‘Very Sensitive’ citizens, ‘Bizarre’ politicians: What a British ambassador’s secret report on Canada reveals 40 years later

The Wilson letter describes Canada’s international exceptionalism, but also exposes our mediocrity
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau greets people attending Canada Day celebrations at LeBreton Flats, Ottawa on July 1, 2023. Justin Tang/The Canadian Press.

Exactly 40 years ago, in 1984, a stuffy English gentleman put down his cup of tea, looked out from his lavish Victorian mansion across the churning Ottawa River, and penned one of the most insightful and scathing critiques of Canada ever known.

The man was John McMoran Wilson, a lord, a baron, son of Winston Churchill’s doctor, and the fourteenth British High Commissioner to Canada. After nearly four decades as a diplomat and with postings in eight countries including the U.S., Israel, Hungary, Turkey, Brazil, and South Africa, his final four years were spent stationed in the Great White North. Before his departure, the ambassador was tasked with providing his unfiltered thoughts on Canada and its people. Diplomatic or not.

Wilson believed his candid review “Last Impressions of Canada” would only be seen by the British foreign office. Instead, 25 years later, it was uncovered through a freedom of information request and revealed by the media, offending an entire Canadian nation.

The Wilson letter is a treasure trove of observations made by an outsider looking in. It is complimentary, but also, at times, condescending, rude, and even offensive. It describes Canada’s international exceptionalism, but it also exposes our mediocrity. It is worth revisiting because it tells us things we need to hear about ourselves. Wilson’s parting words (and shots) show us how much Canada has changed in the last four decades, how much it has stayed the same, how history repeats, and how much we have yet to achieve.

1984: Canada on the move

Canada in 1984 was a nation that had just cut its own umbilical cord. Under the close watch of High Commissioner Wilson, Queen Elizabeth II had been invited to Ottawa to patriate our Constitution, severing our dependence on the U.K. The “mother country” was seeing off her child. A child still searching for an identity.

“Canadians are a moderate, comfortable, people”, Wilson asserted in his letter. “[They] are mildly nationalistic, (but perhaps less shrilly so than Australians), very sensitive, especially to any expressed or implied British sneers about Canada as ‘boring,’ and perhaps somewhat lacking in self-confidence.”

Little has changed.

From the archival file folder: Pierre Trudeau, 1980. The Canadian Press/files.
On Trudeau senior

As in 2024, in 1984 a Trudeau was running the country and a Trudeau government was on its last legs. After more than 15 years in power, Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau had taken his final walk in the snow and concluded he would not lead the Liberals into the next election.

Wilson was plainly not the prime minister’s biggest fan. “Although I like him personally…he has never entirely shaken off his past as a well-to-do hippie and draft dodger,” the ambassador confessed. “He is an odd fish and his own worst enemy, and on the whole I think his influence on Canada in the past sixteen years has been detrimental.”

Similar to criticisms Justin Trudeau has faced, Wilson called out Trudeau senior for seeking to strengthen ties with authoritarian countries like China. He found Pierre Trudeau’s “views on East-West relations” to be “particularly suspect”.

Like his son, and many other Canadian prime ministers determined to centralize power, Pierre Trudeau was seen as not paying enough attention to provincial leaders. “He treated provincial premiers with contempt and provincial governments as if they were town councils,” wrote Wilson.

Wilson concluded that Canadian politics was “run on ‘jobs for the boys’”, with “party hacks” rewarded with plum positions. While all Canadian political parties are guilty of this charge, the point in Pierre Trudeau’s case was reinforced when, on his way out the door, the prime minister insisted more than 70 Liberals be given patronage appointments, creating a ghost that would forever haunt his successor John Turner.

On Canadian politicians

According to High Commissioner Wilson, Canadian politicians, on the whole, were underwhelming. The diplomat thought corporate executives could probably run the country better.

“[T]he calibre of Canadian politicians is low. The level of debate in the House of Commons is correspondingly low: the majority of Canadian ministers are unimpressive and a few we have found frankly bizarre”, he observed.

The needle hasn’t moved much. In 2024, Canadians with little to do will be able to watch hours of Question Period featuring elected officials rising to nervously read off uninspiring remarks typed up by twenty-something party communication officers. And thanks to some choice MPs, including a parliamentary secretary caught naked and then caught urinating on a House of Commons video feed, Canadian politicians have retained their “bizarreness.”

In 1984, Wilson also recounted what little faith Canadian citizens seemed to have in their elected officials. “The Canadian public expects very little of politicians and tends to shrug its shoulders when the press or television report yet another scandal,” he wrote.

This may ring even more true 40 years later, with only 32 percent of Canadians now reporting they have a good or great deal of confidence in their federal parliament. Meanwhile, the federal government still has yet to name a permanent ethics watchdog to monitor its (mis)behaviour.

