Book Review: Canada’s Odyssey: A Country Based On Incomplete Conquests

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This article is the second in a series of reviews of books I’ve read on Canadian politics and history, summarizing their contents and considering their relevance to modern Canada.

The first book I reviewed was Peter Russell’s Constitutional Odyssey: Can Canadians Become A Sovereign People? Just as this review is a sequel to the first one, Canada’s Odyssey: A Country Based On Incomplete Conquests is a sequel of sorts to Constitutional Odyssey. Peter Russell wrote both books, and he was inspired to write Canada’s Odyssey after realizing how Constitutional Odyssey didn’t account for the pre-existing national identities some people living in Canada held before British colonization and that those same people believe wasn’t abolished or removed by Confederation.

The people in question, of course, are the Indigenous people (First Nations, Metis and Inuit) and the Francophone Canadians (Quebecois and Acadian). Russell notes that Britain and later Anglophone Canada never successfully ‘conquered’ them in the sense that they ceased to exist as distinct entities within Confederation. They’ve persisted as ‘nations within’ as both many Quebecois and Indigenous people, even when they feel a positive connection to Canada, see themselves as distinct from the majority Anglophone population. The Francophones and Indigenous people form two of the three ‘founding pillars’ of modern Canada, with Anglophone Canada forming the third.

Russell describes the interactions and tensions between Canada’s founding pillars at different points in history, ranging from the American Revolution to Confederation to the World Wars. Anglophone Canada, backed by Britain, repeatedly tried to make the ‘nations within’ disappear and assimilate. Those efforts failed, and they’re at the root of many of our modern problems.

Russell starts by describing how 18th century British governors tolerated the French Canadiens’ Catholic faith and allowed them to retain their language and system of civil law, while treating with the First Nations on relatively equal terms. The Quebec Act enshrined the recognition of the French language, law and faith, while the Royal Proclamation recognizing Indigenous title to the lands of what would become Canada. This was largely due to the practical considerations of keeping both populations onside during the American Revolution.

These actions were pragmatic, but they informed the views of many Francophone and Indigenous peoples on where they believed they should fit into Canada. Russell shows how the foresight of early British leaders like Guy Carleton and William Johnston provide a blueprint for what relations between Indigenous people and settler Canadians, and Francophones and Anglophones, could look like even today.

Unfortunately, besides the likes of Carleton and Johnson, the British government and many of the Anglophone Loyalists who migrated to what became Canada often simply wanted to replicate Britain’s own institutions. Their attempts to forcibly assimilate Indigenous people and Francophones were seen as betrayals of the original agreements for the different groups to live together. Russell writes extensively about the betrayal of the First Nations after the American Revolution and the War of 1812 when they fought alongside the British. He also writes about the efforts to assimilate Francophone Canadians through imperial legislation like the Act of Union, as well as by later limiting the rights of French and its speakers in provinces besides Quebec.

The British-Canadian imperialists’ enthusiasm for ‘One King, One Flag, One Empire’, or ‘One School, One Flag, One Language’ has been corrosive for Canadian unity. The idea that Francophones and Indigenous people were threats to the national identity and had to be assimilated-forcefully if necessary-was responsible for everything from Ontario’s Regulation 17 to the catastrophe of the residential school system.

Russell illustrates how the parts of our history that actually strengthened national unity often came about through cooperation between Anglophones and Francophones. Some of the biggest examples are attaining responsible government and the Confederation movement. Responsible government was successful in no small part because of the cooperation between Anglophones like Robert Baldwin and Francophones like Louis-Hippolyte Lafontaine. John A. Macdonald and most of the other Anglophone Fathers of Confederation would have preferred to simply merge all the British North American colonies into one bigger entity. However, they recognized the wisdom of the likes of D’Arcy McGee and George-Étienne Cartier of ensuring that Francophones had a distinct place and rights in what became Canada. The British North America Act struck a clever balance between the different Fathers’ desires by ensuring that the provinces had the powers that the Franco-Quebecois believed were necessary to keep their distinctive identity, while Ottawa had the remaining powers.

One of the reasons that responsible government and Confederation have endured is because they recognized the distinct place of Francophone Canada and didn’t try to assimilate it. Unfortunately, the Anglophone leaders who recognized Francophone Canada didn’t do the same for Indigenous people. The ugly ‘One School, One Flag, One Religion’ tendency still existed, and it came back in the catastrophe of the Riel Resistances.

Russell’s account describes all too painfully well the seething hatred many Orange Protestants had for Francophone Catholics like Riel, not to mention Indigenous people. They went berserk when Riel executed the violent, hateful thug Thomas Scott. They celebrated when Riel himself was executed by Ottawa. John A. Macdonald didn’t unilaterally decide to hang Riel on his own-he was largely forced to by the reactions of the Protestant radicals. The discrimination against not only the Metis but First Nations people that provoked the second Riel Resistance, as well as the later violence and horror of the residential schools, came from that radical Protestant desire to purge any Indigenous and French elements from Canada.

