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“The Importance Of Canadian History,” Jared Milne, St-Albert, AB | Dialogue Canada
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“The Importance Of Canadian History,” Jared Milne, St-Albert, AB

Reflections On Canada Day: The Importance Of Canadian History
Jared Milne

I’m writing this on the morning of Canada Day 2014, thinking about all the fascinating things I’ve read about and seen, and all the people I’ve met. One thing I’ve come across is all the different parts of Canadian history I’ve studied, and how they’ve tied into many of the recent issues we’ve faced in Canada. Take, for instance, the recent Quebec election and the idea of separatism popping up yet again; Aboriginal people disputing developments in places like northern B.C. and Caledonia; Alberta’s development of its energy resources and the disputes it’s had with other parties over the financial and environmental impact of the oilsands; or the disputes between the former Newfoundland & Labrador government of Danny Williams and the federal governments of Stephen Harper and Paul Martin over offshore oil royalties. These disputes are often seen as motivated by greed and selfishness, as the groups involved in them are either trying to get or hoard more money for themselves, without caring about the greater good of Canada.

The truth, though, is that these disputes, as well as many others, have been impacted by decades or even centuries of history, history that outside observers often don’t know about. People often consider Canadian history boring or irrelevant, but it actually often makes for very fascinating reading. Studying it can also provide more insight into where different groups of Canadians are coming from, and how there’s often much more to particular debates than there seems…

The Quebec issue is a classic example. What many people outside Quebec don’t realize is how strongly many Franco-Quebecois see themselves as a distinct community in North America, and have strived to remain as such for centuries. Political scientist Alan Cairns pointed out that this is one of the main disconnects between Quebecers and other Canadians. Other Canadians tend to identify themselves with Canada as a whole, over and above their provinces, but history shows that it’s often a different story with the Franco-Quebecois. During the original Confederation debates, many of the Anglophone Fathers of Confederation wanted to simply fuse all the British North American colonies together into one big entity. There would be no internal borders and no provinces. However, as Nova Scotian Sir Charles Tupper pointed out, it was simply impossible. The Francophone Fathers from Lower Canada, later to become Quebec, were adamantly opposed to a plain union. They insisted on a federal form of government, where local provinces would have control over specific powers like education and civil law. Politician scientist and historian Kenneth McRoberts even writes about how, when Sir John A. Macdonald tried to go with a plain union, his Francophone partner George-Etienne Cartier threatened to derail the entire Confederation scheme at the last minute. Quebec and its population were seen as distinct within Canada, and Confederation had to reflect this. Unfortunately, while the rights of English-speakers in Quebec were secured, French-speakers outside Quebec were often discriminated against and their language deprived of the recognition and status it was supposed to have. This frustrated many Franco-Quebecois, giving rise to separatism as they thought that Quebec could only maintain its Francophone heritage by leaving Canada. This was why separatists like René Lévesque were eventually able to find a ready audience.

Even federalists were affected by this-Henri Bourassa talked about Quebec having a distinct place in Canada because of its Francophone heritage. André Laurendeau and Léon Dion talked about Quebec being their “home”, even as they considered Canada their country. Claude Ryan wrote in 1995 that he was a Quebecer first, but also a Canadian. Stéphane Dion stated in 2006 his pride in belonging to “la nation québécoise”, even as he tried to explain to other Canadians that many Quebecers were frustrated by a lack of recognition, in the Canadian constitution and otherwise, of their distinctiveness in Canada, than a lack of powers for Quebec. All of them were devoted to Canada, but they were also devoted to the idea of their province’s distinctiveness, extending all the way through the 20th century and into the 21st. This sense of distinctiveness, from everything I’ve seen, continues to be something that resonates deeply with the vast majority of Franco-Quebecois.

At the same time, Quebec’s language laws made many Franco-Québécois feel more secure about the status of French in the province, and support for separatism fell. Remarkably, Quebec’s language laws have actually strengthened national unity. Unfortunately, the patriation of the Constitution in 1982 angered many Quebecers who thought that Pierre Trudeau was breaking his promises for a renewed federalism. The defeat of the Meech Lake Accord was seen as a further slap in the face, part of the same long and ongoing refusal by other Canadians to recognize the particular issues Quebec was facing, and to downplay or refuse to recognize the French fact in Canada. It’s not a coincidence that Trudeau’s reforms and the philosophy behind them became so much more popular outside Quebec than within it.

