The following essay is part of Northern Dawn’s Symposium for Canada’s 150th anniversary. The theme is Canada: Who Are We? We hope these studies of Canada’s heritage will inspire readers to consider its future, and the broader civilization of which it is a part. Those who rule must know what they are ruling.
The following essay is by Gerry T. Neal. A self described royalist with a libertarian streak, he writes at Throne, Altar, Liberty.
A country is more than just the territory that falls within its recognized boundaries. It is that territory, but it is also the people who live there, the customs and traditions that shape their way of life, and their social, cultural, religious, and political institutions. Yet if one was to go by the English lyrics of the song that has served as Canada’s official national anthem for thirty-seven years one could be forgiven for thinking that the only thing denoted by the name “Canada” was the large chunk of territory to the north of the United States.
In the first stanza of “O Canada”, which is the only part of the song that most Canadians are familiar with, Canada is identified as “our home and native land” and “the true North, strong and free.” We assert our patriotic love for her and declare that we stand on guard for her, but no further information about her is provided and the only additional information in the subsequent, seldom sung, stanzas, is geographic in nature, such as “Where pines and maples grow; Great prairies spread, and lordly rivers flow.”
John Farthing, in his Freedom Wears a Crown, published posthumously in 1957, made the following appropriate comments:
I sometimes wonder if any other people has ever taken seriously a national song or anthem which says so little as O Canada, and that little all but completely amoral. While thousands of young Canadians were giving their lives in a war to save us and the world from a philosophy of ‘blood and soil’, those Canadians who remained at home were solemnly singing in honour and well-nigh worship of the Canadian soil – without the humanity of any blood. (1)
When Farthing wrote these words, “O Canada” was not yet the official national anthem. It was about ten years later that a Royal Commission appointed by Lester Pearson recommended that “O Canada” be officially declared our national anthem with the status of royal anthem to be given to “God Save the Queen.” At the time “God Save the Queen” was the closest thing to an official anthem we had, with “O Canada” and “The Maple Leaf Forever” in informal competition as our unofficial national anthems.
“The Maple Leaf Forever” was written in 1867 – the year of Confederation – by Alexander Muir and for decades served alongside “God Save the Queen” as Canada’s unofficial national anthem. It was only on the eve of World War II that the English version of “O Canada” became a serious competitor for this status. “The Maple Leaf Forever” was everything that a patriot of the Dominion founded in 1867 could possibly hope for in a national anthem. It speaks, not just of a geographical location, but of Canada’s history, heritage, and national symbols. The chorus asks God’s blessing both upon our Royal Sovereign – echoing the words of Britain’s national anthem – and upon the country itself through her national emblem of the maple leaf. The stanzas make reference to key events in Canada’s pre-Confederation history, from the triumph of General Wolfe at the Battle of the Plains of Abraham to the victories over American invaders at Queenston Heights and Lundy’s Lane in the War of 1812. It is, of course, the very aspects of this song that made it so appealing to the patriot of the old Dominion of Canada that made it unacceptable to the Liberals of the twentieth century.
The only way to make sense out of the actions of the Liberal Party of Canada, which governed Canada for most of the twentieth century, is to recognize that from its beginnings in the nineteenth century, it had set itself up as the opposition, not just to the Conservative Party that had governed Canada for twenty four of her first thirty years, but to the entire project of Confederation as well.
Confederation, beginning with the Charlottetown Conference of 1864 shortly before the end of the American War Between the States, was the process whereby the North American provinces and colonies of the British Empire came together in a federal union to form the new country that would be given the name Canada. Previously, that name had belonged to one or two of the provinces. (2) That Canada envisioned by the Fathers of Confederation, was to be a country that would grow up within the British Empire and attain full nationhood, without severing its ties to Britain or the rest of the Empire – the opposite, in other words, of the United States.
It was to be British in its political institutions – governed by a Parliament based on the Westminster model over which the monarch would reign as Royal Sovereign. It was to be designated a “Dominion”, which was at first a term chosen from the Bible (3) as a substitute for “Kingdom” that would be less offensive to our republican neighbours but which later, as proposals were made to reorganize the British Empire along federal lines, came to take on the meaning of a self-governing country within what would become the British Commonwealth. One of the principal reasons for undertaking this project at this time was the perceived threat of invasion from the United States. This was not an imaginary fear – the United States had invaded what would become Canada in a so-called attempt at “liberation” during the War of 1812 and subsequently, especially around the time of their war with Mexico, her editorialists and statesmen had spoken of their country’s “Manifest Destiny” to rule over all of North America.
