As we get ready to celebrate Canada’s 145th anniversary, we should recognize that we have much to be thankful for and every reason to be proud of our place in the world. As one of the world’s oldest constitutional democracies, Canada continues to be a beacon of freedom, peace and stability in an often uncertain world.
Our economy remains strong and prosperous, having avoided the public and private sector failures that have afflicted Europe and the United States over the past few years. For the first time in decades, we are surpassing the United States in most measures of economic growth, employment, and quality of life. Our place on the world stage is secure, as Canada continues to stand up for freedom and human rights whether in Afghanistan or in the assemblies of the United Nations. While Canadian federalism will always have its problems, the constitutional battles of the 1990s and early 2000s have largely receded. There is a new sense of pride and confidence in Canada which goes beyond the old regional and ideological divisions.
It is appropriate that Canada Day 2012 will closely coincide with two other significant anniversaries; Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee and the 200th anniversary of the war of 1812. Queen Elizabeth has reigned with dignity and grace for 60 years, and represents the endurance of our political institutions. While Canada is often regarded as a young country—the political left often likes to pretend that it came into existence with the patriation of the Constitution in 1982—it is in fact one of the oldest constitutional democracies in the Western World. Our original written constitution, the British North America Act, dates back to 1867, when our founding fathers, Sir John A. MacDonald and Sir Georges Étienne-Cartier, succeeded in uniting Britain’s North American colonies into a single Confederal state and embarked upon an ambitious plan to develop the Canadian West.
Our nation and our constitution are thus older than those of Germany, Italy, France and a host of other states whose most basic institutions have been overthrown and rebuilt repeatedly in the last century alone. But more than that, our Queen and our parliamentary institutions bind us to a long tradition of British freedom and representative government which goes back to the Magna Carta in 1215. The Charter of Rights and Freedoms passed in 1982 only heaped a new and trendier layer onto the rights and freedoms which had been protected for centuries under the Crown and the Common Law.
The War of 1812 also played a decisive role in shaping our history and identity as a nation. It was the first conflict in which the inhabitants of English and French Canada took an active part, in defense of their homes and institutions, rather than as bystanders in a war between colonial powers. While Britain’s armies were in Europe fighting against Napoleon, local forces made up mostly of Canadian volunteers mixed with contingents of British regulars managed to hold off repeated American invasions despite being frequently outnumbered, as at the battles of Queenston Heights and Crysler’s Farm, two or three to one by the Americans. When celebrating Confederation in 1867, it was to these victories that Canadians looked for inspiration and a sense of pride in their new Dominion. The Maple Leaf Forever, composed in 1867 by the poet Alexander Muir, served as Canada’s first, unofficial national anthem and commemorated the sacrifices of the Canadians who “firmly stood and nobly died” at the battles of Queenston Heights and Lundy’s Lane.
Though most Canadians continued to regard themselves as essentially British well into the twentieth century—as late as 1945, half of the population of Toronto had been born in Britain, the patriotism of the Maple Leaf Forever was not that of a minor colony but of a country that saw itself as the new frontier of the British Empire, a “fair dominion” that might one day be every bit as a powerful and important as the mother country. It was this sentiment that led Sir Wilfrid Laurier, our seventh Prime Minister, to predict that while the 19th century had been dominated by the United States, the twentieth century would belong to Canada.
Laurier’s sense of progress and optimism continued through the first half of the twentieth century, through the World Wars, the Depression, and the postwar boom which made Canada into an industrial and military power. It may have been lost for awhile, as the British Empire appeared to fall apart with the decolonization of the late 1950s and demographic and cultural trends put Québec in the hands of a new, technocratic elite determined to substitute the “québécois” state for the proud nation of the “canadien-français” which had founded Canada, to make war upon its own history and to replace it with garbled notions of colonial oppression which could only be excised by the creation of an independent, utopian socialist Republic.
The response of English Canada was to put itself in the hands of the Trudeau Liberals, who attempted to erase the Canada of the Maple Leaf Forever and replace it with one based on social democratic ideology and faith in a highly centralized federal government as the only force capable of maintaining national unity against the real threats of the separatists and the imagined menace of the United States. They mainly succeeded in uniting the country against themselves. Over the last quarter of century we have slowly but surely moved back to the old equilibrium and abandoned the nationalism of ideology and regional antagonism for a healthier patriotism that has more to do with what unites us a country; our freedoms and respect for the rule of law, our preference for peace and stability, our proud history as a nation and our openness to peoples of all races, creeds and cultures.
The new patriotism and confidence goes along well with what Canada has accomplished in recent years. Our economy is strong and prosperous. Canada’s finances and economy are in better shape than those of Europe and the United States. The Liberal and Conservative governments of Brian Mulroney, Jean Chrétien and Stephen Harper brought down deficits, cut taxes and opened our economy to the world through a series of bold trade agreements. As a result, Canada leads the G-8 in economic growth and is in no danger of suffering from the debt crisis which Europe now faces. Shrewd banking regulation which requires real responsibility on the part of borrowers and lenders has allowed us to avoid the sub prime meltdown which wiped out much of the American financial sector. Our energy sector has grown to be the motor of the Canadian economy, leading to an unprecedented boom in Western Canada and lifting some provinces, like Saskatchewan and Newfoundland, from stagnation to prosperity. The strength of our dollar, far from being a disease, is a sign of the strength of our economy and of the increased prosperity and purchasing power that all Canadians have earned.
We can also be proud of our place in the world; Canada’s revived military has defended our values of freedom and human rights in Afghanistan and elsewhere. We continue to play a key a role in international institutions like NATO and the G-8 while leading the world in the promotion of free trade and economic reform. As we look back on our history, our traditions, and our current strength at home and abroad, we might well seek to echo Sir Wilfrid Laurier and have reason to believe that the twenty-first century will belong to Canada. Happy Canada Day.