Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Everyone's Second Career: Saving Canada

A few weeks ago, fellow blogger Truepeers lent me a wonderful old book on the history of the city of Vancouver, British Columbia. Published way back in 1960, "Vancouver: from milltown to metropolis", is more than a window into another time: it truly reads as a tantalizing description of a foreign city in a forgotten country actively engaged in transforming the world around them, fueled by the faith that civilization demands progress, and that we in particular have an important contribution to make.
I've read a few book on the history of our fair city before, but nothing, nothing, like this one! Check out the author's biography, from the old book's dust jacket:
[Alan Morley]graduated from Pendicton High School and worked as a miner in the Kettle Valley. After a year in the University of British Columbia he spent 10 itinerant years as ranch hand, lake boat roustabout, railway brakeman, hard rock miner, deep-sea deckhand, construction worker, logger and hand-line fisherman.
Returning to take his degree at UBC in history and English, he financed his way through as a reporter for the Vancouver Sun....
Here's a man who's been around the block a few times. I wonder how many journalists working today at that same paper have had half as many previous careers beyond their being "journalists". Much as we might wish politicians started a business or two (or five) before venturing into houses of parliament or congress and handling our money, if only our teachers in the media would live the kind of life we live before setting themselves on their pedestal and begin pointing their fingers in our direction while keeping the gates closed. "You wouldn't know what's important", they would assure us; "you're only a laborer."

There's much to be said for the perspective that multiple careers can bring to one's current job. Not multiple jobs within a single career, but multiple careers, doing completely different kinds of jobs. Speaking for myself, I'm on career number three, on the verge of it evolving into number four. Even though there has not been much direct connection between those paths, they nevertheless do possess enough parallels and general similarities that today I regret not a single hour spent in any of them, for the perspective they have granted me in journeying through the current one.
I suspect author Alan Morely felt the same way about his years with axe and workboots, before settling down to become a wordsmith. His writing crackles with the evidence of his physical past, and it enlivens the historical account in a way no mere haunter of libraries could imagine. His calloused hands build a much more human narrative than the manicured academics can offer. It pays to live life before one writes about it.
This is one of the ingredients that makes reading bloggers so enlightening, for me anyway. It is their multiple perspectives accumulated from multiple journeys, frequently having nothing to do with journeys of our own, enabling us see the world around us from radically new points of view. It is part of our wiring as human beings to be able to put ourselves in the shoes of fellow humans, and imagine the scenes they see as they plant their feet along the paths they travel. Yet, is it not also true, that it remains nevertheless a challenge to imagine how differently that pathway may be from our own, the full scope of how different one person's experiences may be from another's. When you meet new people, part of the thrill is discovering just how differently they make you see yourself.

Every week a hardy few bloggers and blog readers gather and meet within the atrium of the Vancouver Public Library. We meet to broaden the discussions begun at our various blogs, to compare notes and, as occasion permits, take united action to help revive the slumbering agreement Canadians such as Sewell Moody, "Gassy" Jack Deighton, and James Dunsmuir, used to further the nation's possible destiny. A gathering of like-minded colleagues trading experiences and debating lessons learned from them.
Like, yet not same; the only real similarity tends to be the united belief that change is needed, and remains possible; the same faith that 100 years earlier, felled the majestic 2o0-foot long trees to clear our land, to remake the natural order with the stamp of man's labor.

Each week we gather in the atrium of the Vancouver Public Library, 7:00 to 9:00 pm, to pursue a new Covenant for Canada. Please join us...
it's time for your new career.


Charles Henry said...

I forgot to mention that we wear blue scarves to help identify our group to the occasional newcomers who drop by.
See you there!

Rick Ballard said...

As an American I'm interested in how conservative values have been expressed throughout Canadian history. I can articulate the American mythos ("history") from a conservative perspective for my grandchildren but I am so ignorant of Canadian history that I wouldn't know where to begin.

I'd appreciate any advice as to books or authors that might be helpful.

truepeers said...


As a first quick thought, the thing to know about much of Canadian conservatism is that is has often been focussed on the state and its responsibilities, on maintaining order in a country of many regional and religious-linguistic-cultural divisions, and loyalty to the crown and British constitution, in contrast with the American tendency. In a big country with a small population, the state has often played a necessary co-ordinating, financial-backing, role in economic development; and the small class of social and economic elites have generally respected this and played along. In the last generation or so, we see a lot more neoconservative ideas - e.g. Stephen Harper - but I'm not sure there is much especially Canadian about this tradition yet.