The Confederation project was consistent with the history and heritage of both English and French Canadians. The first society to be called Canada was one of the colonies of New France. It was a seigneurial society, with an economy based on agriculture and trade, in which the most powerful institution was the Roman Catholic Church. It was ceded to Great Britain in 1763 at the end of the Seven Years War and eleven years later, in the Quebec Act, King George III guaranteed its right to retain its French language, culture, and civil law and its established Roman Catholicism, in keeping with a promise he had made the French king. This outraged many of the leaders of the Thirteen Colonies, the ideological descendants of the Puritan fanatics who had driven King Charles I from his throne and beheaded him because he would not persecute the co-religionists of his Queen, the French Catholic Henrietta Maria, to the extent they desired. In their inflamed anti-papist fervour and zeal they rebelled against King and Parliament, drawing up an indictment of tyranny in language as lofty as its charges were spurious and its reasoning was fallacious, ensuring that it would live forever in the annals of demagogic propaganda.
Needless to say, a sizeable number of English colonists, saw no reason to go along with this revolting revolution and fought against the rebels on the side of their King. When the rebelling colonies won their independence there was an exodus of Loyalists out of the new republic to the northern territory that remained under British governance, including the Maritime provinces and French-speaking Canada which, understandably, had preferred to remain under the British Crown that protected their language and religion rather than join those who wished to extirpate both from North American soil. Out of these United Empire Loyalists, English Canada was born and in the century between the American Revolution and Confederation, French and English Canadians would fight, alongside the British army, to drive out American invaders bent on their “liberation” at Châteauguay and Crysler’s Farm, Stoney Creek and Beaverdams (4), Queenston Heights and Lundy’s Lane.
In this shared history, in which English-speaking Protestants and French-speaking Catholics remained loyal to the Crown and Empire that protected them both, against the common threat from the south, the foundations of Confederation were laid.
The Liberal Party’s agenda, from the beginning, was one of continentalism and free trade. The Liberals believed that Canada’s future lay in closer economic and political partnership with the United States and they sought to move Canada towards that future, even if doing so meant cutting her off from her past. Initially, they found that their agenda, so contrary to the goals of Confederation, was very difficult to sell to the Canadian electorate. It did not help their case that some of their intellectuals took their agenda to scandalous extremes in print. In 1891, for example, the year in which Sir John A. MacDonald, running on a patriotic platform that appealed to tradition and continuity with the past, won his last election – a landslide victory over Sir Wilfred Laurier’s Liberals who were campaigning for trade reciprocity with the United States – Liberal intellectual Goldwin Smith published his book Canada and the Canadian Question, which argued that there was no point to there being a Canada and that it ought to be annexed by the United States. (5)
Few Liberal intellectuals went as far as Smith, however, and by the early twentieth century the Liberals had become much more successful at winning elections. Although their policies were still such as would move Canada further and further into the orbit of the United States, they began to pitch them in the language of a new nationalism that was the opposite of that of the Fathers of Confederation. Whereas to the latter, Canada’s traditional British identity was indispensable to their project of building a nation and keeping it from being swallowed up by the United States, the Liberals, who saw that identity as the main roadblock standing in the way of their get rich quick scheme of technological progress, modernization, and Americanization, began to attack Canada’s Britishness as the mark of a colonialism that we would need to throw off to truly become a nation.
To promote the new nationalism, Liberal historians began propagating their own version of Canada’s national story. In this version Canada was portrayed as struggling against British imperial power in her efforts to emerge from colonialism and become a nation. This is an obvious substitution of the American national myth – watered down, with independence being achieved by diplomacy rather than revolution – for Canada’s own story. That the Liberal historians were rewriting Canada’s story to fit the American myth was blatantly acknowledged by one of their own, Dr. John Wesley Dafoe, who edited what is now the Winnipeg Free Press (6) for the first half of the twentieth century, in the title he gave his history of Canada: Canada: An American Nation. (7)
The Liberal version of Canada’s history, as its foremost critic Donald Creighton observed years ago, is in complete conflict with the facts – far from standing in the way of Canadian nationhood, Great Britain had supported the Confederation project from the beginning. The opposition to the project, and the only real threat to Canadian nationhood came from the United States – the country to which the Liberals wanted to bring Canada closer. Nevertheless, as the Liberal Party grew more successful in the polls and gained more and more control over Canada’s national agenda, their new interpretation – or, perhaps inversion would be the better word – of Canada’s story, was accepted as Gospel in the schools, the editorial pages, and everywhere else Liberal opinion predominated, so that it soon deserved the sobriquet with which Creighton mocked it “The Authorized Version.”
