Sunday, March 22, 2009

Daydreaming in Red and White?

By: John A. McCurdy

June 2005

If you’re like me – in fact, if you’re like most Canadians – you’ve experienced a recent and quite personal surge of interest in our nation’s history, as well as in our potential to chart a political and cultural course distinct from that of George W. Bush’s America. This recent surge of interest in things Canadian appears to date to Prime Minister Jean Chretien’s March 2003 announcement that Canada would not join the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. One notable national commentator recently characterized the move as an “unprecedented act of diplomatic autonomy” [1], another as ‘a defining moment for Canadians” and as “the most popular decision taken by the Chretien government” [2]. Furthermore, to others Prime Minister Paul Martin’s decision to reject formal Canadian participation in Bush’s Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) program seems informed, at least in part, by the spirit of Chretien’s earlier move.

That these unquestionably momentous developments may signal the possibility of hope for Canada’s ostensible commitment to higher principles at home and abroad was brought home to me on a bus ride to the protest against the Iraq war held in downtown Toronto on March 19th*. As our contingent of Hamilton anti-war activists relaxed – some talking on cell phones, others quietly reflecting or snoozing – activist Ken Stone, of the local November 16th Coalition, confided to me that he had nearly lost hope for Canada as a sovereign nation in the aftermath of 9/11, but that more recent Iraq and BMD developments had changed his mind.

Stone’s sense of hope resonated with that same aforementioned enthusiasm for things Canadian I’d been feeling. I looked forward to my first trip to Ottawa since adolescence – planned for Easter weekend – with greater relish. Soon, I told myself, I would be standing proudly on Parliament Hill, would soon be walking the same streets as our nation’s leaders, might soon trace the footsteps of the man Richard Gwyn once named the Northern Magus – Pierre Elliott Trudeau. Still, just beneath the surface of my enthusiasm a chronic and perhaps distinctly Canadian fatalism languished, insisting – then as now – that hope for an independent, sovereign, prosperous and just Canada was little more than fantastical, perhaps even moralistic and delusional [3].

A week later – out from under the shadow of Toronto and up on the Canadian shield – I received an impromptu walking tour of a portion of downtown Ottawa that began in Chinatown and headed over to Bank Street where the fair trade Bridgehead coffee shop served as a makeshift destination (we opted, in the end, for an odd mix of beers, dessert and appetizers at the equally popular Manx Pub a few blocks east). Along the way my fellow travelers discussed the pros and cons of buying or renting in this or that neighbourhood while I kept my eyes open for signs of political and diplomatic life.

Gradually, foreign embassy sightings were more frequent. After attempting to decipher the stained glass windows of the city’s Museum of Nature we crossed a nearby street and stood in front of the gates of an embassy whose flag fell limp and tangled. One friend guessed we were standing in front of the Iraqi embassy. The other then implored us to move on, intimidating video cameras seeming to record our every word and gesture.

On Easter Monday we drove to the Quêbec side of the border to hike the trails around Meech Lake. Up in the hills I kept expecting clusters of first ministers - crouched over and conferring quietly about political strategy - to come walking around bends in the trail as though the fourteen years between the present and the 1987 deliberations over the Meech Lake Accords had been temporarily erased. On the journey back to the car I was as much delighted as disappointed when all that materialized were two fearless deer, who drank from the lake beside the trail.

On the way to Meech Lake I had imagined another car on the road ahead of our own, driven by the Northern Magus himself – his three sons and four sets of cross country skiis in tow. For many years now I’ve been haunted by his ghost, with whom I seem to share the ether along the waterfront trail by the bay in Hamilton. Somehow I’ve come to associate his spirit with the buzz and rose perfume that hover in late summer over the parks and gardens of Ontario. Still, this vision of him driving down the road had been rather blurry. It may have dated from the late 1980s or perhaps the early 1990s. No matter – it was merely some time during the Mulroney interlude. For probably the first time in my life I found myself daydreaming in red and white.

The scene shifted though as I recalled another, detailed in Trudeau’s Memoirs. While conducting research for his book at the National Archives Trudeau received a phone call from then Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. Later that day the two meet in the Prime Minister’s Office. “‘Would you be willing from time to time to give me some advice on foreign affairs?’” Mulroney asks, to which Trudeau replies “‘Yes, and the first piece of advice I give you is this: be friends with the United States – the Canadian people like the Americans – but don’t be subservient to the American government, because Canadians are a very proud people’.” [4]

Later I wondered exactly what sort of pride Trudeau had had in mind that afternoon. Was it the silent pride that may have taken rare outward form in the wake of Iraq 2003? Or was it the ostensibly federalist pride that the English-speaking Canadian majority demonstrated in their rejection of the Charlottetown Accords of 1992 – a move that, according to Trudeau, “established the locus of the sovereignty of Canada [in] the people”? [5] Indeed, was it at all likely that these two species of Canadian pride were in fact one and indivisible?

The modern Canadian identity has been shaped and reshaped by innumerable factors but surely key among them are such vital developments as Quêbec’s ‘Quiet Revolution’ as well as the long-standing foreign policy back-and-forth of American ‘activism’ and ‘isolationism.’ The Canadian experiment seems to depend for its success and viability on keeping Quêbec within the federal union (a range of federalist practices have evolved throughout our nation’s brief history) while also keeping the Americans at arms’ length. The Canadian dynamic would seem three- rather than two-fold, for since the 1860s the nation has increasingly been the sum of its often neo-colonial relations with the United States, as opposed to the sum of its original colonial relation with Great Britain), as much as it has also been the sum of Quêbec relations with the Rest of Canada (ROC) – though some debate whether even this odd conglomerate still exists.

I would like to think that there might today be one integral Canadian pride, though the concept may depend on a federalist and thus partisan bias. I would also like to think that should this integral pride exist that it manages somehow to translate into distinctly Canadian activity at the levels of both internal and external affairs.

*The November 16th Coalition, founded in 2002, is a Hamilton-based activist organization whose focus lies in mobilizing citizens to take progressive action on issues of war and racism.


[1]. Richard Gwyn, “Surviving Survivalism,” Literary Review of Canada, December 2004, p. 4.
[2] Reg Whitaker, “Living with Bush’s America,” Literary Review of Canada, January-February 2005, p. 5.
[3] Rondi Adamson, “Rejecting Missile Defence: Will Canada’s Decision Help Our Standing in the World?” Toronto Star, 27 February 2005, A16.
[4] Pierre Elliott Trudeau, Memoirs (McClelland & Stewart Inc., 1993), p. 358.
[5] Trudeau, Memoirs, p. 364.

“Daydreaming in Red and White” was first published in Hamilton, Ontario’s Say3 Magazine, No. 5, June 2005, pp. 21-22.

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