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Legion Magazine – November/December 2002 « Douglas Fisher



Legion Magazine – November/December 2002

The long farewell which Jean Chrétien announced last August soon led to much talk and printed prose about his “legacy” and on the measure posterity would make of his decade as prime minister. Even before his announcement senior federal officials were having a busy summer working up program ideas for the prime minister’s legacy.
This column is generally about the futility in a country so unhistorical for a prime politician to aim for future remembrance through a last hurrah of initiatives.

Most Canadians now in their 70s and 80s who were in the Armed Forces during WW II know how slight and ephemeral an interest there has been through recent decades in their wartime deeds, in their heydays celebrated by press, legislators, and from pulpits. Most veterans, some of us grumpily, have had to accept that the most common attitude to Canada’s rather substantial military history has been disinterest. Some of us even think this attitude sustains the lack of adequate funding over recent years for our armed forces. Thus few of us could have been shocked in August by a frank admission from National Defence Minister John McCallum while in France commemorating the 60th anniversary of the costly Canadian assault on Dieppe in 1942 that he “never learned any of this in school.”

Surely, it is not being mean to McCallum to note that he was 50 when he came to the House of Commons in 2000, carrying in his resume several university degrees, including a Ph.D. He had served in several universities for almost two decades as a professor of economics and had produced academic texts before becoming a bank vice-president. To further underline his many advantages, his father had been an officer with the Canadian army during the campaign in the Netherlands.

It seems to me McCallum’s ignorance of Canada’s military history owes much to what he—like millions of other kids—was not taught in the grade schools. Indeed, this was a prime point in the crusading best-seller, titled Who Killed Canadian History? which Jack Granatstein, our most prolific historian, produced in 1998.

The historian sketched the near total disappearance of Canadian history as a required subject in our schools. Of course, this put an end to what many Canadians not of British or French stock, had found wanting in the history lessons before the 1950s. Away with their litanies of kings, queens, baronial governors, and dull prime ministers like Arthur Meighen and the bachelor pair, Mackenzie King and R.B. Bennett. Put behind us the chauvinistic patriotism which glorified what Canadians had done in two world wars.

Also those who were idealists, wanting Canada in the forefront of nations to set a course for a peaceful world, were looking ahead, not back to the past except to argue we must evade its horrors. In our electoral politics, even the federal Tories, traditionally given to praising British ties and traditions, seemed to drop their themes once Parliament approved the new, distinctive Canadian flag which Lester Pearson gave us, and to which young Canada in particular took to with zest.

More and more after the Korean War we began to read in our metropolitan dailies and hear on the CBC, especially in its then-strong coverage of the new United Nations, how quintessentially peace-loving Canadians are. We were not really a nation of tough warriors, whatever our military may have done (or suffered) at Vimy, Cambrai, Dieppe, or the Falaise Gap.

Even as our government helped foster the North Atlantic Treaty Organization as a response to Stalin’s U.S.S.R., Pearson insisted that this was more than a mere, military alliance formed to check any further expansion of the red menace but also an institution for advancing economic development and social betterment, a line of reasoning to which the Americans and the British never really cottoned.

There were several elements which complemented the self-touting trend of Canadians that Canada was one of the world’s truly peaceable nations.

Firstly, there was the fairly quick shift in the major sources of our relatively large flow of immigrants, away from Britain and Western Europe to an eventual, and then a very solid, majority coming in from countries in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.
Secondly, the concept of multiculturalism burgeoned from this immigration shift, in part because its merits were so vaunted to the newcomers. Here was a policy which emphasized to them their right to carry on their heritages and values in Canada and have them respected by others.

At its bluntest, Canada even emphasized officially that it was not a “melting pot” country (like the United States) but one of the “rainbow” nations of the world. The years prior to, and through, the great Centennial celebrations of 1967 emphasized legislation and public information programs about multiculturalism, advanced by the Pearson government and extended by Pierre Trudeau’s government. This had been sanctioned by the three major, federal parties of the times.

Such revelling in our diversity was copied rather strongly by the provincial governments, particularly from Ontario westward, further diluting what one might call the stock duality of our national story before multiculturalism bloomed.

Most Anglo-Canadian journalists outside Quebec usually hesitate to develop theses about trends in that province but who could miss a shift there even more astounding than the taking up of multiculturalism in the rest of Canada. The long- time obsession with the survival of the “Canadiens” is still implicit in the motto on Quebec license plates—Je me souviens. In brief, survival as a defeated people had come through keeping to the language and religion of their past, shaped and guided by the Roman Catholic Church in Quebec and its bishops. This went on over 19 decades and quite suddenly the domination of outlook and values in Quebec by a priestly hierarchy collapsed.

