A COUNTRY FOR THE GIVING © David Watts 23 August 2003
It seemed like a country for the taking:
A gulf behind a big island, a bay, a great river leading to the heart of the continent i
Cabot and Cartier found it there waiting for them: no silks and spices, but fish and furs. ii
When it was Kanata, Donacona bartered and sent his sons to the French court. iii
When it was New France, the English and Iroquois ivcame out after it:
The Kirke brothers v tried to take it twice, succeeded briefly, and had to give it back.
William Phipps vi also tried twice and never succeeded, before going back to Boston.
After 150 years of French rule, James Wolfe came. He took the country in a campaign in which he gave his life. vii Then it was almost lost because Britain’s rulers didn’t want it.
But the French government wanted it even less, preferring Guadeloupe and its sugar cane. “Canada? A few hectares of snow” said Voltaire, speaking for his countrymen.
So it passed into British hands—not so much because they took it, but because others gave it up. This was a pattern that has continued: a potlatch country for the giving away. viii
Those who held it longest were the ones most ready to give it up. ix Those who never succeeded were the ones who thought only of taking.
Napoleon dreamed of taking it back, from his exile on Elba. xii He fancied living on the St. Lawrence, and believed it would take only a small force to re-conquer New France.
Both he and the Americans thought Canadians would rise against their colonial masters as soon as a foreign army of liberation appeared. The British feared that too. xiii
They were wrong. Canada was not a country for the taking. Her people may not have been wildly enthusiastic about their overlords, but they weren’t going to overthrow them.
Canada is a country for the giving. The spirit of giving up is not the same as quitting.
The Americans didn’t get this. For much of the 150 years of British North America, they thought it only a matter of time before the stars and stripes flew all the way to the Pole.
They had a long wait. Britain kept the allegiance of her other North American colonies because she did not hold them too tightly. xiv Ultimately, she was willing to give them up.
Britain’s willingness to give up the Canadas—as colonies—led to responsible government in the 1840’s, and Confederation twenty-five years later.
The Dominion of Canada grew in area, not because she took, but as others gave to her.
The Hudson’s Bay Company gave her Rupertsland and the Northwest Territories. First nations gave her land by treaty. British Columbia gave up independent colonial status. xv
So for many years it seemed Canadians had received their country on a silver platter—
To have it a country of their own, Canadians had to be willing to give it up, to relinquish control, just as their predecessors had done. xvi We have become unsurpassed at this.
We have known we could surrender our economy without losing our soul. To the more fearful among us, it seemed again as if Canada was here for the taking.
But Canadians were not fooled. We knew we could accept others’ investment and enjoy their entertainment, knowing at the core who we are. xvii
So we’ve allowed newcomers to shape our institutions xviii in a modern multicultural state.
We have watched while Quebeckers debated whether to stay in Canada.xix We stood aside not because we didn’t care but because we cared too much to hold them against their will.
Now we are giving back self-government to our first nations—something that has always been their right,xx but which we’d been slow to recognize.
As a token of this we gave back a tenth xxi of Canada’s land to the Inuit as a new territory. What we call Nunavut, to them means simply “the land.”
We believed that for Canada to be the “meeting place” that our name means, our peoples’ coming together must be by choice. xxiiThis means they must be free to do otherwise.
“If you love something, set it free. If it comes back, it is yours. If it doesn’t, it never was”
This is the secret of Canada, a country by choice: here for the giving, not to be grasped.
Whoever tries to keep his land shall lose it, but whoever is willing to lose it for a greater good—she shall keep it. xxiii
These timeless words were first spoken of life itself: Whoever seeks by force, forfeits himself but the one who surrenders to a greater Self inherits the world and its wonders.
This is freedom. To hold by force is to be possessed, enslaved by what we’re grasping at.
This new relatedness, this voluntary coming together—is what “Dominion of Canada”, the meeting place means. It is here now—a present reality in and for the world.
