THE EMERGENCE AND EVOLUTION OF NATIONAL FAULT LINES WITHIN NORTH AMERICA: ENGLISH-FRENCH/EAST- WEST MEETS BLACK-WHITE/NORTH-SOUTH AT THE JUNCTION OF NATIVE/NON-NATIVE
Here in North America, as elsewhere, the countries on this continent emerged in such a way as to leave them both with what appear to be permanently-ingrained ‘fault lines’ based on language, race, geography and ideology. What I mean by ‘fault lines’ are ‘hot-button’ types of issues which have emerged as a result of both Canada’s and the USA’s respective colonial histories: Who originally inhabited the land, who came and conquered it, who else came thereafter, what countries they came from, what languages they spoke, the colour of their skin and the personal ideological motivations behind why they uprooted themselves or in some cases, were forcibly uprooted from their homeland and came to this continent.
In the case of Canada, our most lasting ‘fault line’, which is still an ongoing source of debate and tension and will remain so for the foreseeable future, is the cleavage based on language, specifically between English and French-speaking Canadians, as well as that of geography, specifically that which divides Canadians between east and west, which also just so happens to roughly overlay the first ‘fault line’.
Canada is a country which, like it’s neighbour to the south, was originally inhabited by hundreds of tribes of indigenous peoples, scattered across the entire continent and who, lived a traditional pre-industrial lifestyle based on traditional tribal beliefs and forms of social organization, trading alliances and so on. Virtually all of them were stone-age societies who had yet to discover or come into contact with peoples who utilized metal for the fashioning of their tools or weapons. Many were still nomadic or semi-nomadic and lived a hunter-gatherer type of existence, while others, somewhat more advanced, had discovered and perfected methods for sedentary living, including agriculture, specifically the growing of corn, and had a somewhat more advanced state of material culture, living in permanent communities in what are known as ‘longhouses’, where extended families lived together.
Contact with Europeans was initially beneficial to the indigenous peoples, as they saw a great advantage in trading beaver pelts with the white man in exchange for metal goods, which were far superior to the stone and bone tools they had used up to that point. However, it soon became clear that the white man’s intentions were to take over and occupy the land and to dispossess the original inhabitants of it and to develop the massive potential for temporal wealth which lay in it to their advantage.
This ultimately led to the first ‘fault line’ in the history of our continent, that is to say that of ‘native/non-native’, which is actually common to both countries, but which for many generations played second fiddle and often still does, to the other ‘fault lines’, which emerged in the wake of this first one, as a result of the ensuing colonial rivalries which exploded due to the aggressive economic development of the continent’s material and human resources, pitting mostly the Empires of France and Britain against each other, with that of Spain figuring prominently at a later date.
With regards to Canada’s ongoing English-French ‘fault line’, it essentially emerged after the 151 year struggle for supremacy for the eastern half of the continent, waged between Britain and France, was categorically decided by the result of the Seven Year’s War, or French and Indian War as the Americans like to call it, wherein France was expulsed from North America by the Treaty of Paris of 1763, trading her colony of New France for the sugar island of Guadeloupe and the two fishing islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon off the coast of Newfoundland in the process.
Where the ‘fault line’ really took shape, though, was that Britain inherited a colony which was essentially intact from the point of view of its social fabric, laws and language, despite the horrific property damage which had been inflicted upon the colony due to the summer-long siege of Québec and General Wolfe’s merciless ‘scorched earth policy’ of torching and pillaging many of the Canadiens villages along the coast of the St. Lawrence River in an attempt to break the spirit of the enemy.
Also complicating British attempts at assimilating these newly-conquered subjects was the fact that they were pretty attached to the Roman Catholic religion, despite its slip in popularity in the 18th century, it still remained a bulwark against Anglicization, the Roman clergy being a well-educated and erudite elite capable of defending the linguistic, cultural, legal and economic interests of their subjects to the British Colonial authorities.
