Native Canadianism: a Neglected Tradition

Native Canadianism: a Neglected Tradition

Canada First, an organization founded by William Alexander Foster in 1868, sought to promote a uniquely Canadian nationality in the face of imperialist and annexationist sentiment. By the 1870’s, the movement took on the flavour of a cultural nationalism, manifesting itself not only in its membership, but in the support it received from politicians and newspapers. Foster stated that the movement’s aim was to “recognize the pressing necessity for the cultivation of a national sentiment which will unite the people of the various provinces more closely in the bonds of citizenship…That an organization which will draw the line between Canadians loyal to their soil and those who place their citizenship in a subordinate or secondary position, affords the surest means of cementing a confederation and securing political action in the interests of the whole Dominion.”[1]

Another Canada First member, Edward Blake, went further, commenting that Canadians were “‘four millions of Britons that were not free.'”[2]

Though viciously attacked by many Toronto and Montreal newspapers as “Republicans”, “Traitors” or “Grits”, the Canada First movement was not alone in its support for its Canadian vision. For instance, the Hamilton Times had written (mentioned by Foster in his inaugural address) around 1870: “‘The Englishman, while truly loyal to his Sovereign, gives his love of country to England. The Scotchman and the Irishman while giving their full allegiance to the Queen, give the first place in their affections to Scotland and Ireland. Why should we in Canada be different? What reason exists why when Englishmen, Irishmen and Scotchmen give their whole hearts to their respective countries, we in Canada should not place our own land first, and so act and speak as though we felt proud–as we have a right to be-of the name Canadian. We have a country in which any people might glory, we have a future that is dazzling in its promise; all we need is a sentiment which shall break down all provincial and sectional distinctions..'”[3]

Another paper Foster mentioned had been more explicit: “‘And this is the feeling we want more of in our Dominion – a feeling of Canadianism. Are we to be forever jabbering about our respective merits as Englishmen, Scotchmen, Welshmen, French and Germans; as Irish Catholic and Irish Orangemen? We have heard a great deal too much of this stuff talked. It is time that all classes of our population, whether born here or elsewhere, whatever their creed or country, should consider themselves, above all, Canadians.'”[4]

Finally, celebrated Irish-Canadian statesman Thomas D’Arcy McGee wrote, “‘You want a principle to guard your young men, and thus only your frontier. When I can hear your young men say as proudly our federation, or our country or our kingdom, as the young men of other countries do speaking of their own, I shall have less apprehension for the result of whatever trials the future may have in store for us.'”[5]

Most Canada Firsters had probably not made the psychic break from a pan-Brittanic ethnicity and certainly most did not envision a severing of the imperial tie. Nevertheless, the first visions of a Canadian ethnicity and an independent Canadian nation were articulated by Canada First intellectuals making the organization’s rise an important milestone in the annals of Canadian ethnicity.

The obvious link between Canada’s French and British peoples was Nordicity. The Nordic idea served Canadian nationalism in two ways: first, it identified the northerly climate and landscape as definitively Canadian. Second, it sought to fuse the French and British peoples together by an appeal to common Norman origin. On the former point, the northern theme equated coldness and bleakness with strength, freedom, morality and vigour. In the words of one enthusiast, “‘The very atmosphere of her northern latitude, the breath of life that rose from lake and forest, prairie and mountain, was fast developing a race of men with bodies enduring as iron and minds as highly tempered as steel.'” Other commentators drew attention to Canada’s “‘stern latitudes'” and Canada First founder William Foster reflected, “The old Norse mythology, with its Thor hammers and Thor hammerings, appeals to us, – for we are a Northern people,-as the true out-crop of human nature, more manly, more real, than the weak narrow-bones superstition of an effeminate South.'”[6]

In Foster’s words can be discerned the use of the northern theme in differentiating the “stern, free” Canadians from the “effeminate” or soft Americans. In addition, Americans were derided as being less nordic because of their populations of blacks and southern European immigrants. Added to the theme of a bracing northern climate was the fact of Canadian isolation and the toil of wringing a living from a wild, infertile environment. “Because of the climate and the Canadian Shield there is a lack of good farmland in Canada. Our farmers, living on the edge of North American agriculture, too frequently have had to be content with thin soils and rocks as well as with winter…if there is a myth about Canadian agriculture, it is about the toil and uncertainty of farming in a harsh environment, and this is a very different myth from any in the United States.”[7]

