So long Mother England, farewell Uncle Sam

February 1 1972


So long Mother England, farewell Uncle Sam

February 1 1972


So long Mother England, farewell Uncle Sam

Canada is my country. I have lived here nearly all my life and I am a Canadian.

A Canadian is a man whose people have lived in Canada for several generations; he is an Irishman newly arrived from Cork and an Ulsterman from Derry; he is a Japanese from Kyoto, a Scot from the Outer Hebrides and a Slav from Central Europe; he is a Laplander, an Icelander, an Indian, an Eskimo, a laborer from Manchester and a peer from the Home Counties. A Canadian is any man who chooses to spend his life within that part of the globe bounded by Cape Race and the 49th Parallel and Nootka Sound and the North Pole.

He may even be an American.

Nothing, I think, is sillier and more dangerous than the assumption (which some members of my own academic brotherhood are encouraging) that there is an entity called the Canadian people which, by virtue of blood strain or being on the ground first or a combination of both, has prior claims to land and jobs and profits. Silly because no such entity exists — a Canadian is a hybrid, the product of many ethnic strains, and therein may lie his virtue. Dangerous because any myth relating to race or people carries with it implications of superiority which, if encouraged, may lead at the very least to the exclusion of much-needed brains and brawn. At this time in our history, when an aggressive nationalism is rampant over most of the world, the Canada I believe in and love takes justifiable pride in herself as a nation but in no self-righteous arrogant spirit. I am not even sure that I am as happy as Lester Pearson about our having a flag of our own. A flag generates an emotional aura which encourages people to shout such things as “My country right or wrong,” and I hope we don’t ever come to that.

Ed McCourt is a professor of English at the University of Saskatchewan and the author of numerous books on the West, including Remember Butler, Walk Through The Valley and Saskatchewan.

(An American colleague of mine says he came to Canada several years ago so that he could boast of living in a country that didn’t have a flag. It is sad that we have lost a unique claim to distinction and sadder still that we are beginning to imitate our neighbors in making the flag the central symbol of those grotesque pseudo-religious, patriotic and sex rituals that in the United States are still quaintly called football games.)

My Canada is not aggressive — she is peace loving, but she is no longer content to play the juvenile lead in a Victorian melodrama. (Youngster escapes from the authority of a domineering mother only to find himself apprenticed to the countinghouse of a wicked uncle who exploits our hero’s talents and has an eye on his inheritance. Think what Dickens might have done with the uncle.) Northrop Frye once described colonialism, in an inspired phrase, as “the frostbite at the root of the Canadian imagination.” I think we have thawed out from the frostbite only to fall victims to an even more inhibiting agent — nerve gas. The United States plays a curiously paradoxical role in our lives. On the one hand her sheer power awes us into a kind of stupefied inertia; to act on our Own in anything seems like flying in the face of the Almighty. On the other hand she is a source of genuine comfort to us, for we are able to blame all the ills that afflict us on the neighbor who, so we argue, controls our purse strings and hence our lives. Thus, we scream to high heaven when a Canadian publishing house sells out to an American buyer (we would scream even louder if the government raised our taxes in order to subsidize our publishers) and we demonstrate our support of native literature by getting our name down for the latest Canadian novel on the waiting list at the public library.

The Canada in which I place my hope is forgoing the excuses she worked overtime in the past. Colonialism and American imperialism have served us well in their time, but the parent-and-uncle figures no longer intervene to save us from or to justify our follies. We are in fact no longer Earle Birney’s high-school land/dead set in adolescence/ loud treble laughs and sudden fists, bright cheeks the gangling presence. We have at long last grown up.

Murder has helped to shock us into maturity. We have come to recognize the existence of a tragic situation within our own bounds which we cannot blame on any outside influence and which we ourselves must resolve

or perish. It is rightly a matter of pride with us that we have achieved independence and an honorable place among nations without resort to either revolution or civil war, but all that we have achieved we are, through prejudice and blindness, in danger of throwing away. “In the same city . . . two communities dwell side by side, with different traditions, different ideals, without sympathy or comprehension.” So Rupert Brooke wrote of us nearly 60 years ago. It has taken us all the intervening time to comprehend the nature of our greatest internal problem and even to acknowledge its existence. The Canada I believe in will someday add to comprehension the sympathy without which resolution of the problem is impossible.

My Canada is a country big enough in acreage to preserve and develop half a dozen or more regional cultures and big enough in spirit to respect them all. I am all for national unity, for putting our shoulders to the wheel and pushing in more or less the same direction, but I don’t think that unity need imply uniformity. I would like to think that we are big enough and wise enough not only to tolerate but positively to encourage the flourishing among us of eccentrics whose gestures, in Edith Sitwell’s words, “are not born to fit the conventions or cowardice of the crowd”; and to acknowledge what is surely a fact: that the existence of regional differences and cultures gives the Canadian people much of the vitality and most of the color they possess.

