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For an American, there is an ironic clue to the history of our neighbor to the north; she became a nation because her people did not wish to be swallowed up by the United States Quant aux Canadiens français, ils ne voulaient pas seulement éviter être absorbés par les États-Unis; ils ne voulaient pas davantage être absorbés parleurs compatriotes “anglais”
December 1965 | Volume 17, Issue 1
The ninety-eight years since Confederation can be divided into five periods: the settling and developing of the Canadian West, which began with the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway and was largely accomplished by the end of the first decade of the present century; the First World War and its immediate aftermath; the Depression and the Second World War; the period of rapid industrial development between 1940 and 1960, when Canada became to a large degree a part of the American economic empire; the present period, which is dominated largely, at least in the minds of Canadians, by Quebec’s Silent Revolution and all it may imply for the nation’s future.
Throughout each of these five phases of our history, the eternal Anglo-French struggle runs like a stretched thread, the most curious aspect of the struggle being that it has been carried on without sufficient animosity to cause it to break into civil war. To use the title of a recent book written jointly by Gwethalyn Graham and Solange Chaput-Rolland, French and English Canadians are “Dear Enemies,” like a married couple, each demanding its own way and determined to get it, yet wishing only to hurt one another when they lose their tempers.
In both Canada and the United States the development of the empires of the West brought enormous wealth and power to the eastern cities, and with similar results. As New York became an imperial city, so to a smaller extent did Montreal. Just as American Populists were to rage against eastern financiers in the United States, so western farmers were to express their resentment against the bankers of Montreal and Toronto. But in Canada the political results were more serious, not the least of them being that there were practically no French Canadians who benefited from this western expansion. At that time French Canadians were uninterested in finance. Nor was this all: very few French Canadians emigrated from Quebec to join forces with the small enclave of French-speaking people already settled in Manitoba. This meant that the population of the Canadian West became overwhelmingly British in loyalty and Protestant in religion. Later immigration from Europe made the West appear somewhat like the American melting pot, but it raised few linguistic problems. The new immigrants learned English.
The conquest of the Canadian West was not accomplished without violence. Under Louis Riel the French-speaking Métis rose twice against the encroachments on their way of life by the railroad and the settlers. In 1870 their grievances were met peacefully, but in 1885 there was considerable bloodshed. As the Métis were French-speaking Catholics, this caused great bitterness in Quebec, and when Riel was hanged for treason he became a French-Canadian hero and martyr. Possibly as a result of this rebellion, probably out of fear of the Catholic Church, Manitoba later refused to permit French-language public schools in the province. French Canada slowly came to understand that the Anglo-Canadian conquest of the West had wiped out the federal gains she had made in 1867.
The next turning point in Canadian history, World War I, had greater effects on the nation’s mind than any other single experience. Canada entered the war immediately with England, on August 4, 1914, and the Conservative, Anglo-Saxon-dominated government of Sir Robert Borden may almost be said to have entered it without thinking. The British loyalties were still so strong that English-speaking schoolboys (I was one of them) were taught to sing Kipling’s lines, “What stands if Freedom fall? / Who dies if England live?” In the battles of France and Flanders the Canadian Corps became a legend. It withstood the first gas attack in history; it spearheaded the Battle of Amiens on August 8, 1918, which Ludendorff called “the black day in the German Army.” The First World War was the greatest single emotional experience in the life of English Canada.
The price was appalling—and twofold. Though Canada at the start of the war contained barely eight million people, she lost more men killed in action than did the United States. At the same time the nation was nearly torn apart by the conscription crisis of 1917-1918, when the dominant Anglo-Saxons compelled thousands of French Canadians to join the army against their will. Though some French-Canadian battalions, all volunteers, fought superbly in those years, most Canadiens considered that this was a war fought solely for England and imposed upon them by the English-speaking majority. They believed, rightly as the case turned out, that when it was over, the great powers would quickly forget Canada’s contribution.
At the risk of grave oversimplification, I would say that World War I had these results for Canada: English Canada achieved a sense of national pride and unity, but this was confined solely to English Canada . Quebec felt herself more isolated than she had ever been since the Conquest. Business boomed; industries began to invade and overthrow the traditional life of Quebec, but as these industries were all controlled by English Canadians, racial rivalry was exacerbated by a great economic discrepancy between the founding groups within the nation.
In the Depression years both French and English Canadians suffered more or less equally while the world drifted into World War II. Then once again the spectre of conscription threatened to divide the nation.