Canada's History Lessons for Americans
Morton, Desmond, Canadian Speeches
The dictates of circumstances have made Canada a profoundly unmilitary country. But that doesn't mean Canada is not engaged in the war on terrorism. Our weapons are not so much warships, tanks and missiles, as police, customs and immigration, and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, focused on security for both Canada and the United States. Speech at the 62nd Advanced Management Program, Harvard Business School, Montreal, August 25, 2003.
As a Canadian historian focusing on conflict and military institutions in this profoundly unmilitary and normally consensual country, I can assure you that I have been left with plenty of time to think about other things, like our roots and our evolution, and why my ancestors, in 1784, abandoned the fleshpots of New York City to move to the blackened and shallow soil of New Brunswick, despaired even in their new homeland because my ancestor was aide de camp to Major-General Benedict Arnold U.E.
The Canadian experience
People came to Canada--from Asia or the south, as they still do--to get rich or, more practically, to escape poverty. Most could meet our lower standards or were on their way south--until the 1920s, Canada was the largest single source of U.S. immigrants. Sometimes we responded to appeals for political and religious freedom but only because refugees could bargain farming skills (Doukhobors) or capital (Hong Kong Chinese). Newcomers endured hardships, dangers, cultural and linguistic frustrations and some hostility from their predecessors. Immigrant roots have never guaranteed warm sympathy for later immigrants.
Perhaps this was wise. Canadian immigrants were not, on the while, the most admired or respected members of their parent societies. Successful people stayed home, and they still do. Canadian newcomers were outsiders--at home or here. They were more likely to be cunning than wise. They knew that they had to work hard to make it, though they always could hope to strike it lucky and retire--back home, if possible.
The Canadian environment
Nor was Canada a particularly pleasant place. The first French settlers arrived in the "Little Ice Age" of the 17th century. Since our summers were very hot and (originally) malarial, they were utterly unprepared for our sub-arctic winters. The forest was a dense barrier, crowding the shore. Rivers existed but they were eight short, or block by rapids, like the Ottawa and the St. Lawrence. The wonderfully inviting Saguenay led only to Chicoutimi.
Our original people were few and soon unfriendly. They provided neither a major market nor a workforce. Some may say that things haven't changed. At 31 million, Canadians are still not numerous compared to their neighbours, a number that reminds me that Americans can best grasp Canada by estimating that most national statistics--GNP, GDP, population and the like--are about a tenth the American counterpart. With one big exception: we are the second biggest country in the world, after Russia. Not even Texas can match us for size.
History begins with me
Canadians have always tended to believe that Canada's history began when they arrived--true of First Nations in 30,000 BC and of the Vietnamese in the 1980s, and certainly true of the French, Americans and English. Was it in 153 when Jacques Cartier planted his cross, or 1784, 200 years before Ontario claimed its bicentennial and long after the Indians or the French arrived? They wanted to celebrate that big crowd of losers, the Loyalist refugees from the American revolution. This is a country with no infrangible traditions or institutions. Things made in a hurry can be remade, and perhaps should be.
The peaceable kingdom
Canada comes by its peacefulness honestly. For centuries we were a battleground, for Indians, French, British, and Americans. The U.S. Civil War told the British that they could never win another War of 1812. Confederation turned into a cover to let them pull out. Bereft of military protection, Canadian politicians paid the price of getting along--putting their pride in their pocket and accepting one-sided deals as the alternative worse--and delivering a peace dividend to Canadians. Instead of drilling for a hopeless war, and spending millions but never enough, Canada disarmed, kept the border peaceful, and got a reputation for law and order. And guess who the biggest beneficiaries were? In 1914 and 1939, the two countries that abandoned us, France and Britain, got out single-minded allegiance, just like you got it on September 11.
