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College Quarterly
Winter 2011 - Volume 14 Number 1
The Strange Demise of British Canada: The Liberals and Canadian Nationalism, 1964-68
C. P. Champion
Montreal McGill-Queens University Press, 2010
Reviewed by Howard A. Doughty

My earliest political memories were recalled recently, when I came across a photo of myself in about 1948 or 1949, standing at attention and proudly holding a Union Jack, presumably about to witness the annual Dominion Day parade in which the featured attraction was, as always, the Royal Canadian Legion Branch 258 Band. Those were in the days of what C. P. Champion’s book reminds us was “paleo-nationalism.” They were days in which I listened, quite transfixed, to the tales told by the patriarch of a prominent family in my largely rural farming community. His name was Colonel Little. He told of his soldiering in the Boer War and of meeting Queen Victoria in person. Time flies.

Fast-forward twenty years to 1968 or 1969 and the Union Jack (and the Red Ensign, for that matter) had been sidelined in favour of the new Maple Leaf flag presented in the robust colours of the Liberal Party of Canada. We had just been treated to Expo ’67 and Pierre Trudeau was newly pirouetting across the Canadian political stage. The famous “two solitudes” of French and English Canada were, we were assured, being reconciled by the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism and, in just a few years, we would celebrate the new, official policy of Multiculturalism. Everything was looking up, up and away … away from the United Kingdom, that is.

Canada, by some accounts, had won its spurs as a nation in April, 1917 at the World War I Battle of Vimy Ridge, but there was something serious going on in the late 1960s as well. Canadians had a new jauntiness in our collective step. We were confident and forward-looking. As a bonus, we were not officially mired in Vietnam and stalled on the march to Civil Rights, Richard Nixon was not our Prime Minister, and the War Measures Act was still a year or two away.

C. P. Champion, a senior advisor to Conservative cabinet minister Jason Kenney, has written a book about the relationship between the Liberal Party and Canadian nationalism in the tight five years of minority Liberal government under Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson. It understates (or, is that “decontextualizes”?) much of the background and the underground of events. It focuses on a rather small number of high-ranking Liberal politicians. It sees or attempts to see the world through their eyes. It uses the word “nationalism” and, indeed, the word “imperialism” oddly.

Its subject is “Britishness” and it tries to show that the old imperial heritage, the monarchy, the parliamentary system, the deference to law and order and many other trappings of our previous colonialism were transformed to meet the needs of the twentieth century, but that they were by no means abandoned. Champion would like to recall and restore our heritage and see that it is seen as an evolutionary process, not as an anachronism, a mere object of antiquarian interest. This is not a foolish or a nostalgic idea. It merits consideration. That consideration, in turn, requires some sense of context.

Few recall the words of Stephen Butler Leacock (1875-1944), the eminent Canadian humourist and political economist, who once declared that he was an “imperialist” because he refused to be a “colonial.” The tie to Great Britain, participation in the Empire and, later, the British Commonwealth of Nations was essential to the identity of English-speaking Canada. Therein lay our cultural and institutional roots, and therein lay our hope for enduring prosperity. Therein, as well, could be found our protection against the United States, republicanism and an excess of democracy.

Of course, there was an even more bizarre notion afoot about a century ago. In a brief fit of delusion, some Canadians seem sincerely to have believed that the twentieth was to be “Canada’s Century.” In its extreme manifestation, a few of these optimists actually thought that the British Empire would continue to rule the waves, much of the land mass and an extraordinary number of human lives on the planet; however, it would be the British Empire led by Canada. Because of this country’s vast resources and emerging independence, the Dominion of Canada would supplant the British Isles as the geopolitical centre of the Empire. Canada would—with the able assistance of the “white” dominions and the human resources of the darker-skinned colonials—more or less rule the world.

Absurd as that sounds today (and probably sounded to most rational citizens then), the rise and fall of fascism and official communism, the decolonization of every Eurocentric Empire and the temporarily unchallenged ascendancy of the United States of America were unanticipated a hundred years ago. All (or some) things were possible and only a few certainties existed. For Anglophone Canadians, enduring Britishness in culture and politics was such a certainty. It was simply the nature of things; the evolution of Canada into a country in which people of English, Scottish and Irish ancestry would be a minority was literally unthinkable.

