Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
Once a year, the Empire lives again
For my Grade 11 Canadian history students, like a majority of Canadian teenagers, the statutory holiday Monday is nothing but the "May Long," a three-day fun-filled fireworks weekend that marks the imminent end of the school year and the beginning of summer. (Remember how wild Clear Lake was during the '60s and '70s on the May long weekend, when carloads of Winnipeg university students with seemingly unlimited cases of beer descended on the town of Wasagaming?)
Queen Victoria, who served as Queen of Britain, Canada and the rest of the grand Empire from 1837 until her death in 1901 at the age of 81, has little to do with it. This is despite the fact this decidedly Canadian holiday -- it is also celebrated in parts of Scotland -- commemorates Victoria's birth on May 24, 1819, and her long and glorious reign.
It was a special day in Canada even before Confederation. After her death, Victoria Day was set on May 24, and then in 1952 officially as the first Monday before May 25. For a long time, it was known as Empire Day in parts of the country -- a moment to truly revel in all things British. Then, few Canadians worried about the political correctness of imperialism.
Canadians were glued to their televisions a few weeks ago to watch the pageantry of Prince William and Kate Middleton's marriage, as they also did in 1981 when William's parents, Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer, were wed. Nevertheless, the British connection, including honoring Queen Victoria's birthday, which once so proudly defined what it was to be a Canadian has been relegated to dusty history textbooks.
True, our Parliamentary system with the governor general as Queen Elizabeth II's representative (until 1952, the GG was always a distinguished upper-class Brit) remains intact, but that is as far as it goes. For Canadians under the age of 40, Britain is little more than one more stop on a trek through Europe. Most of them probably couldn't sing "God Save the Queen" on their own if they tried.
Nor do they remember the mammoth portrait of Queen Elizabeth that hung in the Winnipeg Arena, as well as every classroom in the country, along with the Union Jack that flew on every Canadian school flag pole.
British history is no longer a compulsory subject in Canadian high schools as it once was, and Canada follows its own course in world affairs, consulting with the British government, yet certainly independent from it.
When British Prime Minister Tony Blair supported U.S. President George W. Bush and the U.S. attack on Iraq in 2003, Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien decidedly did not. And a majority of Canadians cheered; that would not have happened decades ago.
The process of severing our British ties was long, complicated and churning with emotion. It has been a long time since any Canadian leader declared, as Sir John A. Macdonald did in 1891, that "a British subject I was born -- a British subject I will die."
During the First and Second World Wars, there was never any real doubt that Canada would stand by Britain and that young Canadian men would sign up to defend the Empire. In this era, the patriotic cry among a majority of English-Canadians, in particular, to the needs of the mother country was "ready, aye, ready."
Yet by 1939, the fight to make Canada a truly self-governing nation, albeit within the British Commonwealth, had been under way for more than a decade. Canadian prime ministers Robert Borden and William Lyon Mackenzie King would have both argued that Canadian blood spilled on the First World War battle fields of Vimy Ridge, Paschendaele, and the Somme implied that Canada was now 'nearly' an autonomous country, yet still morally and psychologically linked to the Britain.
At Imperial Conferences held in London in 1923 and 1926, King stubbornly pushed and pushed, rejecting the notion of a centralized imperial foreign policy, until British officials finally relented and accepted the autonomy which Canada and the other Commonwealth dominions demanded.
This ultimately led to the Statute of Westminster in 1931, an act of the British Parliament that confirmed Canada as a self-governing dominion.
Next was the Canadian Citizenship Act passed in 1946, which for the first time gave Canadians a legal standing and definition besides being British subjects. At a special ceremony in January 1947, when the act took effect, Mackenzie King received certificate No. 1.
Two years later, legal appeals to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, a British high court that could and did overrule Canada's Supreme Court and reinterpreted the British North America Act, were finally abolished by the government of Louis St. Laurent.
Less than two decades later, Prime Minister Lester Pearson, speaking in Winnipeg in May 1964 at the Royal Canadian Legion Convention, was loudly booed when he announced he was replacing the British Red Ensign flag (the country's official flag, although the Union Jack was also flown during the two world wars) with a new Canada flag.
Opposition leader John Diefenbaker and the Conservatives attacked yet another break with Britain and the Great Canadian Flag Debate erupted for months in the House of Commons. After much acrimony, numerous parliamentary committee meetings, and a Canada-wide contest for the best design, the red maple leaf became the key symbol on Canada's official flag in early 1965.
The patriation of the BNA and its incorporation into the Canada-made Constitution Act of 1982, with an amending formula and Charter of Rights and Freedoms, under the leadership of Pierre Trudeau, was the final act in this saga of Canadian independence.
There have been periodic rumblings that Canada should rid itself of the monarchy and permanently cut the last vestiges of our British ties. The current attitude to Victoria Day or the Hello! Magazine-type fascination with the Royals notwithstanding (and I am quite sure that the crowds will turn out in droves when Will and Kate visit Canada at the end of June, alas not Winnipeg), such a drastic move would be a denial of Canada's traditions and history.
In a recent public debate about this subject held in Toronto, journalist and author John Fraser put the issue into perspective as follows.
"We have had an amazing opportunity in this country to benefit from our past to enhance our present and point the way to the future. The concept of the Crown does no disservice to a notion of ourselves as a distinctive people on an amazing journey... The basic reality of constitutional monarchy is... a serious and important part of our national life, one rarely thought about in a comprehensive or penetrating way, which is also, believe it or not, a sign of its success. It works."
In Now&Then, Winnipeg historian and author Allan Levine brings a historical perspective to the major events of today.
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 21, 2011 J1