“A great day for Canada” .. the common compensations of living in a marginal democracy, at the edge of the wilderness

Mar 7th, 2012 | By | Category: In Brief

“Today,” my wife remarked as we were getting up, “is the original ‘great day for Canada.’” Having acquired much familiarity with our nuclear family legends, I knew what she meant. But I asked the obvious dumb question anyway:

“You mean,” I said, “that this is your grandfather’s birthday?” (My knowledge of the legends  does not extend to the exact dates of all the commemorations. And I have already begun trying to forget the exact date of my own birthday.)

My wife said yes, that was what she meant. Today, March 7, is her grandfather’s birthday (his 127th apparently, if he were still alive!). I stumbled across the legendary significance of this occasion many years ago, when I noticed a birthday card to my wife from her mother, with the greeting “A great day for Canada, like Grampy said.”

My wife’s grandfather, that is to say, would always declare on his own birthday that it was “A great day for Canada.” (And encourage others to do the same on their birthdays.) And I have come to greatly admire this habit myself. It says something fundamental about what Canada means to me — in an appropriate and economical way!

The ideas of the late great US political sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset, for instance, were said to be “so compelling” that he could even “make Canada interesting to Americans.”  And Lipset was “struck by the legacy of monarchy and elitism in Canada compared to the revolutionary background and egalitarianism in the US.”

As far as I’m concerned, this Canadian legacy is still all too alive today. It helps account for Prime Minister Harper’s “strange last-gasp enthusiasm for the now almost totally vacant symbolism of the British monarchy in Canada — unmatched since John George Diefenbaker, Prime Minister of Canada, 1957–1963.”

There is nonetheless another more compelling side to the Canadian past. You can trace it all the way back to the first people who called themselves Canadians, in the 17th and 18th centuries, along the banks of the St. Lawrence River.

Here too there was monarchy and elitism. But there was also what the historian of France in America, W.J. Eccles, has called “the very independent attitude of the habitants … the Canadians’ notorious reluctance to recognize and submit to the authority of their superiors … .”

(And:  “Some observers blamed what they regarded as” such “serious defects in the Canadian character … on the influence of the Indians with whom they were in constant contact.” Or, as the 19th century American historian of French America, Francis Parkman, put it: “Against absolute authority there was a counter influence, rudely and wildly antagonistic. Canada was at the very portal of the great interior wilderness … that domain of savage freedom … and for many a year a boundless license and a stiff-handed authority battled for the control of Canada.” )

This “very independent attitude of the habitants” is the side of what the Constitution Act, 1982 calls our “free and democratic society” that means most to me — and that I believe lies at the bottom of the Canadian future.

Canada never will be a great presence on the world stage — even as what Mr. Harper calls “an energy superpower.” It is the home of the Marginal Man (and woman too, of course). But it is also a diverse, forward-looking country of free and independent people, who work hard and look out for each other. It is a place where you can still march to your own drummer and survive. (Well … more or less, of course.)

Declaring that it’s a great day for Canada on your own birthday is a nice and simple way of summing all this up, it seems to me. My wife’s grandfather passed away before I came onto the scene. But I honour his legend. I would like to wish his ghost a very happy birthday. And if I can actually remember my own next birthday, that will be a great day for Canada too!

* * * *

Here are a few footnotes to the main story, for those who may or may not be interested:

* Just to fill out what little I know of his biography, my wife’s grandfather grew up on a family farm in the Ottawa valley, between Ontario and Quebec as it were. The land had been granted to his ancestors as a reward for services in the War of 1812. But like much of southeastern Ontario it was very rocky, and of only limited potential for serious agriculture. After the First World War the farm was finally sold. My wife’s grandfather moved to the Niagara peninsula, where he spent the rest of his life working on the construction and maintenance of hydroelectric power facilities. He passed away in the late 1950s.

* No one in my wife’s surviving family seems to know just where her grandfather picked up the phrase “A great day for Canada.”  But the work of the Canadian popular military historian Norm Christie notes that during the First World War “a soldier’s diary told how every time his platoon’s Sgt. announced that ‘Today, will be a great day for Canada!’ the soldier knew that at least half his friends were about to die.”  The work of the First World War Canadian memoirist Frederick George Scott apparently also notes that the “frequent eulogizing of men heading for the front — ‘it’s a great day for Canada, boys’ — has come to mean that half of those boys are going to be killed.” This may or may not suggest a certain irony, or ironic revenge, in my wife’s grandfather’s later use of the phrase?  Much more recently the term has been more benignly used in characterizing international sports events; see, eg: “Perth 2011 ISAF Sailing World Championships — Great day for Canada” ; and “Great day for Canada in Norway.”

* Strictly by accident, I have just finished reading a review of  Mark McKenna’s life of the Australian historian Manning Clark — by another Australian historian, Ross McKibbin (who seems to have spent most of his professional career at Oxford in the UK). This concludes with: “Clark’s work catered to a view of Australia as non-philistine, egalitarian and republican and so appealed to people more or less on the left … But Clark’s wishes actually ran counter to what was, despite himself, his argument: Australia’s future was unlikely to be non-philistine, egalitarian and republican.”  McKibbin also refers to “Clark’s standing as the representative spokesman … of a certain kind of Australian radical-democratic nationalism.” Some might say, I suppose, that I am trying to recruit my wife’s grandfather into some similar role in Canada. But this would of course border on insanity.  As far as the traditional Canadian tension between what Francis Parkman long ago described as “absolute authority” and the “domain of savage freedom”  goes, however, I do believe that the domain of savage freedom will triumph in the end. (Which is to say that I am at least hoping Mr. Harper will not be re-elected in 2015.)

* The photographs that illustrate this post have been taken from “The Great Canadian Experience … Sunset Country, Ontario, Canada” — a website on the attractions of “Northwest Ontario,” right next door to Manitoba.

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