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Canadian history series ( I ) - Introduction: The Canadian Experience

Canadians are a strange people — confident and quiet most of the time, but also frequently uncertain and sometimes boisterous. Newcomers to Canada often find it difficult to get to know them, this strange multicultural people in an officially bilingual country. How did Canadians develop into a French-English-First Nations-multiethnic society? What historical and institutional forces made us what we are today? And how can Canadians communicate what shaped them, how their governmental systems operate, and what they think to the quarter-million newcomers who arrive each year?
The Canadian Experience, a collection of 52 columns by some of Canada’s best historians, will explain who we are, where we came from, and where we’re going. The columns will be polite — we’re Canadian, after all! — but they’ll be blunt and point to shortcomings as often as they sing Canada’s praises. Self-criticism is another Canadian habit. What the columns will always be is interesting and informative, a good guide for Canadians old and new.
The series will begin with a look at Canada’s geography and climate — we know it’s cold! — and then discuss the basics of Canada’s government. What’s a Governor-General?, for example, and why should someone appointed by the Queen (and why does Canada still have a Queen?) be the commander-in-chief of the Canadian Forces? Why does a liberal democracy like Canada have an appointed Senate? How do elections work here? The courts? The public service?
Then we turn to politics: the present political parties, Conservatives, Liberals, the New Democratic Party, and the Bloc Québécois. Just how is it that Quebec sends separatist Members of Parliament to Ottawa? What kind of nation permits separatists dedicated to the destruction of Canada as it is to sit in its Parliament? The answer, Canadians will say, is a democratic nation. Then the series will examine the nation’s greatest prime ministers, Sir John A. Macdonald, Sir Wilfrid Laurier, William Lyon Mackenzie King, and Lester “Mike” Pearson to name a few
And then we turn to the people of Canada. The First Nations, appropriately enough, come first, as they were the initial inhabitants of the land that became Canada. They were followed by the French, the British, and a host of others, settling the land and arguing with each other over language, religion, and political power. Over time, and especially in the last 50 years, the population changed dramatically as immigrants came to Canada from China, India, Latin America, Africa and the Middle East. A formerly “white” nation became “a coat of many colours,” as someone once described it, a nation with citizens from every part of the globe. Soon Parliament had declared Canada a multicultural nation, recognizing the reality.
The series then looks at the provinces and regions that make up Canada and at the way the federal government in Ottawa deals with the provinces and territories. Federal-provincial relations are a critical part of Canada’s governmental system, and as some provinces grow quickly and get richer, others lose people and wealth. Canada is one of the few nations that attempts to equalize wealth across the country with richer provinces contributing funds to reach a rough balance of services for all. It’s far from being perfect, but Canadians at least try.
The Canadian Experience then looks at the way Canada and Britain have managed their relations. London was the centre of the world for much of Canada’s early colonial history, and Ottawa played an important role in turning the British Empire into the Commonwealth of Nations. But if Canada became independent of Britain, as it was by 1931, its sharing a continent with the United States forced it to deal with the giant next door. This was not always easy and Canadians, one historian said, were the first anti-Americans. We’ll look at how Canadians get on with Uncle Sam.
The series ends with a long look at Canada’s military history. Some Canadians think their nation has been and still is the world’s best peacekeeper, and many do not even realize that Canada has fought wars for its survival. More than 115,000 Canadians died in World Wars I and II, fighting for democracy and freedom; others fought in Korea early in the 1950s, and Canadians today are fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan. But Canada has indeed been a peacekeeper, one of the inventors of the idea at the United Nations and one of the major participants in dozens of peace operations.
Canada’s history is a proud one. This is a nation that has never invaded another country in its own self-interest. This is a country that has never fought an aggressive war. Canada is a liberal-democratic state that, of course, has its national interests and its cherished values, and as such, it tries to work out its domestic and foreign policies in peaceful ways. Welcome to The Canadian Experience.

The Canadian Experience is a 52-week history series designed to tell the story of our country to all Canadians. Sponsored by Multimedia Nova Corporation and Diversity Media Services/Lingua Ads partners, the series features articles by our country’s foremost historians on a wide range of topics. Past articles and author bios are available at http://www.cdnexperience.ca. The Canadian Experience is copyright © 2010-2011 Multimedia Nova Corporation.

Next Instalment: The Geography of Canada

By J.L. Granatstein    5/3/2010


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