We Canadians don’t get worked up over Canada Day.
The French are stirred whenever “La Marseillaise” is played. The Brits stand up anytime they hear “God Save the Queen.” Nobody outdoes the Americans for red-white-and-blue extravagance on the Fourth of July. And Aussies get excited every time someone opens a fridge.
We throw on a red-and-white T-shirt, and grill some food, and remember hockey gold medals, and maybe see what’s on TV from Parliament Hill…. No big deal. Nice to have a summer day off.
We could, however, celebrate Confederation as a political miracle.
In 1867, two communities decided to form a country together.
Yes, they had each mistreated native peoples, and 150 years later, we have a lot left to do on that account. Yes, they would go on to be hard on immigrants. And yes, they would mistrust and insult each other, almost to the breaking point.
But after a century and a half, we’re still here. And that is, historically speaking, amazing.
For by 1867, English people and French people had spent a thousand years trying to conquer or exterminate each other. And the defeat of the French emperor Napoleon at Waterloo by the Duke of Wellington and his Prussian allies was within the living memory of many Canadians at the time of Confederation.
Yet here was John A. Macdonald, the Scottish immigrant and pride of Kingston, Ontario, joining hands and fortunes with George-Étienne Cartier to work with the leaders of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick—provinces with their own troubled histories of French-English relations—to form a new country.
More astounding still was the fact that Confederation also brought together Protestant and Catholic Christians who for half a millennium had been trying to convert or excommunicate each other all over Europe and out into the New World.
Less than four months after Canada Day this year, Protestants will be celebrating Reformation Day 2017, the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. That rupture of the Western Church provoked inquisitions, burnings, and wars for decades afterward.
Yet on 1 July 1867, a new country was born that not only happened to include Protestants and Catholics, but whose constitution explicitly allowed for the cultural differences between them at the time, most obviously in the crucial zone of education.
Imagine: Granting liberty to your neighbours to school their children in ideas you are convinced are not only entirely wrong, but also harmful to the eternal welfare of those children.
Religion has been a flashpoint for Canadian life since then. One recalls the religious views of Louis Riel that prompted him to prophethood—and martyrdom; the conscientious objection to conscription of the Doukhobors; and the intemperance of Jehovah’s Witnesses on the radio that prompted the CRTC to clamp down on religious broadcasting for half a century.
And for decades after Confederation, Catholic priests worked with local jurists and police officers to persecute Protestant missionaries in towns throughout Quebec, while Orangemen held loud and sometimes violent parades in Ontario and the Maritimes to proclaim the supremacy of their religion.
No, it’s not as if religion didn’t matter at Confederation. It mattered a great deal. Indeed, it was an integral part of English-French cultural conflict, and it was the political genius of Macdonald, Cartier, and the other Fathers to sense their common need for union and to somehow pull it off.
“Getting along,” I admit, is not the stuff of legend. It doesn’t prompt the fevered composition of patriotic poetry or jingoistic jingles.
But for English and French, Protestant and Catholic, to even think about getting along together in the 1860s, and to manage to keep doing so for another century and a half, is worth celebrating.
And, in these fractious times when everyone seems determined to force his or her views on everything from climate change to sex to taxation to race down everyone else’s throat, Confederation is not only worth celebrating…
Only thus will Canada continue to be “glorious and free.”