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Century Of Achievement

According to assorted popular histories and textbooks, Sir Wilfrid Laurier once proclaimed that “The 20th century would belong to Canada.” Well, not quite. What our seventh prime minister really said, when he wound up a speech to a couple of hundred festive members of the Ottawa Canadian Club on the night of Jan. 18, 1904, was that while “the 19th century was the century of the United States, I think we can claim that it is Canada that shall fill the 20th century.”

Still, it was rather a bold claim–almost unCanadian in its ambition. To be fair, Sir Wilfrid deserves a little context. His audience of lumber barons, grocery merchants and top civil servants would have known that the U.S. had made a booming success of the 19th century, especially by comparison with its humble northern neighbour. After 1867, while the U.S. filled its West and built huge industries, Canada stumbled from Confederation into a 23-year depression. Talk about a brain drain–in the late 19th century, more Canadians moved to the U.S. than came to Canada as immigrants. Without a little fiddling, the 1891 census might even have showed a net population loss. Then, suddenly, in 1896, the U.S. ran out of free land and newcomers turned to Canada’s West. That was the year prospectors found gold in the Klondike. Business flourished and Laurier’s Liberals, elected in June of 1896, naturally took the credit. Good times re-elected Laurier in 1900. Since 1904 was an election year, it was no time for a prime minister to be modest.

Most Canadians are embarrassed by boasting about their country. Laurier’s phrase became a local by-word for inflated patriotic expectations. In 1923, Toronto journalist and editor B.K. Sandwell said “nobody had begun to realize what a rotten century the 20th was going to be.” Ten years and most of the Great Depression later, McGill University economist and future senator Eugene Forsey noted of Laurier’s famous phrase: “Today we think in more modest terms.”

We know now that the U.S. would have a second century of even greater power, wealth and influence than before. And several other countries–Russia, Germany, Japan, China–would claim a major role in the 20th century. The great empires, of which Canada was a proud part, would all disappear and Canada would emerge as one of almost 200 sovereign countries, defined by its own modest claim to be a “middle power”. In 1978, when Canada joined the Group of Seven, the major economies of the free-enterprise world, even Canadians believed that we were there out of bravado or U.S. convenience, not because of our own merits. At the end of the century, some economists wondered whether even having our own national currency was a little vainglorious.

Humility isn’t the only problem in choosing Canada’s great 20th century achievements. We need a little perspective. Most of the really earth-shaking developments of the 19th century were barely visible in 1900, and that is also true for the 20th century. The 20th century would be turned upside down by Karl Marx’s ideas, but his own century barely noticed him. Henry Ford’s cheap, mass-produced cars turned our century right side up again, particularly because he also paid his workers well enough to buy them. But in 1900, Ford was only one of a score of jumped-up carriage makers in the Detroit suburbs. If he and the gang had set up shop in Pittsburgh, Pa., or Los Angeles, and not across the river from Windsor, Ont., would Canada have become the world’s second biggest car builder by the 1920s?

Canadian achievements often have a bittersweet edge, reminding us how perceptions and politics divide us. At Vimy Ridge in 1917, Canadian troops won the first clear Allied victory on the Western Front, but Quebec remembers 1917 as a year when the majority conscripted a reluctant minority. WW II remained a bitter memory for 21,000 Japanese-Canadians and their descendants until Canadians formally apologized for uprooting a peaceful, loyal community and seizing its property. In 1967, Montreal’s Expo 67 astonished Canadians with its style and self-confidence–at least until General Charles de Gaulle came over from France and proclaimed “Vive le Québec libre!”

In 1982, Canadians took control of their constitution and a new Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, but Quebec refused to endorse the extinction of powers it believed it had possessed. Not only Quebec has felt excluded. Faced with OPEC price shocks in the 1970s, Ottawa assumed that Canada’s energy reserves were a national source to be shared: The producing provinces were outraged to find their wealth suddenly shared.

It may be easier to recognize individual achievements, but each of us will relate to some more than others. The greatest Canadians of the 20th century may be hockey player Maurice Richard, novelist Margaret Laurence, Nobel Prize winner and humanitarian John Polanyi, or even our most durable prime minister, William Lyon Mackenzie King.

