LONDON, ONTARIO – With statues being toppled from coast to coast because 154 years ago our national founders didn’t espouse the exact same ‘values’ as historically ignorant urban hipsters . . . with way too many Canadians still hiding under their beds, remotely depositing their lockdown cheques as they wait for the development of a vaccine that will eliminate the possibility of human suffering in all of its forms . . . and with every political office in the land seemingly occupied by shallow ciphers who believe that public speaking’s only function is the expression of apologies and racial guilt . . . it’s looking like this Thursday’s Canada Day celebrations are going to be an even more depressing washout than usual.
A marked ambivalence about Canada Day is nothing new for me. It is not that I don’t love the place where I live or fail to appreciate that by just being born here, I accidentally won a sort of international lottery which has profoundly affected my prospects and fortunes for the better. I am not proud of the fact that Canada Day has always been more likely to provoke a sneer on my lips than a tear in my eye. I very much wish it were otherwise. But there it is.
The celebrations as they have been observed for most of my life have felt as fraudulent and coerced as a high school pep rally when students of every temperament and inclination would be herded into the gym and badgered into ululating and waving their arms about in celebration of a helmeted squad of intellectually deficient goons who only seemed to grow stupider with every cranium-cracking goalpost collision or post-touchdown pileup that cut off oxygen to their brains. If we had to have rallies at all, why did we never have them to cheer on the efforts of the chess club or the crew of library assistants – those clusters of pathologically shy nerds whose egos could probably use a little boosting, unlike the meatball prima-donnas on the football team?
Part of my sense of disconnection with Canada Day can be explained by the fact that our day of national commemoration was renamed in my lifetime, came to be celebrated under a redesigned flag and was given voice in an anthem with re-jigged words. Always these components in a patriotic makeover were orchestrated by Liberal governments, making the whole thing feel a little too politically contrived. As an instinctive small 'C' conservative in all matters, I almost always resist change on principle. I cherished the inherent poetry and the historic and Christian allusions that were conjured up by its earlier name of Dominion Day. And whenever I manage to mark the day in any way at all, that is what I continue to call it.
I loved the old term’s Biblical resonance (“He shall have dominion also from sea to sea, and from the river to the ends of the earth”) and as it was only Commonwealth countries which identified themselves as ‘dominions,’ I also cherished that name’s associations with the British Crown. All this doubtless had something to do with growing up under two parents of British extraction in a Canadian town called London at a time when the most exciting art form was music and the most interesting musicians all seemed to be British. I experienced that renaming as a kind of cultural amputation and rejected it in much the same way as I’ve resisted the imposition of the metric over the imperial system of measurement. With the sole exception of temperature references in weather forecasts, my children and I speak different languages when it comes to weights and measures.
While acknowledging that the newer Pearson-era flag has a boldness and distinctiveness that are desirable in a national emblem, I’ve never really made my peace with it. An occasional sighting of the Ontario flag which replicates eighty-five per-cent of the old Royal Ensign nicely appeases any nostalgic pangs I may have of an emblematic nature. And as for retooling the commonly sung first verse of the national anthem a few decades back . . . I was flabbergasted that they not only left “True patriot love in all thy sons command” intact from my school day recitations (much to the head-exploding consternation of Margaret Atwood and the sisterhood at large) but also inserted a hitherto unprecedented reference to the deity in, “God keep our land, glorious and free.” So what a field day for us reactionary zealots that was.
My difficulty with patriotic demonstrations goes back to the very dawning of my consciousness. It was ingrained in me that Canadians just don’t do go in for flabby-brained, flag-waving, rah-rah-rah, boosterism. With a shudder I recall childhood sightings from the 1960’s of Kate Smith on The Ed Sullivan Show in the first week of July. Standing forth like some heavy-bosomed Easter Island sculpture (and invariably backed by a phalanx of earnestly humming Marines) she’d belt out her annual rendition of God Bless America that unfailingly gave me the wrong sort of chills. It was a spectacularly mawkish display of hubris that my parents declared ‘disgusting’. And by gum, they had a point. If Canadian expressions of patriotism seemed a little too linked with one political party, the American brand repelled me with its over reliance on imagery of military power.
