Canada at 140 – Some Lessons from History

Canada’s national day is celebrated annually on the first day of July.

Earlier this month, July 1, 2007 marked the 140th birthday of a still-young country that began as the Dominion of Canada.

On March 29, 1867 – just a few months prior to Canada’s first birthday — the British Parliament passed the British North America Act, officially titled "An Act for the Union of Canada, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, and the Government thereof and for the Purposes connected therewith."

The introduction of the BNA Act states: "Whereas the Provinces of Canada, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick have expressed their desire to be federally united into one Dominion under the Crown of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, with a Constitution similar in principle to that of the United Kingdom …"

But the "desire" referred to in the elaborate language of the day was that of political leaders, not necessarily of the people themselves.

There was no public referendum conducted as has been done in our era, for example, among countries seeking to join the European Union.

The BNA introduction continued: "And whereas such a Union would conduct to the welfare of the Provinces and promote the interests of the British Empire …"

It does not say what should happen, however, if that Empire were no longer to exist. Would future Canadians have to "promote" the interests of the dominant Empire of the day – such as the U.S.? Or did the designers of the BNA Act assume that Canadians would always uphold the interests of the United Kingdom with or without its Empire? Neither was it made clear in the context of the Act if Canadians should put their national interests second to those of the Empire.

The BNA Act’s introduction concludes: "Be it therefore enacted and declared by the Queen’s most Excellent Majesty, by and with the advice and the consent of the Lords Spiritual and Temporal, and Commons, in the present Parliament assembled, and by the authority of the same …" Now I wonder how many Canadians today understand the significance of the phrase, "consent of the Lords Spiritual and Temporal?"

Among the 147 items of the BNA Act, the new Dominion of Canada was defined as a country that "shall be divided into four Provinces, named Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick … The part which formerly constituted the Province of Upper Canada shall constitute the province of Ontario, and the part which formally constituted the Province of Ontario and … the Province of Lower Canada shall constitute the province of Quebec."

But the original boundaries of the new country were barely established before it began growing again. In 1870, the Manitoba Act created Canada’s first prairie province and the Ontario-Manitoba boundary was officially settled 14 years later, in 1884. Then in 1871, British Columbia entered what became known as The Confederation. Finally, in 1905, Saskatchewan and Alberta joined the family.

Meanwhile, Canada was also expanding eastward. Prince Edward Island agreed to enter Confederation on condition that it be guaranteed a permanent ferry link with the mainland railway network of the Dominion; it officially joined in 1873.

Newfoundland, the other colony island, held out for a good deal longer, until 1949. Newfoundland was a vital element to Canadian unity, for it controlled three major commercial shipping lanes — the trans-Atlantic; the Gulf of St. Lawrence across to the Appalachian Barrier; and the Atlantic coastal access from Halifax, New York and Boston.

When Great Britain declared war on Germany in 1914, Canada followed suit; in 1919 it also signed the Treaty of Versailles and became a member of the League of Nations. On September 10, 1939 Canada declared war on Nazi Germany, again supporting Britain and her allies.

The birth of Canada was, and is, the direct result of the European colonization of North America. In 1492 Christopher Columbus "discovered"

America while trying to find a direct western route to the fabled riches of the Orient. But Spain and Portugal instead used their extensive naval expertise to draw wealth from the so-called New World. For the next several centuries, they explored, exploited, slaughtered, and destroyed their way through the once-unspoiled continents that became North and South America. During that period, the primary victims of this colonial lust for wealth, territory and power were the native peoples of the New World, especially those of Central and South America and the West Indian Islands. France and England soon followed Spain and Portugal to the New World and made their mark further north.

In 1497, John Cabot working for the British sailed to the far northeastern coast of Newfoundland, where cod fisheries were established as early as 1500; but fishermen had little interest in what lay on the mainland. From 1524-1542, however, Jacques Cartier working for the French kept his eyes on the potential for valuable fur harvesting further inland. He was followed later by other enterprising sailors and settlers who made their way down the St. Lawrence River, establishing trading posts at Hochelaga (now Montreal) and at Stadacona (now Québec City).

At first, France was slow to take a significant interest in the New World, because it was torn apart during the 16th century by a period of religious wars on its home soil. But the French gradually became more involved in the region that was beginning to be called Canada, notably those lands around the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

During the 1600s, New France was forming under the influence of leaders like Samuel de Champlain. In 1608 he founded a trading post on the St.

Lawrence River called Québec, which in the natives’ language meant "the closed-up place." The effort of founding a distinct francophone people — Les Canadiens — and settling the rest of the continent was to emerge from Québec, which became a staging point for both missionary and colonizing expeditions alike.