The state and enterprise
Despite frequent encouragement from American visitors, Canadians have not made war on government. Business and the state have been partners. The Crown (an enterprise in itself) invested in early explorers, sent troops to protect its investments as well as its subjects and, under the Ancient Regime, hoped that military discipline could curb the rapacity and self-dealing of distant trade. Companies grumbled, profited, and tried the same techniques. When they came, railways were quasi-military, with uniformed staff, fines and force of criminal law to make tarriers dig and engineers and stationmen respect signals. Our big merchandiser, the Hudson's Bay Company, was government to half the country until 1870.
Our government is not loved or deeply admired, save at moments of crises, but it is not an enemy. We are an ordered and sometimes differential society, at least when things go well, because we need the power of the State to do things we want to do, from schooling to mobilizing for the huge projects private capital needed but could never manage--from canals and transcontinental railways in the 19th century to super-highways and space science in the 20th
Canadians believe that the state is the cheapest provider of health services and old-age security, saving the huge sums Americans spend on advertising, promotion, and rewarding private investors in these civilized necessities. We spend a lot less than you do on health services, and we probably need to spend a little more because, under Gresham's Law, a bad system can drive out a better one.
For most of its history, most Canadians were definably, objectively poor. Decennial census from 1911 to 1941 confirmed the point. About two-thirds of Canadians lacked the income to buy what their contemporaries considered necessities. In 1951, that number dropped to a third, and by 1961 to one-sixth. It stabilized for two decades, and now the fraction has been rising. One reason was that family allowance, a flat-rate demogrant program started in 1945, met the biggest single cause of poverty, having a family. Legalizing, even encouraging trade unions after 1944 meant that union members, and countless others, claimed higher wages. All this was possible because, like you, we emerged victorious and undamaged from the Second World War.
Time and distance
Crossing the Atlantic in sailing ships was as costly and dangerous as space travel. Distances were aggravated by natural barriers. Beyond the Lachine Rapids lay even more rocky places and, finally, Niagara Falls. From the first, making Canada profitable required government help--to build roads and dig canals with scarce habitant or contract labour.
Canada's history, like America's, has been dominated by travel and communications. There has been an appetite for new ways--canals, railways, highways, aircraft, wire, cable, fibre optics. We may lack public libraries in Montreal and an opera house in Toronto, but are still almost nuts about communications. Business may scorn social services but it has been uncompromising about the need for publicly-funded infrastructure --particularly if the public could be the customers through tariffs or sales taxes. Unlike Americans, Canadians have never made war on government. We have needed its taxing and credit to build a country. This city was a result.
Montreal was the classic Canadian metropolis, subordinate from birth the government city of Quebec, located where trade was likely, at the confluence of three rivers--the St. Lawrence running from the Great Lakes, the Ottawa from the West, the Richelieu to Lac Champlain in the south. Rapids made it the ultimate point for ocean shipping: everything had to be transshipped, from passengers to whisky and furs, though Quebec competed for timber.
Three hundred years ago you would have seen the banks of the St. Lawrence forested or marked by a few small clearings, with crude cabins or smoky tents. Beyond the rapids are products you want to market, and markets you want to serve--perhaps even the fabled China itself. Those are the business challenges which have led people farther, deeper, faster into Canada. Imagine what you would have done, with the tools and the knowledge of an early 17th-century entrepreneur.
What really determined Montreal's future was a new river, the GTR from Portland, Maine to Sarnia in the 1850s, and heading for Chicago. The Grand Trunk crossed the St. Lawrence on a Marvel of the World, the Victoria Bridge, opened when the Queen's son, the future Edward VII, visited in 1860. Other rivers or rails were start here, chiefly the CPR, opened to Vancouver in 1885. Its Western rival, the Canadian Northern, blocked by its rivals, smashed into Montreal in 1910 by tunnelling under Mount Royal in 1910.
