Today, my fellow citizens rise to mark the 152nd anniversary of our independence from Great Britain, a holiday known as Canada Day.
This is surely among the planet’s least inspiring names for a national celebration. Americans stand up and salute on Independence Day; the French remember the French Revolution on Bastille Day, and Ethiopians rejoice when the Finding of the True Cross Day rolls around.
From 1879 to 1982 July 1 was known as Dominion Day, to acknowledge our passage from a collection of British colonies to becoming the Dominion of Canada, but that term was thrown out for having a Christian origin (Psalm 72:8) and for a lack of a suitable French equivalent. Not for the first time (nor the last) was a Canadian symbol with historical meaning turfed in favour of a bland alternative.
In 1965 the Pearson government, amidst a storm of controversy, dropped the Canadian Red Ensign (the flag under which our armies had fought two world wars) as our national banner in favour of an abstract floral emblem.
Shortly thereafter, the Canadian coat of arms was stripped from our mail boxes and our armed forces lost their distinctive identities. Out went traditional navy blue, sky blue and khaki and in came a green outfit reminiscent of those worn by gas station attendants. Out went reminders that our constitutional head of state was in fact a hereditary monarch — farewell Royal Canadian Air Force and Her Majesty’s Canadian Ships – and gone were traditional air force ranks such as Squadron Leader or naval ranks such as Petty Officer, to be replaced by army terminology: sergeant, colonel, etc.
When you denude a country of its long-standing symbology, you erode its national identity. In the minds of some politicians and academics this is actually a good thing. They fear nationalism, seeing it as a dangerous kind of chauvinism, and work to make Canada a blank slate on which social engineering can create something marvelous and new, divorced from history and lived experience. Pride in one’s country’s accomplishments becomes a sin and inoffensiveness becomes the highest virtue.
We can see this when our current Prime Minister recoils at calling female genital mutilation, forced marriage, or honour killings “barbaric practices” – this, he has said, is being overly judgmental because the Canadian government should make an “attempt at responsible neutrality” in its terminology. This same leader has opined that there is “no core identity, no mainstream in Canada….There are shared values — openness, respect, compassion, willingness to work hard, to be there for each other, to search for equality and justice. Those qualities are what make us the first post-national state.”
Despite this prime ministerial vision, Canada is far from being either post-national or devoid of a core identity. And we have deeper values than just being well-meaning and harmless. Try sitting in a sports bar watching our men or women play the American team at hockey and tell me that we are not nationalistic. Make a list of the world’s bad guys that Canadians have died fighting and you will see the sorts of things we viscerally oppose. The world would have been a different place if we had not stood up to Kaiser Wilhelm, Benito Mussolini’s fascist legions, Adolf Hitler’s panzer divisions, Islamic State terrorists, Chairman Mao’s People’s Liberation Army, Kim Il-Sung’s North Koreans, the Taliban, murderous Balkan militias, and Congolese warlords (And let’s not forget the USA – we’ve beaten back three of its invasions to preserve our independence).
Despite a government that forbids public access to a memorial to those who died fighting in Afghanistan, most Canadians are proud of their national armed forces and what they have done to protect freedom and the innocent.
Somewhere along the line, someone decided that we should be known as a people unwilling to celebrate our past and instead to perpetually apologize for our ancestor’s actions. We have begged forgiveness for the ill treatment of European Jews on the liner MS St. Louis, for the Indian Residential School system, for the head tax on Chinese immigrants, the internment of Japanese Canadians during our war with Japan, and the refusal to accept Indian immigrants on the Komagatu Maru in 1914.
Most astonishingly, we have apologized for trickery by British officials in capturing a gang of murderers years before the foundation of Canada. The statutes of our heroes from bygone days have been torn down for their failures, centuries ago, to think as we do today. Even the architect of the Canadian state, John A. Macdonald, has been found to be insufficiently virtuous to be celebrated – his very name on a school is deemed to create “an unsafe environment for kids to learn and work in.”
Perhaps to counter, just for a single day, our national breast-beating over the sins of the past, our politicians should spend today saying what it is that makes them proud to be a Canadian.
Gerry Bowler is a Canadian historian and a Senior Fellow of the Frontier Centre for Public Policy