The Frontier Centre for Public Policy held an informal symposium reviewing an important Canadian book—The 1867 Project: Why Canada Should be Cherished, Not Cancelled: Twenty Distinct Voices Make the Case for Canada (Calgary, AB: The Aristotle Foundation for Public Policy, 2023, 320 pgs., $25.00). The book is edited by Mark Milke, President of the newly formed independent think tank – The Aristotle Foundation for Public Policy. Writers associated with the Frontier Centre share their thoughts on this book in a symposium of three reviews. Not surprisingly, they do not always agree.
The avowed aim of the three-part book, The 1867 Project, is to rehabilitate the reputation of the Dominion of Canada and rescue it from attacks by activists, politicians, the media, and a largely uninformed citizenry. Twenty contributing writers take up their pens to provide the historical context necessary to truly understand the history of Canada. The authors of Part II explore the actions of great Canadians, whose statues are now being torn down, their names removed from public spaces and institutions, and who have been subject to the damnatio memoriae predicted by Orwell’s 1984.
The first to step forward is John Robson, with his essay “Carving out a country: From Magna Carta to Confederation”. He opens with an 1865 quote from John A. Macdonald, in which our Founding Father praised Canada’s British political heritage as one that has provided a liberty that is “safe from the tyranny of a single despot, or of an unbridled democracy.” Robson then takes his reader on a tour of the constitutional history of Britain, from Magna Carta to the English Civil War to the Glorious Revolution and its Bill of Rights, to Catholic Emancipation and the abolition of slavery. This, he notes, was a gradual and organic development, free from the violent excesses that marked those of France, America, and Russia. Particularly valuable is Robson’s account of the rise of representative democracy through the development of Parliament – a section that ought to be memorized by every Canadian school student – and his exploration of the roles of little-remembered patriote Jean Bédard, and Nova Scotian Joseph Howe.
Next to the plate is Greg Piasetzki whose essay bears the provocative title “Sir John A. Macdonald saved more indigenous lives than any other prime minister.” A bold claim but one which Piasetzki convincingly backs up. He demonstrates the compassionate clear-sightedness of Macdonald’s First Nations policies, especially in the face of a stingy Liberal opposition who wanted less money spent on food relief for the starving tribes and to see them driven off agriculturally rich Treaty land to make way for settlers. Macdonald successfully avoided the bloodshed that was endemic south of the border. He negotiated treaties guaranteeing indigenous rights in return for ceding traditional territories, saved tribes from destruction at the hands of unscrupulous whites, sponsored smallpox vaccination, and secured Canadian sovereignty. The gratitude of native leaders is part of the historical record now ignored by 21st-century activists. Piasetzki demonstrates that “no Canadian politician before or since has had such a salutary impact on Canada’s native population” and puts to shame those who would treat our first prime minister as a war criminal and remove his name from public honours.
Just as Piasetzki ably rescued Macdonald from disgrace, so Lynn McDonald goes to work in “How a ‘Maker of Canada’ was Framed: The Unjust Treatment of Egerton Ryerson.” Egerton Ryerson has had his named removed from a former polytechnic now conducting business as the blandly-renamed Toronto Metropolitan University, an institution which narrowly missed being ranked in the top 1,450 of the world’s universities. The reason for his being declared a non-person was that he was in office during the beginning of the Indian Residential School system, a means of providing native children with the education that had been promised to them in the numbered treaties. Those who erased Egerton seem not to have cared that he was a long-time supporter of native rights, spoke Anishinabe, fought for the protection of Ojibway land claims and fishing grounds, promoted the careers of native leaders and was adopted into an indigenous family. He was also an early champion of responsible government in the face of the corrupt Family Compact and introduced free public education and teachers’ colleges to Canada. Such a man deserves to have his name glorified by Canadians.
