Published on August 28, 2013
The funeral procession of D'Arcy McGee
Library and Archives Canada
Published on August 28, 2013
Crowds on Parliament Hill celebrate Dominion Day in 1927, the 60th jubilee of Confederation.
Library and Archives Canada
This is the third in a five-part series on John Diefenbaker's vision of Canada
“The euphonious word, Canada, has three vowels; not an unpleasant incident for tongue or pen. It is as old and quite as historical as the name America. Like the ice-shove in the St. Lawrence before the magic breath of spring, so will cold sectional antagonism dissolve and disappear in the genial current of our great new State generously administered.”
-- Thomas D’Arcy McGee
“Cartier and Macdonald said this was one nation," John Diefenbaker said. "They stood, their memory stands, for a united Canada.”
It was the Conservative Party leadership convention of Sept. 1967 and John Diefenbaker, the embattled Tory leader -- to the shock and embarrassment of many -- had announced at the last minute that he would enter the campaign.
He knew he would lose, but at least it would allow him to denounce the “deux nations” policy, which the party was considering adopting.
“The Two Nations theory (was) the absolute reverse of everything I had stood for in life, and the reverse of everything the Conservative Party had stood for, from Macdonald to me,” Diefenbaker wrote in his memoir.
Supporters of the policy said that “deux nations” simply meant that French and English Canada were two “distinct societies” -- two political entities within one country.
Diefenbaker dismissed that as sophistry.
“There is no one who can show me that suddenly, in 1967, “nation” in French means something different from what it means in English,” he said in his famous “One Canada” speech at the convention.
“Deux nations” was a monstrous act of revisionism that would dismantle Confederation:
“Laurier said, ‘This is one nation.’ Cartier said ‘This is one nation.’ Langevin, Bourassa, St. Laurent said the same, all through the years. We are asked today to go back to the period between 1841 and 1867, to two Canadas.”
If Diefenbaker’s understanding of Confederation was out of vogue, it was historically accurate, at least.
“He had a sense, and that sense existed at the time of Confederation as well, that there was a Canadian identity that transcended the differences (between English and French Canadians),” said Stephen Kenny, a University of Regina historian specializing in relations between French and English Canadians.
“That’s why he talks about ‘One Canada.’”
A Canadian identity that transcended differences was the norm for generations
Diefenbaker wrote in his memoir that his father, a schoolteacher, had been an “enthusiastic student” of the life and works of Thomas D’Arcy McGee, who was assassinated on April 7, 1868 -- the day after Diefenbaker’s father was born.
Public speaker, poet, newspaper editor and Father of Confederation, McGee’s ideas were popular with the public. His funeral procession a week after his assassination drew a massive outpouring of emotion in the streets of Montreal.
“(Father) looked upon McGee as the philosopher and orator of Confederation,” Diefenbaker wrote.
“(McGee) was the visionary,” Kenny said. “(He was) the person who, in his oratory, captured the essence of Canada and Confederation.”
An Irish radical in his youth, McGee had come to reject violence and became a critic of both the Fenian Brotherhood, a precursor to the IRA, and the Orange Order, an anti-Catholic group. He also became dazzled by the dream of Confederation.
“What he saw in Canada was the ability of these Canadians -- with all of these differences of religion and culture and identity -- that they were able to come to a compromise for a greater good,” Kenny said.
The spirit of Confederation still prevailed across the country when Diefenbaker was growing up, according to University of Saskatchewan historian Raymond Blake, who specializes in Canadian national identity.
“Even in the late 1800s, go to Calgary -- they’re celebrating Dominion Day; go to any small town in British Columbia or Nova Scotia or Ontario; they’re celebrating Dominion Day -- this pride in Canada.
When Deifenbaker talked about unhyphenated Canadianism, he really meant that what it meant to be Canadian transcended all of our particular regional identities or even our cultural identities University of Regina historian Stephen Kenny
"It’s not being paid for by government; it’s being done by the local organizations, whether it’s the chamber of commerce, or the local church women’s’ organizations, or schools.”
“But there was a real sense of being Canadian.”
Saskatchewan and Alberta became provinces in 1905 when Diefenbaker was 10 years old. His father organized a town meeting at the schoolhouse to celebrate.
“Father was chairman and spoke feelingly of Confederation and what it meant,” Diefenbaker wrote in his memoir. “The school choir sang ‘The Maple Leaf Forever,’ ‘Rule Britannia,’ and ‘God Save the King.’ It was a red-letter occasion for all.”
Confederation was born out of a desire look past differences
The spirit of Confederation was one of compromise, Kenny said.
Before Confederation, the Province of Canada had been frozen with “sectional antagonism,” as McGee put it. The English Canadians of Canada West (now Ontario) resented that Canada East (now Quebec) had numerical superiority in the legislature despite its smaller population.
Militant Protestants, particularly Grits such as George Brown, were horrified by visions of “popery” extending its arm into Canada West and smothering English liberties.
French Canadians, for their part, were afraid that their language and religion would disintegrate into the vast sea of Protestant, English-speaking North America. Politics had reached such a state of deadlock that the various factions had never even agreed where the capital city should be.
“Macdonald, Cartier, Brown and all the other Fathers of Confederation agreed that, to meet this failure, confederation into one nation was the solution,” Diefenbaker said in his One Canada speech.
English and French alike shared the common interest of not being swallowed up by the military-industrial behemoth to the south.
The English-speaking colonies wanted to remain British. The French Canadians, for their part, “didn’t have any sentimental attachment to British institutions,” Kenny said.
They were aware, however, that they had been able to conserve their language and religion under the British Crown since the Quebec Act of 1774 -- a circumstance that would probably have come to a quick end if they had become part of the United States in 1776.
It was in the interests of both French and English Canadians, then, to join together as an independent country within the British Empire.
“They had different reasons,” Kenny said, “but they all agreed that the United States was a threat to what they cherished.”
French Canadians would be a minority in the new country, but a majority in the province of Quebec; and the constitutional division of powers would give each provincial legislature jurisdiction over education and culture.
The Fathers of Confederation, as well the generations of politicians, both French and English, who came after them, also believed in the small-l liberal values that were part of the British inheritance.
“There are basic British traditions that derive, however imperfectly, from the acknowledgement of the rights of the individual citizen and the value of the individual citizen,” Kenny said.
“When Deifenbaker talked about unhyphenated Canadianism, he really meant that what it meant to be Canadian transcended all of our particular regional identities or even our cultural identities.”
Confederation doesn't recognize our cultural values and aims, Quebec nationalists said
That concept of Confederation was not compatible with the aims of Quebec’s Quiet Revolution. Quebec nationalists in the ’60s had come to see Canada’s constitutional division of powers as an impediment to, rather than a safeguard of, their aspirations.
The constitution, they felt, did not adequately recognize the needs of French Canadians as an ethnic or cultural group.
By 1967, two basic solutions were being discussed: give Quebec a special status within Quebec; or, reconceive Canada as a bilingual nation from coast to coast, so that French Canadians would feel at home everywhere.
Pearson favoured the former. Trudeau would go with the latter. Diefenbaker rejected both.
At the Conservative Party convention, he argued that the “two nations” theory would encourage an ethnic-based citizenship.
“I am pleading with you,” he said. “I am looking into the hearts of Canadians everywhere. I know what discrimination is. I know how much easier it would have been if my name had been Bannerman, which was my mother’s name…Let us be Canadians.”