Tuesday, July 07, 2015

Canada and Independence Days

Canada Day and Independence Day falling so close to one another makes me reflect on what makes each of them worth celebrating. I spent a lazy (though later rowdy) Canada Day on Prince Edward Island, being reminded how diverse the Canadian experience is. I'd spent a long weekend in New England leading up to that, spending the heady day following the Obergefell decision in Boston, with rainbows decorating windows across the city.

I thought of the phrase, "There once was a dream that was America," though I can't remember where it comes from. And I thought of all that Canada and the United States are and were supposed to be. When they were at their best, they were crucibles for building and directing one's own life, for being the author of our own stories. They were where anyone could come to find a place to make something great. They were the very best kinds of sanctuary. Though that's faded with our concerns about both economic and physical security, it's what we can strive to make them again.

If you were once romantic about America and forget what that felt like, read Rose Wilder Lane (pdf) and remember:
"The pioneers were by no means the best of Europe; in general they were trouble makers of the lower classes, and Europe was glad to be rid of them. They brought no great amount of intelligence or culture. Their principal desire was to do as they pleased, and they were no idealists. When they could not pay their debts, they left the town between two days. When their manners, their personal habits or their loud opinions offended the gently bred, they remarked, “It’s a free country, ain’t it?” A frequent phrase of theirs was, “Free and independent.” They also said, “I’ll try anything once,” and “Sure, I’ll take a chance!” 
They were riotous speculators; they gambled in land, in furs, in lumber and canals and settlements. They were town-lot salesmen for towns that didn’t exist. They were ignorant peasants, prospectors, self-educated teachers and lawyers, printers, lumberjacks, horse thieves and cattle rustlers, workers and grafters. Each was out to get what he could for himself, and devil take the hindmost. At every touch of adversity they fell apart, each on his own; there was human pity and kindness, but not a trace of community spirit. They were individualists. And they did stand the gaff.
This was the human stuff of America. It was not the stuff one would have chosen to make a nation or an admirable national character. And Americans today are the most reckless and lawless of peoples. We are also the most imaginative, the most temperamental, the most infinitely varied people. We are the kindest people on earth; kind every day to one another, and sympathetically responsive to every rumor of distress. Only Americans ever made millions of small personal sacrifices in order to pour wealth over the world, relieving suffering in such distant places as Armenia and Japan. Everywhere, in shops, streets, factories, elevators, on highways and on farms, Americans are the most friendly and courteous people. There is more laughter and more song in America than anywhere else. Such are some of the human values that grew from individualism while individualism was creating America."
On Saturday (Independence Day) many of my American friends posted the full text of the Declaration of Independence, along with excerpts and drafts. They were reminders of the fights for not only representation, but things like freedom of movement and a government that could be altered or abolished if it failed to serve the people it governs. (WaPo has an appropriate book excerpt on the Declaration here.)

I'm not sure that Canada has the sort of rallying cry that the Declaration offers, though we have our stirring quotes. "Canada is free, and freedom is its nationality." said Sir Wilfrid Laurier, my favourite Prime Minister. But there's something about the history of the place and its laws. Something about the shared heritage that permeates the border in spite of the differences that are so much easier to see.

I'm skeptical that "proud" is the right way to feel about a country, something over which we've had so little influence, but Canada is one of the best in the world, and I didn't feel left out, but more inspired as my friends reminded me what's been so great about the United States. It's likely if you go back that as Americans (in the broader sense), our ancestors were rebels and traitors and misfits (notwithstanding the popular story of Canada as a country that peacefully and in good order declared itself a dominion). What made Canada and the United States great was the chance that they offered, that we don't offer enough any more, to the types of people who came here to build something better. 

I'll end with a lengthy quote of one of my favourite exchanges in Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin: a conversation between escaped slave George Harris and his white friend Mr. Wilson. It reminds me of what's too much to bear, of the freedom that the sanctuary that we were can offer, and of one of Canada's finest times in the face of unspeakable tragedy. I'm not sure I can claim pride for it, but boy, does it make me feel like we have a heck of a foundation to build on.
"Why, George, this state of mind is awful; it's getting really desperate George. I'm concerned. Going to break the laws of your country!"

