Canada struggles to define its own vastness

Troubled by an economic slump far worse than that below the border in the United States, Canada is struggling to pull out of its recession - and at the same time resolve a historic identity crisis.

It is this search for identity - and for an equally elusive national unity - that most preoccupies Canada today. In fact, for more than a century since it became a nation in 1867, the quest for identity and unity have been the biggest challenges facing Canadians.

As troubles come and go - like the current economic slump with its high unemployment and business failures, and the blistering debate over who will be Canada's next prime minister - this search for identity and unity has remained constant.

But the search may be coming to fruition. Pierre Berton, easily the top popularizer of Canadian history, suggests that Canadians ''are now for the first time beginning to see our country whole. . . . It is our land . . . nobody else's; and, as we are beginning to realize, it is like no other.''

Many Canadians, traditionally hesitant about calling themselves a nation because they had yet to unify the whole, now are experiencing a bit of heady enthusiasm for, even pride in, their land.

Canada - stretching 3,200 miles from Atlantic Newfoundland to Pacific Yukon - is the world's second-largest country. But a mere twelfth of its 3.85 million square miles is used or even modestly developed. What is left is northern wilderness - ''the great lone land'' about which British travelers wrote 100 years ago. It is a lone land, an untrammeled vastness at once menacing and inspiring, boring and exciting.

This sheer vastness is both ''an asset and a liability,'' says Toronto editor Douglas Creighton. Rich with minerals, water, and other resources, the frontier just sits waiting for a finder.

So much remains for exploration and development that ''it boggles our thoughts,'' says Calgary businessman Robert Buchanan. The immediate problem for him and for most other Canadians is simply to get through the current recession in the Canadian economy - but beyond that the frontier beckons.

Canada's lakes and rivers, for example, account for more than half of the world's freshwater reserves. That mighty potential awaits development. Most Canadians live far from this resource.

In some ways, inhabited Canada is like a horizontal Chile, a thin belt no wider than 200 miles stretching immediately north of the border with the US. All of Canada's modern, well-run cities are within this belt, and all but a million of Canada's 24 million people live there.

Canadians are understandably a geographically preoccupied people.

Gazing north to the untapped frontier, they are ''haunted by our inability'' to do much with the rich potential of this northland, observes Vic Humphreys, editor of Oilweek magazine in Calgary.

But gazing south to the powerful US, Canadians are dwarfed by another giant, and find themselves haunted by that rich southern land whose political, economic , and social tentacles seem to reach out to envelop them.

Yet Canadians are very much like their fellow North Americans in the US. Except for French-speaking Quebec, Canadians speak English. Their heritage, their culture is British, similar in many ways to that below the border, and their life styles are so similar that at first glance the visitor hardly notices a difference.

Still, there are differences - and Canadians make sure the visitor learns this. Canada is cleaner; life is more ordered here; Canadians are exceptionally law-abiding. For example, a US visitor might be startled to see Canadians huddle , in a driving rainstorm, under their umbrellas at a street corner, with no cars in sight. They would rather get wet than illegally cross the street against a red light.

But ask a Canadian to define just what a Canadian is and there's the rub. Likely as not, he can't do it.

Again Pierre Berton: ''Canadians are often tongue-tied when asked to explain, in a sentence or two, how we differ (from the US, for example).''

For one thing, despite the English heritage, culture, and look to much of Canada, Canadians are not predominately of British extraction - at least not any more. They are a polyglot people, a conglomeration of races and peoples, a rich, vibrant social milieu, a diverse melting pot - some say much more so than the US.

Canadians include descendants of English, French, German, Ukrainian, Chinese, Japanese, Yugoslav, Polish, Caribbean blacks, Latin Americans - some 25 percent of whom are first-generation residents of Canada, who arrived after World War II when Canada opened its doors to a floodtide of immigrants.

Many of the immigrants have shared history for only a short period, yet they work together more harmoniously than might at first be expected. Many have become Canadian, enriching and changing the structure of Canadian society.

''We have a great strength,'' says Canadian journalist John Harbron, ''and the dominant aspect of it may well be this ethnic diversity.''

In diversity, then, Canada seems to have derived strength.

Canadians are also survivors. They have had to be to survive what author Berton calls ''our appalling geography.''

