Two Canadian solitudes: not ethnicity or race


We are a Métis nation. At least that’s what John Ralston Saul tells us in his recent book, A Fair Country. But what exactly does he mean? And how does that apply to parts of the country that have very few Métis or Aboriginal residents, such as here?

Saul digs into Canadian history to uncover our political and cultural roots. Unlike the United States, which exterminated most of its indigenous population to found a European-style republic, Canada was built on a different foundation: a cooperative between the original peoples and the new arrivals from Europe. At first a practical business arrangement, it became much more.

Canada was harsh and survival required the skills of the Aboriginals. Canada’s original business, the fur trade, was only possible because of the local Natives and the cooperative-adaptive skills of the British and French newcomers, who were few in number. In short, they needed their Aboriginal partners.

Over a period of decades, the newcomers married into the Aboriginal clans, forming deeper alliances that would lead to the resettling of Canada, and the formation of a new country.

Saul goes to great pains to describe the social and cultural impact of this alliance, and it’s lasting effects on our political and justice systems, and indeed even on immigration. He describes this as “the widening of the circle,” an inclusiveness among Canadians that has naturally evolved thanks to our early integration with the First Nations.

This, of course, has not been a particularly smooth process, especially for Canada’s Native population, which still has grievous issues around land claims and social repatriation. But Saul’s point is clear. We would not, and cannot, be who we are without including the three pillars of our social contract: English, French and Aboriginal. Saul also points to the influence of the fourth pillar and beneficiary of the original alliance, the arrival of immigrants from around the world and their effect on Canadian culture.

All of these conclusions are reasonably predictable. But Saul also put his finger on something else that touched a nerve: that there has always been a divided approach to governance in this country. On the one hand is the “widening circle” approach. On the other is the Old World, elite, ruling-class approach identified with the Family Compact/Chateau Clique. And these two forces have been in tension, or even in competition, since our beginnings as a modern nation.

The more egalitarian widening circle group preferred legal language that stressed the well-being and welfare of the people. The more conservative elite group preferred the word “order” as in peace, order and good governance. In the early days, more often than not, the phrase “peace, welfare, and good governance was the operative stance, as the egalitarians gained control.

Nowhere can this been seen more clearly than in the words of our first (and mostly unknown) pre-Confederation prime minister, Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine, who in 1841 wrote: “The principles of a people are stronger than the laws imposed upon them. No privileged caste, beyond and above the mass of the people, can exist in Canada.”

This is radical language. It set the stage for what was to be an ongoing Canadian struggle for a true democracy. And for the most part it has succeeded.

The counterbalance to this new democratic impulse was the United Empire Loyalist population, which held to the authority of the Crown and the British Empire. And those connections would bring us fully into the First World War and consequently into the Second. The Loyalists were the foundation for our first ruling elites. But that Empire is long gone.

So where are we at today? Well, there’s a new empire in the world, it spreads along our southern border, and it’s becoming increasingly authoritarian. Coincidentally, there has been a rising tide of elitism and fundamental authoritarianism spreading across Canada over the past three decades. One might call it a new conservative movement. And it seems to be very much in parallel with our old conservative Loyalist culture with its affinity to Queen and Empire—with a dangerous additive: a deep attachment to corporatism.

Corporatism knows no borders, and those who serve it serve a different master: capital. Today our federal government is stifling open communication with our environmental scientists. It’s curbing protest on the pacific pipeline and discrediting dissenters by accusing them of being puppets of foreign interests. It’s working to legalize unrestricted Internet spying. It’s adding prisons and increasing punishment. And it’s pretending to run government as a business while increasing spending on policing and armed forces while slashing the social safety net. In short, this faction of Canadian politics is moving us dramatically into lockstep with the new American corporate empire.

The hallmark of this shift is a renewed focus on authority, which favours the elite and their servants. It does not support free-thinking, flexible egalitarianism.

Is this the country we want to become? Or should we follow LaFontaine’s lead and begin to put our principles above our current crop of leaders? I for one would like to see a fairer country, not an ever more punishing one.

For more insight you can read Robert Altemeyer's online book detailing the authoritarian follower. Interesting research and a good read.


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