Champion’s book sites its target well. It picks the remarkable minority government of Lester B. Pearson as the fulcrum of Canadian evolution, the pivot or the tipping point between the old and the new. At that peculiar moment, many things changed, and Champion has a distinctive view of what they were, how they came about and what the long-term implications were to be.

Daniel Ross of the Department of History at York University in Toronto has compared Champion’s book to José Igartua’s The Other Quiet Revolution: National Identities in English Canada, 1945-1962. Like the Québecois who emerged from two-hundred-year-old cultural traditions and institutions with a bold new sense of identity, largely managed by the provincial Liberal Party in Québec, Anglophone Canada began to assert itself in a more robust manner. As Ross comments, “by the end of the [1960s] an identity based on ethnic Britishness gave way to a more inclusive civic nationalism … but where Igartua emphasizes change, [Champion] sees continuity. The civic identity of post-1960s Canada, he argues, represents a fulfillment, not a rejection, of Canada’s British heritage.”

There is a lot wrong with Champion’s approach. It is not only the opposite of “social history” as practiced today with its emphasis on the lives and conflicts of ordinary people, often under the domination of overarching corporate institutions and ideologies, but it also ignores a great deal of what needs to be taken into account if we are to understand anything of Canada’s past, present and future. It is, for example, elitist in that its main focus is upon a tiny group of leaders whose opinions seem untouched by influences outside of Ottawa, or at least away from the major public policy institutions in the rest of Canada. It is, however, also indifferent to questions of political economy. Moreover, when it treats the changing demographics of Canadian society, it reiterates Liberal Senator Andrew Thompson’s talk about “courting our ethnic friends,” which amounted at the time to little more than buying off minority groups through multicultural programs and financial contributions to exercises in ethnic identity. The manifest interest then was in fostering an appreciation of the contributions of the non-British and non-French tiles in the Canadian mosaic. The latent interest was in encouraging a “third” force that would be loyal to the Liberal Party and to a united Canada and that would help squeeze Québec separatists between two different but mutually supportive cultural entities. (Whether it ever occurred to Pierre Trudeau and his colleagues that the “new Canadians” would become a self-defining, politically independent and economic force to rival the British is an open question.)

What is missing is an adequate consideration of the genuinely determinative forces directing Canadian history. Attention to famous political leaders and to famous battles is the stuff of traditional historical inquiry. To me, however, cultural evolution is more akin to the movements of the ocean: the waves and white caps and the crashing surf and swells are attractive, energetic and occasionally aesthetically pleasing; more important are the deep currents. So, while Canadians recognized the coming of age of the country in the blood of Vimy Ridge, the powerful forces that would change the country were operating out of sight.

In her iconic 1970 book, Silent Surrender, economist Kari Levitt showed that between the beginning of World War I and the start of the Great Depression, the character of the Canadian economy had changed fundamentally. In 1914, more than 90% of foreign investment in Canada’s development had been British, and the overwhelming majority was in the form of government bonds. By 1930, the balance had shifted with over 50% coming from the United States and more than half of that taking the form of “direct,” not “portfolio” investment. So, while Canadians were celebrating their emergence into national maturity, the era of the American branch plant had begun.

It must not be forgotten that “conservatism” in Canada once meant Anglophilia combined with a barely disguised anti-Americanism. In the alternative, “liberalism” in Canada was deeply intertwined with continentalism. So, in 1940 the University of Toronto historian Frank Underhill was castigated and almost lost his job by daring to propose that, following World War II, Canada’s tie to Britain would have to be balanced against our connection to the United States. Cries of “treason!” were shouted in political offices and the press. The idea of appearing to abandon the “mother country” in a time of war enraged conservatives and many a sober liberal as well. Still, the St. Lawrence Seaway was built, Canadian airwaves were open to American television and a growing cosmopolitanism averted eyes to the south. The only detail to be worked out was which party of big business would see the transformation through to the end. Curiously, paradoxically and perhaps tragically, it was the Progressive Conservative Party of Brian Mulroney that signed the North American Free Trade Agreement and it is the Conservative Party of Stephen Harper that is putting the final touches on the North American economic and security partnership. Never mind Sir John A. Macdonald, conservatives from the days of the National Policy to John George Diefenbaker must be twisting in their respective graves. And remember, although the Liberal Party campaigned in 1993 to renegotiate the NAFTA (or to rip it up, depending on the enthusiasm of the crowd) no serious efforts have been made to extract Canada from the American orbit. So it is that Canadian nationalism, whether seen as a rejection or as a fulfillment of the British presence in the former British North America, has largely collapsed.