We have here a tradition of what we call "red tories", which might not look very conservative to you because red toryism has been used to justify things like the welfare state. Western Canadians have been less enamored of the state, the federal government at least, but they don't have much of an intellectual tradition. Quebec, until the 1960s, was a pretty conservative Catholic, church-oriented society, which quickly morphed into welfare-stateism when they secularized.

So, we have among our top Anglo intellectuals, people like Northrop Frye who, while he was associated with a leftist-statist poliitcal party wrote about Canada, education, and the Bible - and against many of the nightmare leftist ideologies of the 20th C. - in what I would consider a conservative fashion. His collections of essays on Canada, etc., might interest you. Another example is today's most famous Canadian philosopher, Charles Taylor, who is associated with a leftist party but much of whose work is about trying to reconcile his conservative respect for and practice of Catholicism (in recognition of the limits of modern secular philosophy) and nationalism with a "caring" government.

Somewaht similarly, you can look at a figure like Marshall McLuhan and say there's a guy who was seen as a guru of the electronic media age, someone all the trendy sixties types followed, but he was at heart a Canadian conservative who feared much of what he was describing and wanted us to find some way to control our descent into the media age. Another famous Canadian conservative philosopher was George Grant whose nephew, I think it is, Michael Ignatieff is tonight up for election as the leader of the Liberal party.

Historians of the birth of the nation that you might be interested in: Donald Creighton, Arthur Lower, Harold Innis - all of a previous generation now, but there is little good conservative Canadian history written today, due to academic politics.

A couple of links:

Charles Henry said...

Rick, thanks for your interest!

My favorite book on Canadian history was actually an american book, from the old Time-Life series on the Old West, the volume called "The Canadians". It offers a quick overview of our more colorful characters, like the french voyageurs du bois, and Scottish explorer Alexander Mackenzie.

I'm surprised that Truepeers did not suggest the ubiquitous canadian historian, Pierre Burton. He's written many books that touch on important chapters of our national story. I recommend "Klondike", on the 1898 Yukon gold rush(lots about Sam Steele, the Canadian version of Marshall Matt Dilon), and "Vimy", about Canada's contribution to World War I. What a different Canada they describe...

His two books on the building of the National Railroad (and the enticing of British Columbia to join Canada rather than drift into becoming part of the US), "The National Dream" and "The Last Spike", cover the late 19th century and the formation of Canada as the nation it is today under Conservative Prime Minister John A. Macdonald. You would find it interesting to compare our story of our transcontinental railroad, and your own.
Michel Coren, at,
is another author worth looking into. He's a Toronto writer and broadcaster who was Toronto's Rush Limbaugh back in the nineties. (He had become a little more middle-of-the-road when I heard him again a couple of years ago, due to his strident defense of Canada's health-care system.) His books consist mostly of biographies of british writers like HG Wells and CS Lewis, it would be the odd book compiling his newspaper columns, that would be of use to you in meeting the objective you mention.

truepeers said...

Ahh yes, Pierre Berton, I thought of him after I posted.

Of course, the problem with the idea of a Canadian mythos is that we don't have one quite like the American, since we don't have a founding constitutional moment when the people come together and bring a new nation into being, defining it in various ways. We are the product of a slow evolution and many constitutional pacts, which taken all together, may not add up to a logically coherent whole, at least not one yet captured in a single story.

There was French Canada for almost two hundred years. English Canada basically started with the Loyalists from the American revolution. By the end of the nineteenth-century the largest ethnic group was the Irish and they had imported their Orange-Green rivalries to many parts of Canada. Important Canadian institutions, like the public schools and police owe a lot to Irish history. The twentieth-century was its own mixed bag with people coming from literally everywhere. We are a product of the British empire, as much as we are one coherent nation, but we bounce back and forth between becoming more like a nation, more like an empire.

One guy who is presently trying to construct something of a Canadian mythos is David Warren - in occasional columns here.

Rick Ballard said...

Thanks, fellas. I'm going to start with The Story of Canada(Creighton), Canada on the Pacific Rim (Lower), The Canadians (thanks for the reminder on the Time-Life books - they're perfect for the grandkids) but I'm stuck on a second pick for Pierre Burton (I'm going with The National Dream as first pick). He seems to have been uncommonly prolific but I'm looking for something covering roughly 1910-1950.


Whether by Burkean or Neo-con (by which I sincerely hope that you do not mean 'noble-lie Straussian') standards, Canada's history seems much more attached to the high virtue of loyalty than American history's attachment to the base vice of utilitarianism. Loyalty is an admirable starting point for reflections upon current governance - and for generating ideas concerning directions to be taken in the future.

