Canada and the End of Empire

By Roy, Patricia E. | International Journal, Winter 2005 | Go to article overview
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Canada and the End of Empire


Roy, Patricia E., International Journal


CANADA AND THE END OF EMPIRE Edited by Phillip Buckner Vancouver: UBC Press, 2004. viii, 328pp, $85.00 cloth (ISBN 0-7748-0915-9), $29.95 paper (ISBN 0-7748-0916-7)

By coincidence, I was reading this book on 15 February 2005 as Canadians celebrated the 4Oth anniversary of the first raising of the red and white Maple Leaf flag. Though "an important symbolism of Canadianism" (244), Gregory A. Johnson concludes that the new flag did not solve problems with Quebec, improve federal-provincial relations, or win votes for Lester B. Pearson's government. For the Imperial Order of the Daughters of the Empire, however, Lorraine Coops remarks that the flag's "omnipresence" demonstrated the completion of "the transition from empire to a nation in the Commonwealth" (268). Exploring the implications of the end of empire for English Canada is the raison d'être of this well-informed and eclectic but coherent collection of 18 essays.

Contributors propose various dates for the empire's demise. John Darwin argues that little remained of the empire by 1950 but the Cold War, a temporary decline in European economies, and an American guarantee of British security masked its demise. By the 1950s, as Allan Smith catalogues, Britain's cultural leadership was fading. Nevertheless, Paul Rutherford outlines how Britons still influenced Canadian high culture such as ballet, theatre, the National Film Board, the CBC, and how the anglophilic Vincent Massey looked to British models for the Canada Council. Looking at the question through official American eyes in a grand sweep of CanadianAmerican trade and diplomatic relations since 1783, Gordon T. Stewart dates the end of Canada's imperial connection specifically at 22 May 1963, when the newly elected Pearson told American officials that "the British Empire and Commonwealth...was in rapid dissolution" (111).

For some Canadians, the imperial tie lasted longer. Andrea Benvenuti and Stuart Ward suggest the 1961-63 crisis over Britain's proposed entry into the European Economic Community revealed contradictions, as the Diefenbaker government feared it would weaken Commonwealth ties while the public sympathized with Britain. Marc Milner speculates that the failure of the Royal Canadian navy to identify itself as Canadian rather than royal may have caused its extinction with the integration of the armed forces in 1968. J. R. Miller recounts how the First Nations, in campaigning against the repatriation of the constitution in 1982, continued a long tradition of petitioning the "Great White Mother or Father" in London for redress. Editor Phillip Buckner's perceptive introduction admits the difficulty in dating the end of the empire exactly but suggests 1956-67 were critical years. His own essay implies that the royal tour of 1959 demonstrated that Canadians could not be convinced that the queen was or could be made Canadian.

Some Canadians saw the Suez crisis of 1956 as a turning point. José Igartua's study of press comment on it found divided opinion on Canada's actions, although editors of major English Canadian newspapers took as a given that Canada was a British nation. In a fine overview of AngloCanadian relations from 1956 to 1973, John Hilliker and Greg Donaghy assert that the Suez crisis had "a lasting impact" (30) but show how other issues, such as British membership in the European Economic Community, participation in NATO, policies towards Africa, and, especially, bilateral trade, demonstrated the limitations of the relationship.

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