Canada's History Lessons for Americans

Article excerpt

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. …