Both the name, Dominion (adopted in 1867) and Canada's motto, A Mari usque ad Mare (From Sea to Sea – chosen in 1921) are taken from the Bible's Psalm 72:8. May I suggest we have a look at this Psalm? for I think it says something important about nationhood.
Psalm 72 KJV (King David prays for his successor, Solomon)This prayer by King David for his son, Solomon, could no doubt be read in a number of ways. Christians, for example, might see in it a prophecy of the coming kingdom of Christ. Freeemasons, who included among their number Canada's first Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, might see in this some sign of import to their mystic faith, since Solomon and his temple are central to Masonic myth and ritual. For my purposes, it will suffice to adopt the perspective of a Jewish nation that has not always been a politically successful nation, not always united under a king, and that desires a political centre around which a new power and freedom can be organized, with a king who can compare most well in power – but also in wisdom and love for his people - with other rulers. Yet more to the point, what David is praying for is not that Solomon be simply all powerful and able to indulge his every desire; rather, David wants Solomon to become a worthy servant of his people, a gift of God to them, that Solomon may represent Israel in such a way as to bring its people justice, redemption, and tribute from other nations.
1 Give the king thy judgments, O God, and thy righteousness unto the king's son.
2 He shall judge thy people with righteousness, and thy poor with judgment.
3 The mountains shall bring peace to the people, and the little hills, by righteousness.
4 He shall judge the poor of the people, he shall save the children of the needy, and shall break in pieces the oppressor.
5 They shall fear thee as long as the sun and moon endure, throughout all generations.
6 He shall come down like rain upon the mown grass: as showers that water the earth.
7 In his days shall the righteous flourish; and abundance of peace so long as the moon endureth.
8 He shall have dominion also from sea to sea, and from the river unto the ends of the earth.
9 They that dwell in the wilderness shall bow before him; and his enemies shall lick the dust.
10 The kings of Tarshish and of the isles shall bring presents: the kings of Sheba and Seba shall offer gifts.
11 Yea, all kings shall fall down before him: all nations shall serve him.
12 For he shall deliver the needy when he crieth; the poor also, and him that hath no helper.
13 He shall spare the poor and needy, and shall save the souls of the needy.
14 He shall redeem their soul from deceit and violence: and precious shall their blood be in his sight.
15 And he shall live, and to him shall be given of the gold of Sheba: prayer also shall be made for him continually; and daily shall he be praised.
16 There shall be an handful of corn in the earth upon the top of the mountains; the fruit thereof shall shake like Lebanon: and they of the city shall flourish like grass of the earth.
17 His name shall endure for ever: his name shall be continued as long as the sun: and men shall be blessed in him: all nations shall call him blessed.
18 Blessed be the LORD God, the God of Israel, who only doeth wondrous things.
19 And blessed be his glorious name for ever: and let the whole earth be filled with his glory; Amen, and Amen.
20 The prayers of David the son of Jesse are ended.
In other words, Solomon will belong to Israel, even as Israel will be Solomon’s dominion. Thus, we might ask, when Canada's Fathers of Confederation considered this psalm in the 1860s, and read the words "dominion also from sea to sea..." whose Dominion did they think the Dominion of Canada would be? Were they simply imagining that Canada belonged to a monarch and would be ruled by Queen Victoria in a manner comparable to King Solomon and Israel? Surely not, for while Solomon’s Israel may have been, in its time, on the cutting edge of human freedom and power, times had moved on and the Queen (or her Canadian representatives) as head of state and society, would have relatively little direct political power in the constitution the Fathers were writing. If the Fathers gave the problem much thought, they might have got stuck on the problem of how to conceive the relationship between a nation's representatives - those holding governmental power - and the political, ethical or esthetic representations that are appropriate to the nation, the representations that express what the nation is about and what belonging to it means.
They might have asked, given their status as would-be fathers of a new nation, does the nation come first and then, from out of the body politic, somehow emerge its representatives? Or, must "representatives" first come on scene in order to represent the nation that will then come into being? While the Fathers of Confederation were the duly elected representatives of their respective crown colonies, the Canadian Confederation of the (former) colonies was not yet in existence, the writers and artists who would imagine the new nation had yet to go to work. So clearly, in some sense a new nation needed fathers – it needed Davids - to anticipate what the Solomons might yet achieve. It needed fathers to offer up some signs of the people that the people would later form around.