Take the broad view, see this reality for yourself, and be glad you are a part of it.xxiv
i If we’ve learned our Canadian history in the traditional east-to-west direction, we’ll take this to refer to the Gulf of St. Lawrence behind Newfoundland or Cape Breton (either qualify as “a big island”). From the perspective of an immigrant recently arrived in British Columbia or a child growing up in the west, it can refer equally well to the Gulf of Georgia behind Vancouver Island and the mouth of the Fraser—though this River does not run as far inland. The reference to this point is deliberate ambiguous and archetypal.
ii These and the lines that follow zoom in and localize the reference. However, if I were using this with the western audience I’ve described above, I might substitute “Vancouver and Quadra” for “Cabot and Cartier,”developing the story with the British and Spanish as the competing colonial powers on the scene.
iii Substitute “Nootka and Maquinna” for “Kanata and Donacona”—with reference to Maquinna’s daughter.
From this point on, a western-based story line would be significantly different, even if I were to draw on American annexationist sentiment—a common theme practically everywhere west of Newfoundland—and the Battle of Giffin’s Pig on San Juan, as the nearest thing we had to an actual military skirmish on the west coast. However, the underlying metaphysical theme applies here too—even more directly in one respect—as it was on the west coast that the potlatch was practised.
iv Although tribes in the south of New France (at its greatest extent) were also part of the Iroquois Confederacy, I’m using the Iroquois nation here in the narrower context in which most of us localized it in our Canadian history: the first nations resident in New England and New York, eventually allied with the English, who raided New France via the Richelieu River and other St. Lawrence tributaries.
v The Kirke brothers, French Protestants who’d fled to England, led expeditions against New France in 1628 and 1629. The second expelled Champlain and his administration who returned to Quebec in 1632 after the Kirkes had given it up.
vi William Phipps, privateer and eventually knighted Governor of Massachusetts, returned to Boston from his celebrated encounter with Frontenac (“By the mouths of my cannons he shall have my reply…”) to pardon most of the Salem witches before they went to the gallows. He is therefore a more benevolent figure in the American story than he is in Canada. Nevertheless, his Canadian campaign was essentially a quest for booty, buttressed in his own colony as a crusade against the Papist regime to the north, and supported by the British as a blow in the ongoing struggle against France.
vii Although the Battle of the Plains of Abraham is definitely a “taking,” it entailed a “giving up” as well, in that it cost both commanders their lives. The actual cession of New France, however, came not from the battle but at the conference table in 1763, where many considered Britain to have been outsmarted by France in being awarded a colony that was icebound for a third of the year rather than one in the West Indies. The British Cabinet was ambivalent about the acquisition of Canada. The British public, however, hailed Wolfe’s achievement in a burst of imperialistic enthusiasm and was loathe to see it returned. Removal of the French threat against New England backfired however. No longer dependent on Britain for defence, the American colonies became more strident and rebelled soon after.
viii Though the potlatch is of west coast origin, it is a good symbol for this pattern.
ix Those who obviously “held” the land longest were our first nations because they didn’t hold or grasp in the sense of ownership. They held it in trust which entailed certain rights including rights of trade and passage which they might grant or cede to others. The French voyageurs and traders were compatible with this approach. The British colonial authorities, when they acquired New France, appreciated the French legacy of relations with the first nations and continued it. The home grown American colonists, however, had distinctly incompatible notions of acquisition and ownership of property—which brought them into conflict with their first peoples as they moved inland and tried to break land in first nations’ territories.
x The campaigns of 1775 and 1812 need no elaboration here. In both cases the Americans had no thought of Canada in its own right, other than as potential territory and a chance to strike a blow against Britain.
xi The situation in the 1860’s is less well known. Most Canadians school students learn that fear of American invasion was one of the causes contributing to the Canadian colonies’ coming together in 1867. The extent of this threat is less well known. In the U.S. after the Civil War, an invasion of Canada had a two-fold appeal: (1) It could offer employment and income for troops of both North and South, softening the effects of wholesale demobilization, (masses of fighting men wandering the streets without work) and (2) In so doing it provided an opportunity to re-unite North and South against a common enemy. This was advocated by a number in both the American Congress and Cabinet, including Lincoln’s Secretary of State. Lincoln himself was not interested. Under Lincoln’s successor, Secretary Seward maintained an interest in expanding north, this time into Manitoba during the unrest of the first Riel uprising.
