We’re still here.
It’s been 141 years since this improbable country was created from a collection of disparate British colonies, with little linking them other than the fact they were not the United States. And yet we persist.
In fact (and don’t let on, lest we lose our characteristic Canadian angst), we’re doing rather well.
For a while at least, the perennial national unity crisis has been put to bed. That doesn’t mean it won’t flare up again. But right now, Quebecers seem content to exhibit what the province’s nationalists call their "specificity" within a more or less unified Canada.
Even the regional disparity crisis has been eased. Thanks to offshore drilling and the high price of oil, Newfoundland is no longer an economic basket case. In fact, it is now, somewhat archly, offering to help Ontario.
Saskatchewan, too, is booming. A few short years ago, its population was shrinking as young people left home to make a better life elsewhere. Now, thanks again to high prices for oil and other raw materials, migrants are streaming into the province.
Those same high oil prices (and the consequent rise of the Canadian dollar) have taken a whack out of the Ontario economy. Even so, we are not talking Dirty Thirties here. The province’s unemployment rate has not soared; real incomes remain relatively high.
Ontario may be losing Big Three auto jobs in Oshawa and Windsor, but Toyota is opening a new plant later this year in Woodstock, while Ford is set to increase production in Oakville. The Conference Board of Canada, a business think-tank, predicts that even the hard-hit auto parts sector will rebound next year.
Politically, we have survived as well.
As prime minister, Stephen Harper has not turned Canada into Washington’s 51st state. He is not captive to the religious right and has not dismantled the federal government.
Like other demonized leaders (former Ontario premier Mike Harris comes to mind, as does Pierre Trudeau – when he was alive), Harper has operated, more or less, within the normal parameters of Canadian politics. He makes promises, breaks promises, cozies up to Quebec and focuses on his own re-election.
Indeed, the striking thing about Canada 141 years after Confederation is how little the country has changed.
In 1867, like now, we were a nation dependent on immigrants, making our living mainly by exporting raw materials to the rest of the world.
We both envied and feared the Americans in those days. We still do.
In 1867, citizens of the new Dominion of Canada fretted about their place in the world. We latched onto our colonial protector, Britain, because the world was a scary place.
Today, the world remains frightening. The Mad Mahdi, the 19th-century Muslim fanatic who chilled newspaper readers of the day, has been replaced in popular culture by the equally scary Osama bin Laden. Our British protectors have been replaced by American ones.
Yet we are still of two minds. We genuinely appreciate our allies and friends. Yet our reliance on them rankles. We long to be taken seriously on the world stage. But we still don’t want to pay the price, either in money or blood.
At moments of great stress, we remain willing to put our all, or at least most of our all, into what we think is a great cause. Tens of thousands of Canadians died in the two world wars of the 20th century.
But in other armed conflicts, we are warier. We took part in Britain’s turn-of-the-century Boer War, but only with reluctance. We strongly supported the United Nations side in the Korean War, but tried to delay sending combat troops as long as possible.
We sat out the Vietnam War, while quietly backing the U.S. side in subtle ways. We joined in the first Gulf War but kept most of our troops there out of the fray.
In 2003, we decided against formally joining U.S. President George W. Bush’s coalition of the willing against Iraq. But when American troops invaded, they were quietly backed by Canadian naval ships in the Persian Gulf.
Even our vigorous military action in Afghanistan gets a mixed response at home. We praise our soldiers’ bravery but, if the polls can be believed, aren’t sure they should be there.
Throughout our history, we have been both rich and resilient. We survived the Depression of the 1930s, the high interest rates of the 1980s and the slump of the early 1990s.
Yet we still fret. Sometime we think we have too much foreign investment; at other times we think we don’t have enough.
Earlier this year, most analysts were convinced the Canadian economy was headed for recession. Now, inflation is touted as the great worry.
Some – and this is truly Canadian – predict both.
We have always depended on immigrants to provide the labour power and sheer numbers that keep real estate speculators happy, wages down and skilled jobs filled. Yet, from New Democratic Party icon J.S. Woodsworth, whose early 20th-century book, Strangers Within Our Gates, warned about the difficulty of assimilating Eastern European immigrants, to rightish newspaper columnist Mark Steyn, whose more recent America Alone warns of the dangers posed by unconstrained Muslim immigration, we have always worried.
Will the newcomers adjust? Will they fit in? Will they change our traditional ways?
And yet, our traditional ways, such as they are, persist. Canadians of all races and creeds pay homage to iconic symbols of a shared nationhood – medicare, Tim Hortons (which, typically, is U.S.-owned) and the former theme song of Hockey Night in Canada.
Even the alleged terrorists involved in the so-called Toronto 18 plot to behead the prime minister spent much of their time driving from one Tim Hortons doughnut shop to another, ordering what aficionados of the genre call "four-by-four" coffees (four creams, four sugars).
In temperament, we are as we have always been – realistically optimistic with a touch of grim fatalism. As Hollywood can attest, irony is our main cultural export.
Even our superlatives are muted. Pretty good. Not bad. Could be worse.
From Alice Munro to Rohinton Mistry to Margaret Atwood, our most celebrated authors are pessimists. It was Atwood who famously identified survival as the great Canadian theme.
We are rich from our natural resources. Yet even as we count the cash from these resources, we worry that being mere hewers of wood and drawers of water demonstrates a kind of moral failure.
For a while, we yearned to be a manufacturing giant like, say, Pennsylvania – until that Northeastern U.S. state collapsed into a rust belt of failed steel plants and bankrupt fabricators.
Then, we longed to build a so-called Silicon Valley north – until those jobs began to disappear to low-wage countries such as India.
So, we shrug our shoulders, worry about the Arctic ice cap, complain about the high price of gasoline, and pocket the rewards, direct or otherwise, from this high price.
We are not sure what’s going to happen but figure we should stick it out anyway. We’ve lasted this long. Maybe we can last another 141 years.
Things may not be always great. But really, they could be worse.
Thomas Walkom’s regular column appears Wednesday and Saturday.