Another mitigating factor was the fact that this newly-terminated war was risking to touch off another one, which it did: The American Revolution, or War of Independence, due in no small part to the taxation which George III imposed on the Anglo-American commercial interests, through their legislatures, without their consent, to pay down the tremendous war debt recently incurred to expulse their French arch rivals.
Therefore the British were keen to mollify their French-speaking subjects in Québec by passing the Québec Act in 1774, re-instating French Civil Law and the Roman Catholic religion, thereby guaranteeing the survival of the ‘French Fact’ in Canada, and ensuring that it would not fall prey to the Republican blandishments of the Continental Army, which inevitably invaded in 1775-76, being stopped dead in their tracks by a mostly indifferent Canadiens populace and one very blinding snowstorm at Québec on New Year’s Eve 1775, unleashed by none other than General Winter himself, on the eve of the termination of the hapless Continental soldier’s contractual obligation, their commanders fearing the worst of them, behaviour-wise, if they were to have attacked the morning after on New year’s Day, in less inclement weather, but no longer under contract to the Continental Congress and not likely to be paid their wages, thereby augmenting considerably the risk of looting, pillaging and other sundry ungentlemenly behaviour in the process.
Therefore, to this day, the Crown has created a state of raised expectations as well as a sense of entitlement amongst French-Canadians concerning their status within Canada, which has oscillated between a state of cordial elite accommodation during some periods of our history, progressing towards a more confrontational, nationalistic tone after WWII, due to the longstanding disparities of income and socio-economic status and opportunities for social mobility which still afflicted the bulk of French-Canadian society in post WWII society.
This national ‘fault line’ took on the shape of a national crisis in the 1960s-70s and early 80s and has only truly abated significantly since the second independence referendum was only narrowly defeated in October of 1995, leaving most Canadians, on both sides of the equation, with a serious case of battle fatigue and exhaustion, resembling the kind of ‘let’s get on with it, put it behind us and move on’-type of attitude which many countries in the developing world experience after a particularly nasty civil war or inter-ethnic bout of blood-letting or genocide.
We experienced several decades of constitutional crises, including two referenda on independence, one in May of 1980 the other, as mentioned on October 1995, a hostage crisis in October of 1970, where a provincial cabinet Minister was assassinated, and the British Trade Commissioner kidnapped and released by secessionist radicals, a long and drawn-out wrangle over reforming the Constitution in 1981-82, to make the process of amending it ‘made in Canada’, and two other fits of constitutional hand-wringing in 1987-90 and 1991-92, mostly in an attempt to recognize Québec’s distinct nature within Canada in the first case, and in the second case, to mollify the rising tide of western Canadian discontent and the desire for Aboriginal self-determination.
So essentially, as Brian Mulroney our former Prime Minister said, a lot of the bad blood has been bled out of Canada’s system due to all of this conflict, and although we still haven’t categorically settled the issue of the English-French ‘fault line’ from an official juridico-legal method of constitutional amendment, most people in Canada, both French and English, are now essentially just happy to get along with each other and to not have to talk about the issue as an ongoing source of media histrionics. Basically the media have decided that people are sick of the issue and politicians, especially secessionists in Québec, just can’t get any traction out of it any more.
It has basically died a natural death, except for a small, hardcore constituency of secessionists in the old guard PQ part, the traditional party of secession, which has all but abandoned its old Social-Democratic party platform, its leader will barely deign to let the word ‘Sovereignty’ cross her lips, members of her caucus are abandoning ship left, right and centre and founding all sorts of obscure left wing secessionist groups and a former secessionist cabinet minister has even gone so far as to team up with a pro-Canadian businessman and found a new right of centre provincial, pro-business party called CAQ (Coalition avenir Québec), which has vowed to put secession on the back burner for at least ten years while he promises to tackle more pressing issues such as the provincial deficit and debt, which is well over 238 billion dollars right now, the sluggish economy, lousy public schools and out of control Medicare costs.