While the boy may be father of the man, a new nation cannot give birth to its own fathers. But on the other hand, fathers cannot work their magic alone. If would-be fathers are not somehow in conversation with the people they propose to bring into being, the people will hardly be in a position to follow them into being. The fathers may give us the word, but if we are not ready and willing to pick it up and to do something with it their word will not go anywhere. Both fathers and sons must desire to build a new scene. Even in the most totalitarian contexts, power cannot be simply imposed; it is always negotiated with those who will share in it. Yet someone has to go first, out of a faith that the people are ready for, and in need of, a change.
If the politicians of the British North American colonies of the 1860s hadn't had the motivation and imagination to get together and bring a new nation into being, it may never have happened. Now you can find many historical interpretations of what happened: historians will tell you that the Fathers got together to serve the commercial interests (the Fathers’ own interests) of the white male bourgeoisie, or to better fend off American imperialists with eyes on the northlands, or to break the political impasse between English and French in the then united colonies of the Canadas West and East (what became Ontario and Quebec). No doubt there is something to these explanations that is necessary to understanding the scenes of British North America in the 1860s.
Still, we need to be wary of reducing history to questions of self-interested people seeking out power. There were no guarantees that Confederation would work out (after all, two colonies - Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland – at first refused Confederation, seeing nothing in it for them). If successful, a new way of organizing power must entail a leap of faith, faith that present problems can be transcended and a new system can emerge with greater degrees of freedom so that there will be greater freedom, wealth, and power to be shared by all - faith that the whole can be greater than the sum of its parts. And it takes political entrepreneurs to imagine and lead the change, with no guarantee that they, personally, will be one of the beneficiaries.
While it may sound a little silly, what must be considered in an explanation of Confederation is that the Fathers of Confederation were motivated in good part by a desire to be fathers (and not just to remain sons of Great Britain, each to his own colonial domain). The lesson here is that we too must expect of ourselves and our fellow citizens that we go, from time to time, into the Covenant Zone, and there share in representing a leap of faith into a new form of political communion.
Recently, an NDP politician has been campaigning to change Canada’s motto “from sea to sea” to “from sea to sea to sea”. Perhaps he feels he is re-imagining the Canadian covenant as a good citizen should. I imagine he thinks the 1921 motto excludes the people of Canada’s north, the people around the Arctic sea. I imagine he appeals to a victimary politics whose motivation is to seek out and include those who, supposedly, have been so far excluded - symbolically or materially - from the fold. Yet the problem I see in this is that rarely does such a politics have much to say about what we (as fathers, mothers, daughters and sons, and with the national spirit that links the generations) might represent. To the victimary religion that rules our age, it is always a question of who is not represented, and not what is to be represented. The nation is nothing but the sum of its parts. In fact, any active form of representation is deemed problematic because to represent is to imply boundaries, limits; and this is feared even when our representations promise greater degrees of freedom than those made possible by earlier forms of representation.
It is not so important to the victimary politician to remember the source of Canada's motto (where, in the Bible, it is simply sea to sea, like it or not) and the implied idea of the Fathers of Confederation that they were building a new Canadian covenant on the Biblical model of the nation of Israel. No, what is important is that Canada not be imagined in such a way as to exclude anyone, and this entails eroding the old signs of the coventantal purpose we, as political beings, serve; and it means avoiding the task of representing new covenants to suplement the old. But can we last long with a politics that refuses to represent its purpose, at least in some minimal terms? Can our world be mediated solely by a marketplace where everyone is free to pursue her own purposes and where everything desired may be bought or sold as long as everyone is equally empowered in trade? Or is the bottom line of human society always going to be political, about defending boundaries and the shifting differences and asymmetries on which exchange depends?
I think the latter. If some choices will necessarily preclude others, then we have to make political choices and cannot just have a freedom to choose. We must fight over the signs of a common political purpose, e.g. to build greater freedom by excluding ideas and people that are not conducive to what we believe human freedom is all about (both the external freedoms to follow our desires, and the internal, spiritual freedom that requires one remember and connect with the traditions of which he is now a part).
So it is not enough that we have laws to make sure everyone is represented according to rules of political correctness. No, we must also all engage in exchange over what it is we wish in common to represent; for we must each become a centre of representation seeking to model for others the kind of representation we wish to have and exchange. In other words, we need not just the Canadian constitution that the Fathers of Confederation began to write; we need also a nation, without which the constitution has no purpose. If we forget the latter, and rely on liberal rules alone as the basis for our political life, our law will eventually crumble with no purpose beyond its own vain liberality; and then we may see the resurgent claims of an angry nationhood that will have less respect for the rule of law. Our Dominion is not just a land to be liberally ruled and divided up, but a vision of what we hold sacred to re-present and renew.
Have a Happy Canada Day and Don’t Forget to Represent the Dominion!