The anti-Americanism of the northern myth was reinforced by the Evolutionist-Hegelian idea that the Spirit of Peoples was moving to the Northwest, putting Canada at the culmination of this movement. In addition, Canadians would be to the British what the barbarians were to Rome: a source of invigorating élan vital. George Parkin found confirmation of his ideas in Benjamin Kidd’s Social Evolution, which stated: “‘The successful peoples have moved west-wards for physical reasons; the seat of power has moved continuously northwards for reasons connected with the evolution in character which the race is undergoing. Man, originally a creature of a warm climate and still multiplying most easily and rapidly there, has not attained his highest development where the conditions of existence have been easiest. Throughout history the centre of power has moved gradually but surely to the north into those stern regions where men have been trained for the rivalry of life in the strenuous conflict with nature in which they have acquired energy, courage, integrity, and those characteristic qualities which contribute to raise them to a high state of social efficiency….'”[8]

The Northern theme was one of the few ideas that was embraced enthusiastically by both French and British Canadians because, as mentioned, both ethnies were seen as Norman in origin. In the words of F.B. Cumberland, Vice-President of the National Club of Toronto, the “‘Norman French'” and the British immigrants are “‘welding together into Unity and by this very similarity of climate creating in Canada a homogeneous Race, sturdy in frame, stable in character, which will be to America what their forefathers, the Northmen of old, were to the continent of Europe.'”[9]

The genealogists Benjamin Sulte and Cyprien Tanguay gave credence to this idea when they concluded in their Dictionnaire généologique des familles Canadiennes that most French Canadians were “‘Norman, whether its origin be pure Norman, Gascon or French-English.'”[10]

The theme of these 19th century French Canadians continued to be popular amongst both French and English writers until the mid twentieth century. Perhaps William Wood stated the case most clearly when he asserted “‘that many of the French Canadians are descended from the Norman-Franks, who conquered England seven hundred years before the English conquered La Nouvelle France, and that, however diverse they are now, the French and British peoples both have some Norman stock in common.'”[11]

In the early twentieth century, historians George Bourinot and G.M. Wrong continued to echo the racial unity theme and in 1944, Abbé Arthur Malheux of Laval University “pointed out that ‘the Norman blood, at least, is a real link between our two groups’…The French people, the Abbé explained, ‘is a mixture of different bloods; the Gaul, the Briton, the Romans, the Norman each gave their share. The same is true with the English people, the Celt, the Briton, the Roman, the Saxon, the Dane, the Norman each gave their share of blood. It is easy to see that the elements are about the same and in about the same proportions in each of these two nations. Both are close relatives by blood from the very beginning of their national existences. And both Canadian groups have the same close kinship.'”[12]

The Northern theme also received play at the hands of authors and artists. In the nineteenth-century, for example, “the adventure stories centering on life in the isolated Hudson Bay posts and the exploits of the lonely trapper had long been the staple themes of the novels of Robert M. Ballantyne and the boys’ books of J. Macdonald Oxley.” Later, writers like Robert Service and William Fraser “not only set their works in the northerly setting but also lived there.”[13]

It is significant that in Service’s Sam McGee, the lead character, who is from Tennessee, is constantly complaining about the freezing Yukon weather in contrast to the others (Canadians), including the narrator, who displayed a tougher attitude. This helped enshrine the northern feature that separated the Canadian character from the American. On this northern note, by the 1920’s, seven members of the “national movement” in Canadian visual art had made a name for themselves. Starting in 1911, Frank Carmichael, Lawren Harris, A.Y. Jackson, Franz Johnston, Arthur Lismer, J.E.H. MacDonald and Frederick Varley met in Toronto and by the 1920’s had been painting together in the bush, causing their technique to follow similar bold, expressive-romantic lines.[14]

The members also expressed themselves in print and on tape, displaying a clear Northern Canadian nationalism. “After a trip into the Arctic with A.Y. Jackson, Lawren Harris reported that ‘We came to know that it is only through the deep and vital experience of its total environment that a people identifies itself with its land and gradually a deep and satisfying awareness develops. We were convinced that no virile people could remain subservient to, and dependent upon the creations in art of other peoples…To us there was also the strange brooding sense of another nature fostering a new race and a new age.'”[15]

Anglo-Canadian Cultural Nationalism

The Group of Seven was merely one of the better known examples of a broader phenomenon of intellectual nationalism in English Canada during the 1920’s. This activity involved artists, writers and university professors and was centred in Toronto around several interlocking organizations: the Association of Canadian Clubs (ACC), the Canadian League, the Canadian Institute of International Affairs and the League of Nations Society in Canada. Membership in these organizations was fairly substantial when we consider that much of the membership consisted of an Anglo-Canadian cultural elite. For instance, the League of Nations Society had 13,000 members by 1928 while the Association of Canadian Clubs had over 40,000 members by the end of the 20’s. Several journals growing up around this movement of cultural nationalism included the Canadian Nation (the journal of the ACC), with a circulation of 37,000 by 1929 and the more high-brow Canadian Forum, with a 2,500 circulation.[16]

Not all of these intellectuals repudiated the pan-Brittanic ideal, but many did. An expression of their Canadian nationalism appeared in a Forum editorial of the 20’s: “‘Real independence is not the product of tariffs and treaties. It is a spiritual thing. No country has reached its full stature, which makes its goods at home but not its faith and its philosophy.'”[17]

While these intellectual movements tended to stress Canadian culture and Canadian civic nationalism, the more populist Native Sons of Canada had a more ethnic vision of their new nation. The Native Sons of Canada was formed in 1921 in Victoria by a congerie of politically active professionals and small businessmen. By 1929 it had an estimated 120,000 members in over a hundred assemblies in Canada. Its organ, the Beaver Canada First had a circulation of 34,000 in 1930. According to one of its early pamphlets, the organization’s aims were:

“‘1. To keep in Canada all her native born.

2. To bring back to Canada those who reside in foreign lands.

3. To induce desirable people to make homes in Canada.

4. To make Canada the most desirable country in which to live.

5. To mold all peoples within her borders into one great virile race-CANADIANS.

6. To plant in the heart of this race an unbounded love for, devotion and loyalty to

Canada and all that pertains to her interests.

7. To respect and obey the laws of Canada.'”

The Native Sons were, in the main, liberals who either were disenchanted with Imperial nationalism or never felt their pan-Brittanic identity. Their organization was closed to those of foreign birth and was formed with the “explicit intention of competing with such other fraternal societies as the Sons of Scotland and the Sons of Ireland for Canadian-born men.”[19]

Canada First had drawn charges of treason in the 1860’s and 70’s, even though much of its vision was still within the pan-Brittanic tradition thus it is unsurprising that the Native Sons, with their more radical platform, drew similar fire. Deliberately spurning the British tie and the tradition of Loyalist anti-Americanism, the Native Sons went on to attack even Orangeism and certain kinds of British immigration.

The Native Sons’ were especially incensed by the self-help networks of British immigrant societies which helped their members secure many of the best urban, white-collar jobs. “‘Scots were helping Scots, Englishmen helping Englishmen…but nobody was looking out for Canadians, least of all other Canadians.'”[20]

The Native Sons responded with a demand that British subjects be required to declare their loyalty to Canada in return for which they would receive a certificate of Canadian nationality. This idea of Canadian nationality later germinated into the 1947 Citizenship Act.

The Native Sons’ views on Canadian ethnicity were a more explicit repudiation of pan-Brittanicism than those of Canada First. The Sons’ felt that a new Canadian “race” was developing by natural selection and that non-British immigration could help build this new ethnic group. The Native Sons’ pan-European ethnic vision should not disguise their Anglo-Canadian outlook, however. Though accepting of European immigration, they were against Oriental immigration and did acknowledge that British immigrants, though at times deplorable, did have the benefit of being closer to “Canadians” in temperament and race.[21]

The Nationalism of A.R.M. Lower

The ambivalence shown by the Native Sons toward the British connection reveals a kind of “double-consciousness” similar to that of Americans who subscribed simultaneously to both the melting pot and the idea of WASP ethnicity. This tension is best illustrated by one of the more famous of the Native Sons’, historian Arthur R. M. Lower, who carried the banner of Anglo-Canadian ethnic nationalism into the mid-twentieth century. Lower often took pride in the Britishness of English Canada, as when he commented that “‘ in the United States, the Anglo-Saxon stock is becoming diluted but in Canada it is scarcely touched.'”[22]

