Last June Arthur Irwin, who retires as Editor of Maclean's with this issue, was asked to define the Canadian to an American audience at Buffalo. The great interest aroused by his speech leads the editors to publish it here as his last staff contribution to the magazine

W. ARTHUR IRWIN February 1 1950


Last June Arthur Irwin, who retires as Editor of Maclean's with this issue, was asked to define the Canadian to an American audience at Buffalo. The great interest aroused by his speech leads the editors to publish it here as his last staff contribution to the magazine

W. ARTHUR IRWIN February 1 1950

I COME here today as a Canadian to try to tell you something about my country and its people. Who is this Canadian and what makes him act the way he does?

Few of you I would suppose have ever heard of Sir John A. Macdonald. Sir John was the first prime minister of the Canadian confederation. He was a lovable old cuss, and as adroit a politician as this hemisphere has produced. He was also a statesman who envisioned the rise of a nation on the northern half of this continent which should have dominion from sea to sea and from river unto the ends of the earth.

On April 9, 1867, he wrote privately to a friend in India this letter:

“I have been in England since November. I have at last succeeded. I sail in four days for Canada with the Act uniting all of British North America in my pocket.

“A brilliant future would certainly await us were it not for those wretched Yankees, who hunger and thirst for Naboth’s field. (Naboth, you will remember, was the owner of a Biblical vineyard which his neighbor coveted and took.) War will come some day between England and the United States, and India can do us yeoman service by sending an army of Sikhs, Ghurkas, etc., etc., across the Pacific to San Francisco and holding that beautiful and unusual city and the surrounding California as security for Montreal and Canada.”

How Much Duty on a Bren?

THAT rather startling document was written eighty-two years ago by a Canadian prime minister.

Among other things, it suggests how fantastically wrong even wise statesmen can be in forecasting the future and that your Mark Twain was profoundly right when he said half the world’s troubles never happen.

But when he wrote that letter Sir John undoubtedly was thinking of the tension which existed between Great Britain and the North during and after your Civil War and the fear in Canada that this tension might result in an American attack on Canada.

No doubt he remembered as did all his generation of Canadians that twice during the previous eighty-two years American forces actually had tried to capture Canada and that during one of those attempts an American army actually had occupied Montreal for more than six months.

We don’t do it that way now—which indicates that perhaps both of us have learned something worth learning. As I passed through customs at the Peace Bridge last night I was reminded how different was the most recent reciprocal invasion of American territory by a Canadian force.

Believe it or not, when it came to organizing a joint American-Canadian Expedition to throw the Japanese out of Kiska, during the last war, it was discovered that under your customs regulations the Canadian troops couldn’t get into Alaska without paying duty not only on their personal effects but on their weapons.

Such a situation demanded radical treatment and your then Secretary of State, Cordell Hull, found it.

After noting that the Canadian forces were the first foreign troops since Lafayette “to stand beside our own armed forces in expelling the enemy from American soil,” he calmly designated the entire Canadian contingent “distinguished foreign visitors,” which meant that no one could collect duty from them.

Looking back from this kind of perspective we realize now, of course, that behind those other far-off martial incursions of which I spoke a moment ago lay dual fears, yours as well as ours. Yours being the then traditional distrust of Britain; and fear that Canada would be used as a British base against you.

And from your point of view I suppose it might be argued that those chastisements you attempted so long ago were intended primarily for our own good.

“I come to protect you, not injure you,” proclaimed your General Hull when he crossed into what is now Ontario with an army from Detroit in 1812: “The United States offers you peace, liberty and security; your choice lies between these and war, slavery and destruction. Choose then—and choose wisely.”

A Bouquet From the Little Flower

THE Canadian did choose and what he chose was to seek peace, liberty and security in his own way—with results that only in recent years have begun to speak their inner meaning.

Let me illustrate. The scene is the Social and Humanitarian Affairs Committee of the United Nations at Lake Success. The year: 1946.

