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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