One of the most baffling apologies ever issued by pusillanimous Canadian politicians is that made by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for the treatment of six Tsilhqot’n war chiefs in 1864 at the hands of British colonial authorities. These chiefs had been found guilty of a series of murders which took place during the so-called Chilcotin War – 18 white civilians had been massacred and mutilated in a brief killing spree – and hanged. The presiding judge Matthew Begbie asked the defendants “What is your law against murderers?” “Death,” they replied. “Our law is the same,” Begbie said. “You are guilty of death.” In his essay “A crime against Sir Andrew Begbie’s humanity,” Peter Shawn Taylor shows that the judge, who brought law and order to the interior of British Columbia, does not deserve the defamation which has been his fate at the hands of native activists and spineless politicians looking to impose 21st century sensibilities on the 19th-century pre-Confederation past.
Leo J. Deveaux’s chapter entitled “Halifax cancels its founding father: The case of Edward Cornwallis” is an object lesson in the serpentine means by which politicians, administrators, and “anti-colonial” activists carry out historical character assassination. No figure in the history of Nova Scotia is more important than Cornwallis who, as Governor, established the settlement and port at Halifax, gave the colony Canada’s first constitution, and its first British law courts. He defended it against attacks by the Mi’kmaq, Acadians, and the French. Wars had been endemic in the region for decades with killings, kidnappings, torture, decapitations, and scalping part of the military culture of the region. Therefore, Cornwallis’s 1749 proclamation that a bounty would be paid for male Mi’kmaq scalps would have occasioned no surprise at the time. It is believed that only a single scalp was produced for payment. This proclamation was, however, enough to cause hysteria among 21st-century offenderati and cause Cornwallis’s name and statue to vanish. Why 18th-century Acadian and Mi’kmaq murders and scalpers, including perpetrators of the Dartmouth Massacre, should escape condemnation by their descendants remains a mystery.
A change from reporting on the cancel culture wars lies in Janice Fiamengo’s “Struggle and success: A balanced account of women in early Canada.” In this enlightening piece, Fiamengo shows that women’s path to higher education, the vote, and professional life was much smoother in English Canada than is usually assumed. It surprised me to learn, for example, that because of the lingering effect of property qualifications, “full adult female suffrage came at the same time as full adult male suffrage.” Nineteenth-century women were not shrinking violets, nor did they consider themselves victims. The struggle for the rights of Canadian women seems to have been short and relatively rancour-free.
Putting a cap on these revisionist efforts is C.P. Champion’s “The British colonial achievement and its deniers,” wherein Champion sets himself two tasks. The first is relatively easy: to show that British imperialism was milder than other European expansion; the second is more audacious: to defend colonialism itself. To claim that the British were less exploitive and genocidal than the Belgians, Spanish, or Germans is to set the bar rather low, but this is an age that seems to be unwilling to give the credit to Britain for being the first to abolish the slave trade, an institution as old as recorded human history. “People of every hue under British rule were less oppressed, less subject to arbitrary abuse and murder, more free, more prosperous, Champion reminds us, “and more likely to live in a successful future state than people under any other 20th century regime and perhaps most empires in history.
What is more amusing to read is his assertion that colonized peoples were not necessarily the good guys in the story. He points out the slave taking and human sacrifice by tribes on Canada’s west coast, widow burning and female infanticide in India, and the genocidal Mfecane of the Zulus. He asks, “Can anyone seriously maintain, if the Europeans had never colonized North America or Africa, with Christianity in their wake, that indigenous peoples would have abolished the slaving practices that were endemic to their cultures? Or that the Aztecs would have ended their ritual cannibalism and human sacrifice? What of the Aztecs’ neighbours, the Chimú, whose recently-excavated mass grave contained more than 140 child victims found with their hearts removed, having been sacrificed ‘to stop bad weather’?” He goes so far as to suggest that the Québécois fared better after the British Conquest than they would have under the French who were soon to undergo their bloody revolution. “Is it not likely that a triumphant France, had the Revolution of 1789 still ensued, would have put the Québécois through the horrors of the Terror, with New France resembling the Vendée?”
All of these essays are valuable contributions to the defence of Canadian civilization and deserve to be read in the schools and universities of our nation. Those who do read them are sure to be prouder of Canada’s history and troubled with the caricature version presented by today’s media.
Gerry Bowler, historian, is a senior fellow at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy