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The Myths that Made Canada

Mother England had two American kids,
one was polite and one raised hell 

Maple Leaf History is the collection of stories we tell ourselves about our past. Nations, like families, tend to continually retell the tales that fill our chests with pride, regardless of their veracity. America, we persist in believing, was founded as a haven for religious freedom, broke the yoke of unbearable British tyranny, fought a Civil War to free an oppressed race, civilized a savage West and now protects the world from terrorism.

Each of those assumptions contains a seed of fact wrapped in layers of fiction. Each is based upon periods, adventurous and often violent eras in American history, that were motivated as much by money as by morality. Yet they are the myths we live by and that define our sense of what it means to be Americans and not, for example, Canadians.

Canadians are different. Despite our best efforts -- after bombarding them across a 3,000-mile border for decades with American TV shows, consumables and music -- they remain staunchly Canadian. I am just back from a week in Victoria, British Columbia, billed as "Canada's most beautiful city". In Victoria, a city of 300,000, every lawn is groomed, every sidewalk is trimmed and every tree is pruned. Every public restroom is clean. Baskets of flowers hang from the street lamps. At the University of Victoria, herds of tiny bunny rabbits hop unmolested across the manicured campus.

I've spent time in Toronto, Ottawa, Quebec City, Montreal and all around the province of Nova Scotia. From coast-to-coast Canadians are generally more introspective, more tolerant and patient, more polite and less uptight than Americans. They appear to have more faith in the plodding machinations of politics and government and an abiding respect for law and order. They are, in a word, more "civilized". This characteristic is a holdover from the days when Canadians imbued with the spirit of English Imperialism, when the sun never set on the British Empire.

On the surface we New Englanders are almost indistinguishable from our cousins next door. I have been asked -- Are you Canadian? -- by Canadians themselves on both coasts. While studying in Great Britain during the Viet Nam era, I quickly discovered it was easier to introduce myself as Canadian, than to endure the angry comments of citizens from the UK. Three decades later, a friend touring Europe during the Iraq War sewed a maple leaf flag on his backpack for the same reason. Nobody hates Canadians.

"Nobody in the world hates them," says a friend of mine who attended graduate school at McGill in Montreal, "because nobody fears them. But nobody listens to them either, because they can't make up their minds."

It's an odd thing to describe an entire nation, as many have described Canada, as orderly and tolerant to the point of dullness. Canada is the only country in the world that has a police force, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, for a national symbol. It was the Mounties, legend says, who protected the northern Indian tribes from rowdy, unscrupulous Americans during the Gold Rush. Mounties were so incorruptible and so full of British justice that the bad guys ran away rather than confront them. These cool, determined, square-jawed super heroes in red jackets remain so squeaky clean after more than a century, that the Disney Corporation owns the license to market their image.


But according to Canadian historian Daniel Francis, the myth of the RCMP owes as much to Hollywood as to fact. Many of the best Mountie adventure tales came from ex-Mounties and were fictionalized by moviemakers early in the Twentieth Century. In fact, Francis says, Mounties sometimes arrived too late and too short-handed to save the day. In the 1930s, during a national Canadian "red scare" similar to the American McCarthy Era, Mounties operated much like a secret police force -- routing out Bolshevik sympathizers and acting as judge and jury too.

Daniel Francis details six more fundamental legends in his book National Dreams: Myth, Memory and Canadian History. Many consider the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway, for example, the first truly Canadian achievement that unified a huge nation. Yet the work was done, Francis points out, largely by Chinese workers backed by British investors on Indian lands. The myth that Canadians are all rugged folk of the far North who share a deep bond with their vast wilderness is apparently no more true than the modern myth that all Native Americans are supernaturally spiritual beings with a inborn wisdom about the workings of Nature.

Myths are not necessarily bad things, Francis theorizes, and not the same as lies. Good myths can bind together diverse types of people spread out over great expanses of land. Myths can build nations. But myths are different from history, and it can be dangerous to confuse the two, especially since human memory for detail fades so easily.