Ironically, some of the first advocates for a truly independent Canada that wasn’t just a British appendage were in fact Franco-Quebecois. George-Etienne Cartier spoke of a ‘political nationality’ where different races lived together without abandoning what made them unique. Henri Bourassa wrote about an independent Canada that had equal respect for Francophones and Anglophones. Unfortunately, the actions of the ‘One School, One Flag, One Religion’ school, like putting down the Riel Resistances and denying the rights and place of Francophone Canadians on the Prairies and Ontario, led many Franco-Quebecois to conclude that they could only be Francophone inside Quebec itself.

That same bigotry impacted relations with Indigenous peoples. White Canadians, Anglophone and Francophone alike, mostly thought Indigenous people were dumb savages incapable of surviving in the modern world who had to be ‘civilized’ for their own good. In practice, that meant their lives were micromanaged by government officials in ways that would have made non-Natives riot in the streets if the government tried it on them. The First Nations themselves, in signing the Treaties, saw them as expressions of kinship where different groups shared the land respectfully. The Red River Metis showed the same spirit in the first Riel Resistance, when Riel and his Francophone and Metis supporters offered Anglophone Red River residents an equal part in negotiations with Ottawa.

Unfortunately, most Anglophone Canadians simply saw themselves as British citizens rather than as distinctly Canadian. Their sense of an independent Canada mostly started to grow after the World Wars. However, most of them didn’t and don’t know about all the things that mostly confined French to Quebec or that caused the the many (many, many!) problems Indigenous people have had to put up with. When Indigenous people started demanding that their rights be respected and Francophones both inside and outside Quebec started asserting themselves, many Anglophones reacted with everything from confusion to hostility.

That led to the constitutional conflicts that wracked Canada for decades and were never truly solved. The last part of Canada’s Odyssey discusses how most Anglophone Canadians, having largely shed their British connection and looking for another basis for their nationhood, ran into the aspirations of many Indigenous and Francophone people, particularly in Quebec, who argued for their distinct places in Confederation. Pierre Trudeau’s idea of a bilingual Canada based solely on individual rights, with the contributions of different citizens recognized through multiculturalism, greatly appealed to many Anglophones, even ones who hated his other policies.

Most Franco-Quebecois, on the other hand, wanted recognition of their province’s distinct place in Confederation. Trudeau vehemently opposed it, as did most Anglophones. His patriating the Constitution and enshrining the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, were a lot more popular with Anglophones outside Quebec than the Francophones inside it who Trudeau tried (and failed) to turn away from their nationalism.

Trudeau’s unique place in the Canada/Quebec debates shows how complicated the situation is. He was widely supported by Quebecois while he was Prime Minister, but he became widely hated later due to what many of them saw as his breaking his promises of a renewed federalism with patriation and the Charter, and his helping prevent Quebec’s distinctiveness from being constitutionally enshrined. Despite that, the Quebecois still voted twice to stay part of Canada and have continued to participate in Canadian life. The support both Trudeau and his separatist opponent René Lévesque got arguably shows how most Quebecois are proud to be Canadian, but they continue to see themselves as having a distinct place in it, continuing the pattern Russell illustrated.

As for Indigenous people, they pretty much exploded at Trudeau’s proposal to abolish the Treaties and the reserves. Harold Cardinal’s book The Unjust Society was only the loudest of many rebuttals. Indigenous thinkers and activists re-emphasized many of the same things their ancestors said to those of the non-Natives’, namely that they have distinct rights recognized by the Treaties and they never agreed to be assimilated as plain ‘Canadians’. They’ve also taken to the streets multiple times to defend their rights, ranging from the ‘Constitution Express’ in the 1980s to activist groups like Idle No More today. Unfortunately, they’ve also had to defend themselves in violent standoffs like at Oka, Ipperwash and Gustafsen Lake against developments that ignored their rights and livelihoods.

In spite of it all that, and everything else Indigenous people have gone through (with murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls being just one of those things) most Indigenous people who I’ve spoken to or whose works I’ve read have still felt a kind of positive connection to Canada, or at least can see it happening. Even the ones who adamantly don’t consider themselves Canadian are still willing to accept the rest of us as friends and neighbours provided their own rights and livelihoods are respected.

These points illustrate Russell’s conclusion that if Canada is to prosper in the future, it needs to be governed as a multinational federation. Like I noted at the start, the Francophone and Indigenous pillars of Canada were never fully conquered by the British, and attempts to forcibly assimilate them failed. Pragmatic British and Anglo-Canadian leaders ranging from Carleton to Johnston to Baldwin-and yes, to Macdonald-all recognized these mutual differences. Their actions may have been pragmatic, but they helped develop the idea of greater diversity that many Canadians see as a defining element of the country. Pragmatism and principle can complement each other.

Remembering that history of mutual recognition, and the problems came from trying to forcibly assimilate any of Canada’s founding pillars, is going to be the key for success. With Canada’s Odyssey, Peter Russell offers an excellent place to learn that history.

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