In this version Confederation, its Fathers, and especially Sir John A. MacDonald were reduced to footnotes and the place of honour that ought to go to the founders of our country, was given instead to Liberal leaders such as William Lyon Mackenzie King and in later, revised, editions of the Authorized Version, to Lester Pearson and Pierre Trudeau – the men most responsible for distancing Canada from her British roots. Mackenzie King is portrayed as the champion of Canada’s domestic sovereignty – despite the fact that his 1926 general election claim of imperial interference from London was a complete fabrication. (8)
During the premierships of Pearson and Trudeau, much of Canada’s traditional national symbolism was revised to eliminate reference to our British heritage – the Red Ensign with the Union Jack in the canton which had served as Canada’s flag informally since Confederation and was awarded official status at the end of World War II, was replaced with the present flag, the designation “Royal” was dropped from the Post Office and several branches of the Armed Forces, and Dominion Day was renamed Canada Day. At the end of his premiership, Pierre Trudeau succeeded in having the power to amend the British North America Act – renamed “The Constitution Act, 1867” – from the British Parliament to Canada’s, and in the eyes of many Liberals this has superseded Confederation as the moment of our country’s birth. It ought to be noted that these men and events, the ones most celebrated in the Liberal account of our country’s story, are the ones who undermined our parliamentary government, concentrated near-dictatorial powers into the Prime Minister’s office, and greatly weakened our heritage of freedom. (9)
It was during and part of these changes that “O Canada” was declared to be our official national anthem in 1980. The English lyrics, written by Robert Stanley Weir in 1908, speak not of Canada’s traditions, history, and heritage but only of her land and her location in the north. Which is fitting, perhaps, because in the Liberal perspective, which has dominated our country for so long, this is all that Canada is. Yet, as with everything else in the Liberal point of view, there is a contradiction here for apart from those aspects of Canadian history that they wish to forget, the land that we call Canada today, would never have been Canada. Apart from the Confederation project, of uniting the provinces of British North America, English Protestant and French Catholic, into a new nation under the Crown, and calling that country Canada, that name would never have been applied to anything but the stretch of land between the St. Lawrence River and the Great Lakes. This tells us that Canada must be something more than a large, northern, chunk of land and to discover what that is, we must look beyond the Liberal Party’s revisions, back to Confederation, and the history leading up to it, and recover the vision of the Fathers.
(1) John Farthing, Judith Robinson ed., Freedom Wears a Crown (Toronto: Kingswood House, 1957) pp. 111-112. The chapter in which this is found is entitled “The Agronomic Anthem”
(2) This wording is not intended to express uncertainty as to the number but rather the fact that the provinces in question, known as Ontario and Quebec since Confederation, prior to 1867 had at times been united in a single province of Canada, at other times separated into Upper and Lower Canada.
(3) Psalm 72:8
(4) Now Thorold, Ontario.
(5) Goldwin Smith, Canada and the Canadian Question (Toronto: Hunter, Rose & Co., 1891)
(6) Then, as now, the newspaper was a mouthpiece for the Liberal party line.
(7) John Wesley Dafoe, Canada: An American Nation (New York: Columbia University Press, 1935)
(8) In his election campaign in 1926, Mackenzie King told the Canadian electorate that the refusal of Lord Byng, the Governor General, to grant him a requested dissolution of Parliament earlier that year was a case of imperial interference in Canadian domestic affairs. This was a lie, as a simple perusal of the correspondence between the two during supposed crisis demonstrates. In his letter of resignation, Mackenzie King reminded the Governor General that he, Mackenzie King, had himself asked Byng to consult London and that he, Byng, had refused to do so. That Byng had acted properly, refusing to grant a dissolution to a government that faced a vote of censure in Parliament, was the argument of Eugene Forsey’s doctoral dissertation “The Royal Power of Dissolution of Parliament in the British Commonwealth” submitted to McGill University in 1941. When an abridged version of this was published as a book by Oxford University Press in 1943, it was denounced by J. W. Dafoe in the Winnipeg Free Press, leading to a war in print between Forsey and Dafoe in which the Liberal historian was soundly trounced. Accounts of this can be found in both Forsey’s memoirs A Life on the Fringe (Toronto: Oxford University Press,1990) pp. 106-108 and Charles Taylor’s Radical Tories: The Conservative Tradition in Canada (Toronto: Anansi, 1982) pp. 107-108.
(9) That Mackenzie King’s victory in 1926, which more or less made it the rule that vice-regal authority must never be exercised except as the Prime Minister advises, essentially turned Crown and Parliament into rubber stamps of the Prime Minister’s office, was the thesis of Farthing’s book which drew upon Forsey’s arguments. John Diefenbaker, in the speeches collected into his book Those Things We Treasure, (Toronto: Macmillan, 1972) observed how the changes Pearson and Trudeau were making were moving Canada towards a republicanism foreign to her heritage which would jeopardize the rights and freedoms grounded in our own tradition of parliamentary monarchy. When Trudeau repatriated the British North America Act, he added the Charter of Rights and Freedoms which, despite its name, actually undermines our traditional Common Law rights and freedoms. See Kenneth McDonald Alexis in Charterland (Belleville: Epic Press: 2004) It also enhanced the powers of the Supreme Court of Canada, basically empowering it to act like the American