward matter of all: We tend to downplay most of our past because of Quebec. Even the war against Hitler was highly unpopular in Quebec, let alone events before 1867.

Remember Jean Chr├ętien's wish that he'd been there to awaken Montcalm and win the Plains of Abraham for corrupt, stupid French absolutism? And he was far from the most tribal of Quebecers. We may admire the endurance of the Habitants or the brave idealism of many Jesuits. But our freedom comes from Britain, not France, and if we fail to celebrate our heritage the main cause is fear that it has too much of Wolfe the Dauntless Hero in it and too little of Richelieu, Robespierre and that crowd.

You may say we have no Gettysburg Address and hence no wall to put it on. But what of John Simcoe who set slavery in Canada on the path to extinction before 1800? American historian Kenneth Stampp says American Southerners were not inherently bad people but somehow at key moments their vision failed them. Ours did not. Where's the statue?

As for sacred texts, we have Magna Carta and Elizabeth's pre-Armada address to her troops. By what logic are they not a part of our past? Because we moved? And if the American Founding Fathers could name their first flagship after Alfred the Great, why can't we put him on Parliament Hill?

We are the nation that rallied to him at Egbert's Stone. And there's nothing dull about it.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson