Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Divided by a common heritage

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A Canadian born in Belgium asked me the other day, as a Briton, who I thought would win the French presidential election, as if there were some inherent connection between us as sometime Europeans.

His first assumption was that, as a Brit, I would at least know there was an election going on in France and would have some interest in it. His second assumption was that I would have a different perspective than he did as a Belgian.

I have lived in North America for more than a generation, with the past 15 years in Manitoba as an editor and TV producer, so he might better have asked me my views on the election in Alberta. But, then, he wouldn't be asking me for that view from my ethnic perspective as a "Brit," for what valuable perspective would a Brit have on a battle between the centre and off-centre right in the oil province?

Not that I think of myself particularly as a "Brit." Saying that I am an Englishman would be more accurate and, if I am being really parochial, that I am a "Yorkshireman," which defines my origins to the cold, hilly, moor country of the Brontes in the northeast of the country.

Where we come from is important. An American living in Winnipeg I met the other day was trying to persuade his wife to give birth to their child across the border in North Dakota so that he or she might have the possibility of becoming president. Only people born in the United States may assume that office.

In England, a friend of mine drove his pregnant wife back to Yorkshire so that the expected son might qualify to play for the Yorkshire County cricket team. Alas, being born in the county is no longer a necessary qualification to play for the best team in the country, but you get the picture.

Britons are a people divided by their common heritage with a language whose ornate, pompous words -- "commence" for "begin," "promenade" for "walk" -- are the words of the northern French conquerors who took over the country under William of Normandy after the momentous battle of 1066.

England is a European nation by conquest: latterly by William, earlier from the waves of Saxons and Vikings who swarmed the country from the north.

In Canada, a "Brit" is homogenized as someone whose culture is a common version of different patterns of people from John o'Groats at the northern tip of the country to Lands End in the South West. In truth, though, there is a common British heritage and it has to do with the "pink bits" that in my youth used to colour much of the international political map.

The pink bits described the British Commonwealth, but the Commonwealth was, as we all know, an attempt at keeping together what had once been the mightiest empire in the world; the biggest of the pink bits was Canada.

The resentment many Canadians of both English and French heritage felt for the former rulers -- the country across the Atlantic that once chose the governors general and, in 1914, in all but name, declared war on Canada's behalf -- has largely dissipated. Not so much because of the repatriation of the Constitution in 1982 as the increasingly ethnically diverse mix of Canada itself.

The modern Manitoba is not so attuned to the variances of accent, class and education that once divided the Brits in Britain, and which the Brits themselves imported to Canada. Years ago, a senior television executive told me that Canadians didn't need the Brits to tell them how to do their job anymore. That kind of insecure defensiveness has gone.

By the time I got to Manitoba, I was sufficiently Canadian that being a member of an audible minority had become only the first thing that people noticed. It never appeared either a handicap or an advantage, despite the enduring and peculiar Britishness of Canada and Manitoba that, to me, is still surprising and at times welcoming.

Manitoba still pays more attention to Remembrance Day than anyone in the U.K. Given my father's war record, I appreciate that. Victoria Day is quintessentially British but doesn't exist in Britain: a quaint, colonial artifact.

Under Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Canada is observing its British heritage more than any time since I first arrived in Toronto to write for the Financial Times of London. Being both an immigrant Canadian and a citizen of the country that claimed Canada on the Plains of Abraham with the battle victory of Gen. James Wolfe is to be politically schizophrenic. It is to be a part of the old and the new at the same time. It is to be an "English Canadian" not to be what most people think of when they use those words to describe Canadian ethnic identity and, yet, to be exactly that.


Nicholas Hirst is CEO of the Winnipeg-based film and television production company Original Pictures Inc.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 28, 2012 J11

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