Grand River Branch
United Empire Loyalists' Association of Canada
Selected Reprints from the
Grand River Branch Newsletter, Branches
"Fireside Chats Of Historical Content"
Gary Peters, February 1995, Vol.7 No.1, Pages 18-19
On Saturday, July 2, 1994, my wife and I, for the first time, were able to visit the Kitchener-Waterloo Multicultural Festival in Kitchener. We came to experience the sights and sounds of difference, to relax and enjoy and to savour the delights of international cuisine. We came with curiosity and excitement and were not disappointed. The festival is colour, music, vitality and fun. However, I also came with a disturbing conviction that multiculturalism by ignoring our British heritage has been one among several factor contributing to the quiet formation of a "Third Solitude" in a land which has been long plagued with "Two". The expression "Third Solitude" is an obvious allusion to Hugh MacLennan's 1945 novel Two Solitudes which explored the complex relationship, or more accurately, the non-relationship between English Canada and Québec. The dictionary defines "solitude", with respect to a group, as a condition or state of being separated, either voluntarily or by compulsion from humanity or from one's culture. Today, there are signs that this "Third Solitude", a significant segment of Anglo-Canadian society is becoming politically conscious of the dissolution of its British North American heritage and is experiencing a mild case of cultural alienation.
Something is stirring in English Canada. It is not necessarily pleasant nor always polite and seldom is it articulated with precision and clarity. Like bubbles randomly bursting to the surface in a pot of boiling oil, there are eruptions of dissatisfaction with the status quo. Letters and articles appear in newspapers and magazines. We hear the sounds of frustration and anger in conversations and sometimes on the radio and television. People bemoan the loss of our national "traditions" and sense that "Canadian culture" is somehow under siege. Which traditions and what culture are never clearly defined. Large segments of the population spend time and effort in genealogy, searching their personal histories, trying to unravel their national and cultural origins. Homeless street kids, alienated from their families (if they have any), ignorant of a past to which they belong and unaware of a different "non-American" Canada, fall prey to bizarre Nazi-like organizations which always hover on the fringes of civilization. And then, there is the recent and unfortunate squabble between some branches of the Royal Canadian Legion and Sikh veterans, who fought for the British Empire during the Second World War. The new Canada clashes with the old and the old Canada, denuded of its symbols and its soul, refuses to yield, until forced to surrender by the power of the state.
Who or what is this traditional public, this "Third Solitude"? It is constituted first, by English-speaking Canadians of the "old stock", descendants of the first settlers who emigrated to the fledgling Canadian colonies long ago and secondly , by descendants of later migrants, who came from many lands throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Together they forged a nation whose emblems, laws and political institutions are the direct products of two major events in North American history: General James Wolfe's victory at Québec in 1759 and, of much greater significance, the Second Treaty of Paris, signed on September 20, 1783 and by which Great Britain recognized the independence of her rebellious Thirteen Colonies. It is a public with a memory and a growing consciousness, not of traditions observed, but of their absence; a public aware, not of its culture, but of its deliberate extirpation over the past thirty years. Do we, or does English Canada, have any remaining uniqueness and if we once had a "culture", what were its characteristics?
Not so long ago, this country possessed a confident self-definition, long before the Canadian nationalists decided, rather pretentiously, to embark on their much ballyhooed and elusive "search for Canadian identity", which incidentally, they never did find. Well into the middle of the twentieth century, Anglo-Canada defined itself on the basis of three political traditions: small 'c' conservatism, liberalism and more recently, social democracy. The conservative tradition, suffusing through our national consciousness, motivated our collective choice not to be American. We espoused and lived by the inherited principles of British constitutional liberty, centered on an ancient and flexible relationship between Crown and parliament. Our national policy was based, not on the rationalistic and formal constitutions of France or the United States, but on the historic experience of governance, the long search for liberty and order and the struggle to balance ancient traditions with democratic freedoms. Our traditions also respected the principle of limited government, including the notion that chance or natural necessity must be recognized in the life of any sane community. And of course, it was all decorated with a splendid pageantry, which sadly, we have also largely disavowed.
About thirty years ago, Canada had a visible identity which I will describe as a loyalist or British-American culture. This culture consisted of at least two components, one of which was a national sense of unity derived from our history and reinforced from "the top down" so to speak by the decorative and governing institutions of Crown, parliament and common law. the act of remembering sometimes requires that we engage in "naive history", that we look again at the foundations and return to the trivial. The term "culture" can be defined in many different ways. In the first volume of the report issued under the auspices of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism (1967), the Commissioners defined and explained their terminology as follows: "Culture", they remarked, "is a way of being, thinking and feeling. It is a driving force animating a significant group of individuals united by a common tongue, and sharing the same customs, habits, and experiences." The authors observed that "culture is to the group rather what personality is to the individual." The "personality" of our Anglo-Canadian culture was "loyalist" or "British-American". Either term refers to the very real presence of a political psychology, an "idea of attachment" to something greater. It was a sentiment, which on the one hand , expressed our affinity with British values and institutions, and on the other, with our national origins in the migration of our first refugees, the United Empire Loyalists, in the last years of the eighteenth century. Our British-American society was, in other words, a political culture, possessing an ecumenism which transcended class and party and unified a country with many factions and groups. Both "the state" and "the nation" as historians determined idea and culture, were closely intertwined.
There is a lot of excess baggage in a mere word and "loyalist" is no exception. Many Canadians are still victims of the "loyalist tradition" of the late nineteenth century. The rhetoric of that era often depicts our founders as the cream of British-American civilization, a brave and noble elite, who unjustly suffered at the hands of traitorous Yankee rebels. Unfortunately, the residue of this tradition has remained and has taken the form of an equally foolish counter-prejudice. many people accept a popular myth of the Loyalists as aristocratic snobs determined to maintain positions of power and privilege within the comfortable framework of autocratic, colonial regimes in both Upper Canada and the Maritimes. Obviously, both sides of this legend were soon dispatched by liberal and conservative historians alike. However, the United Empire Loyalists did exercise a formative influence out of all proportion to their numbers. Up until the early 1960's, Canadians tacitly understood and appreciated the importance of the Loyalists in shaping the fundamental institutions of our national life. Moreover, our parents and grandparents, quite correctly, did not assume that patriotic history was bigoted or racist; that merely observing and celebrating this "naive history", was to automatically disparage the important, indeed vital contributions of the Native communities, of the Québecois and of many other immigrant groups.
We, who were once "British-Americans", have always been "American" in our espousal of the Lockean perspective on rights and liberties, although until 1982 we never believed that dogma should be formalized in an all-powerful constitution. We have always been "American" in our energy, our capacity for economic innovation and inner passion for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Our American side is the present. It is the reality of modern English-speaking Canada.
To be "British-American" also implied that we had inherited the gifts of a particular European tradition. Sometime between 1960 and 1980, the word "British" underwent a subtle but significant transformation in meaning. We use the term today in direct reference to the inhabitants of Great Britain or simply as a synonym for "the English". Prior to 1978, Canadians were also British subjects. About twenty years ago, while living in Sierra Leone, West Africa, I had to journey up country and encountered a police road check. For some reason that now escapes me, I was not carrying my in-country identity card, buut did have my passport. The guard was only vaguely aware of Canada, not uncommon in some parts of the world. Fortunately, my passport had a statement: A Canadian citizen is a British subject. He understood that like himself, I was a "child of the Empire". To be "British" in his eyes, had an extensive connotation which encompassed many other people who belonged to the Commonwealth or to the Empire. With a handshake and some laughs, I continued on my journey to Kenema. Yet even by the early 1970's in West Africa, my younger Canadian compatriots had lost this wider sense of the word "British". "The British" were simply "the English".
To be "British" in the old Canada did not offend our ethnic identities. On the contrary, immigrant cultures flourished on their own merits, without politicization or tax supported handouts. To be "British" was to have "internalized" an extensive repertoire of worthwhile virtues -- a respect and acceptance of order in community and country; a love of decorum and pageantry; the cultivation of wisdom in classical education and a gift for social decency and etiquette that is less apparent today than it was forty years ago.
There was a second component to our British-American society, a "folk patriotism" which took root, grew and flourished in the activities of family and community life. It tended to give cohesion to our national life from "the bottom up". Folk patriotism was both "oral" and "aural". It was shaped by stories, poems and songs. Do any of our senior citizens remember singing "Our Canada, from Sea to Sea" or "Brave Wolfe"? Many of us can still recall singing Alexander Muir's "The Maple Leaf Forever" with its deliciously incorrect lyrics. Folk patriotism was iconographic and visual. It was the Union Jack or the "Red Ensign" flying from the veranda on Dominion Day. It was the commemorative souvenirs and the silver tableware at Grandma's, with the raised engravings of King Edward and Queen Alexandra. Folk patriotism was shaped by region and ethnicity. In researching this phenomenon, it became apparent to me that the visual elements were not simply souvenir manufactures. Patriotic iconography was scattered through folk art, painting and regional handicrafts and it helped so sustain the loyalist culture of yesterday's Canada.
Folk patriotism was more than emblems and monarchical symbols. The idea of "ownership" was less literal than it was figurative. the photograph of King George V and Queen Mary on the dining room wall was owned by the family, but the monarchy represented in the photograph belonged to everyone. Unlike the modern state-engineered "propaganda nationalism" characterized by idolatry and riddled with a vapid jargon, folk patriotism was unpretentious and unassuming. It may have also served to mediate social control. Was Queen Victoria's picture, hanging slightly cockeyed over the kitchen mantel in an Upper Canadian farm dwelling, worth ten armed militiamen patrolling the country's macadamized roads? If art were to become life, would those vengeful and victorious Pirates of Penzance really have yielded to the Sergeant "in Queen Victoria's name"? A century ago, perhaps, but today, I would have serious doubts.
Our loyalist or British-American culture is dead or at least lying dormant. It can never again serve as the consensus omnium. Nevertheless, an increasing number of people are becoming convinced that national unity cannot be engineered by the state nor maintained by political chicanery. A country as diverse as ours requires a quiet "catholic" patriotism which rises above the interests of formal politics. Neither the symbols of such a common accord nor its substance can be invented. They can only be derived from our collective experience. The affirmation of our history and our national life needs more balance and less bias against our British heritage. We respect our nation when it honours the Feather, the Fleur-de-Lis and the flags of the developing world, but public honour must also extend to the Union Jack. The British fact is the foundation underlying the greatness and uniqueness of the Dominion of Canada. We will work towards a better future for our land, but not one that dismisses our own cultural inheritance.