Canada's Search for Identity Founding Events Didn't Create a Unifying National Myth

By John Cruickshank. John Cruickshank is managing editor of the Globe and Mail . | The Christian Science Monitor, February 26, 1992 | Go to article overview

Canada's Search for Identity Founding Events Didn't Create a Unifying National Myth


John Cruickshank. John Cruickshank is managing editor of the Globe and Mail ., The Christian Science Monitor


THERE is no Canadian story.

There are English-Canadian stories, French-Canadian stories, Aboriginal-Canadian stories, Maritime-Canadian stories, Western Canadian stories, and New-Canadian stories.

But these are not complementary accounts of the country that can be pieced together like a puzzle or even layered, one voice upon another, to achieve a distinct national harmony. Canada is a land of many unities but no single unifying hope or fear. While it is easy enough to catalog the country's characteristics, its character remains frustratingly elusive.

For most of its history, Canada's official story has been a colonial one and the national persona that of a careful, gifted child. Quebec, or New France, stood in that relation to France. The Dominion of Canada really began to make its presence felt in the world and to feel itself a presence as an independent nation only during World War II.

As Britain's influence in Canada has waned in this century, the very notion of an official Canadian story has collapsed. And Canadian politics has increasingly become a debate about what the good colonial child will be when (or perhaps, if) she grows up.

The contrast with the American experience is striking. The national mission of the United States was written - in blood and gunpowder - as it attained independence. In Canada, the sense of national mission and identity has grown more tentative and obscure with greater independence.

The early European history of Canada is exciting and vivid but curiously irrelevant to most of the nation's central preoccupations. Sometime in the 10th century - 500 years before Christopher Columbus's unsuccessful attempt to reach the Orient - Viking adventurer Leif Erikson, Leif the Lucky, landed on the coast of Newfoundland.

"There were fields of wild wheat growing there, and vines, and among the trees were maples," the Viking sagas say. There were also communities of aboriginal people who didn't believe the continent needed a new wave of discoverers and settlers.

Viking attempts to colonize what would become Canada around A.D. 1000 were violently opposed. The sagas say the Vikings soon recognized that "although the land was excellent, they could never live there in safety or freedom from fear."

The next reliably documented European visit was paid by John Cabot in 1497. A Genovese mariner - his real name was Giovanni Caboto - he braved the Atlantic crossing under contract to King Henry VII of England. For his immense trouble, he was awarded a modest pension and a regal gift of 10 British pounds. Whereas Columbus is rivaled only by Britain's Queen Victoria in the English-speaking world as a subject for statue, plaque, and other gruesome forms of public art, Mr. Cabot remains an uncelebrated figure.

That brings us to the era of French exploration and colonization of North America - to Jacques Cartier, Samuel de Champlain, Sieur de la Salle, adventurers whose histories are most evocatively chronicled in English by the 19th-century Bostonian Francis Parkman.

It is no accident that English Canada never produced a version of the nation's earliest European history to rival that of the admittedly brilliant American writer.

In the US, the settlement period is regarded as an inevitable and logical prelude to the revolution, when national history begins in earnest. The struggle for independence becomes a permanent part of the present.

In Canada, the analogous event is the Battle for Quebec at the Plains of Abraham in 1759. In the British victory and French defeat, the future course of the Canadian nation was set and the country's national histories really begin.

For English Canadians that history is a conventional colonial one. It is a story about struggling with the wilderness, subverting the aboriginal peoples, seeking an accommodation with the defeated Quebeckers, and trying to repress the inevitable transformation from imperial conquerors of a foreign land to natives of a new world. …

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