The Secret Origin of Canada

John Ralston Saul’s A Fair Country: Telling Truths About Canada is a beautiful book, and it makes an appealing argument which I would really like to be true. Canada, Saul argues, is not a British nation or a French nation but a Métis nation, profoundly if unconsciously shaped by Aboriginal ideas. Almost everything that is distinctive or admirable about Canadian society–modesty, pragmatism, respect for diversity, negotiation and compromise, a comfort with constant tension between individuals and groups–comes, he says, from Aboriginal roots.

Some raised their eyebrows at this argument. Some did considerably more than that. Not long after A Fair Country came out, I was at a fancy sort of dinner where I mentioned the book to a gravelly-voiced veteran reporter from one of Canada’s major newspapers. He was totally excellent–gruff, profane, and hilarious, my Platonic ideal of a gravelly-voiced veteran reporter. I said, “I don’t know that Saul proves his thesis, but it’s a really appealing argument.” He said, “If you can find six other Canadians that believe it, I’ll [eat my hat].” Except he didn’t say “eat”, “my”, or “hat”, and I did a laughing spit take that sprayed daikon sprouts and golden beet soup all over the assembled dignitaries.

The way I prefer to interpret this book is that Saul is engaged in conscious myth-building. His alternate history of Canada–a secret origin story, if you will–might not be provable or true, but it could offer a kind of usable past, a national mythology that would be more invigorating and not a lot less plausible than the one we’ve currently stitched together around hockey, Tim Horton’s, and miscellaneous insecurities. If embracing our mythic Métissage helped us to throw off some postcolonial baggage, to know and appreciate our Native communities, and to celebrate rather than lament our penchant for negotiation and compromise, well, what’s a secret origin without a little retconning?

My only personal beef with the book involves Saul’s treatment of the United States, or lack thereof. He sees the United States as the child and fullest expression of Enlightenment Europe, and lumps the U.S. and Europe together throughout the book, always contrasting the grim spectre of monolithic “Euro-U.S.”-style nationalism with Canada’s Métis grooviness. There’s no exploration of how the United States might differ from Europe, how Canada might be influenced by America, or how Canadian and American histories might in fact be intertwined.

The most egregious example of this blind spot appears while Saul is discussing the Canadian mantra, “peace, order, and good government.” This phrase, he says, was a late ninteenth-century corruption of our true (Aboriginal) ideals: “peace, welfare, and good government.” Saul quotes approvingly in this section from William Lyon Mackenzie’s manifesto for the Upper and Lower Canada Rebellions of 1837-1838. But look what he does here:

Mackenzie produced a draft constitution on November 15, 1837–the result of meetings among “Farmers, Mechanics, Labourers and other Inhabitants of Toronto.” They denounced Britain’s breaking of its “covenant with the people of Upper and Lower Canada” and proposed a new covenant in order “to make choice of our form of Government and in order to establish justice [i.e., good government], ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defence [i.e., two aspects of peace], promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of civil and religious liberty…”

Those square brackets and italics are Saul’s, not mine. And they are working very hard to shoehorn the phrase “peace, welfare, and good government” into Mackenzie’s constitution. Anyone who’s ever seen a book blurb or movie poster is familiar with selective quotation through subtraction, but I didn’t know you could just add things you want quotations to say. “MacDougall’s book is tedious and unoriginal [i.e., it is awesome!].”

Besides that, if you take out Saul’s hard-working brackets, Mackenzie’s constitution reads like this: “in order to establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of civil and religious liberty…” My stars. Wherever could the rebels of Upper and Lower Canada have gotten that language? Hint: If you are about the same vintage as I am, you might be humming it right now. I read this section multiple times, just to make sure Saul wasn’t having me on. He makes no reference to the U.S. Constitution whatsoever. What was he thinking, to use that particular quotation (in a book not overly burdened with direct quotations or citations of any kind), as evidence against “Euro-U.S.” influence on Canadian political culture? I’ll be [eating] that [hat] now.

Anti-Americanism is such a bedrock position of the Canadian left–indeed, I think anti-Americanism often stands in for actual left ideas in Canada–that it is hard to convince lefty Canadians of the once-radical potential of American political thought, much less argue that progressive politics in Canada owe any debt to U.S. inspirations or ideas. It’s more comfortable for us to believe we got all our good ideas from enlightened British aristocrats, or, if you are John Ralston Saul, from the Mi’kmaq and the Iroquois.

But as American historians have rediscovered the radicalism of the American revolution, Canadians ought to acknowledge the influence of American civic republicanism on reformers and agitators like Mackenzie and Papineau, or the later links between American and Canadian prairie populism. This story need not only be of interest to Canadians. What if we stopped defining Canadian identity as simply whatever makes us different from Americans, and tried instead to view Canadian and U.S. history as alternate versions of each other, diverging iterations of an experiment for which the other nation’s history provides the control? How many Canadian reforms grew out of radical traditions imported from, yet thwarted in, the United States? What if we saw Canada’s social welfare state as the continuation and fulfillment of the American Revolution, rather than its abnegation?

Now if you can find six Canadians (or Americans) that believe that


  1. Haven’t read it yet, though it has a swell cover. I’m happy to see the italics and braces are being published [though he _was_ the Viceregal consort of Canada [spanning two millenia! [so you figure he’s a guy insecure about his legal standing [and sick of ceremonial protocol [so he has a unique way of looking at things]]]]]. Bold or Emphasis are useful for either a silly or sarcastic tone, and braces are great for throwing in an aside or breaking the 4th wall with the reader.