There’s been a bitter argument about policy to be followed in continuing relief to Europe. Former Mayor La Guardia of New York, head of UNRRA, has been arguing vehemently for one position. He's been adamantly opposed by the U. S. Government and by Britain. Britain and the U. S., on the other hand, have failed completely to win support from some 40 other countries.

The battle has gone on for most of one day, far into the night and most of the next day, at times with vitriolic intensity. The Canadians as suppliers of relief are vitally concerned and have been involved in the wrangle but not in such a way as to be irretrievably entangled with any of the contending factions.

Finally La Guardia makes a dramatic intervention.

“We’ve got to bring this thing to a head,” he says. “I will take sight unseen any resolution which the Canadian delegate will propose.”

After a two-hour adjournment, the Canadian submitted a resolution which gave everybody something of what they wanted but nobody everything. It was at once adopted unanimously save for the Russian block.

A Puzzle for Outsiders

IN ITSELF this was a trifling incident, but something very like it has happened far too often to be accidental.

Why did La Guardia so trust the Canadians? Why did the other contending factions display a similar confidence? And how did it happen that the Canadian had the skill to resolve their difficulties?

Apparently something pretty fundamental has happened to the character and status of the Canadian since American armies knocked at his door and a Sir John Macdonald worried about more of the same to come. What is it?

To the outsider, of course, I admit we must be a bit puzzling. The King of England is King of Canada and yet he has no more political power in Canada than has Chicago’s Col. McCormick. We are an independent nation, yet we have an English governor-general—who doesn’t govern.

When Canadian troops go into battle abroad, they fly a Canadian flag—but at home we have no national flag because we haven’t been able to agree on one. The resources of two official languages have not provided us with one word to define the Canadian satisfactorily in both.

We belong to a world-circling Commonwealth which has no constitution and no common agreement to fight as a unit but had both the strength and the spirit to stand alone against Hitler when Europe fell.

At times our domestic dissensions seem to threaten to blow our state apart and yet we are probably one of the most stable countries in the world today. When recently an Ontario Presbyterian of Scottish extraction was succeeded as prime minister by a French Roman Catholic from Quebec, there was scarcely a ripple of change discernible in either the internal or foreign policies of our government.

I repeat then: who is this puzzling Canadian and how did he get that way?

I suppose you know that just a little less than half of the 13,300,000 we number are of Anglo-Saxon extraction. One third are French and the rest of other European stock.

We are sprung from many sources but the one thing we now have in common as a people is that we are Americans, North Americans just as you are. Some of us were very early Americans. The French Canadian, for instance, has more American generations behind him than any other white stock north of the Rio Grande save the Spanish.

But two things distinguish us from other Americans.

One: We are the northern North American with all that implies in terms of influence of climate and terrain on character and a way of life.

Two: We are the unique American in that we alone among all the Americans of two continents have insisted on maintaining political connection with our parent stem in Europe.

Up and down the hemisphere all the way from Baffin Land to Patagonia, all other Americans at one time or another have cut the connection or had it cut for them the Dutch, the Spanish, the Portuguese, the French, the mid-continent Anglo-Saxons who launched the U. S. A. Only the Canadian American refused to break his political continuity with history.

This is, of course, a simple and obvious fact but in my view it is the first basic clue to the Canadian character.

I don’t think you can understand the Canadian unless you appreciate that he is really two persons in one.

In one aspect of his being he is a Geography Man, a man molded by the geography of northern North America, a man who has had to build a way of life suited to a stern and difficult land, in the face of great obstacles both physical and political.

In his other aspect he is a History Man, a man who has responded and still responds to the pulls of history... a man driven by a deep intuitive response to the traditional values enshrined in his heritage overseas.

The Canadian, in short, is the northern North American in whom there has been and still is a constant conflict between history and geography.

And the resulting dualism in his life has had a profound effect on his character, his attitudes and his status and role in the world.

The Geography Man

You can see this dualism operating in the individual Canadian in the group and in the nation as a whole. I’ve seen a Canadian prime minister go to an imperial trade conference, for example, and do his utmost to throttle textile imports from England’s Lancashire to safeguard the Canadian textile industry. That’s the Geography Man acting on the basis of sheer self-interest.

