Canada and Empire

December 12, 2012 § 3 Comments

I often amuse myself with the attempts of Canadian historians to try to explain how, in the years leading up to the First World War, Anglo Canadians could alternately view themselves as Canadians, English, British, and as citizens of the greatest empire the world had ever seen (that would be the British, if you’re wondering).  They tend to see this as a contradiction, a confusion, and get themselves twisted into knots in explaining this phenomenon.  It just seems so contradictory to them.  Here, for example, is Ian McKay, one of Canada’s greatest historians, with Jamie Stairs in their excellent new book, Warrior Nation: Rebranding Canada in an Age of Anxiety:

Many Anglo Canadians like [Bill Stairs, a Canadian hero of Empire] believed that a good British subject could and should simultaneously be loyal to Nova Scotia [Stairs’ home], Canada, and the Empire, and in doing so experience no contradiction.

To our 21st century Canadian identity, it is anathema that one could see oneself as more than just Canadian.  And I just don’t get this.  I really don’t.  In the late 19th/early 20th centuries, Canada was a colony.  It was not an independent nation, no matter what the politicians of the era, the Jack Granatsteins and Stephen Harper’s of today tell you.  Canadian independence is a slippery concept, there is no exact moment that Canada gained its independence.  For example, it could be 1848, when the Canadas gained responsible government.  Or it could be 1867, when three colonies came together to form a united whole (Canada, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick).  It could also be 1931, when the Statute of Westminster gave Canada (and all the other white Dominions: South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand) control over their foreign affairs.  But, there was still no such thing as “Canadian” citizenship.  That came on the 1st of January 1947.  The following year, the Supreme Court of Canada became the highest court of appeal in the land.  Prior to that, it was the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London (not Ontario, the UK one) that held that position.  In 1982, our constitution was patriated from Mother Britain and made an act of our own Parliament.  If you want to go all republican on the matter, I’d note that the head of state today is Queen Elizabeth II of England.  So, politically, declaring the date of Canadian independence is difficult.

But the long and short of it is that 100 years ago, Canada was not an independent nation.  It was also part of this massive Empire.  The British Empire controlled something like 20% of the world’s land and 25% of the world’s population at the dawn of the 20th century.  Think about that for a second.  I mean it, just imagine the globe, imagine 20% of that land coloured the pink of the British Empire.  Or just look at this map (and imagine the red as pink).


Empire was a very powerful concept in that Canada (and if Stephen Harper has his way, we’ll be thinking this way again soon).  It was not incongruous for the average Canadian of Scots, English, or even Irish, stock to see him or herself as both Canadian and British at the same time.  For being Canadian made one British, such was the nature of citizenship laws, and such was the fact that the monarch of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland was (and remains) the head of state in Canada.

Thus, the simple fact of the matter is that Canadians 100 years ago were both/and, not either/or.  They were both Canadian and British, not Canadian or British.  That was the way they rolled, so to speak.  The same was true for other subjects of the British Empire throughout the Dominions.  It might be time for Canadian historians to recognise this simple fact, and to stop twisting them like Mike Palmateer trying to bail out his woeful hockey team in trying to explain this.  Joy Parr long ago instructed we Canadian historians that identities are not sequential, they are multiple and simultaneous.  And the average Anglo Canadian’s identification with Canada, Britain, and Empire is just that: the simultaneous identities of an ambivalent population.  No more, no less.


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§ 3 Responses to Canada and Empire

  • Wild Juggler says:

    Intriguing post. I’ve long been fascinated by the subject of how Canada, as well as the other mostly white British-settled colonies of Australia and New Zealand, became independent of Britain. It was such a long, slow process, compared to my country which became independent through war in the 18th century.

    It makes me wonder: If the Americans had lost the Revolutionary War, would we be part of Canada today? If we had been defeated, would that have slowed the independence process or sped it up?

    I also wonder about the national identities of Canada, Australia and New Zealand. I feel that having the British Monarch as Head of State(even though she is powerless) still prevents full realization of a unique national identity separate from Britain, and this fuels the republican movements in the former dominions. Politically, of course, Canada is independent from Britain, but symbolically, Britain still has virtual sovereignty of Canada through the British Crown. Still, it’s hardly an empire anymore; it’s more like the Windsor Family Fan Club, but with countries instead of individuals as members.

    Canada’s British ties stand out all the more compared to Australia and New Zealand due to its very long border with the U.S – one former colony indisputably 100% independent, contrasting with the former colony to the north’s virtual independence. Our national identity and patriotism are unfettered by any British ties.

    I don’t mean this as a put down, since I realize Canada is better in many ways compared to the U.S. Some of your large cities are ranked among the best places in the world to live – there’s even this realization among some Americans that generally speaking, the closer you get to the Canadian border, the better the schools.

  • John Matthew Barlow says:

    Thanks for the comment. I think American independence was inevitable, whatever the outcome of the War of Independence. The colonies simply grew too fast and became too strong to remain under the thumb of Mother England.

    As for Canada, I don’t think having the Queen as Head of State really matters at all for us, and judging by the craze for the Royal Wedding last year down here in the US, Americans are more obsessed with the Royal Family than Canadians are. Our problem in Canada, I have long thought is much more simple. First, in terms of European settlement, we were a French colony. And then the British came. And we finally got some measure of independence (I tend to think 1931 is the key date) just as the American Empire was taking off, and so we got sideswiped. As we attempted to move away from Mother England in the early 20th century, we walked right into the arms of America.

    Canada and the US are, in many ways, fundamentally different, though. Our problem in Canada is that we are rarely able to determine who we are due to the powers around us. We were part of that British Empire and now we’re fundamentally anti-American in so many ways. In the mid-90s, the Canadian Football League’s TV ads said it best: “What’s the definition of Canadian?!? NOT AMERICAN!”. All I could think then and still think now is “Really? That’s the best we can do?” We’re a small nation next to a behemoth. We’re always going to be the little brother. As a friend of mine explains it, when you grow up in the States, the maps in the schools show the continental states, in all their variable colours, and then there’s this big, grey space called “CANADA”, with no provincial boundaries, no cities, and sometimes no lakes or rivers or mountains. And then, up in the top left of the continent is Alaska. And that, for him, sums up American views of Canada.

    For us, we grow up with the opposite, our provinces are all in colour and the grey space is called “USA”, but the difference is that 90% of us live within 250km of the US border, because it’s too cold much further north. But, our TV waves are inundated with Americana, so are our radios, and MuchMusic, and movie theatres. We cannot escape American culture, even if we try.

    And so, there’s never been much space for (Anglo) Canada to make a definitive statement of its identity, monarchy or none. It would be the same if we had a republican form of government.

  • […] we chose to celebrate the birth of our nation is entirely arbitrary and artificial.  I have also argued on this blog that Canadian independence has been achieved piecemeal.  From the granting of […]

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