Aboriginal Canadians

That same lack of recognition has been frustrating to many Aboriginal people as well. The current disputes in British Columbia over Aboriginal land title and opposition to the Northern Gateway pipeline are just the latest parts of a long history of land disputes, confrontations and Aboriginals feeling that decisions affecting their lives were being made for them without their being consulted. This same feeling of frustration is what led to bitter disputes at places like Caledonia and Ipperwash in Ontario, Oka in Quebec, Burnt Church in New Brunswick, Gustafsen Lake in B.C., and the lands of the Lubicon Cree in Alberta.

Canada’s Aboriginal peoples have often referred to a “nation to nation” relationship with other Canadians, as expressed by the Treaties and symbols such as the Two Row Wampum Belt. As explained by activists like Georges Erasmus, it does not mean that Aboriginals want to form a new and separate country, but it does mean that they would like to see their distinctiveness recognized within Canada. Writers such as Ovide Mercredi and Harold Cardinal have pointed out how the Treaties were seen by the Aboriginals who often signed them as a means of sharing the land with the new Canadian arrivals, rather than the bills of sale many non-Natives saw them as. They never intended to give up title to all their lands entirely, much less to be confined to the reserves they have now or to have their entire lives controlled by the federal government. Unfortunately, this is exactly what happened. The federal government prevented Aboriginals from practicing their traditional religions, controlled their movements on and off reserves, restricted their access to firearms, rationed out food, and forcibly sent them to the infamous residential schools, where they were beaten for speaking their ancestral languages and otherwise violently abused. This was meant to “civilize” the “savage” Aboriginal peoples, in practice controlling every aspect of their lives. To make matters worse, people were often forcibly relocated from the lands they’d made their homes to facilitate industrial development, when the land wasn’t just unilaterally stolen from them.

All of this led to much of the rampant corruption, alcoholism and violence that has affected the lives of so many Aboriginal people. Many non-Natives saw these problems as being the Aboriginals’ own fault, even though government fiat and control was the real cause. This led to incidents such as the infamous “Sixties Scoop”, when many Aboriginal children were put in non-Native foster care to get them out of their dysfunctional homes, which often just caused more trauma. Aboriginal writers like Harold Cardinal and George Manuel commented on how the government would constantly come up with new solutions for problems that its previous solutions ended up causing, all without consulting the Aboriginals.

Land disputes such as at Oka, Ipperwash and elsewhere are often seen by Aboriginals as just yet another example of non-Natives trampling over their Treaty rights and making decisions that affect them without consulting them. Aboriginal people have tried to repeatedly peacefully protest these actions-the dispute at Oka is over 150 years old-and they resort to physical action when they feel they have no other choice, much as Louis Riel and his supporters did after their peaceful protests were repeatedly ignored. They, in turn, are often expected to take all the blame for the resulting problems, much as Aboriginal leaders like Big Bear were, even though Big Bear tried to prevent violence such as the Frog Lake Massacre.

Some people might wonder why these Treaty rights are so important to Aboriginal peoples, and why they can’t just be Canadians like everyone else. What most non-Natives don’t realize, as writers like Harold Cardinal and Ovide Mercredi have repeatedly tried to point out, is that the Treaties are seen as sacred agreements, not just simple legal bills of sale. That was why the 1969 White Paper, which proposed getting rid of the Treaties and Indian Act, was so fiercely opposed by the Aboriginals. Many Aboriginals see their Treaty rights as an essential part of their identity. Being told that they should abandon them is seen as their being told that they are “savages” and should “civilize” themselves. The catch is that the government repeatedly tried to do that over the previous century, and it led directly to many of the problems we have inherited today. Harold Cardinal has said that, for all the problems the Indian Act brings, it is still an implicit recognition of Aboriginal peoples’ distinct place in Canada, and they would rather continue to live in bondage under it than give up their Treaty rights.