Great achievements are also in the eye of the beholder. New Brunswick born Max Aitken used his ruthless business acumen to create Canada Cement and the Steel Company of Canada–Stelco–before taking his talent to England where, as Lord Beaverbrook, he made and toppled governments and turned the Daily Express newspaper into a brilliant success. Aitken blazed the trail for other Canadian media barons in Britain–like Roy Thomson who boasted that owning a television channel was a licence to print money or Conrad Black who used newspaper empires on both sides of the Atlantic to promote his strong opinions. Other Canadians, like New Brunswick’s K.C. Irving, Alberta’s Max Bell or British Columbia’s Jimmy Pattison stayed here to make huge fortunes. Still other Canadians have made a world mark as authors, musicians, artists and intellectuals. Harvard economist John Kenneth Galbraith traced his witty contempt for simple-minded capitalism to growing up on a farm in Ontario’s Elgin County. In turn, a columnist once claimed that Galbraith alone is sufficient justification for having a Canada.

Connoisseurs of high culture might nominate world-famous pianist Glenn Gould, abstract artist Jean-Paul Riopelle, or the short-lived poetic genius of Emile Nelligan. Or they may prefer more popular performers–Deanna Durbin, Céline Dion, Johnny Wayne and Frank Shuster or Mary Travers, the French-Canadian recording sensation of the 1930s better known as La Bolduc. They might be outnumbered by sports enthusiasts full of admiration for the artistry or endurance of hockey stars Mario Lemieux, Wayne Gretzky or Gordie Howe, runners Donovan Bailey or Tom Longboat, cyclist Torchy Peden or rower Ned Hanlan. Who could forget world figure skating champion Barbara Ann Scott or marathon swimmer Marilyn Bell, the first person to swim across Lake Ontario, or downhill ski champion Nancy Greene. But what about Elmer Hohl, Canadian and world horseshoe champion in the 1960s, or biathlete Myriam Bédard, double gold medallist at the 1994 winter Olympics? Far more than sports fans admired the courage of Terry Fox or Rick Hansen.

Individual achievement usually depends on a wider world. Our postwar affluence and a government with the courage to risk ridicule gave Canada a stake in high culture in the 1950s, but we could build on what other great cultures had built. That was even more true in the world of science and medicine. Without Canadians, the world would probably have discovered how to use insulin to control diabetes. Fred Banting’s Nobel Prize for his insulin research was shared with his assistant, Charles Best, but, as his biographer, Michael Bliss, argues, it should have been shared with his Scottish supervisor, J.T. McLeod. Canadian-born radio inventor Reginald Fessenden did most of his work for Thomas Edison or the Westinghouse company in the U.S. Ken Hill’s work on fibre optics and John Hopp’s pacemaker were part of a worldwide explosion of knowledge in physics and chemistry. Marc Garneau, Roberta Bondar, Julie Payette and other Canadian astronauts reached space because of American technology and capital. Joseph-Armand Bombardier’s Snowmobile was the kind of thing a Canadian should have invented, and did, but most of his inventions, like the great engineering company he launched, had the world as their market.

But Canada’s achievement is to create a structure of learning, training, and opportunity that turns potential into talent and gives it a place to perform. What Banting proved in 1923 was that a Canadian university could conduct world-class science, and a young Canadian from a small Ontario town could get the kind of education that helped him become as good as the best. In shabby, post-depression Winnipeg, Toronto and Montreal in the 1940s, three groups of dynamic women launched separate ballet companies which, in their own way, gave young Canadians access to careers in a beautiful but highly specialized art. Thanks to the Canada Council and vision in their own communities, violinists, sculptors, film producers and Shakespearean actors made their country a contributor to worldwide culture. Their achievements were the consequence of a national achievement. This needed more than a lot of dollars; it required dedicated classroom teachers, private generosity, parental sacrifice and a widespread conviction that all talents must be fostered, not just those born into privilege. It required a society that respected innovators, and encouraged ideas, whatever their impact on current orthodoxy or jealous competitors. For all the grumbling and recurrent small-mindedness, Canada has generally been that kind of society.

