Over the course of Canadian history, Canada has been envisaged in many ways. For the French colonists who were Canada’s founders, it was an offshoot of France. When France gave it away in a peace treaty, and perhaps even before that, its people began to see themselves as a new nation, les Canadiens. Then the British arrived and viewed Canada as a British colony of sorts, although initially most of the people were Catholics and spoke French. A century later, people like George Cartier and D’Arcy McGee recognized that this was not a European-style nation-state but something rather different. There were four significant ethnic groups: French, English, Scottish, and Irish. The coat of arms on the old Canadian Red Ensign (a flag that can still be seen in the part of Canada where I live) combined the symbols of all four groups. Then, in the twentieth century, there emerged, for a while at least, the idea of Canada as deux nations. That idea was resented by many descendants of European immigrants, especially in western Canada where the French fact was not very prominent. They produced the new paradigms of “multiculturalism,” which also had its season in the sun but seems to have passed the peak of its popularity.
Peter Russell, an iconic figure in Canadian political science, has produced another new paradigm. He sees Canada as built on three “pillars”: Aboriginal Canada, French Canada, and British Canada. This paradigm, of course, reflects the growing interest in Aboriginal matters among the chattering classes as well as the increasing militancy of the Indigenous peoples themselves. Which of these two trends is the cause and which is the effect is a question not easily answered.
Russell defends his paradigm by asserting that Aboriginal peoples, like the French, were on the receiving end of “incomplete conquests.” How an incomplete conquest differs from a complete one is not really explained. For example, the American conquest of Japan in 1945 looked pretty complete at the time, but it was followed within six years by a generous peace treaty and a durable alliance between the two countries. Furthermore, if the conquest of Canada’s Aboriginal peoples was “incomplete,” why can politically correct people (the ones most likely to appreciate Russell’s book) recite a litany of crimes, including cultural genocide, which they say were inflicted by the “settlers” (an invidious expression) on the people who were “incompletely” conquered? Surely they cannot have it both ways.
Russell writes that his book is “not a history of Canada” but, rather, “an argument about Canadian history” (4). It is organized more or [End Page 302] less chronologically, but most of its sixteen chapters highlight one of the three “pillars”: the French in Chapters 2, 6, 9, and 11; the Aboriginal in Chapters 3, 5, 8, and 12; and the “English” in Chapters 4, 10, and 13. The last few chapters deal with constitutional politics since 1976, a subject on which Russell has written extensively. Of course, not all of the facts of Canadian history can be fitted easily into this Procrustean bed–Newfoundland’s entry into Confederation is discussed in one of the French chapters–but Russell manages fairly well.
Canada’s Odyssey contains a number of factual errors. On page 46, it asserts that the Mohawk River flows out of, rather than into, the Hudson. On page 177, it says that Manitoba’s original boundaries made it about the same size as Prince Edward Island. (It was actually five times as large.) On page 232, it claims that Lord Strathcona “was able to dip into the profits of his Canadian Pacific Railway” to send a regiment to South Africa. (It was not “his” railway, and he paid for the regiment out of his own pocket.) Two pages later comes the astonishing assertion that “Laurier’s naval policy was not opposed by Robert Borden” (234). On page 248, Christopher Dunkin, a Quebec Anglophone who represented a Quebec riding, is included among “a number of Ontario politicians.” On page 256...