Our Legacy of Challenge

July 1 1947

Our Legacy of Challenge

July 1 1947

When the Dominion of Canada was only five years old the then Prime Minister wrote to an old friend:

“Confederation is only yet in the gristle, and it will require five more years before it hardens into bone. It is only by the exercise of constant prudence and moderation that we have been able to prevent the discordant elements from ending in a blowup.”

Seventy-five more years have passed since that was written. Now, on their country’s 80th birthday, Canadians may still ask themselves whether the gristle is fully hardened.

Certainly we still require of our statesmen the same “prudence and moderation,” to keep the same old discordant elements in harmony. All our old antitheses are with us yet—East and West, English and French, Maritimes and “Upper Canada,” Grit and Tory.

But on balance the record is good. Considering what we started with and what we have made of it, Canadians have cause for pride and, more than pride, cause for confidence that we shall yet make something great of this harsh and beautiful land.

PEOPLE forget what a bad start Canada had. We began with a heritage of hatred and of failure. A fruitless rebellion against an eve: more fruitless oligarchy had left us more that half paralyzed. Lord Sydenham, a great colonial governor and himself a great catalyst in the compounding of our nation, wrote home in 1840:

“The state of things here is far worse than I had expected. The country is split into factions animated with the most deadly hatred of each other . . . The deficit £75,000 a year, more than equal to the income. All public works suspended. Emigration going on fast. Every man’s property only half what it was. When I look to the state of the Government, instead of being surprised a the condition in which I find it, I am only astonished that it has endured so long.”

And that was the bright side. Down river, he found “a lamentable contrast” even with he squalid bickerings of Upper Canada:

“There, at least, the people were quarrelling for realities, for political opinions, with a view to ulterior measures. Here (in Lower Canada) there is no such thing as a political opinion. No man looks to practical measures for improvement. Talk to anyone about education, or public works, or better laws—let him be English or French—and you might as well talk Greek to him. Not a man cares for a single practical measure . . . They have only one feeling—a hatred of race. The French hate the English and the English hate the French, and every question resolves itself into that and that alone.”

The solution Lord Sydenham attempted, legislative union, broke down in utter deadlock within 25 years. And in a kind of desperation four, and then five and then six and seven, little struggling autonomous colonies were pushed and pulled, bullied and bribed, cajoled and persuaded to bring their local problems and local patriotisms into a sort of union.

Pessimists said it would never work, and many a time in 80 years they have appeared to be right. Tension was chronic and painful. In every generation something new came up to cause acute strain—the hanging of Riel, the Boer War, and then the great climaxes of two world wars.

Any one of them could have wrecked Canada–each of them, until this last, very nearly did. That country always was a defiance of common sense, anyway—a skinny ribbon of differentness strung along the top of the most powerful nation in the world.

Almost any year a sensible man might have said, “This country is going to fall apart.” But not now. Not any longer. We have weathered one storm too many for that. Now, even the grimmest “realist” can be stopped by the question, “If we are doomed to fail why haven’t we failed already?”

WE HAVEN’T failed because always, in this moment of crisis, we have known that that nation was worth more to us than the issue; that divided it. And now for the first time we can say with some assurance that no issue can ever mean enough to any of its factions to break the nation. Now for the first time we have come out of a crisis not merely whole, but stronger.

Not that our troubles are over. We, along with the rest of the world, appear to be heading into financial difficulty of the first magnitude. We are learning, or at least suspecting, that some of our wartime phrases about industrial power and new-found strength were a bit grandiloquent. And no matter what solution may be proposed for the problems we face we know in advance that we shall have to deal with them slowly and clumsily—Canada is still a nine-horse team, and a tax on any driver’s patience.

How well or ill we shall meet those problems no man can say. But at least we know now this: we shall meet them as Canadians, together.