Perhaps small-mindedness is understandable in a country so vast that most of it disappears over the curvature of the earth. In 1900, thanks to a little problem called the Arctic, no one honestly knew how big Canada was, though the official guesstimate was 3,745,674 square miles. One of the century’s achievements was getting closer to the truth: 3,807,450 square miles. Thanks to Newfoundland and Labrador, which joined Canada in 1949, Canada grew to 3,851,809 square miles during the century or, if you prefer metric inflation, 9,970,610 square kilometres. Russia is still number 1 in size, but our Arctic islands help give Canada the world’s longest coastline, much of it in the new territory of Nunavut.

Throughout our history, the achievements that mattered most to Canadians were speeding the movement of people, goods and ideas across our enormous spaces and over obstacles that ranged from mountains to thousands of miles of muskeg. Canals, railways and the electric telegraph transformed life in the 19th century. A transcontinental journey that would cost an intrepid explorer a year could be completed in a week by 1900; by 2000, air travel coast to coast took nine hours. From the Grand Trunk and Canadian Pacific Railways in 1900 to Bell Canada Enterprises, General Motors and Ford in 2000, Canada’s biggest companies have been associated with keeping people mobile and in touch. The means have changed dramatically. In 1900, Canadians travelled by car on a network of 849,404 kilometres of roads and expressways, a third of them paved. One highway reached all the way to the Arctic Ocean. Pipelines and high voltage transmission lines delivered energy to Canadian towns and cities and to foreign customers. And Canadians take pride that whenever a U.S. space shuttle passes overhead, their own Canadarm may be moving material in the cargo bay, occasionally overseen by a Canadian astronaut.

In the first part of the century, Canadians struggled to complete a second transcontinental rail line while the automobile industry grew. By the 1920s, as Canada’s railways reached the height of speed, safety and efficiency, more car plants and a high tariff would make Canada, for a time, the second largest automobile producer in the world. By century’s end, Canadians owned almost 17 million motor vehicles. Helped by fibre optics, a largely home-grown invention, Canadians kept in touch by electronic mail, facsimile transmission or telephone calls at a tiny fraction of the price their ancestors would have paid.

Although two Americans won the race for the first manned flight, Canadian-born inventor Alexander Graham Bell turned his summer home at Baddeck, N.S., into a pioneering aeronautical centre and John McCurdy’s Silver Dart took off there in 1909. More than 13,000 Canadians trained as flyers in WW I, some at their own expense, and veterans formed the core of the bush pilots who turned Canada’s North into an expanding frontier by the 1920s.

In WW II, Canada gave itself an aviation industry and if it over-reached itself–or the government lost its nerve with the cancellation in 1959 of the Avro Arrow–Canadians continue to produce many of the aircraft their distances, climate and landing conditions demand. Bombardier, a Quebec firm that got its start with snowmobiles, has become a global competitor in designing and building mid-range passenger aircraft. In 1900, Canadians needed a week to cross their country; by 2000, thanks to aircraft, most of us could reach the remotest corner of the globe in a day, and some of us have shot into outer space.

Most Canadians, of course, never made a million dollars, never belonged to a world championship team and never even tried to write the great Canadian novel. Few could even name the remotest point on the globe, much less want to go there. Canadians, like most people, do their job, look after their family, and have had a few good times. At the end of the century, we live a little longer and a little better than our parents did. So did Canada.

In 1901, census-takers found only 5.4 million Canadians, a majority of them men. Today, there are 30 million Canadians, and women are in the majority, largely because they live longer than men and all of us live longer than we used to. In 1901, only 272,000 people were over 65, or five per cent of the population. By the end of the century, 12.2 per cent have passed what used to be the official retirement age, and most of the rest of us can expect to get there too.

According to the United Nations, Canada has been the best country in the world to live in for the five last years of the century. Any two philosophers would disagree about the meaning of happiness, much less how to find it. The UN measurement puts a lot of weight on getting a decent education, earning a comfortable income and living a long time. Since the right to knock their own country seems to be part of the good life, lots of Canadians have told the UN to recalculate and name some other winner.

