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History is incorrigible. That’s because we’re forced to read it in reverse, from the now to the then, instead of the order in which it happened. That’s why it often seems to make sense. Take the War of 1812. Looking back (as if we’re on a ship or train), it seems to have worked out. Canada avoided absorption by what became a colossal, violent, rapacious U.S.; it became an independent, fairly harmonious place. But at the time? The U.S. was youthful, idealistic and egalitarian. It had a democratic constitution and a bill of rights! Britain — our side — was a class-ridden old empire, leading efforts in Europe to beat back the liberatory impulses still alive in Napoleonic France. We may have wound up on the “right” side but who could have known? History makes fools of us all and goes its own way.

Or take Confederation, 145 years ago. It wasn’t just a bright Canadian idea. At the time, creation of big unified nations seemed the clear choice of History. In 19th century Europe, Germany and Italy — the leading examples — were unified in 1870 and 1871, the same time frame as Confederation. National unity was trending.

Those European movements began as dynamic expressions of “the people,” aiming to throw off ancient imperial masters like the Habsburg empire and the superpower system of control set up after Napoleon’s defeat. They were also democrats; they insisted on referendums about unification. They envisaged new enlightened international relations between the new nations. Giuseppe Garibaldi, Italy’s hero, wrote to one leader of “Young Germany”: ” . . . leadership, of course, is required not to dominate other peoples, but to lead them along the path of duty, to lead them toward the brotherhood of nations where all the barriers erected by egoism will be destroyed.” Even when a conservative like Bismarck in Germany, took the unification movement over, he included “progressive” elements from it like health and unemployment insurance and pensions.

Confederation was similar in form and timing, but different in substance. The geographic pieces being combined here lacked the linguistic-cultural unity that was the basis for European movements. The components here were diverse and even antagonistic. In Europe, the movements for national unity were anti-imperial; here they were pro. The British government that dominated Canada supported Confederation and hosted the final conference in London. Its main backers were British railroad interests, for whose benefit the scheme was designed. The “people” often opposed it and most of their elected leaders worked hard to keep them from having a voice. There were no referendums — Sir John A. was adamant — and when elections were held with Confederation as the issue, it was rejected. Resistance was fierce in Atlantic Canada — they didn’t even like being called Canada, since the term belonged to what are now Ontario and Quebec. P.E.I. stayed out until 1873; Newfoundland didn’t come inside till 1949 in a tight, possibly fraudulent vote. The Prairies were incorporated by conquest, and suppression of the Metis population who lived there.

Yet look where history picked up and went. Those admirable German and Italian movements devolved into fascism in the 20th century, along with lots of their own imperial expansion and conquest. As for that dream of a federation of equals in Europe, there’s now the EU, a German-controlled mechanism dictating brutal austerity to its poorer members while scorning democratic processes. It’s practically the rebirth of the Habsburg empire, with Angela Merkel at the top. Meanwhile, Canada, the servile colonial lapdog of then, is a relatively peaceable, widely respected (at least until recently) nation with lots to be proud of.

So what’s the take-away here? Is it that history is inscrutable and deliberate plans are pointless? That’s not really an option. It’s in our nature to act as if we know what we’re doing. The point is rather to have some humility and be willing to revisit and revamp our best-laid plans and intentions. As for history, the point is, paraphrasing Canadian poet Milton Acorn writing on Che Guevara: It moves!

So questioning sacred moments and texts of national unity ought to be normal. In Italy, there’s been a whole revisionist historical school wondering if it was all such a great idea, and pointing up the lingering negatives. There have been healthy secession movements in both the rich north and the poor south. In Germany, I once sat in a bar in what had been, moments earlier, East Berlin, as the government of West Germany was about to clutch East Germany to its bosom. I was with some of the dissidents who’d basically brought down the Berlin Wall (and the Soviet Union too). They had hoped for a chance to build a new kind of society for themselves rather than being absorbed, but it wasn’t to be. In Greece today, you can see why there might be an appetite for secession from the EU. Even the U.K., Europe’s oldest national unity, may be starting to disintegrate. It’s not easy to see why Scotland wouldn’t want to go it alone.

As for us, Quebec has always been querulous about Confederation. There was a lamentable tendency in the Trudeau years and after to label anyone who expressed sympathy for its queries a traitor. It seems to me that “sovereignty-association” was a perfectly discussable offer to put on the table. You could have called it ConfederationPlus. I feel the same about Stephen Harper’s proposal in 2000 to build firewalls around Alberta. In Newfoundland, suspicion of Canada never went away. “We always felt you Canadians talk funny,” someone once told me.

In fact, this could be an era in which it’s wise to be cautious of all larger entanglements, as the Greeks are finding in Europe. Getting into something bigger can often just be an excuse for bullying and undermining autonomy. The Harper government is panting to drag us into trade talks with the Trans-Pacific Partnership. It doesn’t seem to be of much value but they’re willing to make almost any concessions (“We have a majority government that is ready, willing and able to make decisions”) while receiving only second-class status and accepting terms that already exist there without even seeing them. Their only real argument is that this train is leaving the station and we better hop on it.

Who will speak for Canada when its federal government doesn’t? Maybe provincial and local governments who are closer to the realities people have to live with arising from these trade deals. We may be in a situation where a looser, more combative Confederation is good for everyone — just as a stronger federal government may have made sense at certain times in the past.

So I’m not arguing against Confederation, or for it. You work with what you’ve got, and this one turned out reasonably well. But it’s an ongoing project, whatever you make of the myths about its origin. You can’t control the past. You can’t control the present either but at least that’s where you get to put your oar in. The point isn’t to celebrate Confederation, so much as to explore and develop its possibilities.

On the other hand, what I just said about not celebrating Confederation doesn’t hold for Canada Day. The birthday of Confederation is basically just an excuse for Canada Day. A party is a party.

This article was first published in the Toronto Star.


Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.