Canadian Vantage Point

The Canadian Vantage Point David Watts 26 July 2003

Many astronauts who’ve looked on Earth from space have come back with a broader view of life here. They went aloft as nationals and returned as citizens of the world.

The north half of North America has also given its people a vantage point from which to view the world. Created a post-national country, Canada is a microcosm of Planet Earth.

Like the orbiting shuttles and space capsules, Canada has always been a satellite—first of the French and British Empires, later of the American one. Yet our orbit does not bind us so tightly to the superpower of the day that we cannot see beyond it.

With a span of three oceans from the high arctic to the temperate, Canadians have a view that can benefit all Earthlings. Our vantage point shows the planet in three perspectives.

First, Canadians view the Earth and its peoples as a continuity. Though we live near the pole and our arctic islands include the North Magnetic Pole, we are not polarized.

The first European explorers here knew the world is round. The legacy they left us was one that looks beyond ourselves to a global great circle route, not a flat earth with edges.

We do not see the world in opposites of them and us, socialist and capitalist, religious and secular. We can note these distinctions when pointed out, but don’t go looking for them.

Bipolarities of Left and Right, labour and management, socialism and capitalism are not bases on which we’ve structured our society. They may be important to pundits and political organizers, but they’ve remained marginal to the Canadian mainstream.

The Baldwin-Lafontaine coalition which led to Confederation based on the belief that the sectional ethnic tensions that erupted in 1837 must not be allowed to become absolute.

An epitaph to our longest serving Prime Minister said “We have no shape, because he never allowed us to take sides, no sides, because he never allowed them to take shape.”

Our refusal to develop fixed sides grows out of a mature perception and experience. We are so different ourselves: more than one language and religion, many cultures and ways of looking at things.

We have built a country based on a richness of differences. Asking a Canadian “Which side are you on?” is a sterile question, an invitation to mind games.

Asking “What to you relate to?” is more fruitful. So many of us come from elsewhere or have contacts abroad that this question leads to links around the globe.

It’s hard for Canadians to see the world in political divisions or colours on a map. This sense of continuity and lack of hard lines is a vantage point we view the world from.

Second, Canadians view Earth as a collective. No one player or group of players makes up the game. The game is that of all the players: all states, peoples, regions, species.

Our preference for bodies such as the UN over unilateralism in world affairs is not simply because it gives us more of a voice or a seat at the table but because that’s the way our own country is.

Until 1867 we did not speak of Canada as a singularity, but of “the Canada’s:” Lower and Upper, as divided by the Constitution of 1792, Canada East and Canada West after 1840.

Today “Canada West” is usually taken to mean the four western provinces. When they talk of “the East,” they mean everything east of Manitoba.

Labels like these confuse more than describe. When Quebecois talk of “English Canada,” they are lumping together a range from Ontario, the Atlantic provinces, West and North

When we talk of “French Canada” we put together Quebec, where French is spoken by most, francophone minorities in other provinces and Acadians who don’t fit either group.

When westerners talk about “Central Canada,” they treat Ontario and Quebec as a unit.

When easterners talk of the West, they paint with a single brush the prairies and Pacific, and the North which has three territories, many peoples, arctic islands and the mainland.

The attempts to see Canada in coherent blocks do not work any more than labels such as Left and Right. But they point to an underlying truth: there’s more than a single Canada.

Our history in warfare bears this out. For many countries, fighting a foreign adversary is a unifier. In Canada, our participation in two world wars were times of deep division.

Our constitutional history has been factious and controversial too. The last two attempted changes—the Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords—were especially divisive.

Our 1867 structures were built on the awareness of a collective. Confederation is a less rigid bond than a union. We achieved that without a breakaway Confederacy or war.

Our amending formula requires agreement of three fourths of the provinces on some matters and all on others. That is how first nations reached agreement in their councils.

Canada is not one single entity but a collective, a meeting place as our name means in Algonkin. This requires conscious consensus building—a vantage point from which we view the world.

Third, Canadians see the world as a vast conservatory of which humans are stewards. A sense of conservation comes from the vastness of our land and wisdom of first nations.

Canada holds Earth’s largest reserves of fresh water, and the second largest of ice. With the exception of Antarctica, we have the highest ratio of wilds to humans living here.

With most of our population concentrated in an east-west band just above the US border, few of us live in the wilds, but wilderness is an inescapable part of the Canadian spirit.

Even from cities, most of us can be in wild land in two hours driving. We spend holidays hiking, camping, skiing, climbing, traveling and canoeing in a range of national parks.

These tracts of wilderness are a draw to Canada for people from abroad and this attraction has a long history.

The call of the wilds was felt by the first Canadians from Europe who mingled and often intermarried with the first peoples. Before New Englanders penetrated the interior, voyageurs from New France were exploring the woods and waterways of the continent.

Because of excellent French relations with the land and its peoples, Britain, when it acquired Canada, placed all interior Indian lands in trust under its new Quebec colony.

Enterprising colonists from New England, hoping to develop and settle these lands, resented this restriction. Their resentment was a major cause of the American Revolution.

Two centuries later the Canadian Government refused to approve a Mackenzie Valley pipeline, delaying northern development near a vulnerable local culture and ecosystem.

Today our Heritage Ministry can limit tourism and commercial development in national parks—not because it’s anti-business but because it’s taking a long view to benefit us all.

Patrolling our wilds was part of the mandate of our Mounted Police. Today it’s assisted by volunteers and workers for Parks Canada, wildlife and wilderness associations.

When citizens groups oppose the wholesale export of our water, it not because Canadians are stingy, hoarding it for ourselves but because we’re holding it for the planet as a whole

Conservation is part of conservatism. The conservative government of John A Macdonald committed to build and preserve a long term heritage ahead of short term economic gain.

A century later the provincial conservative government of Peter Lougheed taxed resource revenues to build a Heritage Trust fund for the benefit of future generations.

Today, “conservative” often stands for unrestricted economic activity—the very stance conservatives once opposed. The future of a conservative party in Canada depends on a rediscovery of conservation.

That is part of Canada’s conservative heritage, and of Canada’s outlook in the world.

Continuous, collective, conservation:

From the upper half of the Northern Hemisphere, Canadians have a view of Earth that is next best to that of an orbiting spaceship. We share a border with a superpower of which we are a satellite.

Yet as the moon does not simply go around the earth but the two together orbit a common centre of gravity, so Canada influences her continent by being here.

Canada’s worldview is clear not because she is apart from but part of Earth.

The evolution of our own culture and links of with other nations including the American superpower are not ties that bind, or blinkers that blind us to a clearer view of the whole.

They are a vantage point that makes the Canadian worldview more valid.