Canada at 150: three anniversaries, three national portraits

By Subby Szterszky | July 7, 2017

On July 1 of this year, Canada celebrated its 150th birthday, with all the public and private festivities that such an anniversary calls for. At 150, our country is still a relative newcomer on the world stage. Nevertheless, a century and a half is plenty of time on which to reflect, to consider who we are as a nation, where we’ve come from and where we’re headed.

To that end, 2017 also marks the centennial of two other formative events in Canadian history: our victory at Vimy Ridge during the First World War, and the creation of the National Hockey League. The first is often cited as the moment when Canada’s national identity began to emerge from the shadow of Britain. The second denotes the birth of an institution that’s at the heart of our cultural self-image.

These three anniversaries offer three portraits, seen from different angles, of our national identity. Together, they form a mosaic of what it has meant to be Canadian, and what it might mean in the future.

Vimy Ridge

For its first 50 years, Canada was seen primarily as a part of the British Empire (which of course it was) rather than as a separate nation with its own cultural identity. All of that began to change in April of 1917, when four Canadian military divisions captured Vimy Ridge in northern France from German forces. It was the largest Allied advance up to that point in the Great War, won at the cost of over 10,000 Canadians killed or wounded. Nevertheless it came to be regarded as the dawn of Canada’s self-awareness as a nation apart from Britain, and its recognition as such by the world at large.

Canadian troops went on to play key roles in various campaigns of the Second World War, among them the battle of the Atlantic, the Dieppe raid, and the Juno Beach landing on D-Day. However, it was in the postwar years that the Canadian Armed Forces found their lasting identity as peacekeepers, taking part in various United Nations initiatives around the globe. Some of these missions have been successes, others less so. But in any event, they’ve earned Canada a reputation as a leader in bringing peace and stability to the world’s troubled areas.

Through these efforts, Canadians are also part of a much larger mandate: God’s providential care for the world, His call to seek the welfare of the city, to do good to all, and to pursue justice and righteousness and human thriving. For Canadian believers in particular, this remains both a challenging opportunity and a cause for humble gratitude.

The NHL

Although ice hockey is played in many countries, it’s a uniquely Canadian export. In fact, most Canadians simply call it “hockey” without the need to specify that it’s played on ice. The game had its origins in mid-19th-century Eastern Canada, developing alongside the country as a whole. About 50 years later, in November of 1917, the National Hockey League was formed via a series of business meetings in a Montreal hotel. The NHL started small with only four teams, two in Montreal and one each in Toronto and Ottawa. As it grew, it cemented hockey as Canada’s national pastime, or as some might say, our national obsession.

Canadians have a reputation for being polite and self-effacing, perhaps to a fault. We find overt displays of patriotic fervour to be somewhat bad form, truth be told – except when it comes to hockey. Once the puck drops, the flags come out, the chanting begins, and our sense of national pride rises and falls with our success on the ice.

As with all things, hockey can become an idol, and indeed it is so for many Canadians. At the same time, it can also bring people together in convivial friendships, as well as helping to balance some of our more diffident tendencies as a culture. And that can’t be a wholly bad thing.

Confederation

“The Dominion of Canada wasn't born out of revolution, or a sweeping outburst of nationalism. Rather, it was created in a series of conferences and orderly negotiations, culminating in the terms of Confederation on 1 July 1867. The union of the British North American colonies of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and the Province of Canada was the first step in a slow but steady nation-building exercise that would come to encompass other territories, and eventually fulfill the dream of a country a mari usque ad mare (from sea to sea).”

So reads the introduction to the Canadian Encyclopedia’s entry on Confederation. As it turned out, the circumstances of Canada’s birth held the seeds of what would become Canada’s national character. In place of revolution, confrontation or nationalist zeal, there arose the desire for an orderly society, for negotiating with others and respecting their views, for living at peace with everyone as much as it depended on us. In contrast to our friends south of the border, Canadians tend to be less opinionated about politics or religion or world events, as a general principle.

These traits may be perceived – at times correctly – as a lack of conviction. But just as often, they reveal an attitude of thoughtful consideration, of being tolerant in the best sense. They reflect the Scriptural injunction to be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to anger. On balance, Canadians are less prone to cultural Christianity than our American neighbours. As a result, there’s often a clearer line between true and superficial spirituality, a trait whose value will only increase as our two countries drift further into post-Christian secularism.

And yet, as the Canadian Encyclopedia points out, there remains our national motto, a mari usque ad mare, a Latin translation drawn from Psalm 72:8, “He shall have dominion from sea to sea.” This motto has served our nation well for 150 years and will continue to do so, as the Lord wills.

Over the years, Canada has consistently placed at or near the top of every significant list ranking the best countries of the world in which to live. Canada is routinely noted for its high standard of living, political and economic stability, freedom, cultural achievements and natural beauty.

While all of this may be a source of national pride, it should also be an occasion for national humility and thankfulness. Over the past century and a half, God has lavished benefits and opportunities on our country beyond the experience of most nations throughout history. It remains to be seen what we’ll make of these benefits and opportunities in the years to come.

Sources and further reading

Information on the battle of Vimy Ridge is available at the Canadian Encyclopedia, the Canadian War Museum, at Veterans Affairs Canada, and the Vimy Foundation.

Canada’s involvement in the Second World War is also documented at the Canadian Encyclopedia, the Canadian War Museum, and at Veterans Affairs Canada.

Canadian peacekeeping efforts are chronicled at Canada History and at the Canadian Encyclopedia, as well as at Field of Crosses and at Veterans Affairs Canada.

An overview of the history of hockey in Canada, as well as of the birth of the National Hockey League, can be found at the Canadian Encyclopedia, with further information available at NHL 100.

Articles on the history of Confederation can be found at the Canada History Project and at Canada History, and also at the Canadian Encyclopedia and at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute.

Subby Szterszky is the managing editor of Focus Insights.


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