The next day the same prime minister would get up on the platform and with a gesture worthy of a Roman senator wrap himself in the flag that flits over Lancashire. That’s the History Man.

And the two men in one act with equal sincerity.

Which must be a bit baffling to the outsider. Sometimes it’s baffling to the Canadian himself. 

Like you, the Canadian in meeting the challenge of his geography, had first to unlock the keys to half a continent. You have only to look at your own imp to see evidence of his footsteps in a wilderness. LaSalle, Pere Marquette, St. Louis, Champlain, Cadillac, Detroit, Ford’s River Rouge, Duluth... all these and many more are Canadian names, for it was the Canadian who first explored the great central interior of this continent from the Gulf of Mexico to Hudson Bay.

Like you, we had to thrust steel from ocean to ocean and being very few in a very large space we had to take some wild gambles. Our first transcontinental was built by a population of 4,500,000; yours by a population of 37,000,000.

As with you, our geography broke down European class distinctions and made us democrats. The first English governor who came to Ontario after your revolution wanted to build a new British state in the north on the basis of an established church and a hereditary aristocracy based on the ownership of land.

But it wouldn’t work. You couldn’t make a duke out of 10,000 acres of virgin Ontario bush. There was more than enough for everybody and no man had to serve under another. The land laughed at the aristocrat and sprouted a new world democracy. It is not an accident that today we have no titles, hereditary or otherwise, despite the fact we have a king.

To survive in a harsh and empty land we had to breed a tough and stable people. At times we’ve had to take long chances but basically we are more cautious than you. We’ve had to be. Our climate allows us less margin of error. On the average the Canadian farmer, I suppose, must be poorer than the American farmer by four or five weeks of warm weather a year.

Our frontier is the Arctic wilderness and the wilderness still presses close upon our cities. From our capital's parliament buildings one looks upon the everlasting hills which, scarcely scarred by human hands, stretch unbroken to the empty northern sea. Nearly every Canadian at some time in his life has felt the shiver of awe and loneliness which comes to man when he stands alone in the face of untamed nature; and this is one reason why we are a sober and essentially religious people.

Your true Canadian loves this land and it has yielded him a competence which no nation outside your own, has equalled.

All of us are familiar with the fabulous outburst of productive energy which has swept your country during the past ten years. Some of you may not be aware that something very similar has happened north of the border. Between 1938 and 1948 our population increased 16 per cent, employment increased 40 per cent and the volume of goods and services produced by 75 per cent. This has meant an advance in our average standard of living of roughly 50 per cent. Your advance, I’m told, has been approximately the same.

Geography has done very well by the Canadian.

The History Man

What then impelled the Canadian to remain a History Man and alone among all the Americans stubbornly to cling to his political root in the face of a century and three quarters of rising isolationism in the whole American hemisphere?

The reasons for this go very deep and I’m not going to try to probe them fully here. One obvious cause was the dynamic expansionism of a United States which during much of the nineteenth century felt its Manifest Destiny was to embrace at least all of North America above the Rio Grande. And we didn’t want it that way.

Our original French, defeated by one conqueror, feared engulfment by another. The Anglo-Saxon loyalists who came to us after defeat in your revolutionary war, understandably, were determined not to be twice defeated. So together they drew on the power of the Old World to maintain a balance in the New.

Other deep emotional and spiritual urges were also at work, but reasons aside, the tenacity with which this Canadian American insisted maintaining the political link with Europe was extraordinary.

Even at a time when governing statesmen in England were talking about getting rid of “those wretched colonies... those millstones around our necks” and “looking forward without regret to Canada becoming an independent state,” this dual personality which is the Canadian insisted on sticking to his original political base come hell and high water.

But—and here we reach the heart of the story—he insisted on sticking on his own terms.

With remarkable results.

Three years before your Declaration of Independence, Governor Hutchison of Massachusetts told the Assembly of that state:

“I know of no line that can be drawn between the supreme authority of Parliament (of Great Britain) and the total independence of the colonies.”

