- Canada and the End of Empire
Phil Buckner is a historian on a mission. He has long lamented that Britain has been unceremoniously dropped in the writings of Canadian historians. The unfortunate result of this lapse is not just oversight: there has been a fundamental misrepresentation of Canada's history. In particular he objects to the dominant nationalist narrative that celebrates an inexorable triumph over adversity as Canada evolved from colony to nation. Buckner does not deny that at some point Canada ceased to be a British nation, but it did not happen as seamlessly as is usually portrayed, nor was it without quite serious consequences for the country. His energetic organization of conferences over the past decade has brought together many historians to consider the connection between Canada and Britain in all of its complexities. Canada and the End of Empire is the result of one such conference held in London, England, in 2001. It assembles an impressive cast of historians [End Page 602] who are expert in Canadian and/or British imperial history. Buckner has laid out clear parameters for the contributors: to examine – in the words of José Iguarta – Canada's 'other Quiet Revolution,' meaning when, why, and how English Canada moved beyond a British impress and frame of reference. Buckner has also identified the period from the Suez canal crisis (1956) to the flag debate (1964) as the critical decade when the transition largely occurred.
This volume considers the dissolution of economic, cultural, constitutional, military, diplomatic, regional, political, populist, elite, ceremonial, educational, intellectual, and symbolic strands that collectively made up the British connection. It treats Britain as an active part of the process of regularization of the Anglo-Canadian tie from something exceptional grounded in an imperial past to the norm of foreign relations. The chapters by John Darwin and Andrea Benvenuti and Stuart Ward are necessary reminders that part of the recasting of the Canadian-British link derived from what was happening in Britain itself, in particular its collapse as a world power and the concomitant turn to Europe. The volume also includes one chapter by Gordon Stewart which examines the American perception of the Anglo-Canadian relationship. The American vantage point bolsters the claim that Canada buried its imperial heritage between 1956 and 1964. Most of the remaining chapters consider how this recasting occurred and many contributors situate their analyses against the backdrop of how national identities take shape. There is no single answer to the question of why and how disengagement occurred, hardly surprising given the multilayered conception of the connection. Nor is there a precise moment, although some areas seem to have withered sooner than others: trade before high school curricula, popular culture before high culture, the Liberal party before the Royal Navy. But a unifying theme is that transcending the British tie was never easy, uniform, or uncontested. While it inspired congratulations in some quarters, elsewhere it provoked resignation. Moreover, the end of English Canada's self-identification as a British nation had unanticipated and serious consequences. The chapters by P.E. Bryden and J.R. Miller consider the new difficulties that the end of empire engendered, including endless federal-provincial constitutional squabbles and a recalibrating of First Nations' strategies and tactics to defend their interests and rights. The main point of the collection is that historians must write about, instead of write off, Canada's past in a British imperial and Commonwealth context and they must move the end point for such studies well beyond the Second World War.
There is an acceptance of finality in much of the volume. There are last gasps, deaths, and burials. Attention is also paid to the sense of disorientation and loss that the death of the Anglo-Canadian imperial connection incited. But if the volume considers an ending, it is not a eulogy. It seeks to understand a connection, not to celebrate it. Its insights are rooted in solid [End Page 603] historical work, not sentiment or nostalgia. Hopefully Canada and the End of Empire therefore will be a...