Aboriginal peoples and Francophone Quebecers have long seen themselves as distinct within Canada. Many of the unity problems we have today stems from trying to forcibly deny this and assimilate them. However, problems have cropped up even among different groups of Anglophone Canadians, too. A perfect example is in Alberta, where disputes over the development of the province’s oil resources and the sharing of the wealth that come from it are especially important given the development of oil pipelines such as Keystone XL and Northern Gateway. Alberta has long been wary of talk about “sharing wealth” or environmental actions. Many Albertans have noted how, in the past, this has frequently led to policies and programs that benefited other parts of the country while costing Alberta. Even before Alberta became a province, Western Canadians often required to purchase more expensive farming and industrial equipment from the provinces east of Manitoba, given that federal tariffs made cheaper equipment from the United States harder to get. This is what led Sir Wilfrid Laurier to promote a reciprocal trade agreement with the U.S. in 1911. Laurier was defeated in part because his central Canadian opponents accused him of selling Canada out to the U.S., but to Albertans and other Westerners it seemed more like the central Canadian industrialists trying to protect their own interests. Even when Alberta became a province in 1905, it would take another 25 years before it and the other Prairie provinces would get full control over their natural resources. This was justified by it being in Canada’s “national interest”, although many Albertans observed that the country’s national interest always seemed to mesh with the interests of the power players in Ontario and Quebec. This set a pattern of Albertans feeling as though their needs and interests played second fiddle to those of provinces further east, particularly with Pierre Trudeau’s National Energy Program. By itself, the NEP caused serious damage to the oil and gas industry that Alberta’s prosperity depended on, a blow only worsened by the drop in oil prices in the 1980s. That would have been painful enough for Alberta, but the NEP was like a kick in the face after already being punched in the stomach. What was even worse was the sense that Alberta was expected to suck it up and sacrifice for the greater good. That “greater good” meant little to the many people who lost their jobs and their homes due to what they saw as a federal government that, once again, didn’t care about their needs. This feeling of second-tier status in Confederation led Albertans to frequently support new political parties that challenged the established Conservatives and Liberals, such as the Progressives, the United Farmers and the Social Credit movement. None of these had the impact of the Reform Party that Preston Manning organized in the late 1980s, which campaigned on the long sense of frustration that Albertans and other Western Canadians felt, a sense that “the West wants in”.

As it transitioned into the Canadian Alliance, the party protested various actions and proposals that it considered examples of the Liberals, dependent on central Canadian votes, considering Alberta as a second-string hinterland. Many Albertans felt that they would have to bear the brunt of the Kyoto Accord, meant to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, given Alberta’s dependence on the oil and gas industry. The “Green Shift” program proposed by Stéphane Dion in 2008 was also seen as a way of syphoning more money out of Alberta to the provinces east of Manitoba, a perception only reinforced by Liberal bloggers who wrote about transferring wealth from West to East under the Green Shift.

Newfoundland & Labrador

Alberta is not the only Anglophone-majority province to feel short-changed by Confederation, of course. Former Newfoundland & Labrador Premier Danny Williams attracted national attention in the 2000s when he had the Canadian flag lowered at all provincial government buildings in a dispute with Prime Minister Paul Martin over the “Atlantic Accord” concerning offshore oil royalties. Williams then got into a dispute with Stephen Harper which led to him spearheading the “Anything But Conservative” movement in the 2008 federal election. These actions might have seem like political grandstanding to outsiders, but they reflect a long-running sense of frustration among Newfoundlanders in their dealings with Ottawa. Many Newfoundlanders still bitterly recall the Churchill Falls accord that Joey Smallwood made with Quebec, which allowed the other province to reap huge sums of money at Newfoundland’s expense. Despite the Newfoundland government’s protests, the federal government did little to address the deal, something most Newfoundlanders concluded they would not have done if Quebec had been the one complaining, as Our Place in Canada, a 2003 provincial royal commission on the province’s place in Canada, noted. They saw Quebec as having preferential treatment from Ottawa, and were less than pleased with all the attention Quebec seemed to get even as Newfoundland & Labrador’s own desires went ignored. Ottawa’s management of the cod fishery was another matter. Newfoundlanders writing on the proposed union with Canada in 1948 expressed concern over what federal control of the fisheries would do to an industry that was not just an important part of the community’s economy, but also of their identity. Our Place in Canada noted how bitter disputes over the cod fishery and its closures were psychologically painful for many Newfoundlanders, which led to many of them having to leave their home province to find work when they would have preferred to stay. Oil was yet another major resource dispute for the province, as provincial premiers like Brian Peckford and Danny Williams feuded with Ottawa over offshore oil royalties. They pressed the federal government to exempt oil royalties from equalization, which would allow Newfoundland & Labrador to keep its current levels of equalization payments and get the province out of the vicious cycle that left it dependent on federal transfers that were reduced as it got money from its offshore oil royalties. Dalton McGuinty, then Premier of Ontario, criticized the Accord as shortchanging Canada’s “have” provinces. The dispute became even more heated during Williams’ reign, with Newfoundland commentators like Bill Rowe claiming that other Canadians saw their province as “just a pimple on their rear ends”. It’s likely not surprising that political scientist James K. Hillier wrote that, while many Newfoundlanders do not regret joining Canada, they do wish things had been handled differently. The disputes between Williams, Martin and Harper over the Atlantic Accord are just the most recent examples of how many Newfoundlanders have often seen themselves as being looked down on by other Canadians and unfairly treated by Ottawa. While federal politicians like Michael Ignatieff might have said that they wanted to act for all Canadians, Newfoundlanders, much like Albertans, will have wondered why they were the ones to so often be short-changed.

