150? Canada’s Sticky, Messy History

The diverse points of view that lie at the heart of Canada's complex identity

What is this place called Canada? The second largest country in the world geographically, it is difficult to grasp the whole. Some peoples and provinces are nations unto themselves and resentment against the dominant centre in outlying regions runs deep.

Even agreeing on a founding moment in Canada’s past can be a challenge. While 1867 works quite well for the four original provinces in Confederation (New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Ontario and Quebec), it tends to obscure significant developments before that date and to discount other areas of northern North America that have been absorbed into this improbable experiment in empire building.

As a result of our different perspectives, not all Canadians feel moved to celebrate Canada’s sesquicentennial. Indigenous peoples have served notice that they find little to celebrate in 150 years of Ottawa’s rule and the Parti Québécois has made plans to counter Ottawa’s program of “comfort history” with a series of events showcasing “the Other 150” for Quebecers. Together, the books reviewed here, five of them aimed at a broad popular readership and three taking an academic perspective on Confederation, reflect the diverse points of view that lie at the heart of Canada’s complex identity.

At the outset, I should acknowledge that I am a co-author of several Canadian history textbooks and have been guilty of some of the errors that caught my eye in these publications. I will not obsess about such transgressions but, in the interest of historical accuracy, let me point out that: the name “Canada” is derived from an Iroquoian, not Algonquin, word for “village”; the French colony on the St. Lawrence was known as Canada, not Quebec; the Acadians were not deported to the French colony of Louisiana, though a great many ended up there; the majority of the Black population in the Maritime Provinces are descendants from immigrants who arrived after the American Revolution and the War of 1812, not by the Underground Railroad in the mid-19th century; there are three Maritime Provinces, not four; representatives from Newfoundland were not present at, or even invited to, the Charlottetown Conference in 1864; the Prairie region may have been acquired peacefully from its corporate owners but certainly not without violence for its Indigenous inhabitants, as the Red River and Northwest uprisings attest; and Canada did not achieve “independence” in 1867—far from it. In the 20th century our political leaders gradually weaned the country from British oversight in such important matters as citizenship, defence, foreign affairs and legal appeals, but it was not until 1982 that Canadians could amend their constitution without an act of the British Parliament.

In A Number of Things: Life of Canada Told through Fifty Objects, creative writer Jane Urquhart offers thoughtful observations on Canada’s material culture. She fixes not only on obvious symbols such as canoes, cod and the rope that hanged Louis Riel, but also on less iconic items such as bird feeders, Innu tea dolls and Lucy Maud Montgomery’s figurines of Staffordshire dogs. Instead of using photographs to illustrate the text, she invited Scott McKowen to produce exquisite scratchboard engravings, which give the book a satisfying visual cohesion. Urquhart argues that the lack of certainty about Canadian identity has allowed for multiple points of view and a greater-than-average adaptability, useful tools in the country’s kit box for survival and also for living comfortably with a list of objects, which, as the author readily concedes, could easily have been entirely different.   

Like Urquhart, historian Charlotte Gray in The Promise of Canada: 150 Years—People and Ideas That Have Shaped Our Country, takes a selective approach, profiling nine Canadians who, she believes, made a difference and together capture the essence of Canada’s evolving identity. She chooses father of Confederation George-Étienne Cartier and mounted policeman Sam Steele to exemplify Canada’s founding political nationality based on English-French duality, federalism and “peace, order, and good government.” Artist Emily Carr and political economist Harold Innis are selected for their contributions to our understanding, artistically and economically, of the impact of the land in shaping the emerging nation. Following the Second World War, Canadians became more politically conscious and committed to social justice as exemplified by Tommy Douglas, Margaret Atwood and Bertha Wilson. This leaves Elijah Harper and Preston Manning to represent the unfinished business relating to First Nations and Western Canada.

In the last chapter, Gray focuses on Canada’s current cultural diversity with brief nods to Lise Bissonnette, Douglas Coupland, Shadrach Kabango, Naheed Nenshi and Annette Verschuren. While readers may quibble with Gray’s choices, her insightful biographies make good reading and work well as a way of explaining Canada’s trajectory. Only one person in Gray’s volume, businesswoman Annette Verschuren, born in North Sydney, has roots in any of the four Atlantic Provinces. Testimony, if any were needed, to the region’s invisibility in the Confederation enterprise.

