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Antony Anderson: William Howard Russell predicted the birth of the Canadian nation

Toronto, Ontario; ca.1860's--Transportation -- Ontario, Simcoe and Huron Union Railroad Engine ""TORONTO'' No.2, first locomotive built in Toronto in 1853. (CP PHOTO) 1999 (National Archives of Canada) PA-138688

The Hub is pleased to present a regular column from author and historian Antony Anderson on the week that was in Canadian history.

The 1860s: Canada comes into its own

In the spring of 1861, the most renowned correspondent of the age, William Howard Russell, who had made his name at The Times pioneering an almost whole new form of front-line war journalism with his searing dispatches from the Crimean conflict, visited the United States just before the outbreak of its civil bloodbath. He also traveled through the United Province of Canada (established in 1841), the largest and most populous piece of British North America. His insights and anxieties are captured in his 1865 book, Canada; Its Defences, Condition, And Resources.

Then as now, it was a minor miracle that an international reporter would want to write about Canada, and in detail. A June 1863 article from The Times summed up the typical British attitude, “We listen with open ears to the faintest rumour of a cabal that threatens to cripple or depose one of [U.S. President Abraham] Lincoln’s Generals but who is Minister, if any, at Quebec or any other seat of British government in America, we none of us know. If we knew to-day we should forget tomorrow.” Russell’s interest was ignited by the dread of disorder spreading across the sprawling, translucent, and indefensible border.

Officially neutral, Great Britain did not recognize the breakaway southern confederacy of slave owners as a sovereign nation. However, there were swaths of British aristocracy and mill owners, dependent on southern cotton—harvested by slaves—who were sympathetic to the cause. British merchant ships broke through the North’s blockade of southern ports to keep trading in cotton and tobacco. British North America was already seen by many Americans as a puzzling anomaly, a pathetic monarchist rump, an enduring rebuke to the glorious American revolution, “always mentioned,” as Russell noted, “in such a tone of contempt.”

This contempt, amplified by a general ignorance of all things Canadian, was preyed upon and inflamed by “violent journals” and “intemperate politicians.” Perhaps unfairly, Russell judged, “The credulity of the American mind is beyond belief.” He heard so many official and unofficial voices clamouring for the republic to march north and “liberate” Canada that he came to fear “the great American people, with hands dyed in their brothers’ gore, and who, having sacrificed friendship, traditions, constitution, and liberty at home, will think but little of adding to the pyre of their angry passions the peace and happiness of others.” In this pandemic of war fever, Russell held out a sliver of hope: that was the moderate, silent majority he believed existed which would ultimately restrain their fellow Americans from going over the edge.

Russell ventured north of the border in January 1862 and found a Canada steeped in its own contempt for the raging republic. Foreshadowing Pierre Trudeau’s much-quoted line from 1969 likening Canada-U.S. relations to living next door to an elephant, Russell saw that Canadians were keenly aware that they were “much under the influence of the unruly fellow…There is no great love for him; but his prodigious kicks and blows, his threats, his bad language, his size and insolence, frighten them up here.” The relationship was as intertwined and complicated then as it is today.

As he rode the train into Hamilton, noticing the change in the accents around him, now hearing more Scotch and Irish, Russell noticed that Canadian passengers seemed to be reading mostly American newspapers. The same held true when he left Cornwall for Montreal, even for francophones, devouring American periodicals in English, which appeared to have been pirated. Russell was impressed by the political framework constructed by these British subjects, writing, “Canada has the most liberal institutions in the world— her municipal freedom is without parallel—education is widely disseminated—religious toleration restrains the violence of factions.”

He admired the fact that francophones who had taken to arms and rebelled in 1837 and 1838 now held loyal, responsible offices in service of the Crown. But his admiration for Canada was undercut by the fact that this country had done little to secure its own defence against the U.S. There had been much talk and many proposals but Russell could see Canadians were ultimately counting on the Mother Country, an ocean away, to defend them. “There is no sign as yet that the Canadians will quite arouse from a sleep which no fears disturb, although they hear the noise of robbers. They will not prepare for war, because they wish for peace, and it is plain enough that if war should come instead of peace, England would be too late to save them, because she would be too far,” he explained.

He conceded that Great Britain did “undoubtedly owe something to Canada, from the bare fact that for many years she resisted temptation, and remained under our flag unmoved by the blandishments and threats of the United States.” But Russell insisted that Canada and the other British semi-colonies (Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, P.E.I., Newfoundland) needed to build up and pay for their militias and volunteer units.

