Review: Land Of Revolutionaries

The greatness of Canada is that it’s even here. We’ve had every reason to be at each other’s throats for 150 years, yet kept the federation together. Anyone who doubts the achievement should ask Czechs and Slovaks, Tutsis and Hutus, Irish Catholics and Irish Protestants, Confederates and Yankees. The roll call of nations that absorbed bitter factionalism without revolt or disintegration is a very short list.

Canada’s Odyssey: A Country Based On Incomplete Conquests documents this remarkable story. In 1867 the Dominion Bureau of Statistics estimated the population was 28 percent French with few surviving Indigenous people, about 118,000. Today it is 22 percent French, and the Indigenous population has grown tenfold.

“Canadians, all thirty-five million of them, have not agreed that they belong to a single ‘people’ whose majority expresses the sovereign will of their nation. The holdouts are the French Canadians and members of the nations indigenous to North America whose historic lands are in Canada,” writes author Peter Russell, professor emeritus at the University of Toronto’s political science faculty.

Russell explains: “These Canadians do not accept that the tide of history has somehow washed away these nations of their first allegiance or diluted their constitution significance. Their enduring presence as ‘nations within’ Canada is fundamental to understanding Canada, as is the often troubled, uncomfortable accommodation of the ‘nations within’ by the country’s English-speaking majority.”

The Canadian experience is one of incremental adjustment and maddening deliberation. This remains a hard place to get things done. Professor Russell cites the example of radio: The first Broadcasting Act was introduced in 1932 only after a Royal Commission, one Supreme Court reference – who has jurisdiction over radio waves? – and a ruling of the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. “There was some doubt about the issue because, of course, there was no mention of radio in the British North America Act,” notes Russell.

Canada’s Odyssey chronicles the teeter-totter of the past 150 years with a warm narrative and compelling facts. By example:

John A. Macdonald wanted Canada proclaimed a “kingdom”; it was the British who suggested “dominion”.

The 1864 Charlottetown Conference was the invention of Lord Stanmore, later governor of Fiji. When Stanmore died in 1912 the Globe & Mail knocked his obituary down to a single paragraph.

Cabinet in 1914 prohibited traditional aboriginal dancing in public, and in 1927 passed regulations forbidding First Nations from hiring their own lawyers.

And the most incredible fact of all: Canada in 1867 was 93 percent English and French. By 1961, the proportion of descendants of the so-called founding peoples was down to 74 percent. Today it is 66 percent. We are slightly revolutionary after all, writes Russell: “Canada has not returned to the quest for a big bang, popular resolution of all its constitutional concerns – and let’s hope it never does. That kind of constitutional politics may be appropriate for a country based on a single founding people. But Canada, a country based on incomplete conquests, is clearly not such a country.”

By Holly Doan

Canada’s Odyssey: A Country Based On Incomplete Conquests, by Pete Russell; University of Toronto Press; 544 pages; ISBN 9781-4875-02041; $39.95

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