Happily, place is the framework for George Fischer’s Canada: 150 Panoramas, an unapologetic celebration of Canada’s landscape in stunning colour photographs of, and brief commentaries on, each province and territory. Unless one is keen to see ecological disasters, rural poverty and threatened species, this book is impossible not to like and it should have broad appeal. In 2004, when four out of five Canadians lived in urban centres, 89 percent of the respondents to a national survey felt it was the “overwhelming vastness of the landscape” that defined their country. This book showcases this vastness at its best and sunniest.

Yet another way of seeing Canada is through the political satire of Michael de Adder, one of the country’s most admired and prolific cartoonists. Born in Moncton, de Adder cut his artistic teeth while attending Mount Allison University and quickly garnered accolades, among them the American Association of Editorial Cartoonists’ Golden Spike Award in 2006 for the best cartoon killed by an editor. The Halifax Daily News, for which de Adder worked from 2000 to 2008, refused to publish his spoof on Pope Benedict XVI’s election, which showed the white smoke signal from the Vatican chimney in the form of “the finger,” with the caption “The Cardinals Send a Message to Moderate Catholics.”

In 2016, the Beaverbrook Art Gallery in Fredericton hosted a retrospective of de Adder’s cartoons curated by his admiring Mount Allison professor Virgil Hammock. The accompanying catalogue Drawing Conclusions: The Political Art of Michael de Adder includes short essays on de Adder, the history of cartooning, and a timely reflection on the Charlie Hebdo tragedy. An inspired and courageous cartoonist, de Adder has attracted his share of venom but he continues to take no prisoners, poking fun at Stephen Harper and Justin Trudeau with equal enthusiasm. I look forward to de Adder’s contribution to our sesquicentennial, You Might Be From Canada If, a volume in MacIntyre Purcell Publishing’s “You Might” series. 

The aforementioned publications are largely upbeat in tone. The same cannot be said for two of the books discussed here: Donald J. Savoie’s Looking for Bootstraps: Economic Development in the Maritimes and Raymond B. Blake’s Lions or Jellyfish: Newfoundland-Ottawa Relations since 1957. These authors parse the structure of Canadian federalism and find it wanting when it comes to the Atlantic Provinces, whether they joined Confederation in the 19th century or, as was the case for Newfoundland and Labrador, succumbed to the continental drift only in 1949.

Donald Savoie, Canada Research Chair in Public Administration and Governance at the Université de Moncton, has spent most of his adult life trying to solve the problem of Atlantic Canada’s economic underdevelopment. In his earlier career, he served as senior policy advisor in the Department of Regional Economic Expansion and he was influential in convincing the Brian Mulroney government to establish the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency in 1987. Savoie has written extensively and with brilliance on federalism and regional development. Offered appointments to prestigious universities in Great Britain and the United States, he has chosen to stay in the Maritimes.

“I am a Maritimer to the core,” he claims in his Preface. In 2006, Savoie published what he argued was his last book on regional woes, Visiting Grandchildren: Economic Development in the Maritimes, but he is back again, compelled by a sense of urgency in the face of current challenges.

Looking for Bootstraps includes a summary of the scholarship on the Maritime condition in Confederation and explores in revealing detail Savoie’s experiences as a consultant to politicians and bureaucrats in Ottawa. While he initially had confidence in political solutions to the region’s underdevelopment, he has moved away from this position, arguing that “the local home-grown private sector is our region’s best bet.” To highlight this direction, he dedicates his book to K.C. Irving, who also made a conscious decision to stay in the region to fulfill his ambitions (at least, it should be noted, until Canada’s tax regime prompted him to take up residence in Bermuda).

Coming dangerously close to blaming the victims for their plight, Savoie suggests that Maritimers may well be responsible for failing to find the bootstraps they need, unwilling as they are to support Maritime Union as a means to achieve a better outcome in power struggles with Ottawa and lacking the courage to fight for a reformed Senate that could more effectively address regional needs. I remain unconvinced that Maritime Union, a reformed upper chamber and local capitalist leadership are enough to ensure a brighter tomorrow, but Savoie’s implicit assumption that political solutions can still make a difference is reassuring.

The focus on these reforms to address the contemporary paradox of poverty in the midst of plenty echoes the situation on the eve of Confederation. Although the Maritime delegates attending the Charlottetown Conference in September 1864 abandoned the idea of regional union, they fought hard a month later in Quebec City for greater representation in the federal parliament. Any demand that the smaller provinces be accorded an equal voice, either in the Senate or in the House of Commons, was a deal breaker for delegates from the Province of Canada, who were determined to dominate the new federation. And this they did.

