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).

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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.

The Names and History

May 20, 2012 § Leave a comment

[Ed.’s note: I wrote this about a year ago, it’s already been published. But it’s been front and centre in my mind of late as I read more history, more Don De Lillo, and as world events continue to unfold. It’s often been said that history repeats itself. It’s a trite comment, but there is some truth to it. Anyway, I like this piece. So I’m republishing it.  Enjoy.]

Historians take the long view when examining global affairs. I was recently reading microfilm of newspapers from the early 1920s, doing some last research for my book. The countries that dominated the headlines then were the same ones that dominate them today. The Third Anglo-Afghan War had just concluded with the Treaty of Rawalpindi, ostensibly settling boundary issues between India and Afghanistan. The Levant was under British and French mandate following the First World War. The Republic of Turkey was in its infancy under Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, and the British had just revoked Egypt‘s independence.

I had the same sense of déjà-vu in reading Don DeLillo’s 1982 novel, The Names.  It’s set against the geopolitical backdrop of the Iranian Revolution, the rescue of the American hostages in Tehran, the Lebanese Civil War, the 1980 Turkish coup d’état, chronic Greco-Turkish tensions over Cyprus, and the instability of Greek democracy. The Names centres around a group of expats involved in various shadowy activities  involving international banking, risk analysis, security, and archaeology. Its hero, James Axton, is a risk analyst for a mysterious American group found to have ties to the CIA. David Keller, another American, is based in Athens. He works for a bank that has heavy ties to the Turkish government, and becomes the target of an assassination attempt in Greece. Charles Maitland, a Brit, is a security specialist. The men spend their time flying around the Middle East attending to business in dodgy locales: Tehran, Ankara, Istanbul, Jerusalem, Damascus, and Beirut in particular.

Control is a central theme of the novel, whether it’s states trying to manage their politics or DeLillo’s characters handling their personal affairs. Axton loses control in his marriage as his wife, Kathryn, slips further and further away from him (she moves from a Greek island to Victoria, British Columbia – about as remote and obscure a locale from Greece as possible). He loses control over his own reality, holding on desperately to his job, revelling in mundane office paperwork as he becomes increasingly obsessed by a mysterious, murderous cult. He eventually travels to the Pelopennese and as far as Jerusalem, Damascus, and India in an attempt to learn more about it. Along the way, something interesting happens: language, the means by which people order and make sense of their mental worlds, takes on a new importance for Axton; religion, as exemplified by the mystery cult, is what orders the meaning that he finds through language. The connections they establish and the control they represent suggest a world made in the cult’s own image, which Axton sees painted on a rock on the outskirts of an abandoned village in the Pelopennese: Ta Onómata, The Names.

As the novel closes, Axton is back in Athens. After the CIA revelations, he resigns from his job. Rootless, his wife and son on the other side of the world. He regains control of his life, while the world around him continues to spin out of control; he witnesses the assassination attempt on Keller. Geopolitics and the personal chaos caused by the characters’ involvement in it are useful allegories these days. In the continuing drama of the Arab Spring, states and their residents, the masses and their leaders, are locked in a competition over who gets to dictate the terms of order. The newspapers of the 1920s were clear about who was meant to maintain control over the countries of the Middle East and North Africa. Today, questions of empire, language, religion and politics, domesticated and boiling over, are much more complex. For that we should probably be grateful.

On Irish Historiography, Revisionism, and the Troubles

August 22, 2011 § 3 Comments

Last month, at the Annual Conference of the Canadian Association of Irish Studies at my alma-mater, Concordia University, I was witness to an interesting discussion about revisionism in Irish historiography.  The discussion centred around issues of identity in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. In particular, the issue of binaries, in that one was either Protestant or Catholic and the twain never met.

