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
"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
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