The Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage voted to undertake a “comprehensive review of significant aspects of Canadian history. That history would include, but not be limited to, pre-confederation, confederation, suffrage, WWI, with an emphasis on battles such as Vimy Ridge, WWII, including the liberation of Holland, the Battle of Ortona. The Battle of the Atlantic, the Korean conflict, peacekeeping missions, constitutional development, the Afghanistan conflict, early 20th century Canada, post-war Canada and the late 20th century.”
I am Canadian. My father fought in the RCAF in WWII from Naples to Ortona; my father-in-law, an infantryman, was awarded the Military Cross. In the earlier war, my wife’s grandfather was one of the original Canadian members of the Royal Flying Corps. Both my father-in-law and his father-in-law were shot and lived with the physical and emotional scars of that experience for the rest of their lives. Their history—Canada’s history—lives on through their, and my, extended families.
But had you suggested to them that wars were the defining events of Canadian history, they would have been gobsmacked. They fought so that they and others would be free from tyranny—and so that no one else, ever again, would have to fight a war. And when they came home they repatriated their courage, their principles and their ideals and applied these to their civilian lives. Proud as they were to have fought for their country, they were equally proud of the country that welcomed them home and helped them restart their education and embark on civilian careers. As lifelong public servants—one a fisheries economist and one a professor of particle physics—they now engaged in a different kind of national service.
But, as my fathers knew, patriotism encompasses much more than war. It is, in fact, the entire landscape of “significant aspects” from which our history is made.
A history that saw immigrants settle the West with unmatched Canadian grit and perseverance.
A history that celebrates compassion—introducing public health care so that no one again would be denied medical attention for lack of money. No one again would suffer financial ruin simply in order to preserve their health or that of their family.
A history that built a national railway system—an industrial project of enormous difficulty and significance and a feat possible only through the combined efforts and vision of Canada’s nascent public and private sectors.
A history of innovation and enterprise that built one of the first national broadcasting networks—giving Canada her voice while, at the same time, setting her up as a leader in modern communications technology for the better part of the 20th century.
As a founder of the United Nations, and a pioneer in the science and art of peacekeeping, we earned the world’s respect. At home, abolishing capital punishment reflected a new maturity and national self-respect, as well as obedience to the commandment: thou shalt not kill.
A history of three national populations and two official languages demanded flexibility, tolerance and a willingness to compromise—demands not always honourably met.
For, of course, our history has its darker side. Our systematic and ongoing marginalization of Native peoples’ rights, cultures and desires. The Family Compact. Our internment of Japanese Canadians. Our treatment of Jewish refugees during the Second World War and the imposition of admission quotas in our universities. The expulsion of the Acadians by our British colonial ancestors. The suppression of the Metis. And countless other examples, both past and, regrettably, present. No history—no society—is perfect, certainly not ours.
But our national story—the arc of our history—has, until now, “bent towards justice”. It has been a history of individual and collective effort and one of shared prosperity. We have sought to be a decent country and there is no shame in that. It is a history that has been expressed in many forms—through the art of the Group of Seven, Emily Carr and the women of Beaver Hall; through the documentary films of John Grierson at the NFB, through the stories of Margaret Atwood; and through the songs of Gordon Lightfoot, Stan Rogers and Rita MacNeil.
Canada doesn’t need to rewrite its history, we need simply to remember it.
I am Canadian. I continue to stand on guard for a Canada that still bends, clumsily but steadily, towards democracy and justice. If history is written by the winners, may my history be written by all the ordinary men and women whose stories make up our sprawling Canadian narrative.