The Canadian Red Ensign

The Canadian Red Ensign

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

The Roots of the Old Dominion

To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized needs of the human soul. It is one of the hardest to define. A human being has roots by virtue of his real, active and natural participation in the life of a community which preserves in living shape certain particular treasures of the past and certain particular expectations for the future. – Simone Weil

Today we celebrate the 147th birthday of our country. It is the anniversary of the day, in 1867, when the British North America Act came into effect, which effect was to form a federation out of the provinces of Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, with its own federal Parliament modelled after the one in Westminster, under the Sovereign monarch we share with the United Kingdom and other countries in what was then the British Empire but is now the British Commonwealth of Nations. Eventually, all the Crown possessions in North America would be brought into Confederation, whether as provinces like Manitoba or territories like the Northwest Territories, with the last province to enter being Newfoundland and Labrador in 1949. There are ten provinces in total. The ones that I have not yet mentioned are, in order of their entry into Confederation: British Columbia, Prince Edward Island, Saskatchewan and Alberta. There were two territories when I was growing up, the Northwest Territories and the Yukon, but there are now three, Nunavut having become a separate territory from the Northwest Territories – which despite the plural title are considered a single territory – in 1999.

While the day our country came into being as the Dominion of Canada – the name the Fathers of Confederation chose for our country, taking “dominion” from Psalm 72:8 as a synonym for “kingdom” and not as a synonym for “colony” as the liberals, progressives, and socialists later falsely claimed – was just under a century and a half ago, Canada has roots that extend back much further. The British North America Act, enacted on this date in 1867, was signed by Queen Victoria on March 29th of that year, the culmination of a process of negotiation that had taken almost three years, beginning with the Charlottetown Conference of September 1864 and carried on through Conferences in Quebec and London, with plenty of discussion and negotiation taking place outside of the official conferences as well. Even this period of negotiation was merely the latest and ultimately successful stage, in the idea of creating a federation of the British colonies in North America, an idea that had been proposed several times earlier in the nineteenth century. Its revival in the 1860s and perhaps its success was in large part due to fear of the United States.

This fear was well-founded. The United States had invaded Canada in the war she fought with Great Britain from 1812 to 1815. In this war, Canadians had fought to repel the American invaders from their homes and communities and were ultimately, with the help of the British military of course, successful. Due to this success, the war which ended more-or-less in the preservation of the status quo ante and thus a stalemate as far as Britain and the United States were concerned, is, ironically yet accurately, traditionally regarded by Canadians as our victory over the United States, even though, technically, our country was not yet officially born. This victory became a key element of our country’s founding mythology – not mythology in the sense of “stories that are untrue” but in the sense of “stories that help a people to understand and identify themselves”. Here, therefore, is a root of the tree of the Canadian Dominion that extends back to the beginning of the nineteenth century.

It is not the deepest root, nor is it the only reason that the fear of an American invasion on the part of the Fathers of Confederation was well-founded. American politicians had been talking about their vision of “Manifest Destiny”, i.e. the destiny of the United States to rule all of North America, for most of the nineteenth century. Then the election of Abraham Lincoln to the presidency of the United States split the American republic into two warring factions. While Britain was officially neutral, Lincoln’s actions generated tension between London and Washington, and there was a great deal of sympathy in Britain and in both the English and French speaking parts of British North America, not for the slavery which the Northeastern Yankees used to justify their cause – slavery had already been abolished in the British Empire and Canada had been one of the destinations of the “Underground Railroad” prior to the war – but for the Southern states who were, after all, merely giving to Washington a taste of the medicine that Washington had dished out to London less than a century prior. Out of this sympathy we gave sanctuary to Confederate officers just as we had given sanctuary to the escaped slaves before the war. Late in the war, Confederate agents were sent by Jefferson Davis to Canada to conduct covert operations against the North. Although these were mostly unsuccessful, it was deemed prudent by the leaders of the colonies of British North America, to form a federal union that would be able better to resist American retaliation.

In the history of the relations between pre-Confederation British North America and the American Republic we can see another root of the Canadian Dominion extending back to the Rebellion of the Thirteen Colonies. In that eighteenth century conflict, the leaders of the Thirteen Colonies had, citing various grievances against the British Imperial government, declared their independence from the British Empire. Not all British colonies joined in this rebellion, nor did everyone in the rebelling colonies support the rebellion. At the time the term Canada referred to a French colony that had been conquered by the British in the Seven Years War, and ceded to the British Crown by the French at the end of that war. Britain had promised the people of that colony, in what is now Ontario and Quebec, that they could keep their Roman Catholic religion, French language, and way of life, in return for loyalty to the British Crown. Canada did not join in the American rebellion and in the conflict, many of the American colonists fought on the side of the British Empire against the rebelling colonies. These Loyalists faced persecution, including loss of home and property, both during the war and after the rebels gained their independence and so many of these fled north to the loyal British possessions of Canada (Ontario/Quebec) and Nova Scotia (which at the time included what is now New Brunswick).