At other times, however, Lower took to criticizing the British immigrants, whom he felt were an obstacle to the realization of an independent Canada. Another tension in Lower’s thought concerned the place of the French in Canada. On the surface, Lower’s nationalism was civic and included the French, but it is not hard to detect the distinctly Anglo-Canadian thread in Lower’s writing. This began as a pan-Brittanic vision. For example, in 1943, Lower would plead to the French to understand “how difficult it is for an English-speaking person to be Canadian, tout court: how he is pulled apart by the appeal of race, so strong both from south and east. After all, it is asking a lot to expect people to abandon membership in a great world group of some two hundred millions, in order to retreat into a peculiar little self-contained society of eleven.”[23]

Yet in the same year, Lower, in an apparent volte-face, would upbraid the English Canadians for their attachment to Britain, a theme continued in his 1946 opus, Colony to Nation. As Lower remarked in 1974, “I had from my boyhood a strongly marked sense of the group. This could have stopped at the simple level of “the team,” but it went on to interest me, greatly bolstered by my reading, in the historic “team,” that is to say, the state. At first for me this was the British state, but gradually it changed into my own, the Canadian.”[24]

By the late 1940’s, Lower was criticizing the Canadian historical establishment which praised Canada’s development within the Empire. Instead of affirming the Imperial connection, he “saw as one of the main drawbacks of such a pattern of growth the lack of any profound break that might have come to signify decisively for Canadians, especially those of British descent, the line that separated them from their ‘homeland’.”[25]

Throughout his writing, Lower showed great concern with matters of ethnic, as opposed to merely civic nationalism. This began as a concern with the loss of English Canada’s homogeneity through non-British immigration. Lower’s chief concern was that the acquisitive ethic of Protestant Canadians led them to leave for the more prosperous United States, to be replaced by non-British immigrants. “‘Our British stock, Lower warned, ‘both native born and born abroad, is rapidly slackening its rate of increase and…, unless some unforeseen change occurs, it is destined to be outnumbered, not only by the total of all groups but by one of them alone, the French.'”[26]

“What bothered Lower about this pattern of population movement [Canadian emigration and non-British immigration] was not only the tremendous wastage of human resources involved, and the callous and exploitative attitude toward immigrants that it revealed, but above all its effects on Canadian nationalism. ‘If Canadians wish to see Canada possessed of all the best attributes of nationhood,’ he explained, ‘and if the chief result of immigration is to drive out the native-born, it is evident that much evil must come from this constant renewal of blood; generation by generation….’ A people had to be moulded slowly by the soil and climate before they became ‘true children of the fatherland’. Yet the population’s shifting and unstable nature forced precisely those best adapted to Canada to leave and replaced them with aliens; people never got a chance to integrate and adapt to a fixed culture. Clearly massive immigration was one of the main impediments to the formation of a strong sense of national community.'”[27]

Notice that there is a distinctly native Canadian emphasis to Lower’s worries, not a pan-Brittanic one. Lower reaffirmed this native, Anglo-Canadian ethnic vision in 1943 when he wrote that it is “‘as necessary to health for a people to integrate their personality as it is for the individual. Sometimes the individual sensitive to such things feels drowned in the immensity and depth of the general cultural heritage of the world.’ At such time he searches for a little island, for recognizable peculiarities-for, in short, roots.'”[28]

Lower’s nationalism escaped its pan-Brittanic influence, but remained at heart an Anglo-Canadian vision. Thus while Lower eloquently deplored the materialism of Anglo-Canadian life and admired the French Canadians, he hoped to put his observations to good use in encouraging the Anglo-Canadian to develop a similar cultural rootedness. For his efforts to define an Anglo-Canadian nation within Canada, Lower was compared to a great French-Canadian nationalist by Alexander Brady, who dubbed Lower “‘the Abbé Groulx of English Canada.'”[29]

Nordic Canadianism After World War II

Arthur Lower’s Canadian identity was well-developed in 1963, the year he wrote an article entitled The Forest: Heart of a Nation, an article which showed how far Lower was attracted to the theme of Northern Canada. As mentioned, this sense of nordicity and its counterpart, the “northern” Canadian ethnie, were ideas that had resonance with both French and British, but more so for the latter, who lacked an effective Canadian identity. Perhaps Governor General Vincent Massey expressed this frame of mind best when he said as recently as 1948 that: “‘Climate plays a great part in giving us our special character, different from that of our southern neighbours…it influences our mentality, produces a sober temperament. Our racial composition-and this is partly because of our climate-is different, too. A small percentage of our people comes from central or southern Europe. The vast majority springs either from the British Isles or Northern France, a good many, too, from Scandinavia and Germany, and it is in northwestern Europe that one finds the elements of human stability highly developed. Nothing is more characteristic of Canadians than the inclination to be moderate.'”[30]

