On Further Reflection: O Canada (Part 1 of 2)

with minor revisions, as posted July 1, 2020, along with Part 2: “The Canadas”

I was brought here on a ship, so I’m not a native son. Kindling true patriot love took some time. As a callow youth I was a regular Yankee Rebel.

My best friend in high school was a proud Quebecois who could trace his ancestry back to the earliest seigneuries. We co-wrote a weekly column for The Trentonian and Tri-County News called “Looking at Stamps”. That’s part of what gave us a global outlook, along with my foreign origins and his family’s association with the Royal Canadian Air Force. 

In those days new nations were breaking the chains of empire in rapid succession. So when the Union Jack came down to make way for the red Maple Leaf Flag 55 years ago, our hearts glowed with pride: We were free at last from those humiliating colonial bonds.

Gradually, beginning around 30 years ago, I developed a somewhat peculiar notion of what Canada is all about. I became what could be called a “neo-Loyalist”, just when the province we had settled in did a complete about face from “Loyal She Remains” to a clumsy variation of revolutionary republicanism.

Today is the 153rd anniversary of Confederation — originally just New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Canada, which would soon be divided into Ontario and Quebec. 

At that point, “Canada” had been a place name on European maps for more than 300 years. 

“They call a town Canada”, Jacques Cartier wrote in his diary, “they” meaning the Indigenous people he met along the St Lawrence shores. So he called their land le pays des Canadas — the land of towns. 

The meaning has shifted over time. I read somewhere that at one point ”Canada” signified all of New France at its zenith, including the entire Mississippi basin down to New Orleans, an entity that came into existence as a complex range of agreements with the peoples of those lands.  

Canada is a good name. Calls to change it are extremely rare, with one glaring exception: for nationalists in Quebec, it has come to mean “the rest of Canada” — anglophone Canada. 

Personally, I’d like to see a return to the plural: the land of Canadas, or the Canadas. I’ll explain why later.  

Before I go there, I want to profess an allegiance to a long, broad view of what Canada signifies: 

With a wide angle view, what happened in 1867 becomes just a step along the way. In some respects, it may have been a step backwards. 

What led me to this broad view was the great good fortune of being invited, out of the blue, to go down to Jamaica to teach North American history at the University of the West Indies 30 years ago.  

It started as a one-year appointment. North American history meant primarily the history of the United States. 

As it happened, the one-year placement became two, and then three years. In the second year, I was assigned the additional duty of teaching “The Atlantic World 1400-1800”.

This is the foundation course for studying history on all three UWI campuses: Jamaica, Trinidad and Barbados (today there are five campuses serving 17 countries and territories)..

The course covers the interaction between Atlantic Europe (mainly France, England, Portugal, Spain and the Netherlands); Africa (mainly West and Central Africa), and the Indigenous peoples of the Western hemisphere from the time sustained contact began. 

The Atlantic World is a recognized field of study now, but it was a relatively new concept then. Teaching a U.S. history survey course with a few Canadian references had been a breeze, but this assignment took me far beyond what I was familiar with. I had to work extremely hard to give my students what they deserved.

Doing this work in what had been a British West Indian colony, on a campus that was once a  sugar plantation, to a class representing a new generation of the African diaspora, was disorienting — in a good way. It felt my whole world had been turned upside down. But that view has felt right side up ever since. 

The story looks different depending where you stand: Hudson’s Bay, Newfoundland, Quebec, Boston, New Amsterdam/NewYork, Jamestown, Charleston, Savanna, Port au Prince, or Kingston, Jamaica. But to understand any of those places, it makes sense to begin with a single narrative.

Up to the day when the “world turned upside down” in 1781 (i.e., when the British surrendered to the Continentals and their French allies), very few people had even imagined such a thing as a United States of America, much less a Dominion of Canada. Up to that point, we were all part of an integrated system. 

After the 13 colonies seceded, the rest — Newfoundland, Canada, the loyal Maritime colonies, Rupert’s Land, Louisiana, and the British, French, Dutch and Danish Caribbean — carried on.  

Spain in America is also part of the story, especially for the U.S. chapters, but I don’t know enough to do it justice, even in a light, cursory telling. Suffice to say that there were great cities with universities, sophisticated local economies and distinct cultures in the southern part of the hemisphere before there even so much as a log cabin in what is now Canada and the United States.   

The main point I’m getting at here is that the land of Canadas wasn’t born on July 1st, 1867. 

Nor did this country suddenly spring into existence on July 24, 1534, when that adventurer from St. Malo “discovered”, named and claimed it for King Francis I.  

We built the towns and the roads, in some cases on Indigenous towns and roads. But the land the towns of Canada are built on is the work of the Creator and/or grand geological forces over time. 

According to the story as I like to tell it as a 21st-century Canadian, this continental matrix from which we emerged, from Trinidad to Nunavut; from Bonavista to the redwood forests, still connects us. 

When slavery was abolished in the British empire on August 1st 1834,  Upper and Lower Canada, Newfoundland, the loyal Atlantic colonies, and the British West Indies were all part of a single, although infinitely complex, whole. 

One indication of those connections is the fact that the Jamaican national dish is ackee and saltfish – an African ingredient and a Newfoundland ingredient brought together in the crucible of the Empire, originally as cheap food for slaves on sugar plantations, and now part of what could be called Jamaican exceptionalism.

The prevalent view, here and around the world, is to see things in accordance with the U.S. storyline. If we had a more comprehensive view of our origins, Canadians might still make more of observing Emancipation Day on August 1st as they do in Jamaica (as did Free Blacks in the U.S. and the Boston Brahman abolitionists that I wrote about in my dissertation).

Our association with the abolition of slavery in the British Empire is something we can take some store in. But this also connects us with modern slavery based on race, which means the Transatlantic Slave Trade and all that has resulted from it, including the tragedy that is race relations in the United States. 

The fact that the settlers in the 13 colonies separated and went their own way at one point doesn’t erase our part in these developments, for better and for worse.

See also Part 2: The Canadas

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s