Here Quebec may be playing a role infinitely more significant and constructive than most of us, distracted as we are by murderous violence and the insistent demands that we speak French or lose our jobs, may realize. “The chief fault of French Canadians,” wrote Rupert Brooke (as shrewd a journalist as ever visited our shores), “is that they will not understand that increase of imports and volume of trade and number of millionaires are the measures of a city’s greatness.” Well, the natives of Quebec now want their fair share of millionaires, no doubt about that, but they still stubbornly insist on the supreme value of their regional culture, of which the French language is the most obvious symbol. Perhaps there is a lesson for all of us here, if only we could learn it — that the unity we so earnestly seek can best be achieved through the preservation of what we have.

Some of our wise men, George Grant prominent among them, say that the time of regional cultures is past (try telling that to a Maritimer), and they may be right. But I can’t see my Canada as anything other than a series of clear-cut geographical and people divisions loosely linked to a central government and the CBC, each separated from its neighbors by physical or economic barriers and each by reason of ethnic and environmental factors maintaining a way of life unlike those lived elsewhere in the land. To see this country as a homogeneous people under God and the Maple Leaf is beyond my powers of perception — perhaps because that isn't the way 1 want to see it.

continued on page 48

MY CANADA from page 17

What I wish for above all else is leadership we can all understand and believe in. Most of the men and women we send to our parliaments seem to regard themselves as public servants serving immediate ends. The great leader recognizes that the opinion of the many is formed and directed by the few; that his responsibilities extend far beyond keeping the electorate of today sufficiently happy to assure his reelection tomorrow. When the wise man of old said that without vision the people perish he was talking about the vision not of the people themselves but of their leaders. We have had a few great men who fixed their goals in the future and worked toward them with undeviating aim come hell or high water — Macdonald, Laurier and Woodsworth probably make up the lot — and we could do with many more like them. Men who know that the Shelleyan dream of man / Equal, unclassed, tribeless and nationless / Exempt from awe, worship, degree, the king / Over himself; just, gentle, wise, can never be realized in a thousand lifetimes but that working toward its fulfillment makes a single lifetime worthwhile.

My Canada opposes the reckless exploitation of our resources, no matter who profits from it. Here again we have made the United States our whipping boy, and some of us who live

on the Prairies think we have good reason to. Our northern rivers are being befouled by American-financed industries and our big sky shredded by American bombers making sighting runs over the Saskatchewan plains. The bombers we find the most disturbing, although they do the least material damage; their presence suggests that the big kid next door is finding his own yard too small to play in and is getting ready to move into ours.

We are extraordinarily vulnerable to exploitation. The United States expanded through the movement of people; the frontier was pushed steadily west by people pressure, and the land, as Saul Bellow puts it, was big enough to absorb their mistakes. But our frontier land, the North, is virtually uninhabited; it holds resources for which the world is crying out, and the world is going to move in ahead of our people and take what it wants, not through armed assault but through corporate enterprise.

Corporate enterprise is a mighty force for good or evil. In itself it is neither good nor evil; it is unmoral. Its raison d’être is profits. Profits benefit many people — often the wrong ones — and anything that threatens profits, be it higher taxes, higher wages, increased social services, production limitation, pollution control, the corporation by nature resists — this whether it be labeled American or British or Canadian or German or Japanese, whether it be based in Calgary or Timbuktu. Because of their immense power corporations can challenge and indeed unseat governments unless those governments have the strongest possible mandate from the people to impose such checks and balances in industrial development as seem essential to the well-being of the nation. Never was the need of such checks more obvious in Canada than at the present time when our North is being opened up to progress and its attendant evils, and when the exis-

tence of even some of our national parks is being threatened by resources-hungry entrepreneurs. The Canada I believe in is slowly rousing herself to an awareness of the dangers that threaten to despoil this fairest of lands.

I am an Irish-born Canadian. I live in Canada because I hold it dearer than any other country I know, and I live in the west because I was brought up here and I found out long ago, by going away for a few years, that this is where my heart is and always will be. For a long time it simply didn’t occur to me that the problems that bedevil our great industrial communities could ever affect us who live in the prairie heartland, but I know better now. We can no longer fish some of our greatest rivers and lakes, there are chemical plants in more than one of our prairie cities that raise a stink you can smell 10 miles off, and the bombers aloft are not only our safeguards against nations with whom we have never quarreled but symbols of our acceptance of controls alien to our way of life and thought. There have been other changes in the last few years, too, and I don’t like some of them. Our farmers, once the driving force behind many of our reform movements, have run out of steam; most of those who have survived the years of overproduction and poor prices are small businessmen now, content to hitch their combines to the old-line party nags, and all Canada is the loser thereby. But there are still enough evidences of imagination and downright nuttiness among us to give even the veriest Scrooge something to look cheerful about occasionally. After all, a people who can make a lake, build a mountain and turn the central Saskatchewan desert into a watersports and ski resort can do anything they set their minds to. Even some day write a good book.

The physical environment, too, in spite of evils that threaten it, is still a tonic for the troubled spirit. When you stand on a height of land — and we have them here in Saskatchewan and they are not all man-made, either — under the biggest sky on earth, with the great river winding past your elbow on its lonely way to far-off seas, and you see grain elevators upthrust from the horizon’s rim that is 20 miles away and you breathe deep of what is still the purest air that blows, you can't help feeling, as you feel nowhere else, that whatever happens nothing can ever come between you and the peace of God.

Except the bombers splitting the sky overhead and the fish floating belly up in the river. ■