Canada as the India of the new world

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Columbus made history's most famous mistake when he called the people his lookout had sighted Indians, and thought he'd arrived on the outskirts of India. The late Vancouver humorist Eric Nicol caught the jumble nicely. When Columbus heard the cry "Indians!", wrote Nicol, he ordered his three ships to form a circle with the women and children in the middle, like a wagon train in a Hollywood western. So the women and children all started drowning.

U.S. poet Robert Frost dealt with the moment in a poem called America is Hard to See. He has Columbus' ghost sailing eternally up and down the coast, cursing, because he can't find the way to India, while missing what's in front of him. Frost also took a shot at the many writers who've tried to describe the essence of U.S. experience and the "new" world. Frost wasn't impressed.

Most observers saw the U.S. as a vast, empty canvas on which individuals and the species could always begin life anew. As late as the 1950s, English-born poet W.H. Auden, who took U.S. citizenship, said this attitude was based on the vast empty spaces that made new beginnings possible. So Huck Finn, at the end of his book, lights out for the Territory instead of settling comfortably back home, as Oliver Twist, for instance, does at the end of his London adventures.

What this cheery American mindset ignored was that the space wasn't empty. It was filled with aboriginal nations who had to be cleared off or obliterated, leaving at the least a bad conscience mixed in with the optimism.

Canada has never felt as new, or self-deluded. It wasn't "discovered" in the same way. The French who sailed up the St. Lawrence found sedentary nations. They aimed at a New France here, not a new world. Canada wasn't as hard to see: there was always someone here. When the first British settlers arrived after the American Revolution, they found the French settled. There were attempts to assimilate that population, but not to pretend they didn't exist. The same was so for aboriginal populations. Canada may not have celebrated its multiple national realities but it didn't live in mythic denial of them. That made future cultural variety easier to accept, as we're starting to see.

And what of India, which Columbus' ghost still yearns to reach? The explorers (and exploiters) of India salivated over its economic wealth and markets. But from a more humane standpoint, what ought to have made it the jewel in the crown of the British Empire and many earlier ones, was its awesome capacity to accept and enhance cultures, religions, nationalities. India didn't assimilate them. It wasn't a hybrid or a melting pot. It was, long before the term itself, multicultural.

That wasn't an easy proposition. There was often conflict, violence and conquest. But it was better than the alternatives, like the horrendous results of the Hindu-Muslim partition into India and Pakistan at the end of British rule. Even now, India has about as many Muslims as Pakistan.

That's why I think it's possible to think of Canada as the India of the new world. Our table is set for that kind of multiplicity by our past experience. And it's made inevitable by our present reality: globalization, immigration, birth rate, underpopulation. But we have more space to work it out than India ever had. Space really helps. (Frost ended his poem picturing the arrival of "that weary day/When we would have to put our mind/On how to crowd but still be kind.")

It takes time as well as space -- time to give up on making everybody fit one mould, whether the mould is British, Judeo-Christian or, lately, "Canadian" values. When I was a kid in school, we sang songs about brotherhood (The world is getting littler every day/Soon there won't be any places far away). But now that world is right here. Kids don't sing songs about human unity, they live it in their classrooms, especially in Toronto. It's like experiencing a future that feels rooted in your past, which sounds like how things ought to work yet rarely do.

Happy Canada Day.

This article was first published in the Toronto Star.

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