The Canadian found that line. And in doing so he incubated a new political idea of major world significance. For out of the struggle within the Canadian between History and Geography came first the fact and then the concept of that unique world political system known as the British Commonwealth of Nations, a system built on the idea that nations can achieve freedom and independence without complete separateness from others.

It took you ten years to write your Declaration of Independence and make it stick. It took us a century to make our declaration and we didn’t write it—we lived it.

As with you, the Canadian to survive in the American scene had to adjust his life patterns, his political patterns, to his geography. He had to be free to run his own affairs in his own way. This meant that he had to insist on the right to tell a king on the other side of the water how the king’s business on this side of the water should be run. But, unlike you, he couldn’t or wouldn’t give up his king. His sense of history’s continuity ran too deep for that.

As with you, in the beginning there was violence. Rebellion; marching and counter-marching; blood was spilled, towns and villages put to the torch; there were trials and hangings; political prisoners from the Canadas were shipped in hulks to far-off Tasmania.

But in the end the Canadian got his way. Even as down through the centuries the king had become the servant of the people in Britain and the symbol of their oneness, so on this side of the water he became the servant of an American people and the symbol of their tie with an ancient root.

First we secured the right to govern our internal affairs without interference. Then, because it was the only one which would work in Canadian geography, we had to devise a federal political system and graft it into the British system of parliamentary government.

Then, little by little, we got control over our external affairs. Slowly the concept emerged of a wholly autonomous nation freely associating with other nations for the preservation of a common way of life.

Something New Under the Sun

Slowly the concept spread around the world as the other Dominions grew in the Canadian pattern. Slowly the consequences of the Canadian’s adjustment to the North American scene were projected back into the parent political structure and an empire was transformed into a commonwealth which was something new under the sun.

There’s high drama in the story if you see it in perspective and the drama is not yet played out. Within the year India has achieved freedom. But because the Canadian had shown it to be possible, hers too is a freedom without separateness; and an idea forged on the frontiers of America marches on to wider fulfillment in Asia.

In a sense one might say that the Canadian won an American revolution but did it on the world stage. And in so doing he remained the Keeper of the Bridge between the Old World and the New during a century and three quarters of American isolationism and sired one of the great political inventions of his or any other time.

That, in my view, is the larger significance of the word, “Canadian.” That is the background which has made the Canadian what he is and given him a status and influence in the world greater than either his numbers or his material power would seem to warrant.

Inevitably this experience has left its stamp on his character and personality. His are both the weaknesses and the strengths of a man who has lived with compromise.

His has been the middle course between time and space, between history and geography, as l have tried to show you.

The nation he contrived was born of compromise between two races, two languages, two cultures. Inevitably he has had to learn that there are always two sides to a case. And by the same token, down through the decades there have always been two kinds of Canadians to look at a case.

In buttressing his state against external pressures he has had to learn the art of balancing power against power, the power of a United States against the power of a Great Britain.

In economics, the nature of his resources and his capacity to produce wealth in abundance greater than his need have made him a man of two markets, home and foreign. The man who draws nearly one third of his stake from the world abroad knows that he cannot live unto himself alone.

Emotionally, he has been the man of two worlds, the Old and the New, drawing spiritual sustenance from one and finding inspiration in the challenge of the other.

Culturally, his has been the task of trying to span the gap between the Latin and the Anglo-Saxon, between medievalism and modern materialism, Catholicism and Protestantism.

Inevitably such a man is a moderate, a Man of the Middle. He is a conservative but not a reactionary. He walks with tradition even as he marches with change. It is no accident that the only socialist government on the continent north of your southern border is in a Canadian province—no accident either that it is only mildly socialist.

Inevitably such a man is skilled in the art of bringing opposites together, in the art of finding basis for agreement between two contending extremes.

This had to be true down through the generations or there would have been no Canada and no Canadian.

These, I suggest, are some of the reasons why on that day back in 1946 at Lake Success La Guardia placed so much trust in his neighbor from the north and why that neighbor was able to resolve a dilemma.