The division between the rebelling colonists who became the Americans and the Loyalists who became the first English Canadians was in part a reflection of political, philosophical, and even religious differences with roots in the English Civil War of the seventeenth century and ultimately in the English Reformation of the sixteenth century. The American colonies, especially those of the Northeast, had been strongly influenced by Puritanism, a form of English Calvinism that believed that the English Reformation had not gone far enough and that wanted to purify English Christianity of every vestige of the Catholic tradition that could not be shown to be directly authorized by the Scriptures, and which tended to be republican and anti-royalist politically. One of the real reasons for the American secession was this Puritan influence, for the ideological descendants of the men who put King Charles I to death, accusing him falsely of trying to bring England back under the yoke of the pope because he rejected the ecclesiastical reforms they demanded and their demand that he persecute the co-religionists of his French bride, were naturally not pleased that King George III guaranteed the people of Quebec their French language and Roman Catholic religion.

The leaders of the rebel colonies justified their secession from the British Empire by accusing Parliament and the king of tyrannical behaviour and by appealing to the doctrines of liberalism, a modern political dogma that asserted the primacy of the individual and his rights, the contractual nature of society, and government legitimacy based upon democratic election. The Loyalists preferred the government of king and Parliament that they had, over any experimental government to be put together by the kind of men who would use baseless and false accusations of tyranny in order to stir up rebellion and revolution. The American revolutionaries had an inclination towards experiment, innovation, and breaking with tradition and the past to pursue progress in the future. This would very much reflect itself in their national character as it later developed. The Loyalists, as the name by which history knows them would suggest, were more inclined towards sticking to the tried and true, and the older classical virtues such as loyalty. This was later reflected in the national character of Canada.

There are strengths and weaknesses to both of these approaches but one of the strengths of the philosophy that helped shape our national character north of the 49th is that it has allowed our young country to have very deep and extensive roots. The dynamic, progressive, innovative philosophy that has played so important a role in the United States is a philosophy that severs rather than nourishes roots. Thus, while our American friends and neighbours might be able to point to the events that established the Roman Republic in the sixth century BC as a classical antecedent of their own founding, this is more a case of what Nietzsche called “eternal recurrence” than of any organic, rooted, connection. By not severing our ties with Britain, but practicing the virtue of loyalty, and developing into a nation in our own right within the existing tradition, we were able to build a country with roots as long and deep as those of Britain herself.

French Canada, too, due to the timing and circumstances by which it was removed from the French Crown and joined to the British, was able through most of its history to maintain an organic, rooted, connection to the ancient French tradition from which, ironically, France attempted to sever herself in the even more extreme revolution she underwent less than a decade after the Americans won their independence. Thus, until very recently Quebec was in some ways the most conservative of the Canadian provinces and while this conservatism was focuses more upon the French and Roman Catholic language, religion, and culture that tend to set the province apart from the rest of the country, back in 1937, decades before Quebec rejected many of her own roots in the “Quiet Revolution”, when Maurice Duplessis was premier in the French province, Stephen Leacock was able to write that it used to be said that “the last shot fired in defence of British institutions in America would be fired by a French-Canadian.” (1)

There are those today, who would dismiss all of this as ancient history, and question what any of this has to do with the land of beer and hockey, the Canada goose and chocolate mousse, maple syrup and poutine, in which we live our everyday lives today. It is a good question, especially since the Liberal Party, with the full support of the New Democratic Party, with at most an extremely mild and moderate resistance from the Conservatives – more often complete capitulation and accommodation – has striven hard since 1963 to dig up these roots, haul them out to the old scrub pile, and burn them, while attempting to replace the healthy tree that grew from them with a sickly substitute. Nevertheless, I hope and believe that there is enough life left in the old tree, and that enough of the old roots remain, that she may one day be restored to full health.

Happy Dominion Day!
God Save the Queen!

(1) This was in My Discovery of the West. He went on to say: “It looks now as if there would be one more shot after his. It will be from the gun of an American whose name will be something like John Bull McGregor. His people will have been among the McGregors of Mississippi and the Bulls of the New York police: so he won't miss what he shoots at.” He was referring to American immigrants to Western provinces.


  1. Replies
    1. Thank you Will! It was. I hope you had a happy Dominion Day as well.