Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Here's To Thirty Years of Independence!

Canada Day is coming up in just a couple of months, and with it the hundred and forty-fifth Canadian birthday; only a few more years until the centennial and a half, no? National anniversaries have always done their bit to attract attention and dominate the news cycle. Even I can manage some vague recollection of Canada 125, back in that swingin' summer of 1992 when, in retrospect, it may well have seemed like the country would not last to see Canada 150.

At least, 1992 was what people agreed was Canada 125. But like Napoleon said, what is "official" history but a set of lies agreed upon?

If you don't follow the media or aren't very familiar with the structure of Canada's government, it would have been an easy thing to miss - yesterday marked the anniversary of Constitution of Canada and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms being passed into law, at last giving the country a written constitution that Quebec didn't - and still hasn't - signed on to. You may have heard of it in the context of our Dear Leader doing nothing to mark it, because he's awfully busy gutting environmental protections and working the zippers for oil industry lobbyists. You might have figured it's not that important... if you did, keep in mind that sometimes the most important things hide in plain sight.

In school, the teachers tell the students that Canada was founded on July 1, 1867, when Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia came together to establish the core of the Dominion for mutual benefit, trade, and defense. After all, the Union had just finished curbstomping the Confederacy, and the White House wasn't too impressed with the tacit support that the United Kingdom had shown to the CSA. What many of them don't tell is that this is a simplification of history. Canadian independence didn't happen the way it did down south, with the flourish of signatures on a declaration and clouds of gunsmoke wafting across the battlefield, but was a work of degrees that happened over many, many years.

If you want to be really persnickety about it, you can easily make the argument that Canada did not truly gain its independence until April 17, 1982; hell, if Canada was a person, one could make the argument that we should have only now stopped trusting it.

That, of course, will depend on how far a given person can throw it.

Up until now, I was willing to go along with the 1867 date - while it took time for the trappings of independence to appear, such as the 1931 Statute of Westminster which finally gave Canada control of its own foreign policy, or the adoption of the national flag; it was not until well into the twentieth century that government buildings within Canada flew even the Red Ensign rather than the Union Flag of the UK. Slowly and by degrees, Canada edged away from being a colony. But independent... really?

What really made me start to question this long-held assumption of Canadian independence since 1867 was the recent news, now known thanks to the efforts of the UK's National Archives, that back in 1981 the passage of the Constitution and the Charter was not the slam dunk that I had always subconsciously assumed it to be. In fact, memos made public indicate that Margaret Thatcher's cabinet was concerned that the British government might well reject them - after all, at the time the United Kingdom still retained authority to legislate for Canada under certain conditions, and even after things were settled in Ottawa, the Parliament of the United Kingdom still had to pass its Canada Act 1982 to tie up the loose legal ends.

Previously, when I encountered this in history classes I'd always thought of it as a formality - a lot of people probably did, since those memos weren't yet public and the people who were directly involved weren't talking. This information forced me to reevaluate what I knew in another light, a light that said it wasn't just a formality. What it really comes down to is this - if one country holds legislative authority over another, can that second country really be said to be independent? Was Canada really independent between 1867 and 1982, or was its Dominion status somewhere between a province and an independent state?

Realistically, Canada's been de facto independent for nearly a hundred and fifty years... it's had a strange way of showing it, though.

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