Book Review: The Shipboard Debate

In 1874 a Scottish immigrant ship the Moravian glided past the pretty farms and hamlets of the St. Lawrence River valley. Passengers gathered on deck after a long transatlantic journey.

“A discussion broke out among a number of the ship’s passengers,” writes author Peter Price. “‘Who are Canadians?’ asked one person. For the gathered passengers, most of whom were laying eyes on the shores of Canada for the first time, it was a question with no obvious answer. A ‘person born in Canada is always considered a Canadian,’ one person insisted. This answer made little sense to another, who retorted that ‘a fellow can’t be a horse because he was born in a stable.’”

Yet Canada survived. Most nations indexed in the 19th century atlas did not. The Austro-Hungarian Empire, Czarist Russia, Kingdoms of Bavaria, Serbia and Hawaii, Republic of Cuba, Qing Empire, Orange Free State, all gone. The list of industrialized nations to survive intact for 154 years without civil war is a short list, yet Canada did it.

Ask, “Who are Canadians?” today and tens of millions will answer. Not so in the Confederation era, writes Price. As late as 1889 Nova Scotians used the term “Canadian” to refer to people from Ontario.

The word “citizenship” was “the political antonym of ‘colonist,’” he writes. Empire Day was an annual observance from 1898. The original British North America Act was scarcely a celebration of nationhood; it did not even contain the word “people.”

If the U.S. Declaration of Independence had famous signers, “in the case of Canada there was no signature, no moment at which the inhabitants of what became Canada convened and assented to their new appellation,” says Questions Of Order.

“‘Founding’ moments rarely have the conscious cohesion and clarity of purpose with which they are later remembered,” writes Price, of Queen’s University. “The truth is that founding moments exist most vividly in the imagination of posterity, and their retrieval in historical records tends to recover instead only fragments of later possibilities.”

Questions Of Order is a 19th century scrapbook of the land we left behind. Price is an enthusiastic chronicler. He guides readers through a time capsule of an era so different from ours Canada Day would be unrecognizable to the Fathers of Confederation.

Their flag was an English flag, their anthem God Save The Queen, their loyalty to the Old Country. The whole point of Canada was to save a big, rich land from the clutches of Americans.

“The emphasis on Canada’s British character as a contrast to the republicanism of the United States was a frequent feature of Canadian political and social life,” says Price. “It carried with it the idea of devotion not only to English political ideals, but likewise to all the cherished traditions of the English race, and to all its treasured legacies of mind and heart.”

“Over a century and a half after Confederation, it has become widely popular to mark that date as the emergence of Canadian independence,” he explains. “In all the discussions of the Canadian question, however, the suggestion that Canada ought to establish itself as a fully ‘independent’ state was the rarest one.”

Of course we were more than Little Englanders, even then. The country in its beauty, vastness and wealth inspires a deep pride and affection in most people who spend more than a winter here. It did then, too. As The New Dominion Monthly wrote in 1875, “Consider the name ‘Canadian’ as one to be proud of, and Canada as a country to be loved and gloried in.’”

By Holly Doan

Questions of Order: Confederation and the Making of Modern Canada, by Peter Price; University of Toronto Press; 226 pages; ISBN 9781-4875-22186; $20.96

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