Ann and I have been married for 30 years on July 4th, or “end of Independence day” as it is sometimes jokingly referred to in our house! Maintaining a relationship with another human being over a long period of time is – as anyone who has attempted it is aware – complex and challenging, so having reached this milestone intact, and in some ways with an even stronger and deeper connection, is definitely something worth celebrating.
On July 1st 2017 Canadians collectively commemorated an important landmark: 150 years since Confederation. As an elected official, Canada Day involves attending numerous community events, meeting old and new friends and eating more hot-dogs and red-and-white cake than is good for you. The 150th Canada Day was extra-special, but the milestone event has also led to a more intense look at what Canada is, how we got here, and how we should appropriately celebrate patriotism. We may have just celebrated our 150th anniversary, but the land we now call Canada was occupied for millennia before July 1st 1867, its original inhabitants populating this land mass from coast to coast to coast. And for much of the last 150 years (and prior to Confederation) European settlers have wreaked havoc on the Aboriginal Peoples of this land. We have been spurred into asking questions like; what defines a country? Is Canada 150, 15,000 or 4 billion years old? Clearly countries are not static fixed ideas, but are ever-evolving, and the central question we must constantly be asking ourselves is how it evolves: by which values do we chart our course?
The carving up of planet Earth into distinct but often apparently largely arbitrary national boundaries has been going on for as long as different communities of homo sapiens have been bumping up against each other. I recently came across a mesmerizing video of how European national borders have changed over the centuries. The short film sharpens one’s focus on the historical fluidity of what we think of as nation states. Today, for a number of reasons, national boundaries are far less unstable, and changes to their number and shape have slowed down considerably.
I am not only an Islander by choice, I am also a Canadian by choice, having emigrated from Scotland in the 1980s. I have always been a history buff, and have striven to learn as much as I can about the place I have chosen to call my home. If we look at the circumstances of the birth of our country, you come to the inevitable conclusion that Canada is a most unlikely nation.
The provinces of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland had been attempting unsuccessfully for ages to create Maritime Union; Upper and Lower Canada were in an ongoing and seemingly intractable feud; our neighbour to the South was in the midst of a civil war; trade was predominantly North-South, and the land mass to the West, known then to European settlers as Rupert’s Land, had yet to be explored and exploited by colonists. To go from that challenging and combustible reality to the country we know today was an astonishing and improbable feat.
I am a proud Canadian in part because I am a descendant of George Brown, Father of Confederation. Here’s what my great-great grandfather said about the idea of Canada: “For myself, I care not who gets the credit of this plan—I believe it contains the best features of all the suggestions that have been made in the last ten years for the settlement of our troubles; and the whole feeling in my mind now is one of joy and thankfulness that there were found men of position and influence in Canada who, at a moment of serious crisis, had nerve and patriotism enough to cast aside political partisanship, to banish personal considerations, and unite for the accomplishment of a measure so ripe with advantage to their common country.” I think that the attitudes expressed by George Brown – interdependence, community, selflessness – have informed our country’s character ever since. We live in a remarkable and great country, not without its problems, and certainly not without its missteps, and frankly shameful acts, but I know of no country for which that is not true. So how do we celebrate that, if indeed we should at all?
For me, one possible answer is the manner with which I approach my wedding anniversary – remembering some wonderful times and notable achievements, while not forgetting some blunders along the way: laughing, crying, feeling thankful for what we have, while constantly trying to improve it and avoid repeating past mistakes.
But the future of Canada does not lie solely in the hands of the politicians: while it is a privilege to be Canadian, all citizens also have a responsibility to contribute to making our country the best it can be. That means not only waving flags and cheering, but recognizing where things have gone wrong in the past, and trying as best we can to fix those mistakes whilst making this collective relationship we call Canada even better.