Brian Lee CrowleyYoung Canadians’ lack of patriotism isn’t surprising, given how many of them believe our history is retrograde and shameful. But, writes Brian Lee Crowley in the Ottawa Citizen, looking solely at our past errors is not the right standard by which to measure Canada and its great achievements.

By Brian Lee Crowley, Oct. 7, 2016

According to Samuel Johnson, patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel. If the views of Canada’s young people (as revealed in a recent Angus Reid/CBC poll on the Canadian national soul) are anything to go by, they have largely embraced Johnson’s anti-patriotism line.

As Angus Reid notes, “Massive generational differences affect Canadians’ sense of pride and attachment to their country: nearly three-quarters (73%) of those 65 years or older profess a ‘deep attachment’ to Canada, this shrinks to less than half (45%) among those aged 18-24.”

Angus Reid points out that in the recent past, ambivalent or negative sentiment about Canada was concentrated in Quebec; differences among Canadians on this question were therefore chiefly regional. Today it is the young who are far more conditional in their enthusiasm for Canada than their elders.

If this is just a new manifestation of the old phenomenon of idealistic youth versus disabused experience, it is perhaps nothing to worry about. If, by contrast, it portends a long term shift in Canadians’ commitment to Canada, I think that would not just be a pity, but a loss to the world as well as to Canada.

In a way I am not surprised that young Canadians view Canada with some suspicion. Talk to many of them and you may be dismayed by how little they know about our country. Equally, much of what they have been taught is that our past is nothing but a repository for all that is retrograde and shameful. It is filled with racism, sexism, homophobia, colonialism, militarism, genocide and environmental destruction.  

It is easy to criticize the past and the decisions made there.  But it is a conceit of all generations that they alone are free from poor judgements and intellectual shortcomings.

Looking solely at our past errors is not the right standard by which to measure Canada and its great achievements. Remember that poverty, squalor, filth, disease and intolerance have been humanity’s lot since the beginning. Only a handful of societies have figured out, slowly and painfully, the institutions and behaviours that allow people to escape these ills.

Canada is at the forefront of those nations and it is thanks to our history of struggle against the worst human afflictions that we now enjoy the conditions where our young people can look back in horror at how things used to be. It is the progress made possible by the economic, social and, yes, moral advances of our forebears that have allowed us to enjoy peace, order and good government in generous measure.

Confederation itself was no exercise in crude majoritarian triumphalism, but an exquisitely wrought compromise between contending cultures, languages and religions that has made us one of the longest enduring political orders on the planet. We have constantly expanded our notion of rights in response to genuine grievances. Canadian blood and treasure were expended in righteous struggles like World War Two and Korea because when the world called we were not found wanting. As we have become wealthier we have worked to improve our environment, education and social services.

It appears that this generation is the one called upon to right the many wrongs done to Aboriginal peoples in our history. We cannot change the past, but it does not require us to despise our past to say that our job is to make sure that past mistakes shall not be tolerated on our watch.

Like all real virtues, true patriotism is a mid-point between two extremes. On the one hand is narrow, bellicose, xenophobic nationalism; on the other, a bloodless, rootless cosmopolitanism that loves an abstract humanity but not any actual flawed community of real people. True patriots love Canada because it has made us (including those who have come to join us from other countries) who we are; and who we are is a standard to which much of the rest of the world aspires.

Brian Lee Crowley is the Managing Director of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, an independent non-partisan public policy think tank in Ottawa:

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