In the interim, Russell espoused a parallel response to potential invasion, one that had been circulating at least since the 1830s when London pondered how to keep the peace after the rebellions: a formal union of all British North America. “It is surprising that it should have floated about so long, and have stirred men to action so feebly. I think it is the first notion that occurs to a stranger visiting Canada and casting about for a something to put in place of the strength which distant England cannot, and Canadians will not, afford…The time has come now in the white heat of American strife for the adoption of the process.”

The obstacles were many and formidable. The British subjects scattered from the Atlantic to the Pacific did not know or trade very much with each other. They were divided by language, religion and geography. Russell conceded these peoples shared “no bond of connection, except a common obedience to the Queen”, and that was stretching it. Still, he argued, “On the whole some such scheme appears to be the only practical mode of saving the British Provinces from the aggression of the North American Republicans.” Needless to say, the Indigenous nations were deemed irrelevant in this whole matter.

Perhaps he felt the dismay of a journalist racing to capture history on the run, but by the time Russell was preparing to see his book printed, politicians across British North America had launched the drive for Confederation at conferences in Charlottetown and Quebec City. Delighted by Westminster’s support for the peaceful Canadian evolution to self-government, Russell looked into the future and nailed it:

Generosity not inconsistent with justice may yet lay the foundations of an enduring alliance…A powerful State may arise whose greatest citizens shall be proud to receive such honours as the Monarch of England can bestow, whose people shall vie with us in the friendly contests of commerce, and stand side by side with us in battle. And when the inevitable hour of separation comes, the parting will not then be in anger.

Élie Cantin-Nantel: Why socially liberal Quebec refuses to go ‘woke’

A man waves a Quebec flag during a march to celebrate National Patriots Day in Montreal, Monday, May 20, 2024. Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

Over the last few years, Quebec has been labelled by the media as both the “least conservative province” in Canada, but also simultaneously as the province “leading the fight against wokeism.” The dynamic is fascinating and makes la belle province an outlier in a nation perceived by many to be consumed by left wing identity politics.

For some, the idea of a socially liberal society that rejects woke ideology may sound strange, but it’s exactly what we’ve seen in Quebec, as well as several European countries that are not addicted to American culture, media and entertainment.

Progressive Quebec

Quebec is indeed a very liberal place. It is the only province where Pierre Poilievre’s Conservatives are not in the lead. In fact, Conservatives have not won the majority of seats in the province since 1988.

Of all Canadians, Quebecers are the most supportive of a woman’s right to an abortion (89 percent). Quebec became the first Canadian province to legalize physician assisted suicide in 2014, and a decade later, is the “world’s euthanasia hotspot” with a regime so lenient that it has many experts worried.

Quebec was the first province to protect gay people from discrimination in 1977, and polling shows Quebecers today are among the most likely to speak up against homophobia and transphobia.

Quebec is also the least religious province in Canada. A 2022 poll found that 64 percent of Quebecers don’t believe in a God, more than 70 percent say religion isn’t important in their life. Just 22 percent of Quebecers regularly attend religious services. Amidst this lack of religion, more couples in Quebec opt for common law relationships than marriage. According to Statistics Canada, there are more common law couples with children (​​48.5 percent) in Quebec than married couples with children (45.2 percent). Secularism has also become state law, with religious symbols being banned in government institutions, something supported by the majority of Quebecers.

Add to that, Quebec’s ultra progressive environmental record, with a net-zero agenda, that seeks to radically transition away from oil and gas.

But while Quebec continues to have a liberal legacy, the province has also repeatedly said no to wokeism.

Rejecting woke

At the height of the Black Lives Matter movement, Quebec Premier François Legault repeatedly rejected claims that Quebec is a systematically racist province. Rather than defund the police, Montreal’s left-wing mayor Valérie Plante opted to give them more money. In fact, polling shows  that Quebecers may be just as wary of “defunding” the police as Albertans.

Quebec has also seen a multi-partisan pushback against “diversity, equity and inclusion” (DEI) initiatives that discriminate against white men. In 2022, the Quebec National Assembly unanimously passed a motion promoting merit based hiring instead of DEI quota based hiring.

Quebec politicians have also rushed to the defence of Caucasian professors being cancelled by anglophone students over their use of the “N-word” in academic contexts. Quebec Liberal Party leader Dominique Anglade, the province’s first black woman party leader, was among those who defended the professors, declaring that, “political correctness has gone too far.” The province now has the strongest campus free speech legislation in the country.

Uniquely, the use of the “N-word” seems to have become a litmus test for Quebec politicians. During one of the 2022 provincial election debates, the leader of the left-wing Parti Quebecois Paul St-Pierre Plamondon made the leader of the even more left-wing socialist Quebec Solidaire party, Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, say the title of FLQ intellectual leader Pierre Valiere’s famous book, White N****** of America, on live TV to demonstrate that he wasn’t woke. In English Canada, mentioning this book’s name, even behind closed doors, will end your career.