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Canada in the Nineteenth Century

From: The Encyclopedia of Canada's Peoples/Canadian Identity/Allan Smith

Canadians, like members of most western polities, were involved in the framing of ideas and policies concerning “nation,” “state,” and “identity” from early in the nineteenth century. Developed rapidly and pushed by interest, ideology, and changing circumstance in a number of different directions, the results of their labours were quite astonishingly varied. An early and persistent view had it that Canada was an essentially British and imperial society. Challenging this position was the claim that the country had to be seen as a free and egalitarian community of the New World. The idea of the nation as an amalgam of the various regions that it incorporated as it expanded westward to the Pacific came to be widely embraced. By the 1960s, an era that saw the United States dissolve into violence at home and war abroad, the sense that Canada was a “peaceable kingdom” whose people lived together in enviable order and harmony would seem particularly attractive. And with the growth of the notion that the state’s capacity to meet social and economic needs made government a community-consolidating instrument of the first importance, a tendency to see Canada’s viability and even its character as a function of its social democratic commitment eventually took firm root.

In conformity with romantic nationalism’s emphasis on “nation” and “people,” the most consistently maintained Canadian impulse revolved around efforts to define identity in ways which were compatible with the idea that “peoples” existed, had definable characteristics, and must be accorded the recognition, respect, and status necessary to permit them to live fully and authentically. As British North Americans gradually began to identify themselves with the communities in which they lived and to distinguish those communities and their interests from others, these efforts initially saw formulations of identity and community cast in quite particularist terms.

The French-speaking inhabitants of Lower Canada (Quebec) were especially motivated by a concern to define the features that set them apart. Since they were in possession of their own language, religion, and shared historical experience, they had little difficulty distinguishing themselves as a people and urging the claims to recognition and autonomy to which they felt this status entitled them. Manifesting itself in poetry and literature and in the politics of national liberation, which became so central a part of Lower Canadian life in the 1820s and 1830s, their advance towards a nationalizing view of community and identity received a uniquely full and articulated expression in François-Xavier Garneau’s Histoire du Canada (1845).

Even in the fragmented, diffuse societies of English-speaking British North America an incipient feeling of “nationness” – though one usually contained within the framework of a strong imperial sensibility – was emerging. Evidence of this development could be seen in the concern with place and identity displayed in the vernacular architecture of early-nineteenth-century Nova Scotia, and it was still more apparent in the focused, explicit attention given the province’s character and values in Thomas Chandler Haliburton’s fiction. In Upper Canada (Ontario) the conviction that a “people” was in the process of formation found notable expression in the epic stories of survival during the War of 1812 that began to appear in the 1830s. Together with efforts to establish “Canadian” educational texts and a “Canadian” literature in general, these accounts in fact put the province far ahead of any other English-speaking colony in defining the elements of which a “national” identity might be composed.

Although they were remarkably successful in crystallizing feelings of community and identity in the provincial sphere, attempts to define identity in terms of the cultural homogeneity and shared experience required by romantic nationalism’s emphasis on “people,” “folk,” and “nation” could not work on a broader basis. As soon as French and English speakers began to view British North America in the more comprehensive terms dictated by the movement towards union in the 1860s, they quickly found themselves abandoning the ideas of homogeneity that their focus on the local had allowed them to hold. Ways of thinking evident in outline years earlier, such as William Lyon Mackenzie’s rather impatient noting of cultural pluralism in Upper Canada in the 1820s, received greater sympathy and emphasis, and a disposition to acknowledge diversity and difference became more pronounced.

Sometimes there was much irony in what resulted. But if the observation by Henri-Gustave Joly, an opponent of Confederation, that the new creation would be as varied, but also as insubstantial, as a rainbow was informed by amusement and disdain, fellow Lower Canadian Gonzalve Doutre was quite committed in his concern that British North America’s diversity of peoples meant that it must be understood in terms of mutual tolerance and respect. And George-Étienne Cartier’s much-quoted characterization of the new dominion as a society of different peoples in which nothing “could be enacted which would harm or do injustice to persons of any nationality” was a clear affirmation of the fact that it could simply not be seen in classically nationalist terms.

Romantic, conformist, and homogenizing ideas of nation and nationality did not disappear after 1867. Such Quebec thinkers as L.-F.-R. Laflèche and J.-P. Tardivel built religion, history, language, and a sense of mission into a coherent body of nationalist doctrine, which was eventually turned by Lionel Groulx and the partisans of L’Action nationale into a function of heritage, ancestry, and a mystical consciousness of shared and exclusive experience. In English-speaking Canada a widely felt need to assimilate immigrants, marginalize native peoples, and contain the spread of the French language produced the unambiguously homogenizing nationalism promoted by members of the Canada First movement. At the same time, partisans of a “national” literature, among whom Graeme Mercer Adam, J.H. Long, and James Wilberforce Longley were prominent, sought an articulation of the “national” tradition that would ensure an essentially Anglo-conformist nation and culture.