What makes Canada worth celebrating? To Macdonald-Laurier Institute Managing Director Brian Lee Crowley, it has less to do with relatively recent innovations like universal health care or unemployment insurance then most people think.
This article originally appeared in the Ottawa Citizen in 2011.
By Brian Lee Crowley, July 2, 2011
Canada Day weekend is a time to celebrate what is great about Canada. But what, exactly, is it that makes Canada great?
Everybody has a country, but Syrians or Burmese or Iranians do not have the same reasons to celebrate that we do. Even the Egyptians and Tunisians, justly proud of their recent revolutions, are increasingly anxious about what may come next. Everybody may have a national day, but some people live in fear of their government, which tends to dampen their patriotic ardour.
Democracy is certainly part of why we want to celebrate Canada, but it is actually a far smaller part of what makes this country great than most people imagine. Madmen such as Adolf Hitler, Hugo Chavez and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad all rose to power through democratic institutions. Dictators have often used the form of democracy to legitimize their rule, when democracy’s precious essence had long ago expired.
It cannot be “diversity” that we celebrate, at least not in its risible institutional form. The U.S.S.R. was home to huge ethnic diversity, but its people had to be prevented at gunpoint from leaving.
“Free” health care or unemployment insurance can’t be the answer. Canada was a desirable place before those relatively recent innovations, just as there are societies with more developed social programs, yet Canadians do not aspire to move there.
In fact, there is something about Canada that doesn’t just make it a pleasant place to live, but one of a handful of societies that the rest of the world looks on in envy. If we opened the doors to this country tomorrow, the torrent of humanity that would flow in would be beyond imagining.
There are three things that make Canada a great nation and worth celebrating.
The first is that, like America and Australia, we are a creature of the New World. We are not an ancient civilization like Europe or the Middle East or China. We have escaped much of the prejudice and many of the social and cultural barriers that disfigure the Old World. Our life prospects are not determined by our religion, our ethnicity, our accent, our caste, our party membership or our social class. That doesn’t mean that people don’t fail, or poverty doesn’t exist. It means the barriers I’ve described are not impermeable as they are in many societies.
Yes, there has been prejudice. My family, which arrived from Ireland nearly two centuries ago, suffered from the prejudice against the Irish common at the time. But that has been overcome, and we have worked successfully to defeat many such prejudices over this country’s history. Some remain; the disgraceful plight of aboriginals tells us that there is still work to be done.
But that does not negate what we have accomplished. People come to Canada so that the sum of their life choices is not determined by their birth. People born here literally cannot imagine what that’s like, and so don’t appreciate how rare an achievement it is. But those who come here know, and often make great sacrifices so that their children will never know a society where your fate is sealed before you take your first breath.
The second thing that makes Canada great is freedom. Canada is free and freedom is her nationality, intoned Sir Wilfrid Laurier – and in so doing encapsulated the great tradition of freedom which has been bequeathed to us, a tradition that finds its roots in the British liberal tradition, but whose benefits have been conferred on every Canadian, regardless of their ethnic origin. Many people believe freedom was introduced to Canada by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, but that Charter is such an important document because it codifies part of a tradition that reaches back deep into our colonial past. One of the reasons I still think of my holiday as Dominion Day is because it reminds me that we did not “liberate” ourselves from colonial masters, but are, every one of us, the inheritors of institutions and attitudes bequeathed to us by the great British tradition of freedom.
Freedom plus the New World together make a society in which each of us has been given more latitude to shape our lives according to our individual beliefs and desires than anywhere else on the face of the earth.
Finally, what makes Canada great is our willingness to sacrifice to protect this precious and rare inheritance. Whether facing down Nazism or Communism, whether in Korea, in Kosovo, in Afghanistan or Libya, Canadians have always been willing to put everything on the line so that the things we most value will be protected at home and abroad. The willingness to sacrifice to protect the freedoms uniquely available to us in the New World: now that’s cause to celebrate.
Brian Lee Crowley is managing director of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, an independent nonpartisan public policy think-tank in Ottawa.