To all my compatriots at home and abroad, a happy 152nd birthday! At noon on this day in 1867, the British North America Act came into effect and the Provinces of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Canada - that's Upper Canada (Ontario) and Lower Canada (Quebec) - were united into the new Dominion of Canada under a constitutional document that has since been applied, all but unaltered, to newborn nations in almost every corner of the globe.
Official celebrations decline to touch on that, or on any other aspect of the nation's history. But we like that sort of thing here at SteynOnline, so click here for my account of the surprising story of Canada's national anthem. And here's my old boss, the Trump-pardoned Conrad Black, chewing over the nation's past, present and future. If you haven't yet seen this latest edition of The Mark Steyn Show, click below to watch:
The Mark Steyn Show is made possible through the support of members of The Mark Steyn Club. Membership is not for everyone, but it does help assure that our content remains out there for everyone, around the world. Among the benefits of membership is that you can enjoy The Mark Steyn Show in any medium you desire: video, audio or text. So, if you find me more palatable in non-visual form, please log-in to our Audio and Transcript versions. To listen to the above show, simply click here. For more information on The Mark Steyn Club, see here.
I had the pleasure of accompanying a dear friend to dinner at Rideau Hall a few weeks ago. (For non-Americans, that's the viceregal residence in Ottawa.) It was a while since I'd been there, and one of the most pleasurable aspects of an enjoyable evening was being reminded that Canada's roots go very deep. In the "Tent Room" the portraits are of the various dukes, marquesses and earls who served as Governors General, but the space also makes a point of honoring Governors of New France and other Gallic viceroys back to the sixteenth century. Whatever Canada is, it's been here a long time.
The piece below was written at the tail end of a long exhausted Liberal ministry, going out the way it came in, with the usual guff about "what a young nation we are". We're not. We're one of the oldest continuous constitutional orders on earth, and there was always something queasily totalitarian about Liberal propagandists' insistence that Canada didn't exist until Justin's dad moved into Sussex Drive. There is something creepy and totalitarian about the desperate pretense that we are eternally without a past - that we exist only in the moment. Here's what I wrote in the pre-Harper era, for The Western Standard in 2005:
"We are a young nation," declared Prime Minister Paul Martin. "Look into the face of Canada, and you will see the world."
Well, maybe. But, more likely, if you looked into the face of Canada, you'd wonder why the old gal keeps lying about how old she is. "We are a young nation." How old were you when you first heard a Liberal apparatchik drone about what a "young" nation we are? Maybe you were young yourself, and now, as the healthy glow of late middle-age fades from your cheeks, you're wondering why you're so old but your country is younger than ever. It's like The Passport Photo of Dorian Gray.
For me, no sooner did Paul start burbling about what a young nation we are than the years fell away, like calendar leaves signalling flashback-time in an old movie - the sort Hollywood used to make before it discovered there was a young nation up north where you could make them a lot cheaper. Anyway, the years fell away, and suddenly I was a wee slip of a thing again and it was 1497 and on the windswept prow nice Mister Cabot was saying to me, "Aargh, Mark lad, is me eyes deceiving me or is that a big rock up ahead?"
No, hang on, that can't be right. We're a young nation. My mistake, it was 1997 and I was at the "Canada Day" festivities at the Old Port in Montreal. We're a young nation with an old port, don't ask me how that happens. And Lucienne Robillard, then our citizenship minister, was addressing a couple of dozen brand new Canadians: "Fifty years ago we were British subjects," she said. "We forget how young a country we really are." Mme Robillard forgets more than she realizes: it was only twenty years - 1977- since the term "British subjects" was discreetly removed from Canadian passports. But what's a decade or two when you're shaving half a millennium off your age?
Isn't there something deeply weird about an entire nation that lies about its age? Canada is, pace Mr Martin, one of the oldest countries in the world--the result of centuries of continuous constitutional evolution. Even if one takes the somewhat reductive position that Canada as a sovereign entity dates only from the 1867 British North America Act or the 1931 Statute of Westminster, that would still make us one of the oldest nations in the world. We are, for example, one of the founding members of the United Nations, ahead of three-quarters of the present membership.