    The U.S. gets slammed by the Canadian left because the U.S. is such a likely target. Sure there’s the uhhh socio-cultural differences, but we like big-box stores too. They like to bomb other countries, but they don’t bomb us, even though we’re an easy target. We’re their biggest trading partner, when you go to the mattresses, nobody’s earning. A big deal is made over how much of Canada is really owned by the U.S., but not enough complaint is made over how much of Canada is really owned by the rest of the world.

    The US-Europe comparison is interesting because their populations are pretty well equal.

    I believe _everything_ I read [it helps to only read selectively], until I read something else disputes it, so that whittles it down to five!

  2. “Canada has no cultural unity, no linguistic unity, no religious unity, no economic unity, no geographic unity. All it has is unity.” Kenneth Boulding

    It’s interesting to contrast the metis argument with something like Fernandez-Armesto’s (at least in his World textbook) argument (which I found surprisingly convincing) that what happens in the Americas is “creolization”: the development of a generation of colonial-born citizens who lacked a strong cultural identification with the homeland but nonetheless shared the culture of the Enlightenment.

  3. Have you read any of the Carnegie series from the 1930s/40s on American and Canadian history? I’ve coincidentally just started Brebner’s North American Triangle on the history of Canada, the U.S., and Britain and their relations – but apparently with emphasis on Canada – as part of my attempt to get to know Canadian history better during my stay in this fair/overcast land and it has a weird modern (it’s transnational!) and archaic (it’s from the 1940s, after all) feel to it.

  4. I guess you are still working on the post about possessed staircase elevators

  5. I’ve been fascinated and distracted by Canadian identity and its interplay with Canadian attitudes toward the US since moving from NYC to Toronto two years ago, so this post is a treat.

    I didn’t read Saul’s book, but the reviews instilled the same attitude in me: it’s a fascinating thesis that sticks in your head, but I’m pretty sure it’s hogwash. My previous exposure to Saul, and your example above with the US Constitutional language, reinforce my skepticism: as much as I want to like Saul, his arguments have always struck me as pretty half-baked and incoherent, and when reading his stuff I often wonder if he has any idea what he’s talking about.

    The way I prefer to interpret this book is that Saul is engaged in conscious myth-building. His alternate history of Canada–a secret origin story, if you will–might not be provable or true, but it could offer a kind of usable past, a national mythology that would be more invigorating and not a lot less plausible than the one we’ve currently stitched together around hockey, Tim Horton’s, and miscellaneous insecurities.

    Here I have to differ with you. Even before moving here, I was always struck by the confidence with which Canadians of my acquaintance would make pronouncements about the differences between the US and Canada (e.g. the “salad bowl vs. melting pot” multimulti line). The uniformity of these pronouncements led me to believe that these sentiments had been explicitly made a part of the Canadian primary school curriculum, and so they were — if that’s not “conscious myth-building”, I don’t know what is.

    I should mention how obnoxious these pronouncements are. I’m about ten times as anti-American as most Canadians I know, but it’s irritating to be told what the problem is with the country I grew up in by people who get it so wrong with such confidence. In my experience, attitudes toward assimilation aren’t tremendously different in the two countries: many cities in each country are refreshingly cosmopolitan and pluralistic, and many other regions are toxically xenophobic, even if the Canadians tend to be a little more polite about how this gets expressed. The biggest difference I would choose tpo focus on is that the racism that infects the US is not primarily assimilationist, but eliminationist, which is much worse. (This is of course a drastic generalization, but the actual complexity of the differences is another casualty of such myths as “the salad bowl and the melting pot”.)

    My point is that as much as I love Canadians, the point where its people most often falter in their otherwise impeccable courtesy and affability is caused by their being over-, not under-, burdened with “conscious myth-building”. This is, IMO, a tragic Canadian afflication: the desperate need to spin stories about who they are in terms that reduce the complexities of history to caricature. The best medicine I can think to prescribe is regular exposure to comparative national statistics on health, wealth, security, equality, and happiness: what identity does the country need other than “whatever we’re all about, it works pretty damn well”?

  6. Matt: Oh man, you said a mouthful. IMO, the anti-American bluster you describe still comes from a place of insecurity, adolescent and overweening as it comes across. But I can go on for hours about the foolishness of many stock Canadian comments and prejudices about the U.S. – and that “melting pot and salad bowl” line is near the top of my list. I’ll restrain myself and just apologize on behalf of my countrymen and women, and say that for what its worth, I do everything I can in my own little corner of Canada to combat this.

  7. I’m impressed by your restraint in criticising Saul’s book. I read it last year and kept thinking of Dorothy Parker’s great line: ‘this is not a book to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.’

    Like you I’m sympathetic to Saul’s politics. But he’s saying things that aren’t true, and being snooty about it. Moreover, when people criticise him (like Jonathan Kay in the Post) he derides them as witless, mean, and ignorant.

    If Saul knew what he was talking about he would not have written this book.

  8. A belated brief note of appreciation for your Jan 4 column – just brought to my attention by Chris Moore. And for readers’ comments.
    Even William Lyon Mackenzie was ambivalent about the U.S. – before, during, and after his years in exile there. By the end of his life he was writing approvingly about annexation, despite his acknowledged disapproval of the notion in 1849.
    By the way, the Constitution Act of 1791 that created Upper and Lower Canada refers to “peace, welfare, and good Government” hardly a late 19th century idea.

  9. @Ted: Ha! The Dorothy Parker line is a good one. Yoinked for future use.

    @Chris: Thanks! And re: “peace, welfare, and good gov’t” in the Constitution Act of 1791 – yes, the term goes back considerably earlier than Confederation. I think Saul’s argument was that changing “welfare” to “order” happened with the BNA Act.

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