Those annual visitations of Kate Smith’s were I suppose, a little bit like watching some couple I did not know (and did not want to know) sitting down on a very public bench and getting all smoochy and sappy on their wedding anniversary. It wasn’t that I wanted to deny them the expression of such rich and extravagant emotions. I just didn’t want to be in the same room when their geysers of self-loving fervour were so garishly unstopped. I wanted Kate and Ed and all of those Marines to go and rent a motel room somewhere and spare me their raptures. In the six decades since then, I actually think the Americans have turned down the patriotic bombast a little while Canadians have shed our old reticence in such matters and developed our own strain of callow boastfulness with which to assert our magnificence in that first week of July.
I have never been one of those smug Canadian oafs who solely derive their sense of national identity from the fact that we are not Americans. I like Americans very much, am grateful to have them as neighbours and friends, and shudder to consider what a sorry state we’d all be in if they hadn’t existed for the last 245 years and come to play such a prominent – and by and large helpful – role in our world’s affairs. But culturally they can be a tad overbearing. In their drive to maximize commercial potential in all things, they’re forever dumbing down those media fields where they wield international sway like film and TV. In the fields of music and publishing we’ve done a better job of holding our own.
Partially at least, I think I’ve always played up the British component of our national heritage so as to provide corrective ballast that will prevent the good ship Canuck from being swamped by all that Yankee bilge being sloshed about; and never in greater volume than during this first week of July. At their very worst in this matter of patriotism – and again, I do think this sort of reckless exuberance has peaked in the republic to our south – they remind me of the undiscerning boosteristic lug lampooned in one of my favourite G.K. Chesterton quotes:
“‘My country, right or wrong,’ is a thing that no patriot would think of saying except in a desperate case. It is like saying, ‘My mother, drunk or sober.’ No doubt if a decent man’s mother took to drink he would share her troubles to the last; but to talk as if he would be in a state of gay indifference as to whether his mother took to drink or not, is certainly not the language of men who know the great mystery.”
Ultimately I think my Canada Day ambivalence has hinged upon the incompatibility of compulsion and love. Consider the opening scene of Shakespeare’s King Lear when the ageing monarch calls his daughters round to publicly proclaim their filial devotion before he will entrust to each of them a share of his kingdom and riches. Cordelia, the one who loves him most fitly and truly and is the only one (like Chesterton’s drunkard’s child) who cares enough to share Lear’s troubles to the last, refuses to spew up her obeisance on command. Like an old school Canadian – like me – Cordelia believes that you do not demand love, you earn it; and that you do violence to love when, for nothing more than the stroking of your own vanity and pride, you command love to display itself at such and such a time for everyone to see.
It will be interesting to see how Independence Day plays out later this week in the U.S. In a total departure from anything I've seen before, their current houseplant of a president is doing everything he can to cast a Canadian-feeling self-hatred over the country at large. But I expect – as in so many other matters – that the red states, shaking off the imposed torpor of the Batflu lock-downs and getting back in touch with their guiding ideal of independence, will largely resist the poisonous revisionism of the Biden regime and will find a way to celebrate their best traditions. Up here in the too easily-cowed north, I expect no such life-affirming gestures.
Indeed, as a gesture of virtue-signalling solidarity with one oppressed group or another, a number of communities have announced that they’re cancelling Canada Day altogether this year. And – nature abhorring a vacuum and all that – some gay and lesbian groups, evincing their famously modest sense of proportionality, have announced they’re going to make like temporal squatters and expand their customary consciousness-raising program beyond June and will annex the sixty-two days of July and August as well. At this exhausted and defeated point in Canadian self-awareness, it scarcely matters anyway. The proceedings, such as they are, will probably be carried out on Zoom anyway, with masks on and social distancing, and will have zero impact on anybody who doesn’t care to tune in. So why not let the gays stake out the entire summer of 2021? It’s not like the rest of us had any sort of plans for it ourselves.
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