In 1960, the new Liberal government led by Jean Lesage moved to secularize its school system, a big factor in the swift diminution of church’s role. A belated, statistical witness of this fall was a plummeting birthrate, Quebec’s going from the highest to lowest in Canada between 1951 and 1971. In the new school system, as in the press and through television and popular entertainment, there was more open joy and ambition or Québécois nationalism and much less about the saints. The core in the history taught in schools lost its strong religious character although a familiar roll call of the unfair acts and prejudices against Quebec since 1759 remained as a spur along the way to the entitlement spelled out in the United Nations Charter of sovereignty and independence for “a distinctive people.”

Arguing from the witness of history against such an entitlement was bootless. Who in Quebec would continue accepting the historical thesis that Confederation had been a pact between “two founding people”? Long ago! So far away!

In this period of rapid change in Quebec after WW II, one argument against autonomy for Quebec was quite unhistorical. It came from Jean Chrétien, then a young parliamentary secretary to Mitchell Sharp, minister of Finance in the Pearson government. He complimented Quebecers for their understanding of the basics in life, and he told the rest of Canada about it. Quebecers were not foolish. They knew their “bread and butter” was in federalism. Why would they give up economic advantages in federalism such as pensions and child allowances for the turmoil and lower living standards to come with separation? This was a brave but risky stance by a young politician, and it initiated a still unforgiven scorn for Jean Chrétien among what he would call “egghead” separatists.

Canadian anti-Americanism was and remains a third element affecting our usage and remembrance of history. It goes back a long way, given confederation was forced forward to save us from America’s manifest destiny of controlling the continent. Anti-Americanism became more overt in the 1960s, finding economic expression, notably through the Liberal party and a new, nationalistic Council of Canadians. Some of this was in reaction to the Vietnam War, and some of it was an obvious drop in Canadian patience with the Cold War as a succession of American presidents, culminating in Ronald Reagan, geared strongly against the U.S.S.R., its satellite states, and the growing economic advances in Red China.

The strength of Canadian anti-Americanism, had been symbolized in both the long reverence towards the United Empire Loyalists and the ritual celebrations by the Orange Order in Canada. By the end of the Trudeau regime the emotions stirred by such historical grist had faded away; so, too, had a once thorough routine of covering British politics and the Royal Family by our papers. It seems unbelievable now that in my school days in the early 1930s we were taught as much or more about the governments of William Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli as those led by John A. Macdonald, Wilfrid Laurier, and Robert Borden.

Jean Chrétien’s pursuit of legacy surprised me. Although never perennially close to him, we had had many chats since he became an MP in 1963. As someone almost obsessed with our past I know when another person is not, and that was so with Chrétien. His obsessions were with the topical and the practical; ones in which where we are and what is just ahead rates far above where we have been. This has led me to think that his legacy phase was less his own deep urge and more a ploy to extend his time in office and so delay the total takeover of the Liberal party and the government by Paul Martin.
Historically, the most-used means by which a political leader defines his aims and deeds is in his memoirs or through a substantive, authorized biography by an author of distinction. John Diefenbaker and Pearson did both, and yet the sum effect of such publishing has made little historical mark on Canadians. The same could be said about the two-volume autobiographies produced by the second men behind prime ministers Diefenbaker and Pearson, Donald Fleming and Paul Martin, Sr.

Pierre Trudeau has fared much better as a remembered, still worshipped politician than most prime ministers, even though he put little of himself into a fluffy memoir and as yet there has been no giant biography.

The Trudeau forte of a singular personality and his continuing exposure today owes much to his colourful record, preserved for re-use on miles of videotape, plus the continuing topicality of both his Charter of Rights and his theme that Quebec cannot divide Canada. One must acknowledge, however, that in his last months of office he chose to troop around the world with his message of a global peace and prosperity focused on Western help and leadership in making the Third World modern, democratic, and economically sound. It did not seem to play well anywhere but he did it quixotically.
Brian Mulroney also made a world tour in his last days of office. Far more than Chrétien or Trudeau, Mulroney has had a keen interest in history, notably in his earned place in a ranked roster of prime ministers. He has explained that some of the much alleged antagonism to him among Canadians is because he tackled really major issues like the North American Free Trade Agreement, the goods and services tax, and the privatization of crown corporations. He also believes it will take time for Canadians to appreciate that by and large Jean Chrétien continued his major programs.

The truth of it, or better, the reality about history today, created by human nature and communications technology, is a politics less and less historical than it was, and ever more fixed on leadership personalities and incessant “spinning” of attacking and ridiculing messages to the public. The gulfs between program positions of our parties get narrower. It is rarer and rarer for the party choice to be inherited from parents. Above all, it has become clear the greatest threat to a prime minister is not his record of achievement and failure but boredom with him across the country. The American constitution anticipates such a rejection in allowing no president more than two four-year terms. It makes more and more sense for us.