So while it still remains a perennial source of tension and discussion, it’s really nothing compared to what it was 17 years ago. The readiness of English-speaking Canadians to learn French and vice versa has never been higher and the rate of mixed marriages is up considerably, both from the point of view of English-French, but also at the level of one spouse whose native tongue may be English or French and the other’s is another foreign language, who uses either English or French or both as second or third languages to communicate with their spouse, children and the outside world.
A lot of the programs to encourage both sides to learn each other’s language have been very successful. The federal government, despite all the criticism levelled at its policy of Official Bilingualism, has done an outstanding job of promoting the use of both English and French throughout Canada. The public broadcasting service is available on both the English and French language services virtually everywhere in the country and all packaging of all consumer products are produced in both languages. All federal public services are available in both languages, either in person, depending on where you are in the country, in writing, on federal signage, the courts, federal prisons, postal service, the military, parliament, the Coast Guard and so on. There’s also an Official Languages Monitor program in schools, funded by the feds, which hires bilingual college and university students to work in public schools to encourage the use of the other official language, depending on where you are in the country.
As to how this has attenuated east-west tensions, this is another issue altogether. As mentioned earlier, the east-west ‘fault line’ somewhat overlays the English-French one, seeing that most French speakers live in Québec, which is further east, and most English speakers live west of Québec. However, the two are not exactly fully related to one another. In the case of the east-west ‘fault line’, other factors conspired to make this a source of ongoing tension in our country.
Originally, Canada was settled by Europeans only in the east and centre, as far as what is today Ontario. Nobody really had an interest, economically and hence politically-speaking, to colonize the western frontier, therefore we left it alone, leaving the aboriginals and half breed Métis people to their own devices. However, as the 19th century progressed, interest in colonizing the west began. A man by the name of Lord Selkirk from Great Britain, in the early 19th century, financed the re-settlement of hundreds of displaced Scottish crofters, who’d been cleared of their land during the so-called ‘clearings’ in Scotland and brought them by land, before the advent of the railroad, to a place called Red River, in present-day Manitoba.
Generally the Red River colonists got on well with the aboriginals and half-breeds, and there wasn’t much competition for resources. However, when Canada began to industrialize in a serious way in the 1860s, our business leaders and politicians began to look for new markets for growth opportunities for their goods, seeing that a new type of society was beginning to emerge, that of a consumer society, based on the mass-production and consumption of material goods produced in factories by labourers.
Initially, our elites, mostly English-speaking merchants and French-speaking nationalists in Montréal, had toyed with the idea of having Canada grow southward by having us be annexed to the USA. A group of them signed a Manifesto in 1849 called, aptly enough, the Annexation Manifesto. In it, they called for the immediate annexation of Canada to the USA, so as to alleviate what they considered to be the intolerably miserable economic and political conditions into which the colony had sunk.
Britain had just revoked the Corn Laws three years earlier in 1846, in a move to abolish subsidies on Colonially-grown grain, so as to drop the price of the product, and to then flood Britain with cheap grain, so as to reduce the cost of food for the mostly working class labourers, who’d been clamouring at that time for wage increases and, not wanting to give in to their demands, the factory owners, who controlled parliament, preferred instead to make what little they earned go that much further by permitting them to buy cheaper food in the form of less-expensive bread.
So a made-in-Britain policy had disastrous results in Canada, in that it wiped out the profits of grain traders at the port of Montréal, reducing the amount of grain shipped from there to nearly zero by 1849 and at the same time, Baltic countries had been lobbying for years to have subsidies on Canadian timber removed so as to win back their markets which they’d lost at the turn of the century, when Napoleon had blockaded the Baltic countries in an attempt to starve Britain into submission by cutting off her wood supply for her Navy. This had just pushed Britain to throw up preferential tariffs on Canadian wood and it had led to several decades of a lumber boom in Canada, which by the 1840s, was tapering off.
