I dislike Canadian nationalism; all nationalism is idolatry. But sometimes it is only legitimate to point to Canadian history with pride. Believe it or not, a case can be made that Canada, and not the United States of America, is the true historical defender of human rights in North America. And perhaps, by extension, in the world at large.
It has been observed more than once, that the most fundamental human right, next to the right to life, is the right to freedom of conscience. Some, indeed, would place it higher. Now, have you ever wondered why French Canada refused to join the American Revolution? After all, France itself was on the American side. Any diminution of British power in North America was good news for France. And it might even have ended with Quebec independence, or Quebec back with France—the United States of America was not yet a done deal.
Why wouldn’t the French of Quebec have leapt at the chance to revolt? Yet they were not merely neutral; they fought hard against the American revolutionaries when they sought to invade, or to “liberate.”
The answer is simple. At the time of the Revolution, Catholics had no civil rights in the Thirteen Colonies. They could not vote or stand for office, even in once-Catholic Maryland. In Canada, by contrast, they had full civil rights. This was rare enough, under a nominally Protestant government, that the Quebecois were not inclined to risk any rocking of canoes. Nor were they convinced otherwise even in 1812, when the Americans tried again to take Canada for the Republic. A Catholic running for US president was still a major controversy as recently as 1960—and no Catholic has, in fact, become president since. A Mormon running for president is still controversial. By contrast, the religion of a candidate has never been an issue in a Canadian election, with the sole shameful exception of the Liberal attack on Stockwell Day’s “fundamentalism” in 2000.
Meantime, in Britain itself, Tony Blair reportedly did not dare to convert to Catholicism openly while in office—because it was arguably still unconstitutional for a Catholic to be prime minister.
Is this because Canadian politicians are simply not as concerned with religion?
Like heck. Both JS Woodsworth, founder of the CCF, and Tommy Douglas, founder of the NDP, were ministers. Georges Vanier, the former Governor-General, is in line for Catholic sainthood.
Within the US, the first declaration of religious liberty seems to have been in Catholic Maryland, where the “Act concerning Religion” proclaimed in 1649 that “no person or persons whatsoever within this province… professing to believe in Jesus Christ, shall from henceforth be any wise troubled, molested, or discountenanced for or in respect of his or her religion nor in the free exercise thereof.” Sadly, however, this relative tolerance was rescinded when Protestants gained control of the colony from 1691. When the US Constitution was adopted, in 1791, twelve of the fourteen states still had religious tests for state office. Indeed, extending civil rights to Baptists or Quakers was still almost as controversial in most parts of the US as extending them to Catholics.
Meantime, the right to freedom of religion for both Catholics and Protestants was guaranteed to all residents of Britain’s Acadian possessions—the Canadian Maritimes--by the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713. Toleration was also extended to all varieties of Protestants, and to Jews. This religious toleration was reaffirmed and extended to the balance of Canada, newly won from France, by the Quebec Act of 1774.
Canada—both French and English Canada—was also significantly more respectful, throughout its collective history, of the human rights of Indians and blacks. The Catholics of New France, like the Spanish, were active evangelizers of the Indians. Nowadays this is considered somehow illegitimate; but the truth is it showed a concern for the Indians as fellow human beings. The Protestants of the British colonies were quite late in comparison to take any interest in the enterprise. Similarly, while the French (and later the Scots of the Hudson’s Bay Company) intermarried with the Indians and largely formed one nation, the English-speaking settlers to the South passed laws making interracial marriage illegal. The Indians were somehow irredeemably “other.” As a result, when the Thirteen British colonies went to war with New France, it was, from their perspective, “The French and Indian War.” In other words, the Indians generally favoured and identified with the French.
Among the Protestants, it was the Moravians who first thought to try to save Indian souls, in Delaware, beginning in 1748. Unfortunately, it did not go well. The Indians were eager to convert, but local hostility both to ethnic Indians and to the Moravians forced them to flee their lands, ever further west. First they went to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, but encroaching white settlers who would not recognize Indian land ownership kept pushing them on. By the American Revolution they were in the Ohio territory, intended by Britain as a permanent Indian reserve. Unfortunately, Ohio was ceded to the New United States in the peace settlement. The lucky fled, with the Mohawks and other Loyalist Indians, to Upper Canada. Those who remained in Ohio were all clubbed, scalped, and burned to death by the triumphant revolutionaries.
For whatever reason, the French tradition of accepting Indians as their fellow men was continued by the British in their Canadian territories. Hence most American Indians were British loyalists during the American Revolution, and fought for Britain—i.e., Canada--again in the War of 1812.
Throughout the further history of the two countries, Canada has most often been the sweet land of liberty for the Indians. The Sioux and other Indians of the Great Plains referred to the US-Canadian border as the “medicine line”: past that point was peace and safety.
Similarly, and no doubt for the same reasons, as Mark Noll--an American--writes in his History of Christianity in the United States and Canada, “Barbot in 1682 and Bishop George Berkeley in 1731”—both Protestants—“contrasted the somewhat greater concern for the spiritual life of blacks that was found in Catholic regions, New Spain and New France, with the widespread indifference among English settlers” (Noll, p. 78). In the American Revolution, the British commanders as a class disapproved of slavery, and often gave freedom to all black slaves in areas they held—long before Lincoln did it in the Civil War. As a result, when the British withdrew, many blacks who could fled with them as loyalists to Nova Scotia.
Slavery was, it is true, once practiced in Canada—it was a custom picked up from the Indians. But the total number of slaves was always small, in the tens or hundreds of persons, and slavery was effectively outlawed in Upper Canada in 1793, in Lower Canada in 1803, long before the US. From that time on, Canada gained significance for American slaves as the terminus of the Underground Railroad—the true land of the free.
True, democracy is older and more deeply ingrained in the US than in Canada. But democracy and human rights are not the same thing.
And, true, Canada in more recent years has not, under stiffer competition, been living up to its history in the area of human rights.
Perhaps a reminder of that proud history will inspire us to do better.