xii Napoleon’s interest in Canada was expressed to a number of diplomats. His New World dream was fired by reading the journal of Alexander Mackenzie’s voyages.
xiii Napoleon, like the British, still viewed the Quebecois and Acadiens as primarily French, without realizing how North American they had become. The Americans viewed them as still-to-be-liberated fellow Americans, without realizing the extent to which French Canada was a distinct society with its own values.
xiv Britain had learned something from her experience with the Thirteen Colonies. In addition, a wave of “little England-ism” (anti-Imperial sentiment) affected British foreign policy in the mid-19th century. The emergence of Canada and other semi-autonomous dominions later in the century contributed to a resurgence of the popularity of Empire, reflected in Queen Victoria’s golden and diamond jubilees.
xv This was in fact a reciprocal process. Canada had an obvious interest in acquiring the Hudson Bay lands with their first nations as well as Britain’s remaining west coast colony. What is significant is that the Dominion’s expansion was on a basis of negotiated settlement, with give-and-take on both sides. It was not a unilateral takeover, as the residents of these lands had other options.
xvi Some who recognize that a country was given to us concluded that Canada would have to fight for it to deserve it. This is the myth of Canada come of age on the battlefields of World War I. It is not true. As Canada developed through a process of cession, inheritors of the legacy would prove their maturity by demonstrating the skill—relinquishing control—that had given them stewardship of the country.
xvii For the English speaking Canadian intelligentsia, foreign economic ownership has been the equivalent to linguistic assimilation bogy invoked by nationalists from Quebec. The masses have been wiser than many of their intellectuals here. Canada has always been an economic satellite—first of France, next of Britain, then of the US and now of the trans-nationals. Canadians have proven adept at playing the game to permit development while maintaining our distinctiveness.
xviii Canadians’ greatest tie to each other grows out of our acceptance of pluralism. To accept another’s way of doing things as a viable alternative to our own is a way of giving up our attempt to control the situation, of insisting what is right. RCMP officers can be found in braids or turbans as well as standard headgear.
xix Multiculturalism grew out of an earlier biculturalism that began in the wake of the American Revolution. Our Euro-ancestry population then consisted of (1) French Canadians who refused to join the Revolution and (2) Anglophone refugees who came north to get away from it. Acceptance of two Canadas, Upper and Lower, in 1791 acknowledged there was no One Way to do things here. National Unity in Canada cannot be enforced, it can only be permitted and encouraged. That is why in two referendums, other Canadians have had to leave to Quebeckers to decide whether they still wished to be part of the country they shaped.
xx Two centuries later we are finally recognizing those who were here first, whose traditions have a multiculturalism of their own. Giving back their due to our first nations completes a circle of renewal. It sets aside the Anglo-centrism of Durham and his belief that “the elder shall serve the younger” (Genesis 25: 23) and “the last shall be first,” scriptures he used to support a policy of assimilation.
xxi The symbolism of the tithe was reflected in the 1999 change to our map.
xxii With the acknowledgement of All Cultures, including our earliest ones, we can finally envisage a state that is tailored to serve its citizens rather than the reverse. An appropriate scripture for this awareness is “The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” (Psalm 118: 22) The differences which seemed so problematic to our forebears have become a crowning Canadian characteristic!
xxiii The means we use shape the ends they claim to serve. Freedom cannot be forced, it can only be accepted by surrendering our attempts to force others. In the yogic understanding, to be attached to anything is to be enslaved. To be Free is to remain free of attachment to anyone and anything, including a goal or outcome.
xxiv Paraphrase of Mark 1: 15: “The Kingdom/New Order is at hand. Repent, therefore (metanoia = Take a broader perspective or overview) and believe the good news.”