New England and Canada share more than a common continent and a common language. We were both once British colonies. In 1745, before the original American colonies rebelled, 3,000 New England men helped the British throw the French out of their supposedly invulnerable fort at Louisbourg in Nova Scotia. All of us -- British soldiers, Yankees and Canadians -- were then playing for the same team. We were all citizens of the British Empire, and if you study New Hampshire history, pretty happy with the situation. A thousand men, many from this area, died at Louisbourg and their leader William Pepperrell was the first and only American-born citizen knighted by the Crown. When the British defeated the French on the Plains of Abraham in 1759, New Englanders were there too. George Washington later thought that Quebec might become part of what was to be the United States and sent Benedict Arnold to drive the British out. We lost that one.

Our American Revolution changed the map. Our history books tell of an inevitable rift with the "mother" country. The despised Loyalists who fled the New England coastal region became the beloved new settlers in Canada. It was the "best blood", the most royal citizens, according to Canadian history, who abandoned America. Portsmouth-born Governor John Wentworth, driven from his home town by an angry "patriot" mob, built a new governor's mansion in Halifax that is still in use today. Americans, according to Canadian history books, Daniel Francis writes, were over reactive tax evaders unwilling to pay their fair share to the Crown.

So our British history ends just as the colonization of Canada is picking up steam. The two fit together like puzzle pieces. With such an aggressive neighbor to the South, Canada played it safe and stuck with the Empire. With typical scary American violence we pushed toward the Pacific -- wiping out the Natives, buying land from the French and annexing more land from Mexico. Canadians, though largely independent at heart, stuck with Queen Victoria, whose Empire eventually encompassed India, parts of Africa, Jamaica, Australia, New Zealand and more. The idea of Imperialism was ultimately paternal, and looked not unlike, to some eyes, what the United States is doing in the conquered nation of Iraq today.

Victoria, built on Vancouver Island and named in honor of the queen, and the rest of British Columbia did not take shape until later in the 19th century. Undesirables cast off by British society, many of them Scottish, rode the new railroads through the heartland of Canada to its distant shores.

But it is still Portsmouth, New Hampshire that looks more like my vision of an English village. Victoria has no "first period" or Georgian or even Federalist style homes as built by our British ancestors and their descendants here. Victoria has a 20th century look and the suburbs -- with closely-packed stucco cottages -- looked more like Florida to me. There is the occasional Victorian mansion, however, and great lush Victorian-style gardens, some with aviaries and glass and metal greenhouses, juxtaposed against a towering redwood tree. The city center is grander, with the glinting dome of the provincial Parliament building and a stone harbor reminiscent of the Thames. Tourists take afternoon tea at the Empress Hotel, study lifelike figures of Lady Di and Queen Elizabeth at the local Madam Toussandís Wax Museum, tour the Royal Victoria Museum, dine on fish and chips or snap photos of each other next to a manikin dressed in a Mountie uniform. Colorful totem poles by Indian artists dot the landscape. There is a small Chinatown, the oldest in Canada, lots of parks, lots of pubs. There are almost no people of color and the dialect is as flat as in Midwestern America. You can buy fresh salmon and oysters or pick up Homer Simpson Cola at the Victoria Wal-Mart.

The problem with Canadian history, according to historian Daniel Francis, is that it has no defining images. There are no founding fathers, no Declaration of Independence, no battlefields, no Fourth of July, not even an iconic figure like Uncle Sam. Being Canadian is much more a state of mind anchored less to a traumatic history and more to the land.

A couple of centuries ago, two roads diverged in a wood and North American split gently in two. America chose to fight for its independence. Canada chose to earn its freedom slowly, starting with a partial independence in 1867, and did not fully claim the right to amend its own constitution until recently. Along the way, to make sense of the split, we told our stories and they told theirs.

The odd thing about national myths, Daniel Francis notes in his study, is that they can become self-fulfilling prophecies. A nation birthed in righteous violence may see itself in a different light from a nation slowly weaned on adherence to parental law. Mother Englandís two North American children, legend implies, are wholly different kids at heart. 

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