The colonizing efforts of France in Canada were carried out by both Church and State. The Catholicism of the French Counter-Reformation saw the evangelization of the natives as a high priority. Trading companies usually had to agree to transport priests on their ships to New France. The task of missionizing in the New World was entrusted to the Catholic orders of the Recollets and Jesuits.

"It was the Jesuits who constituted themselves par excellence the soldiers of the Cross in French America," comments Prof. Arthur Lower in his book Colony to Nation (1946). "The glory of God came first, the advance of the fleur-de-lis [French settlement and culture] next, money motives far behind … If the French had shown the same zeal in colonizing as in missionary work, the racial situation in North America might have been different today. Piety, finance and bigotry lay behind the missionary effort."

In 1627, the Company of New France was established to trade in furs and in 1670 the Hudson’s Bay Company was established for the same reason. The latter was named after the British captain Henry Hudson, who back in 1610 explored the vast bay that also bears his name. In 1700 the Compagnie du Canada, yet another French commercial venture, was established; it was also in business to manage fur trading with the natives.

As long as the native people complied with the various trading companies, they were generally left alone, but whenever they resisted the traders’ pricing and policies, they were subjected to total genocide — economically, religiously, culturally and physically. In 1666, De Tracy destroyed rebellious Mohawk villages.

By 1667, the Catholic Church arbitrarily claimed its right to receive a portion of the grain harvest of each parish in New France. "Church and state were obverse and reverse of the same coin," comments Prof. Lower. "They were missionaries, fighting troops, to be moved from station to station at the discretion of their commander, the Bishop."

In 1665, Jean Talon had been appointed administrator and New France came directly under the French Crown, given the status of a province of France.

As native populations began to sharply decline due to death in their resistance to the invaders and due to diseases introduced by the colonists, the latter looked for ways to increase their population to gain a firmer power base in their new land.

"The famous ‘filles du roi’ [daughters of the king] experiment involved recruiting young women and sending them off to Quebec by the ship-load for marriage to the bachelors of the colony," reports Prof.

Lower. "Relatively few people in early 18th century Canada had been born in France … The total number of immigrants before the English Conquest (in 1760) was estimated at between 4,000 to 10,000, all of them French. But this handful became the 60,000 inhabitants of the Colony at the Conquest and from it has descended the whole French stock in America today …"

The wars between French and the English in America began almost with their respective arrivals on North American soil. These wars were, often as not, continuations of conflicts rooted in Europe.

Even by the mid-1600s, other European powers began efforts to restrain France from creating a continental hegemony in the New World and succeeded only on the battlefield of Waterloo. In America, "there was no bridge between zealous 17th century Catholicism and stiff-necked 17th century Puritanism," writes Prof. Lower. "For the Puritans, Rome was the evil thing, to be blotted out whenever possible in the persons of its adherents. The Catholics hardly took so extreme a view: wholesale conversion, with military persuasion, would have satisfied them."

In 1611, French Jesuits established a mission in Acadia, but in 1621 Nova Scotia was granted to the Englishman, Sir William Alexander. And in 1713 Hudson’s Bay, Newfoundland and Acadia were all transferred to the rule of Great Britain by Treaty of Utrecht.

In 1744, an aggrieved France declared war on Great Britain, but as early as 1689 it had attempted to take over control of New York. Similarly, the English tried in 1690 and 1711 to wrest Québec from the French.

In 1755 the English forced a wholesale expulsion of the Acadians (the Nova Scotian French) from their settlements.

At the conclusion of the Seven Years’ War, the Marquis de Vaudreuil signed the capitulation on September 8, 1760 whereby he surrendered Montreal and the colony known as Canada to General Amherst.

"For the British it was glorious victory; for the Americans it ended the threat from the North, and for France it was the loss of ‘quelques arpents de neige’ – a few acres of snow," notes Prof. Lower. But that pivotal event also marked the birth of "a French Catholic Province in an English Protestant Empire."

Thus the French conquerors of Canada became themselves conquered subjects. "It is hard for people of English speech – except those of the Southern States – to understand the feelings of those who must pass under the yoke of conquest, for there is scarcely a memory of it in all their tradition," writes Prof. Lower. "Conquest is a type of slavery and of that too the conquerors have no memory, except as masters. Conquest, like slavery, must be experienced to be understood. As long as the French are French and the English are English, the memory of the Conquest and its effects will remain. Not until that great day comes when each shall have lost themselves in a common Canadianism will it be obliterated."

It is astonishing how Prof. Lower’s summation of more than 60 years ago describes the current situation so accurately. I wonder; has that day of "common Canadianism" come to the Canada of 2007?