I have long had problems with revisionist history (in the historiographical sense, let me be clear), in that it seeks to normalise, which means it plays down the unusual, the anachronisms, and so on.  In some ways, this is a good thing. In the case of Ireland, there is some good which has come out of revisionism, most notably, we are free to focus less on the stereotypical tragic history of a “famished land, who fortune could not save” (to quote the Pogues).  In short, Ireland is free to become (to borrow from revisionism in Québec historiography) “une nation comme les autres.”  Revisionism also leads us to post-structuralism and allows us to get past the binaries in many ways: Catholic v. Protestant, man v. woman, city v. rural, North v. South, Ireland v. England, etc. We can see the greys now, a process begun with the muddying of the playing field by the great revisionists of the 20th century: T.W. Moody and Robert Dudley Edwards, as well as the great troubadour of revisionism of our era: Roy Foster.

But, this becomes problematic when taken too far.  When we become too focussed on seeing past the binaries, to see all the ways Catholics and Protestants got along in Belfast, in Derry, and across the North, we run a new risk.  And that is to trivialise the Troubles.  The Troubles was, ultimately, a civil war between nationalists and unionists in Northern Ireland. For the most part, we have long used “nationalist” and “Catholic” and “Protestant” and “unionist” as synonyms. And it is good to see across the lines, to see the attempts at peace-building and community-making in the midst of the terror and devastation of the Troubles. But if we push this impulse too far, then we are blind to the Troubles (or any other conflict that relies on binaries). There is a reason that those two sets of words were/are seen synonymously. It remains that over 3,500 people are dead, countless lives were torn asunder, and the two cities of Northern Ireland, Belfast and Derry, still bear the scars of the Troubles on their landscapes.

We, as historians can try all we like to see past the binaries here, but the simple fact remains that this binary was a pretty fundamental one, it resonated with people, it caused them to fight, sometimes to the death, for what they believed in. It caused them to engage in terrorism. It tore families and communities apart. We cannot lose sight of that.

Nationalism, Globalism & The Economy

February 27, 2009 § Leave a comment

A few weeks ago, French President Nicholas Sarkozy dismissed nationalism in Québec as tribalism, amongst other things, and suggesting that the world has moved on.  This set off a frenzy amongst nationalists here, not surprisingly, who have been keenly and actively using the economic downturn to argue that Québec would be better off as an independent country.

Meanwhile, in the United States, President Barack Obama’s first stimulus package contained a “Buy American” clause for major items and industries, like steel.  This set the United States’ trading partners, including the EU and Canada into a rage and was Obama’s first mis-step on the international stage, which he and his administration have spent a lot of time backing away from since.

Québec and the United States demonstrate, in many ways, the old way of doing things.  During an economic crisis, to withdraw, to become protectionist, and tribal.  Meanwhile, in the European Union, at least at a political level, the impetus has been quite the opposite: Europe has branded together to attack the economic downturn, to try to find solutions.  Sarko’s rejection of québécois nationalism is something that plays out in his politics, and those of the rest of the Europe.

And whilst the actions of European politicians may be at odds with some aspects of the European population, what I find more interesting are these two competing notions of how to deal with the economy today. During the Depression of the 1930s, nations became protectionist and introverted, led by the United States, the country that, in many ways, had the most to lose with the Stock Market Crash in 1929.  The Depression, I should also point out, lasted for most of the 1930s.  So maybe protectionism is not the correct model for surviving this recession?  Whatever we think of globalism, good or bad or ambivalent, it might be time to recognise its reality, that we do live in a globalised economy, with an emergent global culture, and respond to the recession in that spirit.  The world’s response to the “Buy American” clause of the US stimulus package was telling.  Canada and the EU told Obama and his administration that protectionism was not acceptable in this day and age (nor is it entirely legal according to the US’ trade pacts with Canada and the EU), and that rather than turn inwards, the world’s governments need to work together in order to solve the problems with the economy.

Of course, that then leads to the question of whether deep structural reforms are necessary, as the European Union seems to suggesting insofar as the banking and securities industries are concerned, or not, as Canada and the United States are suggesting.  Will this bring conflict and argument about a New World Economic Order?

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