"My country again! Mr. Wilson, you have a country; but what country have I, or any one like me, born of slave mothers? What laws are there for us? We don't make them,—we don't consent to them,—we have nothing to do with them; all they do for us is to crush us, and keep us down. Haven't I heard your Fourth-of-July speeches? Don't you tell us all, once a year, that governments derive their just power from the consent of the governed? Can't a fellow think, that hears such things? Can't he put this and that together, and see what it comes to?"

Mr. Wilson's mind was one of those that may not unaptly be represented by a bale of cotton,—downy, soft, benevolently fuzzy and confused. He really pitied George with all his heart, and had a sort of dim and cloudy perception of the style of feeling that agitated him; but he deemed it his duty to go on talking good to him, with infinite pertinacity.

"George, this is bad. I must tell you, you know, as a friend, you'd better not be meddling with such notions; they are bad, George, very bad, for boys in your condition,—very;" and Mr. Wilson sat down to a table, and began nervously chewing the handle of his umbrella.

"See here, now, Mr. Wilson," said George, coming up and sitting himself determinately down in front of him; "look at me, now. Don't I sit before you, every way, just as much a man as you are? Look at my face,—look at my hands,—look at my body," and the young man drew himself up proudly; "why am I not a man, as much as anybody? Well, Mr. Wilson, hear what I can tell you. I had a father—one of your Kentucky gentlemen—who didn't think enough of me to keep me from being sold with his dogs and horses, to satisfy the estate, when he died. I saw my mother put up at sheriff's sale, with her seven children. They were sold before her eyes, one by one, all to different masters; and I was the youngest. She came and kneeled down before old Mas'r, and begged him to buy her with me, that she might have at least one child with her; and he kicked her away with his heavy boot. I saw him do it; and the last that I heard was her moans and screams, when I was tied to his horse's neck, to be carried off to his place."

"Well, then?"

"My master traded with one of the men, and bought my oldest sister. She was a pious, good girl,—a member of the Baptist church,—and as handsome as my poor mother had been. She was well brought up, and had good manners. At first, I was glad she was bought, for I had one friend near me. I was soon sorry for it. Sir, I have stood at the door and heard her whipped, when it seemed as if every blow cut into my naked heart, and I couldn't do anything to help her; and she was whipped, sir, for wanting to live a decent Christian life, such as your laws give no slave girl a right to live; and at last I saw her chained with a trader's gang, to be sent to market in Orleans,—sent there for nothing else but that,—and that's the last I know of her. Well, I grew up,—long years and years,—no father, no mother, no sister, not a living soul that cared for me more than a dog; nothing but whipping, scolding, starving. Why, sir, I've been so hungry that I have been glad to take the bones they threw to their dogs; and yet, when I was a little fellow, and laid awake whole nights and cried, it wasn't the hunger, it wasn't the whipping, I cried for. No, sir, it was for my mother and my sisters,—it was because I hadn't a friend to love me on earth. I never knew what peace or comfort was. I never had a kind word spoken to me till I came to work in your factory. Mr. Wilson, you treated me well; you encouraged me to do well, and to learn to read and write, and to try to make something of myself; and God knows how grateful I am for it. Then, sir, I found my wife; you've seen her,—you know how beautiful she is. When I found she loved me, when I married her, I scarcely could believe I was alive, I was so happy; and, sir, she is as good as she is beautiful. But now what? Why, now comes my master, takes me right away from my work, and my friends, and all I like, and grinds me down into the very dirt! And why? Because, he says, I forgot who I was; he says, to teach me that I am only a nigger! After all, and last of all, he comes between me and my wife, and says I shall give her up, and live with another woman. And all this your laws give him power to do, in spite of God or man. Mr. Wilson, look at it! There isn't one of all these things, that have 
broken the hearts of my mother and my sister, and my wife and myself, but your laws allow, and give every man power to do, in Kentucky, and none can say to him nay! Do you call these the laws of my country? Sir, I haven't any country, anymore than I have any father. But I'm going to have one. I don't want anything of your country, except to be let alone,—to go peaceably out of it; and when I get to Canada, where the laws will own me and protect me, that shall be my country, and its laws I will obey. But if any man tries to stop me, let him take care, for I am desperate. I'll fight for my liberty to the last breath I breathe. You say your fathers did it; if it was right for them, it is right for me!"

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