THE LAST SPIKE AND THE LAST STRAW: HOW THE GHOSTS OF SIR JOHN A. MCDONALD, LOUIS RIEL AND HONORÉ MERCIER HAVE LED US TO TODAY’S PREDICAMENT WITH STEPHEN HARPER AND PAULINE MAROIS. OR HOW CANADA CAME TOGETHER HAS A LOT TO DO WITH HOW IT IS CURRENTLY COMING APART!
Funny thing how history repeats itself. Not funny ‘ha ha’ but funny ‘peculiar.’ I was on the couch today with yet another cup of coffee on a mid-week afternoon near sunset on a cold January afternoon in Ontariariario, contemplating divine mysteries, and I got to thinking about the current ‘State of the Union’, so to speak, of Canada. Our priest at Church last Sunday mentioned that in certain countries, at the beginning of the legislative session they have a ‘State of the Union’ speech to mark out where the government wants to go in the next session.
I gritted my teeth. Here we go again. Not only is our hymnal American, but our Pastor watches so much American TV that he isn’t even cognizant (or if he is, didn’t bother to correct himself) that the beginning of session speech in Canada is called the ‘Speech From the Throne.’ I get so mad. I know I live in a border town, but come on, stand behind your own country folks. But getting back to the issue at hand. The ‘state’ of our ‘union’ such as it is, in what is left of Canada, is not so good. What came to mind was just how much we’d come full circle in the evolution, or should I say devolution of our country.
I’ve been noticing that a lot in a lot of things over the last decade or so, especially since the end of the Cold War. Like the song from that period sang by a one hit wonder called ‘Jesus Jones’: ‘Right here right now, there is no other place I’d rather be. Right here right now, watching the world wake up from history.’ It was as if they were heralding the beginning of the end or the end of the beginning of some new era or process of ‘thesis/antithesis/synthesis/thesis and that now we were quickly ‘waking up’ to an all new paradigm in global relations, that the world we’d inherited in the wake of the Allied victory of WWII was now gone and we were started something brand new.
But where does that leave Canada? As I lay there I thought about how Canada’s geopolitical territory was consolidated back in 1885 with the famous ‘last spike’ in the Canadian Pacific Railway being planted that year. It was immortalized in a famous photograph for the history books and is now part of our nation’s iconography. But what of the compromises that went into making that photograph a reality? In theatre we often talk about heroic or tragic figures having a so-called ‘tragic flaw’ in their character which inevitably comes to haunt them and leads to their downfall.
I’m wondering if the ‘heroic/tragic’ figure of Canadian Confederation, as personified by the process of ‘How the West Was Won’ (if I may borrow from the American far western lexicon) didn’t perhaps contain its own ‘tragic flaw’ which contained the seeds of the eventual downfall of our nation. Let me explain.
Canada’s geo-political territory was consolidated in the wake of the Northwest Rebellion of 1885, whereby the last vestiges of resistance to westward expansion by the Crown were subdued by armed force at the Battle of Batoche and the leader of the rebels, Louis Riel, a Métis, was captured and later tried in a show trial on what have been since considered to be trumped up charges, and was hanged at a desolate place called ‘Pile ‘o Bones’ Saskatchewan, the location of present day Regina, the provincial capital.
Mr. Riel, being a Métis, or of mixed Aboriginal and French-Canadian ancestry as well as being Catholic, had had the support of French-Canadian Catholics in Québec all throughout his struggle against the Crown in his vain rearguard attempt to preserve his people’s semi-nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle on the Great Plains of Canada in the face of the inevitable onslaught of the Crown’s desire to seize control of the western lands and open up new markets for colonization for sedentary farming communities to grow wheat and raise animals which would be shipped back to Montréal and Toronto and who would serve as a captive market for consumer goods manufactured in tariff-protected industries in Québec and Ontario. It was a business-oriented plan for economic and political development which foresaw the expansion of Canada as a geo-political entity from sea to sea and especially to create new business opportunities and markets for the Montréal and Toronto business elites who’d been struggling in the previous decades to maintain their economic viability by attempting to secure access to markets in the United States and Britain through the negotiation of various trade and tariff arrangements, all of which had recently failed to produce satisfactory results.
The Montréal elites had recently seen their privileged access to British colonial markets for grain wiped out by the abolition of the Corn Laws in 1846, as Britain adopted a more Free Trade policy to quell the upward pressure on wages being demanded by British factory workers by making their existing meagre wages go further by reducing the cost of bread by reducing the cost of wheat by abolishing preferential tariffs on colonial wheat crops. Hence Montréal merchants had briefly made a desperate attempt at lobbying for annexation to America, which failed, which led to a brief period of ‘Free Trade’ by virtue of the Reciprocity Agreement of 1854-66 whereby Canadian merchants got access to US markets for certain staple products for a brief period before the agreement was abrogated just on the eve of Confederation.
So Confederation of 1867 had a lot to do with saving the bacon of the Montréal and Toronto business elites and finding new markets for them by re-orienting trade back towards the east-west axis by annexing the North-West and opening up four new provinces for economic development. Which is all very well and nice, but the Métis were sacrificed in the process and the Métis were mostly French-speaking and Catholic and the government which did this deed was mostly English-speaking and Protestant. Needless to say it drove a wedge between the two groups.
