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July 1, 2012
Dominion DayThose who collected stamps in childhood - and for various reasons I'd be inclined to restrict the franchise just to them - will recall our Canadian issues for 1917 and 1927.
The key design, denominated three cents in 1917 in an olive bistre, then two cents 1927 in a slate green, depicted the Fathers of our Confederation. It was a fine miniature engraving from the famous group portrait by Robert Harris.
Harris's old painting, burned now into the national psyche, itself burned in the conflagration of our old Parliament Building in February 1916. It was heroically posed, combining figures from the Charlottetown Conference of September 1864, with some others only at the Quebec Conference a month later.
These were the grand politicians, the "nation builders" who were arranging a union of British North American provinces - for reasons quite different from those we have since attributed to them.
The 1917 issue, for the Golden Jubilee of Confederation, was just the one first-class stamp. The 1927 issue, for the Diamond Jubilee, was part of a set, which included stamps showing the new Parliament Building, Sir John A. Macdonald, Sir Wilfrid Laurier, a historical map, and an expensive (20 cent!) orange vertical montage combining train, ship, biplane, dogsled, horse rider, you name it, for special deliveries.
And as if that wasn't enough, the 1927 postal authorities then spun out three more stamps, through which Sir Oliver Mowat, Robert Baldwin, and Sir Louis-Hippolyte Lafontaine were brought into play, and Macdonald and Laurier strangely coupled.
Since then, the inflation has continued. For Dominion Day began as a fairly minor and informal celebration, and remained so into the 1920s. Only in 1958 did the Diefenbaker government dress it up, with fireworks, bands, and Trooping the Colour. For the centenary we had Expo 67, and by 1982 the Trudeau government was, as "progress" has always required, rewriting the history, replacing the name, and recasting everything about it, by Act of Parliament. It became, glibly, "Canada Day."
This is all quite unCanadian, of course. Worse, it is downright American. And I, at least, long for a return to quiet understated monarchist dignity, from the jingo airhead flag-waving to which we have degenerated.
Consider Charlottetown, again. The delegates to that conference were meeting to discuss a union of the three Maritime provinces. It wasn't really their own idea. Westminster wanted to cut costs, and thought it could do so by amalgamating them. A couple of Newfoundlanders were invited as an afterthought (as observers). And then a slew of delegates from the already-United Province of Canada invited themselves, and heavy political operators like Macdonald and Georges-Étienne Cartier began to throw their weight around.
Thanks partly to excitement over the U.S. Civil War (and memories of U.S. incursions, including the outrageous Invasion of 1812), the idea of uniting against a dangerous neighbour acquired a certain vogue. Were it not for that, the whole thing might have looked like a dumb idea. In the end, delegates who grasped this possibility - especially those from Nova Scotia - were, in the modern political manner, bought off.
Joseph Howe is one of my heroes. A Nova Scotian of prodigious accomplishment, "liberal" in the best sense, he was instrumental in bringing responsible government early and often to Halifax, along with a truly free and feisty press.
The most formidable opponent of Confederation, Howe argued coherently and forcefully that one big Canada would turn his province - then quite economically advanced - into a dependent backwater.
He pleaded with his fellow Nova Scotians not to accept empty promises, and not to sacrifice the very spirit of industry and independence that had animated them. It was he who presented the image of the new Canada as a contradiction - the beaver chiselling his way off a maple branch. He campaigned remorselessly in print, through his Botheration Letters, and led 18 anti-Confederate MPs from his province into the new House of Commons in Ottawa.
Yet for all Howe's work, Sir Charles Tupper and friends managed to choreograph a fait accompli, and the British North America Act passed through the Imperial Parliament at Westminster, just as Pierre Trudeau's "patriation" of it passed through, 125 years later.
Howe realized that he was beaten (despite huge support, from Yarmouth to Cape Breton Cape), and by 1868 had abandoned opposition. He instead worked to get the best terms Nova Scotia could, then even played a key role in capturing Manitoba for the new Dominion.
It was all politics. Macdonald himself, that magnificent drunkard who added, like whisky to soda, the visionary sense of "sea to sea" (at a time when British Columbia had not even been consulted), was in fact one of many often sleazy politicians doing a deal - more or less entirely in their own interest.
But that's history. The "nationbuilding" mythology has taken the scraps of paper and bronzed them. Nationalism, of the very kind Macdonald was brilliantly fashioning as a political weapon, eventually transformed patriotic attachments to Crown, people, and place, into an abstract ideological force, and "Canada" herself was reduced from rich patchwork to simple red on white.
We should salute the flag. But we should not wear it.
© Ottawa Citizen