Seventy years ago, the Victoria Times hired Bruce Hutchison as a teenage reporter. Now, at age 87, after more than half a century of observing and writing about national affairs, he is Editor Emeritus of The Vancouver Sun. Hutchison is the author of 15 books, including his best-selling 1943 profile of Canada, The Unknown Country, which gained him the first of three Governor General's Awards for nonfiction.
On the first day of July 121 years ago, in an ugly, half-built capital beside the Ottawa River, the new nation that the Fathers of Confederation introduced to the world was an uneasy union of British and French settlers. Bonfires were lit in the towns and villages of four shabby little colonies from the Great Lakes to the Atlantic. Primitive cannons boomed, rockets flared in the sky, and bands played. Neither many foreigners nor the sponsoring government in London were convinced that such an artificial, gimcrack union could long endure. And the founders’ dream of extending their creation to the Pacific was dismissed as pathetic, even absurd. But the dream became reality: the Pacific was reached and the country offered both haven and opportunity to hundreds of thousands of people from distant lands who built her cities, defined her culture and shaped her destiny.
Dutiful: For most of the first 80 years after Confederation, Canada was the disciplined, dutiful and predictable offspring of British colonization. The country grew and prospered on a tide of migration that was largely from
Northern Europe, predominantly from Britain. In the past 40 years, immigrants from the wider world have transformed the nation’s appearance and personality beyond anything envisaged by its founders. In the coming decades, Canada’s very survival depends upon more massive immigration—and on learning to construct a cohesive society out of many diverse communities that rival each other in size and ambitions.
Troubled: Having lost our innocence, we did not celebrate Canada Day last week with the gusto we once exhibited. Instead, on this anniversary, our nation was troubled, cranky; worried about the preservation—even doubting the existence—of the distinct identity that emerged from Champlain’s hovel at Quebec almost four centuries ago.
Why all the commotion in politics today, the uncertainty in private business, the misgivings among rich and poor alike? They are pertinent questions, and now, in the month of our 121st birthday, we should consider them.
We should reassess, without flattering or belittling ourselves, the true state of the contemporary organism unforeseeable to the fathers of the confederacy.
Any national reappraisal invokes historical experience. A person of my age recalls that in his boyhood, Canada remained a colony by law and mentality, submissive to the all-wise statesmen of Britain, lacking any control over foreign affairs and—generally content with this status—wearing its inferiority complex like a ragged secondhand garment.
Not until the bloodletting of the First World War did a truly sovereign nation begin to replace the colony. From then on, Canadian society—in its introverted pursuit of happiness—vastly improved the lot of the average citizen, became more compassionate and generous, less racist, lavish in public service and so jealous of individual rights that it ultimately guaranteed them by a charter.
Laments: We have a living standard, measured by quality, not just materially, as high as any ever achieved by man. Yet, again and again, gloomy prophets utter laments for the nation, usually because it has not turned out to suit their personal tastes. And, although no lament is needed for a nation that keeps growing in wealth and self-respect, we must also examine the darker side of the national experiment and
count the mistakes. Those have been egregious and dismal since the years of national euphoria following the Second World War.
Influence: That conflict left our land undamaged and our economy doubled in a devastated world hungry for our goods. We could sell anything, at almost any price. We proclaimed ourselves a middle power and, as honest broker, exercised real influence at the United Nations. Drinking this heady wine, we supposed that easy and quite unnatural times would never end. In our quiet but profound social revolution we unbalanced our budgets, piled up deficits and debts mountain-high for our chil-
dren or grandchildren to repay, inflated the currency and lurched into a spasm of hubris that was thoroughly un-Canadian.
Still, the nation’s finances are not its worst problem. Much more serious, in a wider and often-neglected perspective, is our Canadian state of mind. As a people, we have failed to discern, except in passing platitudes, the impact of the new world around us, the universal revolution fuelled by a dissonant blend of wealth and poverty; of Asia’s economic power and Africa’s starving millions. The forces behind this revolution are without precedent.
Dependent: Nor have we fully grasped the extent to which the dissolution of the British Empire has left us more than ever dependent on our own strength and the protection of the United States, although some Canadians
reassure themselves with crude xenophobia and visceral anti-Americanism—not an attractive characteristic.
We solemnly agree that the world is changing and our nation must change with it. But most of us are determined to avoid inconvenience in our private lives if we can; change, after all, is for the next generation.
Meanwhile, over us all dangles The Bomb, on a chewed thread, although the human race so far has elected to poison the planet rather than blow it up. Canadians may be powerless to cure the world’s madness, halt the inflow of foreign poisons or preserve the planetary climate, but there are formidable tasks within our control.
We can prevent our people from ravishing our own environment, overcutting the forests, overfishing the oceans and we can stop living on our nation’s capital like a householder who buys champagne and caviar while the roof leaks and the foundation sinks. Repairing the house and cleaning the air, water and soil will cost more and entail higher taxes than any government will admit. Yet we demand lower taxes, lower deficits and greater benefits from the state. Compared to these tasks, the adjustment of Canadian industry to the brutal competition of the new world and the fairer distribution ~ of wealth between regions and classes are relatively simple.
Task: But the largest task of all is not simple and we have hardly begun to comprehend it, I much less master it. I For the first time, with I its birthrate falling, 5 Canada risks a decrease ü in population. Massive immigration will be needed to maintain a strong, independent community. By our untidy but workable methods of accommodation and compromise, we have learned since the Second World War to manage a dual state while at the same time absorbing with reasonable fairness and humanity tens of thousands of immigrants from Europe and Asia. But in the next century, our descendants will have to manage and reconcile a multicultural society on a scale beyond our imagining.
Then will come the supreme test of Canada’s realism, morality and genius. For, lacking sufficient numbers and the strength of unity, we cannot hope to possess half a continent in a crowded, desperate world. Nature will not forever tolerate a vacuum so huge and full of treasure. The alternatives decreed by history are inescapable. Canada must betray the grand dream of its founders or achieve its finest hour. □
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