So the English-speaking merchants briefly toyed with the idea of advocating for annexation so as to gain access to the US market for agricultural commodities and timber. The French-speaking nationalist spokespersons, on the other hand, wanted it so as to get rid of the Monarchy and become a republic, having risen up against the Crown in armed rebellion in 1837-38. The British eventually settled for a compromise and negotiated a primitive Free-Trade Agreement, called the Reciprocity Agreement, which gave Canada access to US markets to fish, grain and timber. It all fell apart in 1866 when the US abrogated the agreement, shutting us out of North-South trade.
At the same time, the old fear of Manifest Destiny, being US annexation of Canada through Conquest, began looming again as the US Civil War was coming to a close and there were fears that the newly-victorious Union Army, having just crushed the Confederacy, would turn northwards and march into Canada to complete its long-sought-after dream of controlling the entire continent. So Canada had an interest in firming up its links on the east-west axis as a result of this and also to open up new markets for goods, services and immigration for the business class in Montréal.
So what resulted was the idea of constructing a Trans-Continental Railroad, which became known as the Canadian Pacific Railroad, or CPR. It took many years to build and caused no shortage of scandal, but was eventually completed in 1885. By this time, a new tariff policy had been enacted in 1879 called the National Policy, whereby a tariff wall was erected on the Canada-US border, specifically to encourage import-substitution industrialization, meaning that goods would be therefore prohibitively expensive to import from the US to Canada, but, if a foreign company hopped over the tariff wall and built a wholly-owned Canadian branch plant or subsidiary of itself on Canadian soil, it could therefore export its goods to western Canada, and also have access to the British Imperial market, which at that time was the biggest in the world.
So industrialization was occurring in Canada, but until the railroad was built, there was no way to get the goods produced in Québec and Ontario out to the west, along with the immigrants from Europe, to colonize the land and farm the wheat and raise the animals which, under the National Policy’s east-west method of trade, would be shipped eastward for processing and export to world markets and local consumption.
So first the aboriginals and half breeds had to be cleared off the land, the land taken over by the Crown, surveyed, and then parcelled out to farmers to be colonized. The Aboriginals and half-breeds still wanted to maintain their nomadic and semi-nomadic lifestyle, especially the half-breed Métis who resisted the advance of the land surveyors at Red River in 1869-70.
This briefly won them a victory by having their territory created into a new Canadian Province called Manitoba in 1870. However, the Prime Minister, Sir John A. Mac Donald, if he’d had his railroad to send out troops to crush the resistance at Red River, would have sent them without hesitation and would not have made the concessions he did to the leader of the Métis, Louis Riel.
Eventually colonists kept flooding in anyways and it became increasingly impossible for the Métis to continue living in Manitoba in their traditional semi-nomadic way. Eventually they were forced to make a last stand in what is today the Province of Saskatchewan in 1885 at a place called Batoche, where, by this time, the rail road had been completed and the Prime Minister sent out the North West Mounted Police, replete with rifles and a Gatling gun, to subdue to Métis. Riel was captured, tried and hanged for treason under circumstances which remain a source of controversy to this day.
Essentially it was seen as a defeat not only of the aboriginal peoples, because he was half native, and the rest of the natives were starved into submission by having their traditional food supply cut off by the killing off of all the bison on the prairie, and having them rounded up and herded onto reservations, having signed treaties which were not in their favour, but also a betrayal of French-Canadian rights, since most Métis were also half French-Canadian.
This aroused outrage in Québec when an English-speaking Protestant Prime Minister had a French-speaking Catholic patriot hanged for treason and essentially exacerbated east-west and French-English tensions and with few exceptions, has wiped the Conservative party off the electoral map in Québec federally ever since 1885. But what really galled westerners and really institutionalized the notion of ‘western alienation’ was the economic imbalance caused by the National Policy.
