A NATION OF CRAFTSMEN © David Watts 20/03/2010

If we’re looking for a country’s crafts, it’s good to start with aboriginal peoples on one hand, and craftsmen who have come to the country recently, on the other.

Unlike most European countries, Canada’s first peoples continue to be a growing and dynamic part of our population. Immigrants too, make up a large sector of our society.

While the craftwork they produce may use imported techniques and materials, there is still a definitely indigenous spirit that breathes through and makes the work recognizable.

One aspect of the aboriginal spirit is that it does not split off craft work from other work.

For many of the rest of us, we “take up” a craft—after retirement, in the evenings or on weekends, when the kids are in school or have left the nest.

In traditional aboriginal society the making of canoes, tipis, ceremonial masks or carving for a lodge or longhouse were integrated parts of education, religion and construction.

Since the Industrial Revolution in Europe, many of the activities once performed by craftsmen in guilds or cottage industries have been taken over by mass production.

Crafts we take up at day end are also mass-produced: paint by number, assembling a model from a kit, or wrapping fly-fishing hooks from a box of precut materials. These are the final stage of what once took place in cottage industries, light industries but industries nonetheless.

To call a people “a nation of craftsmen” means they are drawing on their own resources and spirit, not simply assembling someone else’s work to a template or set of instructions.

If there is a line between craft and industry, there is also one between a craft and an art. Generally, not always, a craft produces something material while an art does not have to.

A custom made guitar or costumes for a play or dance can be said to be craftwork. The music played on the instrument and the dance in which the costume is worn is not a craft.

Both the latter are arts. There is a grey zone in what we call the literary arts. Shaping words or word-smithing, for a scientific report or for a play or novel is considered a craft, and both of these produce a tangible object: the manuscript, whether on paper or disk.

With these parameters in mind, what are ways Canadians qualify as a nation of craftsmen?

From materials at hand, the peoples of what is now Canada shaped housing and furniture. In Québec it became style canadien, in the northwest it had distinct aboriginal character.

On the plains, the bison skin tipi and the sod shanty gave way to the ATCO trailer, based in Calgary, that provides camps for troops and workers around the world.

In the Canadian Shield, newcomers quarried granite. In the valley of the Bow River, settlers quarried yellow limestone. Canada’s second Prime Minister was a stone mason.

And in our mastery of the media and literature, Canadians are recognized as crafters of words in both our official languages.

There are other crafts at which Canadians excel and whose end result is our country itself.

One is the art of living with differences without strife. At the time of Confederation, we were deeply divided by religion, with ultramontanes on one side, Orangemen on the other.

The polarization was almost as great as between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland in recent years. Issues of land development, language and education grew out of it.

We talked about the crises of French and English, public and separate schools, and Québec versus Ontario, but underneath these were rooted in religious differences.

Out of these challenges developed today’s pluralistic society. Our experience in bridging solitudes has enabled us to encompass a wider range of languages, religions and cultures

Accommodation of differences is a Canadian craft. It has even become a Canadian value. A future article in this series, A Nation of Diplomats, will deal with this characteristic.

Another Canadian skill is that of statecraft or governance. In the registry of Province House in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, where the first pre-Confederation conference was held in 1864, is the signature of one “John A. Macdonald, Cabinet Maker.”

Building and holding together a Cabinet that reflected and balanced our national differences was a focus of statecraft in Macdonald’s day. He was very good at it.

So too were his successors Laurier who led the country 15 years, and Borden, PM for 10.

But the most skilled practitioner of statecraft in Canada was William Lyon Mackenzie King who was Prime Minister for 23 years over a 29 year span including the Second World War.

King led Canada’s first minority government in 1925. Having lost control of the House after an election, he managed to hold to power with 16 seats less than the Opposition.

In this tenuous situation, he eventually managed to limit the powers of the Governor General after the incumbent denied his request for a second election he eventually won.

King survived splits in his cabinet over conscription. Seeming to do nothing, he maintained control. Under King, Cabinet became increasingly subordinate to the Prime Minister.

A minister entering Cabinet filled out a signed, undated letter of resignation. If a difference arose, the PM did not have to dismiss him; the minister had to explain why he had resigned.

King paved the way for the enormously expanded Prime Minister’s Office under Trudeau and Mulroney. With Stephen Harper the grasp of prime ministerial statecraft is even tighter.

Now not only Cabinet but Parliament and even the Governor General are seen to bend to the PM’s bidding. Some commentators described this as an elected four year dictatorship.

But it grew from a careful process of reading history, closing loopholes and avoiding earlier mistakes. This perfection of statecraft may have come at the cost of Canadian democracy.

Canadians are a nation of craftsmen. From our first peoples through our first Prime Minister, we have proven resourceful in crafting a quality of life that reflects our shared values.

If more accountable government is a goal a majority of Canadians want, we may be confident they will develop the needed means, tools and craft to achieve it, and do so peacefully.