These are some of the reasons why his status in the world is what it is.

Because of the vastness of his space he covets no other man’s space, hence no man fears him.

Because you and he have learned to share a continent in peace, he has been conditioned to the struggle of man against nature rather than of man against man. And yet when he has to fight he goes all out and can be very tough.

On the world’s political stage he is not big enough to be dangerous but he is big enough and so strategically situated that he has to be taken into account.

In an air age he sits astride the great circle routes between Eurasia and the Americas.

He is the X which marks the spot where the north-south axis of the Americas cuts the east-west axis of the world’s major land masses.

The Ham in the Sandwich

In an age in which the world’s centre of power is shifting from the basin of the Atlantic to the basin of the Pacific he has a door on both, not to mention his door on the Mediterranean of the Arctic.

Whether you look at him in relation to time or to space, destiny seems to have called this man to the role of The Man in the Middle. Some of us are beginning to wonder if one day he may not become the ham in the sandwich between the Russian colossus and the American leviathan—minced ham, that is.

But perhaps the most important aspect of his Man in the Middle role derives from his unconscious reconciliation of the seemingly opposite poles of nationalism and internationalism.

You have seen how the Canadian in resolving his history and geography conflict presented the world with the fact of the Commonwealth.

Not so obvious though is the concept which is implicit in that structure and the concept of limited national sovereignty.

The Canadian has shown that a nation can be... can achieve independent identity... can capture freedom to live its own unique life... under a sovereignty not unlimited, but a sovereignty limited by organic association with other nations for a common purpose.

And that way lies the only tolerable solution to the great problem of our time... the problem of achieving order with freedom in a world made anarchic by the unlimited sovereignty of the modern nation state.

The only other way is a universal state dictated from some such powermad capital as Moscow.

And that way lies an end to freedom.

A Very Young Man Yet

And now I must tell you a story which has a certain Canadian flavor and which may indicate that this sober northerner of whom I have been speaking is not altogether humorless.

In the early years of this century we had a French-Canadian prime minister named Laurier who was beloved by Canadians of both races and almost worshipped by the French of his native Quebec.

A French Canadian named Pierre had just returned from three months in the bush to sit by the fire with his crony, Jean, and catch up on the news. After both their pipes were drawing well the dialogue went something like this:

“Pierre, you hear the Queen, she’s dead?” referring to the death a short time previously of Queen Victoria.

“No, Jean, I did not hear that. What a sadness! I am very sorry to hear that.”

Silence and puffing of pipes.

“And who is the Queen now?” 

“Nobody is now the Queen. Edouard, the Queen’s son, he is now the King.”

Silence and more puffing of pipes. Suddenly Pierre interjects: “And what for they not make Laurier the King?” 

“Oh, Pierre, you do not understand. They could not do that. When the Queen she’s dead, the son, he is the King. It must be like that.”

More silence. This time Jean interjects: “Pierre, you t’ink Laurier, he’s veree big man, eh?”

“Yes, I t’ink Laurier, he’s veree big man."

Long silence. Suddenly:

“Pierre, you t’ink Laurier he’s bigger man than King of England?”

“Yes, by gar, I t’ink Laurier, he’s bigger man than King of England.” 

Longer silence. Finally Jean again: “Pierre, you t’ink Laurier veree big man?"

“Yes, I t’ink Laurier, he’s veree big man."

“Pierre, you t’ink Laurier, he’s bigger man than the Pope?”

Long, long, silence. Finally Pierre smacks his hand against his thigh and says:

“Yes, by gar, I t’ink Laurier, he’s bigger man than the Pope.”

Still longer silence. Then Jean in hushed tone:

“Pierre, you t’ink Laurier, he’s veree big man, eh?”

“Yes, I t’ink Laurier, he’s veree big man."

“Pierre, you t’ink Laurier, he’s bigger man than Le Bon Dieu, the good God?”

Long, long, long silence. Finally Pierre speaks suddenly and incisively: 

“Laurier he is very young man yet."

Ladies and Gentlemen. I give you the unique American, the Canadian... who is a very young man yet.