With the ground shaking under our feet and accepted truths under attack, how better to prepare for the challenges ahead, than to remind ourselves of who we are, and what we represent? For Canadians, that means refreshing our memory about what makes Canada unique and about what we need to champion going forward. Charlotte Gray’s new book The Promise of Canada, published in October in anticipation of Canada’s 150th birthday, seems even more relevant in the aftermath of the American election.
Gray immigrated from Britain to Canada (and to winters in Ottawa) in 1979 when the exuberance of the Centennial, the new flag, and Trudeaumania had given way to fears of Quebec separatism and “regular spasms of insecurity.” Continuing “concerns about whether there was enough glue to keep the country together” was the prevailing preoccupation.
As she has “gradually morphed into a Canadian,” Gray has concluded that, “There is no master narrative for Canadian history: there are too many stories to package into a tidy, tightly scripted identity. Yet Canada exerts a sense of endless promise because… it has successfully managed so many competing pressures: parallel identities, layers of allegiance, deep-rooted hostilities, overlapping loyalties.”
Her book is a Petri dish approach to our history. She focuses on the lives of nine plus individual Canadians “whose stories reflect the evolution of Canada over the past 150 years,” and whose “reflections on being Canadian have become embedded in our collective subconscious.”
There are those she describes who “laid the foundation” of our national subconscious. George-Étienne Cartier preserved the French culture of Lower Canada by ensuring a federal system of government, and the protection of minority rights. Samuel Steele personified the North West Mounted Police as it imposed “peace, order and good government” in the Canadian west and during the Gold Rush in the Yukon. Emily Carr embraced her local Indigenous culture, and turned outward to Europe and Eastern Canada to inspire the modern artistic sensibility she brought to the lush forests of the west coast. Professor Harold Innis used his canoe trips on wild northern rivers as “dirt research” for his economic history of Canada as a northern nation that naturally grew east to west because of the fur trade.
Gray then describes individuals who have helped Canada become “a different kind of country.” Tommy Douglas and the CCF government in Saskatchewan (1944-1961) created a host of social programs (including but by no means limited to state-funded medicare) which became prototypes for similar social initiatives across the country. Margaret Atwood’s influence “landscaping Canadian literature” in her Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature (1972) nurtured a rich garden of Canadian literature which has flourished and gone global. Bertha Wilson, who came to Canada in 1949 as an “accompanying spouse” of a Presbyterian minister, in 1982 became the first woman on the Supreme Court of Canada, and helped shape the rights we enjoy under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
The last section of the book, “Straining at the Seams,” talks of the pressures on the country in recent decades, as Quebec separatism continued simmering, Indigenous people demanded self-government, western alienation became more vocal, and hundreds of thousands of new immigrants from different cultures adapted to life in Canada. The profile of Elijah Harper is searing, not only for his dramatic “No” to discussion of the Meech Lake Accord in the Manitoba Legislature on June 14, 1990, effectively killing the Accord, but also for what it shows about the history of the indigenous people in Canada, our shared responsibility for their continuing problems, and their increasing determination to be “Silent No More.” To answer the question, “What does the West Want?,” she describes Preston Manning’s response to the populist politics of Alberta and how his alternative vision for the country has influenced the mainstream. She concludes with a pastiche of new Canadians who have grown up with the enthusiasm, energy and creativity to achieve personal success and reinvent the country with them.
Gray acknowledges the warts and the inequities which, from our contemporary perspective, have stained the history of the nation. But she remains optimistic. “It helps to recall,” she says, “Canada’s extraordinary resilience during constant turbulent change, and to recognize subconscious as well as conscious change.” Ours is not a singular tribal identity. For all our differences, “we have learned to share this land and for the most part live in neighbourly sympathy.”
The Promise of Canada is a great read which raised my spirits and made me glad that I live in Canada. Maybe it will do the same for you.
On July 2nd, John Ibbitson wrote an article in the Globe and Mail called “The peaceable kingdom in an increasingly populist world.” The question he posed was, “What [is] inoculating [Canada] against the intolerance infecting other Western countries?”
His response was that “Part of the answer could be in Quebec [which] since the days of the Quiet Revolution has pursued a socially progressive communitarian agenda.” What he said was true, but it misses a much more important point… that socially progressive communitarian values had evolved out of western Canada decades earlier. Since 1932, an ongoing and vibrant social democratic third political party has existed in Canada which has contributed to “the forward-thinking approach to social policy [which] is the principle reason that Canada ranks so highly on the Social Progress Index.” For a Canadian-born journalist acclaimed for his political analysis, this is a singular omission. Has Central Canada forgotten the history of the Canadian West and what it has contributed to Canadian society?