If Liberal nationalism can be interpreted as the ascent, apex and fulfillment of Britishness in Canada, the dream didn’t last long. So it is that I vividly recall a late June afternoon in 1972. There were four of us sitting around a table in a draft beer emporium in a rather seedy hotel in Orillia, Ontario. We were sipping beer and commiserating over the events of the day. There sat my old friend Frank Eastham (1944-1998), a product of the Liverpool docks and winner of a trade union scholarship to Hull University in England where he completed a BA in Law and Politics. Frank went on to become a teacher, trade union activist and ultimately an Associate Vice-President of the University of British Columbia. Present also was Pauline Jewett (1922-1992), a past and future Member of Parliament who also served with distinction as President of Simon Fraser University and as Chancellor of Carleton University. Finally, there was Bruce Kidd, the Olympic runner who has enjoyed a long career as an author, athlete and, for two decades, Dean of the Faculty of Physical Education and Health at the University of Toronto. Pauline and Bruce were both to become Officers of the Order of Canada.

The “event” we were discussing was the purging of the “Waffle” from the Ontario New Democratic Party. For those unfamiliar with it, this group—also known as the Movement for an Independent Socialist Canada—is most often said to have acquired its self-deprecating name when, during a meeting to write its “manifesto,” someone accused future NDP leader Ed Broadbent of “waffling,” to which he retorted that if he had to choose between waffling to the right or waffling to the left, he preferred waffling to the left, and the name stuck. Neither Frank nor I were members of the Waffle, and I doubt if Bruce or Pauline were either. What stunned us was not the de facto expulsion of this left-wing faction from the party of social democracy, but the fact that the establishment of the NDP thought such a thing was necessary. The Waffle was an ideologically committed “ginger group” dedicated to radicalizing the NDP, to making it strongly nationalist (or, better, I think, anti-imperialist) and committing it to a distinctively socialist agenda. It had shown unanticipated support in 1971 when James Laxer, its candidate for party leader won 40% of the vote against David Lewis, who had been expected to win in a landslide. There is no reason to poke about in the bones of that particular ancient burial ground. I will however, repeat a snippet of our conversation.

At one point, Frank leaned forward and asked: “How is it, Pauline, that you’ve moved so quickly from the centre of the Liberal Party to the extreme left of the NDP?” (Pauline had been a Liberal MP, but she joined the New Democrats in reaction to Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s invocation of the War Measures Act during the Québec Crisis of 1970.) Without missing a beat, Pauline replied: “I haven’t moved at all. It’s the rest of the country that’s gone right.”

Well, the country has continued to move to the right, at least as interpreted by our electoral system that creates false outcomes and allows parties with 40% or less of the vote to form “majority” governments. Part of that shift can sensibly be interpreted as counter to the “will of the people,” who continue to support international peace, universal health care, national cultural institutions but who nonetheless elect governments that are either indifferent or hostile to the Canadian nation as understood in the late 1960s.

The British connection in recent Canadian history has, meanwhile, simply ceased to be a topic of conversation for most Canadians. The select group of political and bureaucratic leaders who Champion describes are well and truly forgotten in the popular culture. There is no more controversy about the national flag and, apart from a flashy visit by a couple of “young royals,” there is not much that most Canadians have to say about the monarchy or any other manifestation of the British connection. Even the restoration of the separate military services and the insertion of the word “Royal” wins few comments other than from an old and dwindling number of soldiers.

Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson, whose associates were intimately involved with the evolution of the Canadian identity as the alleged pinnacle of Britishness once declared that he didn’t much care who owned the businesses in the country, as long as the culture remained Canadian. His dear friend and finance minister Walter Gordon begged leave to disagree. Pearson was a history professor-turned civil servant. Gordon was a wealthy man of commerce and a Canadian nationalist. Despite opposition, he undertook to sponsor a study of foreign investment in Canada and appointed a young economics professor at the University of Toronto to lead the inquiry. The young professor was Mel Watkins, an associate of James Laxer and soon to be a leading intellectual force in the aforementioned “Waffle.” When the Watkins Report was delivered, it was plain that Gordon would have to go.

Walter Gordon knew better that Lester Pearson that those who dominate the economy dominate the country; anything else is recreation.


Howard A. Doughty teaches Globalization and Political Economy at Seneca College in Toronto. He can be reached at howardadoughty@yahoo.ca

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