Montreal became headquarters for all the businesses that mattered--railways, with the skilled workers, their repair shops, their command of the economic pulse, their magnates--Sir William Van Home, Joseph Hickson, Chadie Hays, Sir Edward Beatty--lived here as corporate executives, not owners, their wishes respected. Their baronial style made English the dominant language in a city where two-thirds spoke French. Their arrogance fed the Quiet Revolution and left scars that separatists tear off when they want a crowd to shout. Decisions made on St. James Street echoed across Canada. As a child in Regina, I was raised to it "Jesse James" Street.
Today St. James Street is rue St-Jacques and partly a slum. Montreal is no longer Canada's metropolis. In the 1950s, the St. Lawrence Seaway allowed ocean travel past the Lachine Rapids and as far as Duluth and Thunder Bay. Already roads and air travel were making other centres. Industries that were new in 1900 lost their monopolies and then their protection from national and world competition. The Pacific rivals Europe as present and future trading hope. Both pale beside the U.S., for which Canada is once again hardly more than the resource hinterland it had seemed before the Confederation which, for a century put Montreal and southern Quebec at the heart of a trans-continental country.
Montreal's rival, Toronto, was the short-term winner, cultivating a lake-side location at a respectful distance from the U.S. "Iron Triangle." Other centre have risen--Winnipeg flourished and failed when it and its prairie region were by-passed by new world suppliers and the Panama Canal. Vancouver began to fulfill the dreams of its creators as Canada's centrepot on the Pacific--and now it wonders where the Asian tigers went.
Some old arguments that made Montreal crucial still exist, though time and technology have faded them. Canada remains a country in the grip of change, grumbling and embracing it at the same time, conscious of its weakness in the shadow of the United States, never really aware of the temptations and the dangers if it lived anywhere else in the world.
A new national metropolis again?
Montreal became a national metropolis since 1945, displacing the all-powerful English-speaking business and commercial elite, generating a francophone business class with quite amazing speed, and through such instruments of the state as the Caisse de depot and the SGF, creating corporations such as Bombardier and SNC-Lavalin, able to compete in the continent, the hemisphere, and potentially even in Europe and Asia. National sovereignty, once a big issue in Quebec, has been a casualty of globalization. It was never much of a priority in Montreal, anyway. Why would we abandon our cosmopolitanism to be a provincial sub urb of l'ancienne capital down river at Quebec City? Professor Peter Kresl and Pierre-Paul Proulx have argued that Montreal is a competitive location, impeded a little by climate, but enormously enriched by diversity and cultural life.
Canadians are chronic complainers. They even complain about their neighbours. This is best cured by encouraging them to think about waking up to find the Afghans or the Australians next door. Until 1867, the British claimed to be ready to fight a second War of 1812. Then they quietly woke up to the fact that they would lose. By 1871, their garrisons had skedaddled, leaving a Dominion of Canada to defend itself to the death--or not!
Defence or security
Our government simply refused to play the game. Si vis pacem, says the motto, bellum parare. Fiddlesticks. Don't worry your neighbors and they won't worry you. For a million dollars a year, our early politicians gave us just enough militia to stop riots and other minor trouble. We sent 300 mounted police west to keep our Indians peaceful. When American officers came north to inspect our defences, they went home with a fit of the giggles. When our old defenders, France and England, got into trouble in the 20th century, we sent all we had to help defend them. Thanks to the neighbours, we didn't really need to defend ourselves.
Today you are at war with terrorists. We are too, but not so much with warships, tanks and missiles as with police, customs and immigration, and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service. When our government spent money on our homeland security, it was spent to make our neighbours comfortable with our border. This enraged our military lobbyists and yours, because Canada focused on security, not on buying U.S. military hardware. Debate the priorities, by all means, and complain about our reluctance to join you in Iraq, but understand our problem and our purpose.
Hiram Mills Professor of History, McGill University…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Canada's History Lessons for Americans. Contributors: Morton, Desmond - Author. Magazine title: Canadian Speeches. Volume: 17. Issue: 3 Publication date: September-October 2003. Page number: 28+. © 1998 Canadian Speeches. COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group.
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