William Watson and Rudyard Griffith on Canada’s Difference

In the National Post of Thursday June 19, Rudyard Griffiths, who is stepping
down as director of the Dominion Institute, offers a report on the state of
the nation. We’re not doing well in Griffiths’ opinion!

His first worry is that we’re becoming too American in character. We’re
seeing “the Americanization of the civic culture of English Canada.” The
complaint is familiar. Since the 1960s Canada’s national identity scholars
have argued that the precious heart of Canadianness lies in the fact that we
are not like the United States.

And just how are we different? Oops. How are we supposed to be different?
Here Griffiths’ second worry kicks in. The federal government “has lost the
momentum … to create the kinds of national programs and institutions that
previous generations saw as essential to our sense of shared nationhood.”
In Griffiths’ opinion Canadians need national programs on “climate change,
social welfare, and trade barriers.”  Grand visions of social policy will
foster our sense of ourselves as a nation. It’s another favourite idea from
the 1960s.

You may object that the Americans  are falling all over themselves to create
programs on climate change, trade barriers, and welfare. But you will never
grasp Griffiths’ point if you pursue that thought. Keep on track. Griffiths’
argument is first, that we must be different. And second, that we can
promote difference by generating national programs.

In Globalization and the Meaning of Canadian Life (University of Toronto,
1998; recently reissued), William Watson argues that “whether we are
different from the Americans … should not matter to us. What does matter
is that Canadian society should offer as good a life as possible to the
people who make it up. When that means adopting American-style policies,
insisting we be different from the Americans will stand in the way of
sensible change” (page 12).

(In The Canadian Founding, John Locke and Parliament (2007), I argue that
the Fathers of Confederation did not set out to create a distinctive nation.
Their efforts were bent toward giving us a good one. And I boldly suggest
that in the essential respects good nations are much alike. Not in all
respects, of course not; but in the essential ones.  All good nations
attempt to protect their inhabitants against foreign invasion, crime,
famine, injustice. They attempt to protect each and all equally against
these great ills.)

But let’s end with Watson. There’s “no reason why Canadians’ sense of
themselves should be defined in perpetuity by the ideological fashions of
the 1960s” (page 12). We “should choose what is best for us, not what we are
accustomed to choosing, or what we think our tradition requires us to
choose, or, worst of all, what those south of us are not choosing” (page

2 Responses to “William Watson and Rudyard Griffith on Canada’s Difference”

  1. 1 alastairsweeny June 22, 2008 at 10:17 am


    I must strongly disagree with your contention that the Fathers of Confederation did not set out to create a distinctive nation.

    On the contrary, they felt they HAD to create a new nationality, to counterbalance the centrifugal force of the United States.

    Cartier even told the BC Confederation delegates that “It is neccessary to be anti-Yankee. We can and build up a northern power.”

    At the same time, George-Étienne Cartier wanted to protect the Frnech Canadian people as a nation within a nation, to counterbalance English North America.

    In my biography of Cartier, I quote from the front page of his party organ, La Minerve, which declared, on July 1, 1867:

    “The new constitution recognizes the French Canadians as a distinct and separate nationality. We constitute a state within a state. We enjoy the full exercise of our rights and the formal recognition of our national independence.

    Our religious institutions are subject ot the government of Lower Canada. Our vast natural resources and our educational institutions, in which lie the future of our country, we also control. We have in the hands of our own administrators all that is most dear and precious to us, and we must profit from our own good fortune.”

    W. L. Morton put it well:

    “Confederation was not mere colonial politicking on the fringes of the known world. It was one of the great national unions of the nineteenth century; it was central to the balance of power between Europe and America, and all the passions of its era, natioinl, imperial and ultramontaine. It would not be carried without vilence, norexpanded without force.”

    Alastair Sweeny


  1. 1 Canada » Extreme Weather - North-America - Canada Trackback on June 20, 2008 at 3:47 pm

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