A NATION OF YOUTH © David Watts 15/05/2010

To call Canadians A Nation of Youth is not the same as to say Canada is a young country.

The first statement is true, for reasons we shall see. The second, that Canada is a young country, does not stand up to closer examination.

The land we live on is as old as any other that made up the onetime single continent of Pangaea. The Laurentian Mountains of the Canada Shield are among the oldest on Earth.

People have lived here for 20,000 years, as long as the record of any civilization. Europeans call the atrocities of the Crusades “history.” We have left this period of our past unrecorded.

We have accounts of confederacies of our First Nations, of the Blackfoot and Iroquois, going back centuries. Since the arrival of Europeans, we’ve had at least seven constitutional régimes.

Some of these, like the 1774 Québec Act, provided for more tolerance and sharing of power with New World colonists than existed in the Old World empires that set them up.

Confederation in 1867 marked the first modern state to be born without revolution or civil war and our 1982 Charter set a trend worldwide for its approach to pluralism and human rights.

With this legacy Canada is not a young country, yet many of our people are young at heart.

It’s not average age that makes Canadians A Nation of Youth. But there is something about the spread of our age groups over a life span that makes us a youthful country.

Contrary to what some demographers are telling us, our population is not simply aging as the post World-War II Baby Boomers reach retirement. The real picture is more complex.

Canada’s population is being renewed by immigration, and by the much higher relative birth rate of these new arrivals. This has profound effects on our national psyche.

A vast majority who move here do so to better themselves economically. Some come to escape oppressive political and social régimes. Most therefore aren’t overly attached to old structures.

When we bring practices from parent cultures, these can be souvenirs, the way we may bring a chair from an old house to a new one. The old chair is a comfort zone that eases the transition.

Most immigrants are not here to impose fixed attitudes and institutions, or they would not have come. If a transplanted parental culture becomes too constricting to younger members of a new generation, there is ample opportunity to step out of it.

They can more to another town or city as many have done before. They can marry into another social or religious group. One does not have to either submit to a status quo or revolt against it.

Canadians have the space and tradition that does not strap us into Either/Or… polarities. Our space and diversity make it difficult for a Cultural Revolution or other mass movement to turn back the clock, or to arbitrarily impose a Brave New World on our youth.

And a word needs to be said about the Boomers, now becoming seniors. This group continues to break new ground. They are not retiring in predicted numbers to become a drain on pensions and health care. Many continue to work, to travel and to see the world.

They may prove less staid in their late years, more open and flexible than stereotypes often put on seniors, beginning with their willingness to admit to “seniors’ moments.” And short term lapses do not deprive them of the ability to draw on a wealth of life experience.

The 18th century British proved flexible towards continuing the French culture in Canada: something that laid the foundations for our more peaceful pluralistic society.

It’s hard to imaging this happening if the historic order of French and British here had been reversed, given French precision and standardization. Boomers may likewise be more benign as seniors towards younger, more driven generations than if the order had been reversed.

With their live-and-let-live mentality, they are less likely to try to impose a new patriarchy, matriarchy, or any kind of -archy as long as their own rights and benefits are undisturbed. If anything, they will resist authoritarianism and this attitude can serve the good of the whole.

They are proving nurturing, non-needy elders, accepting the needs of youth for space as they remember their own. In short, broad-minded seniors can help keep Canada open and youthful.

Many have a commitment to the institutions with which they grew up, the social safety net and the decent non-confrontational spirit that has been recognized as a Canadian characteristic.

If we withstand attempts to polarize our society and institutions, Canada’s Senate could see new life in the way it was originally intended: as a forum for sober second thought and discussion.

Such a Council of Elders could be more open to the long term needs and concerns of youth than the Commons whose debate is driven by the agenda of the day. Grandparents often see children more clearly than the parents who are preoccupied with paying the bills and making a living.

This is the role elders play in functional First Nations. It’s something we can learn from them. It is the capacity to mature and age gracefully as much as the driving energy of the young that keeps a society youthful and progressive. Drive without this gentleness hardens and becomes morbid.

It was Crowfoot’s capacity to restrain his younger braves that saved us widespread bloodshed on the plains. And it was Maquinna’s willingness to pass the leadership on to his fifteen year old daughter in George Vancouver’s presence that helped usher in a new era on the Pacific coast.

This partnership of elder and younger generations is seen in the ancient prophesy of Isaiah:

Your old shall see visions, and your young shall dream dreams.

It is this relationship, and not statistics in a census, that reflects the youth and health of a people.

Canada is a Nation of Youth in a mature country. Our wisdom guides and focuses our boundless energy. A youthful strength fortifies our innocence (read inner sense) in a fair and pleasant land.

Together, this blend “protects our homes and rights” (protégera nos foyers et nos droits) and, in the words to the English version of our anthem, makes up the True North Strong and Free!