Where do we go from here?

A couple of common themes keep coming up in these disputes, both the ones touched on here and others in Canada. The first one is that the debates risk becoming increasingly polarized. Many people don’t understand the perspectives of the Albertans, or Quebecers, or any other part of the population who are protesting, and insult them. They are attacked as greedy and selfish, and many of them in turn react badly when they feel they have a damn good reason for protesting. This makes the disputes increasingly polarized, to the point that anyone who dares to disagree with the hardliners is seen less as someone with a disagreement and more as an enemy who needs to be defeated. Either you support Quebec separation, or the federal status quo; either you support Newfoundland & Labrador or Ottawa; either you support Alberta’s energy resources full stop or you stop oil development altogether; either you support full recognition of Aboriginal sovereignty or you think they should assimilate.

The other theme is that it’s often a lack of knowledge of where the other side is coming from that makes these disputes so ugly to begin with. Many Canadians outside Quebec don’t know how deeply rooted the sense of distinctiveness is in that province, and simply believe that Quebec is complaining to get special treatment; many non-Natives don’t know about the abuse and oppression Aboriginal peoples have gone through, and believe that they’re simply lazy and refuse to contribute to society; many Canadians outside Alberta or Newfoundland and Labrador and don’t know about those provinces’ economic challenges and simply think that Albertans are greedy and don’t care about the environment, or that Newfoundlanders simply want special treatment. The examples I have discussed in this essay are just some of the issues we as Canadians still have to deal with. But how many of us have actually tried to see the other side in these disputes? How many of us know the histories of the different regions and peoples of Canada, and seen how they’ve affected our modern issues? This has been one of the biggest challenges in Canada both before and after its founding-trying to find common ground between all of these issues, particularly when they’re so deeply-rooted to begin with.

John Ibbitson has said that the old history of Canada has been “swept away” by the new immigrants and cultures, and that we should focus on the future. It’s something of an insult to in effect tell Canadians who still feel strongly about certain issues that their frustrations are irrelevant. These things matter not just for their practical value, but also for how they represent the feelings of frustration and alienation so many Canadians feel. Ibbitson is right in saying that we shouldn’t just be dwelling on past failures and grudges, but it’s a mistake to think that these issues no longer matter. The past ties directly into the challenges we face today as Canadians, and that past has not disappeared because of the new cultures and immigrants that now make Canada home. They don’t displace the established history and culture we have now-they build on them. We should not be using Canadian history to dwell on old grudges, but rather to try and understand the different parts of the country and past events have shaped their views on our current situation. The question of what Quebec, the Aboriginals, the West or any other region or group of Canada wants repeatedly comes up in Canada, and the answer can often be found by studying our national history.

This type of mutual understanding and the balancing of different interests is nothing new in Canada-indeed, it’s what has led to accomplishments such as the Charter of Rights, the peaceful achieving of responsible democratic government, the progress that Aboriginal peoples have begun to make in re-establishing themselves, the building of Confederation itself.

It’s often been asked, “who speaks for Canada”? The answer is simpler than one might think-we all have spoken for Canada at one time or another. All of our voices have been essential-each of our own histories and unique experiences have influenced how the country has grown and developed, and how we, all of us, have grown along with it as a people.

Vive le Canada uni!
Jared Milne is a researcher and Unity activist from Alberta