Since it was a ‘Made in Eastern Canada’ economic policy which favoured Québec and Ontario-based manufacturing industries, westerners resented it because they were forced to buy goods made thousands of miles away at inflated prices shipped to them on a rail line which had a monopoly on all goods and people going in and out of the area. The CPR and the big banks in Québec and Ontario also controlled all the prices of the agricultural commodities that western farmers grew, so they felt that they had little control over their lives and that ultimately, decisions were being made in Québec and Ontario designed to protect jobs and votes in mostly Québec so that French-Canadians would stay loyal to Canada and not agitate for a nationalist agenda, thereby aggravating the English-French ‘fault line’ once again.
When it comes to the American ‘fault lines’, things are much more racially based and oriented on a north-south axis. The same native and non-native ‘fault-line’ emerged as in Canada, but instead of the colonial struggles creating conflict over language, for the most part, America’s enduring ‘fault-line’ has been about race, specifically the role that African-Americans have played in their society and continue to play and how this is also overlaid with the north-south ‘fault-line’, to which it is related.
Although slavery was practiced both in the North and the South as well as to a lesser degree in Canada, it manifested itself most predominantly in the South, with its predominant dependence on cotton plantations as the staple of its economic existence. Large numbers of African slaves were purchased by plantation owners to work in the cotton fields and were often subjected to very harsh working conditions, some being physically and sexually abused and others dying of mistreatment.
Although the Civil War was not uniquely or even predominantly about the abolition of slavery, it was an issue which figured prominently in social and political circles at the time. There was a lot at stake economically in keeping Africans as slaves. You didn’t have to pay them wages, you didn’t have to take responsibility for teaching them to read or write, they couldn’t vote and plantation owners had spent a considerable amount of money buying them to work as labourers and stood to lose a lot of money if their property, so to speak was all of a sudden to no longer belong to them and now be set free and have rights like everybody else.
This caused considerable friction in the Reconstruction South as freed slaves now competed with poorer, lesser-educated whites for the lower end of the economic pie in the field of agriculture, especially cotton. It became one of the big sources of racism, seeing that Africans now were aspiring to better their lot in life and were running up against the resistance from not only wealthier white people, who feared having to pay them more money for their labours and to have to see them in their country clubs and schools, but also from poorer whites who saw what little status and dignity they did have being potentially usurped by newly-freed African slaves.
Segregation was enacted in most parts of the South so as to keep Africans from moving up the social and economic ladder and all manner of efforts were made to discourage them from participating in the democratic process by putting many obstacles in their way when it came to registering to vote. All of this changed after WWII, just as in the case with French-Canadians in Québec. Africans, just as had been the case for French-Canadians, had fought valiantly in the war and in their case in particular, had to overcome problems with racism and segregation to win the respect of their peers. After the war, the Armed Services were desegregated, which raised expectations that other parts of society would follow suite.
Eventually schools, and neighbourhoods were all desegregated and African Americans have now made great strides in living standards and social status in America. Although many people of African origin still live in inner-city ghettos, many others have managed to move up and move out through better access to government grants for higher education, private scholarships and laws which have been changed to make it easier for black people to get into positions of management in the government and the military.
Although America now has a Black President, the way America voted still underscores the old North-South and Black-White ‘fault-line’: On election night in 2008, I saw the ‘blue’ Democratic states which had voted for Barak Obama and they were mostly in the North, the old Union states, whereas the states which had voted ‘red’ Republican for John McCain were predominantly in the South, the old Confederacy, which had been pro-slavery.
So ‘fault-lines’ continue to be ‘faulty’ and continue to rumble in our two countries. As long as neither of us gets hit with the ‘Big One’ on an Apocalyptic San Andreas-like California-type of ‘faultiness’, I think we’ll all be OK. I think these ‘hot-button’ issues will always be with us and will never truly go away. It’s just how we choose to deal with the legacy of our history which ultimately determines whether or not we get to live in a state of Grace of not. I’m counting on not being graced by anything too ‘faulty’ anytime soon. Be nice to your neighbours. Try not to find ‘fault’ with them. Works for me. God Bless. Amen.