As George Woodcock, one of Canada's leading men of letters, puts it: ''We have been shaped equally by our history, but the fact [is] that for almost two centuries Canada has provided an alternative in North America to what is commonly and arrogantly called the 'American Way of Life.' Indeed, it is probably a good basic definition of Canadians to say that they are the descendants of those North Americans who deliberately chose a harsher and less dramatic way of existence rather than become citizens of the United States.''

But Canadians often say their life style is dull in comparison with that of US citizens. Claude T. Bissell, once president of the University of Toronto, noted that while Canadians move slowly, they can ''when they are aroused . . . move with remarkable speed. . . . Our history is a record of stolidity broken by bold imaginativeness.''

Example: At the beginning of this century, Canadians built the Canadian Pacific Railway through thousands of miles of bleak and forbidding western wilderness to reach what were then a few scattered settlements on a distant, unknown coast where the Pacific laps the beaches. That singular action united the Canadian nation as nothing else had done before.

But unity has always eluded Canada. Separatist tendencies lurk close to the surface, threatening to unravel the nation, dominating past and present. French-speaking Quebec, timber- and mineral-rich British Columbia, and grain- and energy-abundant provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta all have a variety of separatist tendencies. To some extent, of course, separatism springs from ethnic diversity. But Canada's separatism runs deeper than such diversity.

Take Quebec. This province, with its dominant French-speaking culture, is obviously Canada's most serious separatist challenge.

French-Canadians have always resented being considered second-class citizens in a predominately English-speaking nation. Threats to leave the nation and go it alone have long been bandied about. Until the 1970s, however, the threat seemed idle. When Rene Levesque's separatist Parti Quebecois (PQ) won power in 1976, the threat gradually became more real.

Mr. Levesque and his advisers, dreaming of independence, embraced programs of economic nationalism and began flirting with US companies and state governments in a thinly veiled effort to get Quebec accepted on its own and not as part of the Canadian federation.

Sponsoring a rival Canadian foreign policy from that of Ottawa evoked a lot of anger against Mr. Levesque from the rest of Canada, but he persisted, nevertheless - buoyed by opinion polls showing the PQ gaining strength with Quebec voters.

Then, in late May 1980, Mr. Levesque held a referendum to set Quebec on a path toward sovereignty and possible independence. Rival politician Claude Ryan, provincial head of the Liberal Party, firmly opposed the Levesque path, urging instead ''a special status'' for Quebec within a new Canadian constitution.

Quebec voters soundly defeated the Levesque proposal, dispelling the immediate threat that Quebec might go it alone. But, as Mr. Ryan admitted, the vote was not a rejection of the disenchantment that a majority of Quebecers feel about the Canadian federation. It was merely a rejection of one solution for the disenchantment. French-speaking Quebecers as well as their English-speaking cousins in the province remain disenchanted.

Many in the English-speaking minority, concentrated heavily in Montreal where at least 35 percent of Canada's largest corporations have long had their headquarters, began leaving the province. Along with them went many corporate headquarters, a situation that helped spawn a mini-recession for Quebec Province.

PQ economic policies added to the problem as the province made a number of costly plunges into industry. For example, Quebec took over Asbestos Corporation , a move designed to promote provincial control of the economy. The move, however, ended up saddling Quebec taxpayers with the burden of owning a key company in a fast-declining industry.

Enthusiasm for separatism clearly has run down in Quebec - and the same is true elsewhere in Canada as well. British Columbians, separated by thousands of miles of endless prairies and soaring mountain peaks from the federal government in Ottawa and the rest of eastern Canada, seem more a part of the whole than they did a decade ago.

And the Alberta provincial government, having watched the upstart Western Canada Concept Party win a toehold in the provincial legislature, is breathing easier, as is Ottawa, over the party's failure to hold its position in provincial elections.

Canada at the moment does seem to be holding together. One reason may be the fact that Canadians are beginning to find that elusive identity.

But some think the far-flung, diverse provincial structure that makes up the loose federation is a good thing. Writing in his late 1970s book ''The Canadians ,'' George Woodcock concludes:

''Canada is not a national state in the usually accepted sense, but a mutable and often dynamic political continuum suited to the varied historical roots of its people and to the broken patterns of its geography. Any attempt to tidy it up into a centralized nation-state would bring its immediate disintegration.''

Next: Canada's economic challenges

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