Playing the Indian Card

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Lies My Teacher Told Me

A writer in the National Post’s letters column a few days ago endorsed the revival of the term “Dominion” as a uniquely Canadian invention. He describes the term’s invention:

It was at that point that one of the Fathers, Sir Leonard Tilley, went back to his hotel room and pulled out his Bible, turning to King David’s Psalm 72, verse 8, where he found what he believed to be the best description of Canada: “He shall have dominion from sea even unto sea [Atlantic to Pacific] and from the great river [the St. Lawrence] unto the ends of the Earth [the Arctic].”

In fact, the title of “Dominion” was one of the few specifically Canadian contributions to the meetings that led to the creation of Canada on July 1, 1867.

It is, at least to some of us, a familiar story; and it stirs all patriotic hearts.

But it is not true. Tilley need not have found it in his Bible. A map would have done as well. It was, after all, the legal name of Virginia as early as the 1600s: “The Colony and Dominion of Virginia.” It was a fairly common usage for English overseas territories.

Like all countries, I suppose, Canadians commonly falsify their history. A Canadian version of Lies My Teacher Told Me is long overdue.

A few more examples: most Canadians will assert, whenever an American is in earshot, that Canadians burned down the White House during the War of 1812. But the building was scorched by the British Navy. No Canadians were involved.

Most Canadians are certain that Canada won the War of 1812 as a whole. While Canada survived the war with its territory intact, a somewhat surprising result, whether the British or the Americans “won” is open to endless dispute. Canada was not a belligerent.

More recently, most Canadians have been convinced that, until the “Persons Case” of 1929, women were not persons under Canadian law. But the case had nothing to do with this question, which was not in legal dispute. It was whether women were eligible to sit in the Canadian Senate. Women had always been persons in Canadian law--as the presiding judge observed in denying the original suit.

And recently, most Canadians have been taught that Norman Bethune’s sacrifice, in going to China as a medical missionary, was something unique. In fact, the Far East at the time was thronging with Canadian medical missionaries at least as distinguished, and had been for decades. The only unusual thing about Bethune was that he did it for atheist, rather than for Christian, reasons.

I could go on.

It is not that Canadian history is less stirring, heroic, and romantic than we think. Not at all; I’d say the reverse is more often the case. But, for political reasons, we have often bought a bill of goods about it.

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