In George Orwell's famous distillation from 1984, "He who controls the present controls the past. He who controls the past controls the future." A nation's collective memory is the unseen seven-eighths of the iceberg. When you sever that, what's left just bobs around on the surface, unmoored in every sense. Orwell understood that an assault on history is an assault on memory, and thus a totalitarian act. What, after all, does it really mean when Mme Robillard and Mr Martin twitter about how "young" we are? Obviously, it's a way of denigrating the past. Revolutionary regimes routinely act this way: thus, in Libya, the national holiday of Revolution Day explicitly drawa a line between the discredited and illegitimate regimes predating December 1st, 1969, and the Gaddafi utopia that's prevailed since. In Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge literally reset the clock, to "Year Zero".
But it's not a tactic commonly deployed by governments in evolved constitutional democracies, and, to be fair, even Pol Pot did not intend that time should stand still. Two hundred years after Year Zero, Kampuchea would have been in Year 200. Canada in that sense has gone further than the Khmer Rouge: in Trudeaupia, Year Zero is a movable feast. Is it 1965, when we got the new flag? Or 1980, when we got the new anthem? Or 1982, when we got the new constitution? Or 1983, when we got the new national holiday? And, as Dominion Day became Canada Day, a nomenclature unsurpassed by any other nation's holiday in its yawning nullity, so some influential figures now wish to replace Victoria Day with Heritage Day, for only in Canada do we celebrate our heritage by obliterating it. In Trudeaupia, every year is Year Zero, where every national symbol can always use a little work. Look into the face of Canada, and you'll see our collagen implants are way too puffy.
Isn't all this talk of how "young" we are itself getting a little old? Isn't it, frankly, a little unbecoming? As the saying goes, a man is as old as the woman he feels - and, if you're Hugh Hefner marrying Canuck Playmate Kimberley Conrad on Canada Day 1989 or that other wrinkly old swinger Pierre Trudeau chasing Margot Kidder, you feel great, at least until she gets to 23 and you move on to someone else. But when the Liberal Party of Canada - the oldest-established permanent one-party government in the free world - insists that it's young and fresh and innocent it comes across somewhere between a professional virgin and those creepy youth cadres of 'tween-wars European fascist movements.
It's one thing to delegitimize all those chaps in frock coats with knighthoods who built a constitutional monarchy in a northern wilderness. But to make youth and "newness" the one enduring if paradoxical feature of your national identity is a project far more audacious than even Orwell foresaw. To live permanently in the present tense is to deny even the possibility of societal memory and collective roots.
"Look into the face of Canada," says Paul Martin, "and you will see the world." But oughtn't we to see Canada, too? By "see the world," I assume he means there are black and Chinese and Pakistani and Arab Canadians. But there are black and Chinese and Pakistani and Arab Americans, and black and Chinese and Pakistani Australians and New Zealanders, and these days even Belgians and Scandinavians. So what? Every western nation is now "multicultural," in part because its shrivelled birthrates led government to import the generations its native stock refuse to sire. So the West made a virtue out of necessity, if indeed there is anything in the least bit virtuous in denuding the developing world of its best and brightest in order to demonstrate one's multiculti bona fides.
But few countries fetishize their immigrants to the extraordinary degree that Canada does. In replacing one immigrant with another, Mme Clarkson with Mme Jean, in the highest office any Canadian can attain, the Trudeaupian state seems to be suggesting that these days we are all permanently "first-generation" Canadians. That too reinforces the sense that Canada exists entirely in the present tense, which in turn brings us back to the famous words of Cicero, oft quoted though not lately in Canada: "To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child."
And isn't that the point? That the unchanging "youngness" of Canada is part of the conscious infantilization of the political culture, a culture cut off from its history and tradition. Michaelle Jean is a smart enough woman to have climbed the greasy poles of both Quebec pseudo-separatism and Canadian ersatz nationalism, and I'm sure she found the rote braggadocio about Canada's eternal youth lame even by the shopworn standards of Liberal pap. Whatever Mr Martin says, we're not a young country but we are an immature one.
~That's how it looked to me in The Western Standard fourteen years ago, just before "Canada's natural governing party" nosedived into the briny, albeit only temporarily. Whatever happens at the next election, I shall always be grateful to Mr Harper's ministry for giving us a brief respite from all that Trudeaupian eternal-youth gibberish.