Well after Massey’s statement, the theme of the north continued to influence Canadian nationalism. Hence in Canada, the lure of the north and the northern frontier played a role similar to that of the west in the United States in the sense that it acted as an environmental stimulant to the Canadian values of order and liberty and shaped the nation’s personality, even its ethnicity. In the idea of the Northern Canadian people can be seen the stirrings of a new ethnicity, but several factors ensured its lack of popular dissemination, the most important of which were the entrenched pan-Brittanic and Quebecois identities of the majority of the Canadian population. By the time most of Canada’s British element had overcome its attachment to pan-Brittanicism (between 1945 and 1975), collective romanticism was losing its hold on the opinion-making sectors of the population-a saga we shall take up in the following chapters of this work.

[1]Smith, Goldwyn, Canada First, a memorial of the late William A. Foster, p.6
[2]Smith, Goldwyn, Canada First, a memorial of the late William A. Foster, p.6

[3] Foster, W.A., Canada First, pp 50-51

[4] Foster, W.A., Canada First, pp 50-51

[5] Foster, W.A., Canada First, pp 50-51

[6] Berger, Carl, The True North Strong and Free in Peter Russell (ed) , Nationalism in Canada, pp.5-7

[7] Harris, Cole, The Myth of the Land in Canadian Nationalism in Peter Russell (ed) , Nationalism in Canada, pp. 33-34
[8] Berger, Carl, The True North Strong and Free in Peter Russell (ed) , Nationalism in Canada, p. 19
[9] Berger, Carl, The True North Strong and Free in Peter Russell (ed) , Nationalism in Canada, pp. 12-13
[10] Berger, Carl, The True North Strong and Free in Peter Russell (ed) , Nationalism in Canada, p. 13
[11] Berger, Carl, The True North Strong and Free in Peter Russell (ed) , Nationalism in Canada, p. 13
[12] Berger, Carl, The True North Strong and Free in Peter Russell (ed) , Nationalism in Canada, pp. 13-14
[13] Berger, Carl, The True North Strong and Free in Peter Russell (ed) , Nationalism in Canada, p.20
[14] The Canadian Encyclopedia, p.778
[15] Berger, Carl, The True North Strong and Free in Peter Russell (ed) , Nationalism in Canada, p.21
[16] Vipond, Mary, The Nationalist Network: English Canada’s Intellectuals and Artists in the 1920’s in Canadian Review of Studies in Nationalism, Vol.Vii, No.1, 1980, pp. 39-42.
[17] Vipond, Mary, The Nationalist Network: English Canada’s Intellectuals and Artists in the 1920’s in Canadian Review of Studies in Nationalism, Vol.Vii, No.1, 1980, pp. 42-43.
[18] Vipond, Mary, Nationalism and Nativism: The Native Sons of Canada in the 1920’s in Canadian Review of Studies in Nationalism, 9, 1982, pp. 83-84
[19] Vipond, Mary, Nationalism and Nativism: The Native Sons of Canada in the 1920’s in Canadian Review of Studies in Nationalism, 9, 1982, p.84
[20] Vipond, Mary, Nationalism and Nativism: The Native Sons of Canada in the 1920’s in Canadian Review of Studies in Nationalism, 9, 1982, p.92
[21] Vipond, Mary, Nationalism and Nativism: The Native Sons of Canada in the 1920’s in Canadian Review of Studies in Nationalism, 9, 1982, p.92
[22] Berger, Carl, The Writings of Canadian History, p. 130.
[23] Lower, Arthur M., Two Nations or Two Nationalities, in Welf Heick (ed), History and Myth, p. 202
[24] Lower, Arthur M., in Welf Heick (ed), History and Myth, p. xv.
[25] Berger, Carl, The Writings of Canadian History, p. 134.
[26] Berger, Carl, The Writings of Canadian History, pp. 130-131
[27] Berger, Carl, The Writings of Canadian History, p. 130.
[28] Berger, Carl, The Writings of Canadian History, p. 136.
[29] Berger, Carl, The Writings of Canadian History, p. 136
[30] Berger, Carl, The True North Strong and Free in Peter Russell (ed) , Nationalism in Canada, p.23

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