This Canada Day, many Canadians may reflect on the challenges faced by the European federal project, and the risks of disunity in the UK, recognizing too well this struggle to find balance among governments. Yet our greatest source of pride may be our success finding balance between our people.

by Alastair C.F. Gillespie, June 29, 2016

A week in which the European Union was shaken to its foundations is a good time to reflect on the strengths of the Canadian union. The approaching 150th anniversary of Confederation means this is also a great time to recognize strengths that date from our founding in 1867. Canada is fortunate that hundreds of pages of speeches of our Fathers of Confederation survive, and we can revisit this heritage as a source of pride in Canadian citizenship and add meaning to this national milestone.

Even Canadians familiar with Confederation can be surprised that debates were held in the legislature of every province whether to join Confederation. For too long history focused on closed-door deals, not enough on the public process by which Confederation was considered in each province. These speeches detail the aspirations, dilemmas and ideas of the first Canadians, many of which are recognizable today. Reviving the study of Canada’s founding debates can put the people back into Confederation, and teach us what the first Canadians thought about what it meant to be Canadian.

Here are a few of the discoveries that await in those leather-bound pages.

Our founding debates show the first Canadians faced a startlingly modern question - how to make Canadians out of peoples of diverse origins, languages and religions. They answered by expanding the boundaries of what a nation could be. Father of Confederation George-Étienne Cartier voiced the classic Canadian formula: “we would form a political nationality with which neither the national origin, nor the religion of any individual would interfere.” Cartier reminds us that diversity has been a permanent feature of Canadian life, and that our traditions can inform our efforts for more inclusive citizenship today.

The debates set out Canada’s discovery of federalism, reminding us Canadians are a federal people and the reasons why. Cartier explains federalism was key to his leading the first Canadian government committed to the union of British North America. John A. Macdonald, with his Scots sensibility for the bon accord and the auld alliance, explains federalism was necessary if Quebec was to join the union. French-Canadians argue federalism will preserve their language, laws and institutions, echoed by the Maritime Provinces also wanting to preserve local self-government.

The debates show federalism helped Canadians inoculate a bitter cultural conflict – a powerful national experience offering lessons for intractable problems of government around the globe today. The old Union of Canada had been plagued by the clashing popular wills of modern Ontario and Quebec, symbolized by a system with two prime ministers and a capital that shifted among cities. Old Canada was ground into crisis by a divisive 15-year campaign for constitutional reform led by Globe editor George Brown, determined to expose the contradictions in a system which couldn’t reflect the divergent impulses sent by each section of the country.

Sitting as an independent, Canada’s first finance minister Alexander Galt introduced federation resolutions in 1858, arguing federalism could cure this corrosive sectional conflict. A division of powers would push contentious local issues down to the provinces, leaving the federal government with subjects of national concern not dividing Canadians along lines of identity. Galt argued Canadians would “find in the diversities of race and religion an incentive to honourable rivalry in favour of our common country, rather than to leave them, as now, the subjects by which any party leader may build up an evanescent and baneful popularity by arraying one class against another.”

Balancing federalism was Canadians’ desire to form a real union. Macdonald often referred to the spectacle of the U.S. civil war, pressing for a federation that had no hint of state-rights, to make Canadians “one people and one government, instead of five peoples and five governments, with merely a point of authority connecting us to a limited and insufficient extent.” Canadians could form a “great people … commanding the respect of the world, able to hold our own against all opponents.” The first Canadians wanted a single national market and expansion to the Pacific, and aspired to greatness.

This Canada Day, many Canadians may reflect on the challenges faced by the European federal project, and the risks of disunity in the United Kingdom, recognizing too well this struggle to find balance among governments. Yet our greatest source of pride may be our success finding balance between our people. Whether in Britain or in Europe, the issues are the same - whether British or European citizenship can accommodate differences Canadians have navigated since our founding.

As our 150th approaches, our national project seems increasingly relevant in the world. Occasionally Canadians have been misled that our federalism and diversity were uniquely Canadian obstacles to national unity. This no longer seems the case. We have built a sense of belonging beyond the traditional nation-state, which unites rather than divides people who must live together, and our very success doing it now defines our national culture, and puts us at the front of changes in the world today. All through simply being ourselves – through the gradual working out of Cartier’s idea that we could be Canadian, regardless of our national origin, language or religion.

Alastair Gillespie is a Canadian lawyer working in London England, and the author of a series of articles on the Confederation Debates which appeared last year in the National Post.

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