Canada has changed dramatically in the past half-century. In two years, we will mark the 150th anniversary of Confederation. When we last celebrated such a momentous landmark birthday – in 1967 – it was a time of perhaps unprecedented optimism and belief that the world was better for having Canada in it. Yet, even in that celebratory year, the culmination of a decade of upheaval both positive and negative, no one could have predicted the Canada we would build in the next generation.
It was in that decade that Canada’s immigration laws – which since the 1920s had been notoriously stringent and oriented almost exclusively to white migrants – became part of the multi-hued world. A royal commission on bilingualism and biculturalism opened the door to viewing Canada outside the British colonial and cultural prism through which it originated in 1867. Within a few short years, the ethnic mix of the country would expand the concept of multiculturalism, opening up an exciting new amalgam of peoples from around the world, though not without some significant social challenges. Even so, for a country whose demographic face has changed so dramatically in a relatively short amount of time, we have adapted to it in ways that should inspire pride.
It has been said that Canadians, polite and welcoming to strangers by reputation, are also self-critical in ways almost unknown in other countries. When there have been incidents of which Canadians should be ashamed – and, as in any country, there have been plenty – we do have a tendency to self-castigate.
On the other hand, sometimes not quickly or adequately enough. As we wrote in this space last week, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report on the catastrophic history and legacy of the Indian residential schools program highlights one of this country’s worst open sores – and that confronts only one portion of this country’s treatment of indigenous peoples. It took too long to reach this point of truth and reconciliation and it remains to be seen if action and genuine reconciliation will be the result. It is worth repeating, in this Canada Day edition of the paper, that it is our responsibility as Canadians to ensure that the recommendations of this report are not ignored or dismissed.
And Canada has a legacy of racism and antisemitism. Not just a legacy, but an active problem in many places and in many contexts. But, in a country as diverse as ours, in the year 2015, we as a collective are doing pretty well at getting along.
It has not only been the comparatively speedy and dramatic shift in ethnic demographics that has changed Canada. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms has been the lynchpin for judicial and legislative changes that have altered the face of the country and the day-to-day lives of its citizens. From the start, the entrenched equality of women was a significant constitutional right. By the 1980s, when the Charter took effect, it may have seemed ludicrous that a woman would not be considered legally equal – but let us not forget that the country to our south had spent a chunk of the previous decade arguing over precisely that point and the effort to entrench in the U.S. Constitution an equal rights provision failed, leaving women constitutionally unequal to men.
Court interpretations of the Charter have led to some of Canada’s most stunning progressive steps, including marriage equality. Yes, it was the courts (successive provincial decisions and then the Supreme Court of Canada) that made marriage equal, but Parliament quickly acceded (not that they had much choice) and public opinion is now overwhelmingly on side. Numerous less prominent cases have swung on the Charter’s provisions and while our American cousins fret over judicial “overreach” or “activism” when courts interpret the laws of the land (as is their constitutional role in both countries), Canadians seem to accept and even admire our Charter and its impact on the country. Polls, reliable as they may or may not be, suggest that 82% of us like the Charter.
Canada has sometimes been seen as an unnatural country, not one united by language or race or even geography, because we’ve got too much diversity for any of these to be a unifying factor. But we have found things to unify us.
In a world where diverse people stuck within random national boundaries seem to have too often sought out differences, accentuated them and fought over them, Canadians have accepted our lot as destined to share this space – and found our own ways to coexist, to identify the things that unite us, even celebrate the things we do not share in common, and make the best of it.
We are not perfect. No country is. Jewish tradition says that God created an imperfect world and it is humanity’s responsibility to strive to repair it. Perhaps, in a constitutionally mandated non-denominational way, this is also the role of successive generations of Canadians: inherit a country and strive to make it better. On Canada Day this year, may we rededicate ourselves to this sacred task.