Sir John A. Mcdonald’s Conservative Party has since then never done well in the Province of Québec, with a couple of exceptions which confirm the rule such as John Diefenbaker’s election of 1958 and Brian Mulroney’s government’s of 1984 and 1988, all of which were predicated upon some very tenuous and ultimately ethereal and ephemeral Conservative support in that Province. The martyrdom of Riel as a crucible in which the Canadian nation was forged from sea to sea to sea therefore essentially contains the seed of our nation’s potential undoing. For in the Herculean effort expended to get us to ‘come together’ geopolitically, a lasting spiritual rift was created between east and west, French and English Catholic and Protestant, which still endures to this day.
For when Riel was hanged, it sparked outrage in Québec and eventually led to the election of the first overtly proto-secessionist nationalist government in the province of Québec in the person of Honoré Mercier, who, essentially used Riel’s martyrdom as a tool to flirt openly with the notion of Québec secession, but which he backed away from officially in those days, the time not yet having become ripe to overtly and explicitly advocate for secession in the public domain and not fear public repression from the authorities.
If one reads the French language sources, as I have from Mercier’s day, especially from websites which are explicitly secessionist, one quickly realizes that Mercier was a man far ahead of his time and who in today’s world would probably be the René Levesque of his day. This leads me to the present day. Stephen Harper is essentially attempting not to reconcile the legacy of Riel’s martyrdom, but rather to exacerbate our country’s existing ethno-linguistic and geo-political and religious cleavages by essentially trying to move the center of power out to Calgary, to marginalize the demographic and linguistic weight of Québec in Parliament, to ghettoize it as much as he possibly can and to essentially ensure that Québec stays out of the center of decision-making power in Ottawa for as long as possible.
This is precisely because he and those like him from out west resent the way Québecers reacted to Riel’s martyrdom by essentially wiping his party off the map in Québec, having the Catholic Church patch things up with the previously anti-clerical Liberal Party of Wilfred Laurier, which had long fought with the clergy over separation of Church and state and secular ideas permeating Québec society, and to essentially pave the way for a virtually uninterrupted 20th century reign of Liberal rule in Ottawa with the Province of Québec being the perennial lynchpin or ‘swing vote’ province which usually voted Liberal, thereby frustrating the Conservative Party at virtually every turn by keeping them out of power in Ottawa by virtue of their ‘original sin’ committed against the French and Catholics in their quest to unite this fractious country of ours with an uninterrupted ribbon of metal from coast to coast.
It looks like it might end up coming back to haunt all of us in the long run. What comes around goes around. Pauline Marois may hark back all the way to the Battle of the Plains of Abraham to stoke her chauvinistic pride as she gazes out from her official residence in the Price Building onto the Battlefields park, (a beautiful Art Deco masterpiece of a building which used to house the head offices of the Price Brothers pulp and paper company, now Abitibi Bowater of Toronto, a nice Anglo Québec family who still live in town), but the truth of the matter is that the more recent source of our malaise dates from 1885 and the ‘coming together’ of Canada, which is slowly but surely causing it to ‘come apart.’
Definitely not a ‘funny ha ha’ scenario to contemplate, but as I sit here on a dark January evening in the Great White North in what is left of the True North Strong and Free, I can’t help but ponder about the ‘State of our Union.’ Come to think of it Parliament is supposed to reconvene soon and there is supposed to be a Speech From the Throne. Why am I not enthused? I don’t even watch the news anymore. Same old same old. Stephen Harper makes it very difficult to get enthused or excited about being Canadian. Everything is about ‘jobs’ ‘the economy’ ‘growth’, ‘prosperity’, ‘sales’, ‘earnings’, ‘markets’, ‘interest rates’, ‘consumers’, ‘security’, ‘globalization’, ‘combating terrorism’, ‘being competitive’, ‘efficiency’, ‘productivity’. Sounds very cold, dehumanized, and even inhuman. Whatever happened to say, Peace, Love, God, compassion, fellowship, mercy, sharing, the common good, justice, and fairness and so on?
What would Christ say? I think he’d say: ‘love one another as I have loved you.’ In fact he DID say that. I wonder if there’s a Tim Hortons in Batoche. Maybe we could get Pauline Marois and Stephen Harper to sit down there one dark evening in January and talk about…the price of gas? Hockey? The weather? Taxes? They might have a lot to bellyache about but I think they’d quickly come to the conclusion that we’ve got a darn good country which deserves to keep on truckin’.
So you guys in Brockville don’t be steppin’ on no Fleur-de-Lys Flags and you folks in Québec don’t be burnin’ no Maple leaf flags on St. Jean Baptiste day. Louis Riel may have got himself hanged at a ‘Pile o’ Bones’ in some far off place in Saskatchewan, but I ain’t makin’ no ‘bones about it’: We stand on guard for thee, O Canada, and Canada will stand on guard for us all!!! Amen, Ainsi soit t’il.