- Canada and the British Empire
Media coverage of the royal visit to Canada of Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall in November 2009 illustrates that the British monarchy still has a core of dedicated supporters across the country. However, the dwindling crowds, in contrast to years past, who gathered to catch a glimpse of the royals also underscores the fact that an increasing segment of Canadian society looks upon the royal connection with apathy. There was, of course, an era when the imperial connection mattered to a majority of Canadians and was vital to the formation of the Canadian state. A recent flurry of scholarship has begun not only to reassess the meaning of Canada's historic ties with the British Empire and Great Britain but also to emphasize the significance of this connection. And Phillip Buckner has been involved with many of these works having edited or coedited works such as Canada and the British World: Culture, Migration, and Identity (2006), Canada and the End of Empire (2005), and Rediscovering the British World (2006).
Buckner notes that the magisterial Oxford History of the British Empire series published in 1998-1999 paid little heed to the dominions. To correct this oversight, he produced the companion volume Canada and the British Empire to offer "a Canadian perspective on the history of Canada's long participation in the British Empire" (p. vi). The central thrust of the collection is that Canadian history cannot be understood without placing its development within the imperial context. In large part, the book achieves those goals.
Canada and the British Empire is composed of fourteen chapters, three of which Buckner wrote. The chapters explore the topic chronologically and thematically. Buckner's introductory chapter examines why Canadian and imperial history, "once . . . intertwined and interconnected," became increasingly seen "as two entirely different fields of study" (p. 14). He argues that most Canadian historians continue to believe that Canadian participation in the empire was "an [End Page 171] elite preoccupation" with little support among the general populace (p. 14). Buckner argues this is not only false, but faulty history ignoring that English Canadians were often active imperialists on the world stage, and also at home in their relationships with aboriginal peoples. Buckner's critique has some merit. Scholars of imperial history became increasingly critical in their assessments of the empire in the 1960s, and this coincided with a new generation of Canadian historians who rejected the primacy of the British Empire as the primary driver of national development. In many respects the writing of Canadian history became inward, and even parochial, when most scholars neglected the extent to which international currents, ideas, and ideologies influenced Canada's development.
Chapters 2 to 6 examine Canada's relationship with the British Empire from the seventeenth century to 1982. John Reid and Elizabeth Mancke explore "the global processes" that influenced the emergence of British North America to 1783. J. M. Bumsted picks up the baton in his masterful sweep of BNA's political development to 1860. In chapter 4, Buckner explores the period from 1860 to 1901 and challenges the assertion that "Imperial enthusiasm waned" following Confederation. On the contrary, he highlights the linkages between imperialism and English-Canadian nationalism during the period, an argument earlier advanced by Carl Berger. A significant omission in Buckner's work, however, is the irony that while English Canadians may have felt more integrated into the British Empire and self-confident as the twentieth century dawned (p. 85), such sentiments came at the price of national unity. Enthusiasm for Canada's participation in the Boer War was not reciprocated by the overwhelming majority of French Canadians and added to the religious and linguistic tensions stirred by disputes over minority rights in the 1880s and 1890s. John Herd Thompson's essay addresses Canada's languid transition from the British to the American sphere of influence from 1901 to 1939. He persuasively argues that the First World War did not mark, as Canadian historians frequently assume, the death knell of Canadian imperialism (p...