The Canadian Commonwealth Federation (the C.C.F. and the forerunner of the current New Democratic Party) was founded in Calgary, Alberta in 1932 by a coalition of socialist, agrarian, cooperative, labour and academic groups reacting to the economic depression of the 1930s. They and their descendants came to Canada 1880-1914 to populate the Canadian prairies served by the new railroad. These were “the hearty peasant folk from Europe,” the Ukrainians, Poles, Doukhobors, Mennonites, Hungarians, Romanians, Icelanders, Finns, and Scandinavians who worked the farms and created the Canadian West. They were joined by hordes of British immigrants who tended to be less successful farmers, lived in the cities and small towns, and practiced their Methodist and Presbyterian “social gospel” from their newly built local churches. These were the immigrants who laid the foundations for two new provinces, Alberta and Saskatchewan, in 1905.
There is no dispute that the C.C.F. which emerged from the dustbowls of the dirty ’30s planted the roots of the social welfare system that we enjoy in Canada today. The farmers, preachers, academics, and trade unionists gathered in Regina in 1933 to hammer out the Regina Manifesto wanted a pension, health insurance, unemployment insurance, a minimum wage, and farm security. In 1935, five C.C.F. members were elected to Parliament, including Baptist minister Tommy Douglas.
Less than a decade later, on June 15, 1944, Tommy Douglas and the C.C.F. won 47 out of 52 seats in the Saskatchewan provincial election and formed the first socialist government in North America. Theirs was a highly innovative government which transformed the relatively poor and agrarian province of Saskatchewan into “Canada’s leader in progressive social policy.”
The catalogue of their achievements in the post-war years is breathtaking and well worth the attention of newcomers who may not know the details of western Canadian history.
The Tommy Douglas C.C.F government brought Medicare to Canada. They did so in steps. First, they provided free health care for pensioners, free psychiatrist hospital treatment for the mentally ill, free cancer treatment for the needy, organized the first comprehensive health services regions, constructed new health care facilities, created a medical school at the University of Saskatchewan, and an Air Ambulance service. On January 1, 1947, they brought in the first universal and compulsory hospital insurance program in North America. It provided complete hospital benefits to all residents including access to 21 new hospitals built over four years, x-ray and lab services, common drugs, and compensation for out of province medical hospital costs. The plan cost $5 per person to a maximum of $30 per family per year. From 1959-1962, in the face of vigorous opposition from the province’s doctors, the C.C.F. government brought in the Saskatchewan Medical Care Insurance Act. This provided universal comprehensive medical insurance for all residents. The intent of the universal public system was to keep the costs of insurance premiums affordable ($12 per year for an individual, $24 for a family), justify the large expenditure of public funds that would be necessary to make the program work, and make sure that the government would be accountable for its management.
Other “firsts” from the Tommy Douglas C.C.F. government were extensive. They consolidated the public school system, increased wages for teachers, brought in new school curricula, funded grants to universities and colleges, gave entrance scholarships for high school graduates, enacted trade union laws guaranteeing workers the right to organize and bargain collectively, and set up a Labour Relations Board and a Workers’ Compensation Board.
They also created a Social Welfare Department which increased old age pensions, mothers’ allowances and welfare benefits, assumed wardship of orphaned children, set up a better adoption system, and took responsibility for youth corrections. In addition, the Douglas government created the Saskatchewan Government Insurance Office (1945) for everything except life insurance. The next year, they expanded it to include compulsory no-fault auto insurance.
They protected farm owners from foreclosure and repossession (1944), increased resource royalties, and allowed for government development projects, established the Saskatchewan Power Corporation (1949), the Saskatchewan Government Telephone (1944), and the Saskatchewan Transportation Company (1946) to provide cheap bus service. They passed the Rural Electrification Act (1951), to bring power to farmers and rural communities. They negotiated with the federal government of John Diefenbaker for joint funding of The South Saskatchewan River Dam Development Project (1958), to irrigate farmland and generate hydroelectric power.
They enacted the Archives Act (1945), the Regional Libraries Act (1946), and set up the Saskatchewan Arts Board (1948), the first on the continent to create scholarships for art, music and handicrafts and to fund performers, agencies and schools.
This C.C.F. government enacted Canada’s first Bill of Rights (1947) including a ban on racial and religious discrimination, and protection of freedom of religion, speech, assembly, and elections.
There is a reason that the 2004 CBC poll found Tommy Douglas to be “The Greatest Canadian of All Time.” It may not be fashionable to say so these days, but the social democratic government of Tommy Douglas created the prototypes, fought the battles, and set the standard which other governments emulated and which stimulated the social policy we enjoy today. Knowing the history is important.
***** I submitted the original of this piece to the Globe and Mail several weeks ago. I guess they found it too long, too dense, or too politically incorrect to publish. Hopefully, John Ibbitson is not offended if one takes issue with his analysis. Thanks to Steve Pticek who told me that Tommy Douglas had been his hero when he came to Canada from Croatia and had helped “mellow” his own political views. My conversation with Steve reminded me that I could publish this piece in The Effervescent Bubble.