The High Commissioner was particularly struck by a lack of varying ideologies in Canadian politics. Back home in the U.K., he saw a Conservative and Labour Party offering vastly different ideas for the societies they wanted to create. Yet, “In Canada the philosophic differences between Liberals and Progressive Conservatives are scarcely perceptible,” Wilson concluded.

Today, Prime Minister Trudeau and Pierre Poilievre will tell you their visions for the country could not be more different. It will be up to voters to decide if that is true. Beyond that, what we moderate, reasonable Canadians can celebrate is that for nearly 160 years, most of the worst forms of extremism, hatred, and violence we have seen creep into legislatures elsewhere in the world do not seem to have made it into the House of Commons.

On Canadian mediocrity

Wilson reserved some of his harshest criticism for what he saw as Canadian mediocrity and a lack of talent. “Anyone who is even moderately good at what they do—in literature, the theatre, skiing or whatever—tends to become a national figure,” he observed in 1984. “[A]nyone who stands out at all from the crowd tends to be praised to the skies and given the Order of Canada at once.”

In 2023, the Governor General awarded 163 Orders of Canada, including one for improving “standards in accounting” and another for advancing “rug hooking as an art form”. One may well wonder if our bar for national greatness is set just a few centimetres lower than in other countries.

On immigration

On immigration, Wilson’s observations stray into outright racism, even by 1984 standards. The diplomat was concerned that, “The presence of the ‘ethnics’ is already beginning to cause minor problems in Toronto and Montreal, though happily, as yet, nothing at all comparable to the looming social problems associated with the proliferation of blacks and hispanics in so many American cities, or with the riots in British cities in 1981.” He worries that, “already” immigrants from places like Italy, Ukraine, China, and Germany are “nearly 8 million…”

One can only imagine what the prejudiced diplomat would have said if he was told that, in 2024, nearly half of Toronto residents would be immigrants and nearly 60 percent visible minorities. Or that the federal government plans to welcome a record-setting 485,000 more new permanent residents to Canada this year. No riots. But certainly impending mass protests over a lack of housing.

On Indigenous Peoples

Wilson expressed similarly derogatory views of Indigenous Peoples, claiming the population “will be a headache for years to come.” He describes how Indigenous people fill Canadians with feelings of guilt. He decries the thinking behind the Indian Act and the “special privileged status”, “vast subsidies,” and unemployment he claims it has allowed. Instead, he recommends spending more government money on integration, encouraging Indigenous people to “adapt to the modern world.”

In the decades that followed Wilson’s commentary, the Canadian government attempted to confront this guilt head-on by apologizing for residential schools which forced assimilation, by providing former students with support and compensation, and by initiating the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The Idle No More movement swept through Ottawa. We witnessed a national outcry over claims of unmarked graves at former residential school sites. Numerous long-term drinking water advisories were lifted, but many remain. Some bands have been joint partners in development projects. Many Indigenous people have actually found strength and healing not by assimilating, but by discovering their culture for the first time.

But, much remains bleak. By some accounts, the federal government has fulfilled only 13 of the Commission’s 94 calls to action. In 2019, a horrifying 88 percent of Indigenous youth admitted to secure custody in Saskatchewan were Indigenous. Suicide rates for Inuit kids were about 24 times the national average. For many Indigenous People, is life in Canada any better than it was in 1984?

On the environment

High Commissioner Wilson was however ahead of his time when it came to the environment and climate change. Nearly 20 years before Greta Thunberg was born, his letter describes how air and water pollution in Canada, “has been allowed to become a serious problem which has not been adequately tackled”. He fears for our virgin forests. He complains about Sudbury’s gigantic smelting smokestack. He points to troubling tumours appearing on Great Lakes fish. Wilson would spend his retirement leading wildlife conservation groups. 

Forty years later, climate change has worsened. Thousands of hectares of this country’s old-growth forests have been logged, albeit somewhat more responsibly. Thankfully, the 1987 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement helped bring down the prevalence of fish with tumours. The Sudbury smokestack has been decommissioned.

Looking forward, looking back

Before boarding his diplomatic aircraft back home, Wilson concludes his final dispatch by describing just how fortunate he was to have been given such an “interesting and agreeable job” as his last in the foreign service. The British High Commissioner urges readers and future ambassadors that, if they want to find the friendliest Canucks, they should visit Alberta, Saskatchewan, or the Atlantic provinces (still true today). He says he will miss the call of the loon. And, having crisscrossed the “vast and disunited” country numerous times, he regrets having never stopped in Flin Flon, Manitoba.

In 2014, at the age of 89, Wilson died. In his letter, the Second World War veteran turned diplomat turned lord left behind a four-decade-old and since unearthed Canada time capsule. In 2024 Canadians can choose to learn from it or throw it into the dustbin of history.

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