Although it will pass largely unnoticed in the United Kingdom, Saturday 1 July is a special day in a former British colony. On that day, Canada celebrates 150 years since it became a separate country. Even then, it remained under British domination for decades, only gaining proper control over its foreign policy in the 1930s. But the process, which today sees Canada as a wealthy nation with a population of nearly 36 million, a member of the G7 and NATO, and an occasional player on the world stage through its social media-loving prime minister, began on a summer day a century-and-a-half ago.
Many Canadians express pride at their country’s achievements. Indeed, its old colonial master could learn lessons from how Canada has embraced mass immigration, and since the 1970s a policy of official multiculturalism, which sees 20% of Canadians having been born outside the country rising to nearly 50% in Toronto, Canada’s largest city and, by some accounts, the most diverse city in the world. Despite the rapid growth, especially from outside Europe over the last few decades, the majority of Canadians continue to view immigration positively, as do the mainstream political parties. Nevertheless, as in Europe and the United States, there is growing evidence of a backlash against some forms of diversity. A dramatic rise in hate crimes has occurred over the last few years, including the brutal murder of six Canadian Muslims in Quebec City in January.
Canada’s extensive experience of federalism also can be instructive for the United Kingdom as it devolves power from London to Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. The Canadian system is highly decentralised with considerable authority exercised by provincial governments. Education is, for instance, solely a provincial responsibility as Canada has no minister of education in its federal government. Other powers, such as taxation and health care, are shared. Some provinces have embraced more thoroughly a decentralised vision more than others.
The leading proponent of greater powers for the provinces is Quebec. As the centre of French Canada, it represents another distinct aspect of Canada which is officially bilingual at the national level. More than one in five Canadians have French as their native language, with most residing in Quebec, where 80% of inhabitants have French as their first language. Since the 1960s, Quebec has undergone the most radical change of any Canadian province, throwing off its historic domination by English-speaking Canada. In the process, a separatist movement centred on the Parti Québécois (PQ) has repeatedly gained power at the provincial level in Quebec. Twice, in 1980 and 1995, the PQ called referendums seeking to begin the process of gaining independence from Canada. Both times it lost although in 1995 the federalist side won by only 50,000 votes. The entire experience, while painful and divisive, also demonstrated the resilience of Canada and that difficult issues could be addressed peacefully through the ballot box.
But there is another key aspect that calls for reflection on, instead of celebration of, the entire project called Canada. For the Canada of 1867 was a Euro-Canadian entity transplanted on top of the original inhabitants of the territory. In the process, indigenous nations were displaced, some through treaties in which they received a tiny fraction of the previous land they inhabited, and others without any agreement at all. If it occurred today, that process would be described as ethnic cleansing. Other policies directed at Indigenous peoples in order to destroy their cultures, including a system of residential schools, have rightly been labelled as genocide. The end result of Canada for indigenous peoples has been extreme poverty accompanied by high suicide, incarceration, and unemployment rates. Canada ranks in the top ten of nations under the United Nations human development index. If assigned only to indigenous Canadians, the ranking would be 63.
The continuing failure of Canadian governments of all political stripes to acknowledge not just the past oppression of indigenous peoples but their continuing mistreatment and to make amends, including through both greater autonomy and the economic resources to sustain it, represents a shameful legacy; it taints in a fundamental way the entity called Canada. But this stained inheritance is also a British one. Canada was a colonial creation of London and the system put in place in 1867 was as much British as it was Canadian.
* Dr Steve Hewitt, whose British ancestors in the 1840s settled on indigenous land in what is today the province of Ontario, is Senior Lecturer in the Department of History and the American and Canadian Studies Centre.