As we celebrate 150 years of confederation there is much discussion around the question of a Canadian identity and around what unites us as a country. Many believe that there is no core Canadian identity, no real heritage of value, and that all that unites us is our diversity. When looking back to those who founded this country, however, you will find that this diverse group of men united not on the basis of their differences, but on the basis of that which they shared, that is, a common heritage and a common set of values and beliefs. We would do well, I believe, to celebrate these things with the same vigour we celebrate diversity itself.
While proponents of confederation were in general agreement as to the desirability of this project, there was a fair amount of disagreement as to how to make it a reality, as well as how to unite the people around a common identity. They began, therefore, with the recognition of our common heritage in the Crown and of all that had been achieved under it. In the Legislative Assembly of the United Province of Canada (1865), Richard Cartwright, influential politician and orator, explained that Canada should indeed “cherish and preserve those time-honoured associations our American neighbours have seen fit so recklessly to cast away.”
Promoting his vision of a new type of national identity, George-Étienne Cartier (1865), French-Canadian patriot and former co-premier of the United Province of Canada, explained that, “if union were attained, we would form a political nationality with which neither the national origin, nor the religion of any individual, would interfere.” Mr. Cartier recognised the futility of having one race or sect attempt to dominate all others. That which would unite Canadians, therefore, and that which would ultimately form their identity, are the common civic values that could transcend the challenges of such diversity.
Charles Tupper (1865), then premier of Nova Scotia, specified what some of these common civic values were while debating in the House of Assembly: “It is necessary that our institutions should be placed on a stable basis, if we are to have that security for life and property, and personal liberty, which is so desirable in every country.” Ambrose Shea (1865) of Newfoundland made further precisions: “The provinces…propose to come together for purposes of mutual cooperation which all stand in need of, and which can only be secured by a course of action in which the just rights of all are respected and upheld.”
Sir John A. MacDonald (1865), who later became the first Prime Minister, expressed his thoughts on Canadians’ common values as follows: “If we do represent them (the people of Canada), we have a right to go to the foot of the throne and declare that we believe it to be for the peace, welfare, and good government of the people of Canada to form of these provinces one empire, presenting an unbroken and undaunted front to every foe”.
No doubt there are some who would quickly point to our founding fathers’ faults, and who in so doing would discredit them entirely. But far be it from us, with the benefit of hindsight, and on the basis of modern values, to so harshly judge the shortcomings of previous generations that we would neglect their achievements, and to so burden ourselves with their guilt that we would repudiate their honour.
Our heritage is indeed valuable, as is our core identity, and these deserve to not only be celebrated, but also protected from all who would seek to undermine them. In 2017, just as in 1867, let us unite around the stable and time-honoured traditions of the Crown of our dominion, as well as in our common values of individual liberty, security for life and property, the rule of law, as well as the peace, welfare, and good government of the people, with the understanding that these are best secured in a spirit of mutual cooperation and respect for all peoples of this great land.
Happy 150th Canada!
References: Ajzenstat, J., Gairdner, W. D., Gentles, I., Romney, P. (1999). Canada’s founding debates. Toronto: Stoddart Publishing Co Limited.
(Kevin Richard is a freelance Quebec writer and Discourse Online contributor. This article was first published in the Montreal Gazette.)