It’s long been a national pastime, fretting over “Canadian identity.”
Does it exist? What is it? How do we define it? What does it say about us?
With Canada Day set for this weekend, and a milestone 150th birthday party celebration for the nation set to run all summer, we’re no exception here at the Co-operator.
In the coming weeks you’ll be seeing a serialization by the Manitoba Agricultural Museum’s Alex Campbell, looking at the agricultural story of this part of Canada, as part of our own celebration.
Reading those words has been educational and illuminating. In this issue you’ll read about the early and often-overlooked agriculture of the First Nations prior to, and at the time of European contact. You’ll also learn of the garden plots of the fur traders and the first true farming of field crops around the Red River Colony.
While these groups are very different, they’re the foundation upon which our province is built and continues to grow. Considering their stories brings to mind the kind of pioneer tales familiar to most of us.
Life was undoubtedly nasty, brutish and short, as the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes once wrote.
For the First Nations residents, life may have been free, but it certainly wasn’t easy.
The Orkneymen of the Hudson’s Bay Company surely must have felt they were at the end of the earth, clinging to the thin soil at the frozen outpost of York Factory. It beat the alternative awaiting them in the slums of Glasgow and Edinburgh, however.
The Selkirk settlers had been pushed off their traditional lands in Scotland by aristocratic landowners who had decided sheep would make them more money than peasant farmers, only to find themselves in an inaccessible, frozen, mosquito-ridden and flood-prone corner of the world.
In future weeks you’ll be able to explore the early homesteading, then the arrival of the railway and the flood of immigration. Successive waves of immigration all added their own notes to the song of our country and province, and will continue to do so. Many were fleeing oppression, hardship and terror at home, as many of our newest residents are today.
There were the Hutterites, the Mennonites, the Ukrainians, the poor and hungry from nations around the globe. At one point, Winnipeg’s immigration sheds were bursting at the seams with new arrivals speaking a multitude of languages.
Digging deep into this fertile soil that they could have for “free,” if you didn’t count the registration fee and the back-breaking labour to come, the most important thing they grew was a future for themselves and their families.
As these waves have arrived and built and grown, so has our home been built and improved. While it might be human nature to feel like the world is ‘going to hell in a handbasket’ few would argue that our lives are even approaching as difficult and drudgery filled as any of the early Canadian citizens.
We have inherited and are responsible for maintaining, fostering and improving, a modern democracy that, for all its faults, has rule of law, freedom, peace and prosperity.
It’s the sort of place where a radical firebrand can excoriate the government’s policies and actions and fear no government repression. Where one can practise or not practise any religious belief. Where we periodically have institutionalized revolutions that see the government thrown out by frustrated citizens, without any blood on the streets.
Years ago while writing for Country Guide magazine, I was charged with interviewing a farmer from western Manitoba for a series of portraits of influential farmers. This particular farmer was well known for his involvement in policy matters, including designing some of the better farm income support programs.
During our talk he related many facts and anecdotes that stuck with me, including a hilarious and trenchant observation that he’d initially thought some of the travel related to his work would be glamorous, only to find out it was “the equivalent of a bus trip in the air, with the added inconvenience of waiting for your luggage.”
As the interview was winding down, I asked him if he had any other thoughts on things which had been vital ingredients for his success, and was then presented with the key point I have thought of for years.
He paused a moment to ponder this, then leaned forward and said: “Canada has been a big contributor to my family’s success. My wife and I have been able to raise a family here and our kids have never missed a meal and nobody has ever shot at us.”
Perhaps that’s the most remarkable thing about our country. That so many of us have come, from so many corners of the globe, to call this place home, and to do so in a largely peaceful manner.
That is our shared legacy, our Canadian identity. We can all only hope it continues for at least another 150 years.