You should have referred me to your first post back in April - that was a very good piece of historical review. I believe I'll spend a bit of time in the archives here prior to making any particular further comments.

Is there a "principles" post tucked away in the archives?

truepeers said...


first let me apologize for not being clearer about the historians. I was referring to Arthur R.M. Lower, whose famous text is Colony to Nation; Canada on the Pacific Rim was the work of J. Arthur Lower, a lesser light in our historiography.

I'm not sure there is one of my posts that stands above others as a "principles" post. I am working on a major essay (major for a blog) at the moment on the question of the two linguistic nations in Canada, in response to the resolution in parliament last week that the Quebecois are a nation within a united Canada. When I get it done, in parts, it will probably be my most involved post on the various principles that bind us together.

At heart I believe in local self-rule, on the model of an insular English nationalism, as much as possible (in effect, this means a lot of legal and symbolic power should reside in the provinces, in Canada) , under a principle of unity that, for better or worse (in comparision with, say, the American constitution) we take from our loyalty to the crown and a British constitutional evolution that has occured within a context of an insular nationalism succeeding to the point of empire. The English never were great imperialists like the French (they tried to keep London to themselves as much a national as imperial centre - hence the American Revolution) and yet in 400 years we have gone from 3 million English speakers in the world to billions.

If Canada begins from any first principle, it is, as you have surmised, loyalty. Ultimately, loyalty to the crown, which is symbolized in various ways in social and political life, should come before partisan difference on points of principle (if not before the partisan lust for power which always gets some people first). In short, Canadians are compromisers who put pragmatic loyalty to their social networks first.

For example, the Liberal party just elected Stephane Dion as their new leader. He is a political scientist, a constitutional scholar, so I was not surprised that when, in his first scrum as leader, when a reporter prompted him to make a partisan statement against Prime Minister Harper, he only gave a small dig at Harper and said, more firmly, that he would be a loyal leader of the opposition, putting Canada's need for good government first. That's the traditional response.

I will probably say more about the fact that the Liberal party basically takes the view that in a somewhat decentralized country like Canada, the goal of the federal government is to grow itself in the name of unity and, while no figure or symbol can sum up the whole (aside from the Queen, who is rarely here, rarely on our minds - which is why the crown is a unifying symbol: I think of it as akin to the Hebrew God who unfies by not being given a figure or a name), they need to parade a representative of every tribe and creed across the public stage - give everyone their fifteen minutes and fifteen bucks - on tv today, I saw even the "kill all the Israelis" leader of the Canadian Islamic Congress in the crowd at the Liberal convention. They will sit with anybody it seems.

The Conservative party plays this game too, though to a lesser extent, but is more keen to leave the centre unfigured in the name of local self-rule. I think there is important truth in both stands - one shouldn't follow only one truth, but one should respect that there are real truths out there - but a more fundamental truth in the Conservative one.

As for neo-conservatism. To me, it is the recognition that just as there is a reason for there being a Liberal and a Conservative party, history is necessarily a processs that requires us sometimes to be more liberal sometimes more conservative, in the name of our fundamental loyalty to the centre(s), symbolized, e.g, by the crown. The profundity of a figure like Burke is that while he responds to the French Revolution by a conservative appeal to tradition and trial and error historical evolution, he is not unaware that there is a conceptual problem in this because in some sense it is precisely historical evolution, the flowering of a seed that is to some extent fundamental to western culture, that has given us the French Revolution. Thus intellectual life must take up the challenge of defending the cautious appeal to the proven lessons of history, with finding ways to bracket heretical or dangerous experiments whose danger is not always apparent at the start. To me, a neoconservative is someone who sees such paradoxes and wants to refine our understanding of what kind of change we need to be open to in the name of preserving what is fundamental in our traditions. It is an intellectual trend that is fundamental to our times, something much bigger than Strauss.

Charles Henry said...

I'm stuck on a second pick for Pierre Burton... I'm looking for something covering roughly 1910-1950.

Burton has a book on the 1930's, "The Great Depression", which will cover the period leading up to the war, and the country's slow acceptance of welfare. This was Burton's last good book, IMO, before age began taking its merciless toll on his writing skill. If your grandchildren are around high school-age, they will likely be very moved by the book's haunting collection of first-hand anecodes from train-riding hoboes and war pension marchers and work-camp laborers and other adapters to the collapse. It paints a detailed portrait of a nation in economic penury, in stark contrast to the bountiful plenty with which we are surrounded today.