In 1867, their name, their capital, their civil service, their currency and their militia policy were imposed on Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. Philip Girard has argued, in one of the fine essays on Confederation published at the ActiveHistory.ca website, that the Maritimes were in effect “annexed to Canada.” This was in fact the case for much of the rest of the country outside of the St. Lawrence-Great Lakes heartland.

The difficulty facing smaller and less wealthy jurisdictions in larger federations and in the world generally is underscored by Newfoundland and Labrador’s experience in Confederation after 1949. Although Canada’s newest province eventually followed the path well trodden by the Maritimes, its feisty premiers were much less likely than their regional counterparts to take federal fiat lying down.

Historian Raymond Blake explores the province’s pitched battles with Ottawa, beginning with Joey Smallwood. Smallwood who took John Diefenbaker’s government to task for its limited interpretation of Term 29 of the union agreement.

Blake follows Smallwood’s path all the way to Danny Williams, who walked out of meetings, lowered Canadian flags and threw hissyfits in order to secure better deals from Paul Martin and Stephen Harper on equalization payments and offshore resource royalties. During negotiations with Ottawa in 2004-05, offers to concede full royalties initially came with strings attached, which bore striking resemblance to the indignities recently suffered by Mediterranean countries in the Eurozone: the new royalty regime would be capped so that Newfoundland and Labrador’s per capita fiscal capacity would not exceed that of Ontario. The smaller province would be required to run a balanced budget. And the agreement would have an eight-year time limit.

Other provinces, meanwhile, were hot on the trail of increased transfer payments, among them Ontario, which in 2005 quietly received $5.75 billion to address its claim that it paid more than its fair share into the federation.

Blake’s analysis of the 1969 Churchill Falls power agreement with Hydro-Québec offers additional evidence to show that bootstraps are difficult to pull when one hand is held in a vice grip. Well researched and passionately argued, Lions or Jellyfish is essential reading for anyone interested in how the politics of regionalism really works.

As Edward Whitcomb demonstrates in Rivals for Power: Ottawa and the Provinces—The Contentious History of the Canadian Federation, the Atlantic Provinces are not unique in their confrontations with Ottawa. This book provides valuable information on the context in which the policies discussed by Savoie and Blake played out, underscoring the flexibility of what is, by any measure, an unwieldy system of governance.

Whitcomb concludes that the fathers of Confederation got most things right when they laid the foundations for what is now one of the oldest and most successful federations in the world. He is, of course, correct in this assumption. Most nation-states experience uneven internal power relations and Canada is no exception.

What might have been discussed in more detail in the academic books reviewed here are the ways in which the Atlantic Provinces influenced federal-provincial relations. Of particular interest to readers of this magazine are the negotiations leading to the Constitution Act, 1982.

In a rare moment of creativity, the Atlantic Provinces collaborated with Manitoba and Saskatchewan in entrenching Article 36, which consolidated some of the values informing the regional development policies and welfare state measures put in place since the 1940s. Article 36 enshrines equalization payments, introduced in 1957. It also commits federal and provincial governments to promoting equal opportunities for the well-being of Canadians, furthering economic development to reduce disparity in opportunities and providing essential public services of reasonable quality, to all Canadians.

It was clear in the 1980s and remains true today that the Atlantic Provinces serve as an embarrassing reminder to the rest of Canada that unfettered market forces often fall short. Since the gap between rich and poor is manifested not only across regions but also in class, ethnic and gender relations, it is important to support an activist state to encourage a better balance in the distribution of the nation’s bounty.

Notwithstanding the challenges, Atlantic Canadians are fortunate in 2017 to be part of a country as rich and politically engaged as Canada. It offers security in hard times, opportunities outside of regional boundaries and sometimes within and—in theory at least—subscribes to the values of equal opportunity and social well-being. The interests of poorer jurisdictions inevitably take a back seat to more powerful ones, but Atlantic Canadians could well embark on their own sesquicentennial project, one designed to make faster progress on the goals they helped to enshrine in the Constitution.

Written By

Margaret Conrad is author of several influential Canadian history books including a leading textbook on Atlantic Canadian history. She is Professor Emerita at the University of New Brunswick. Her take on Confederation is posted at margaretconrad.ca.

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