Obviously there are evils in Canada, ranging from Winnipeg’s renowned mosquitoes to the poverty and suicide rate of its increasingly self-governing native people. However, wealthy critics focus on one feature of the UN scale: You don’t have to be wealthiest to win. If you did, the U.S. would be on top and tiny Luxembourg would come second. Canada would have to settle for fifth place, and Prime Minister Jean Chrétien would have to find something else to boast about.

Still, most Canadians know that money isn’t everything. At the end of the century, most said they preferred more–and wiser–spending on health and reducing poverty to tax cuts.

Living longer than one’s ancestors, being able to read and write, and having enough money to keep the family fed, housed and modestly entertained is an achievement most of our ancestors could not claim a century ago. In the good old days of 1900, most Canadians were poor. Some destitute people literally starved. Others perished of pneumonia or flu in charity wards and municipal poorhouses. And most people took it for granted. During the 20th century, and particularly during our new mid-century affluence, many Canadians came to treasure our reputation as a caring, sharing society.

A century ago, Canada was a highly homogeneous society. Over 96 per cent of Canadians had European ancestry, and 88 per cent were from the British Isles or France. That didn’t prevent pitched battles between the Orange and the Green, or crude insults about people who spoke only French or English. As for people outside the dominant European identities, the bigotry, racism and contempt would probably astonish us–all the more because it was unconscious and nearly universal. Canada’s black minority was restricted to a few menial jobs. Chinese immigrants paid a huge head tax to enter Canada and live in segregated slums; in 1924, immigration was banned altogether. Jews suffered contempt, condescension and quotas. So did most “foreign-speaking” minorities.

Things changed. Perhaps it was the slow process of getting to know people as neighbours. Correcting other wrongs helped. When Canadian women finally won the federal franchise in 1918, other irrational injustices could be addressed. In 1945, Hitler’s horrible lesson in the outcome of racism shocked Canada. Affluence helped too. Prejudice lost its economic edge. By the 1950s, most Canadians, not simply employers, welcomed immigration. In a more secular society, religious differences mattered less. The 1982 Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms established that no one has to endure social, cultural, religious or gender abuse. Jobs, services, benefits and liabilities must be free of the kind of discrimination most Canadians took for granted a century ago.

The 20th century made Canada a home to people from every part of the earth. Despite all the obstacles of language, unfamiliarity and home-grown prejudice, the great majority always did well–often better than people with deeper roots. After all, immigrants have always been distinguished by “get up and go”. Meanwhile, more and more Canadians have found careers in their own country. As University of British Columbia economist John Helliwell points out, each decade of the century has seen fewer Canadians seeking their fortune in the U.S. The reason is simple. Even in a global economy, Canada is a place where more and more people can find opportunities for their vast array of talent and skill.

In the past 100 years, Canada has survived two world wars, a Great Depression and a couple of brushes with nuclear holocaust and (so far) two Parti Québécois referenda. After the huge losses, costs and bitter divisions of WW I, Canada became a full member of the League of Nations. By 1931, the young self-governing colony of 1900 had become a fully sovereign nation. Still, we behaved like a little hermit kingdom that wanted the nasty world to stay away.

Once embroiled in a struggle we had not sought, Canada created a powerful field army, the third largest navy and the fourth largest air force in the world, and sent them to serve with allies in a worldwide struggle against cruel dictatorships. And we used wartime to mobilize people and resources for the huge manufacturing economy that gave us unprecedented postwar wealth. Canada emerged from that country into both affluence and involvement. For 30 years, Canadians enjoyed the second highest standard of living in the world. We used that wealth to build modern cities, great universities, high culture and a way of life that squeezed out much of the social, racial, gender and religious bigotry long embedded in Canadian life. For all the bad-tempered relations between French and English, two referenda and every subsequent poll tell us that most Quebecers still prefer to be Canadians if ensured the respect any people deserve and any sensible country can provide.

And some people still ask whether Canada “did” anything in the 20th century! Since there is plenty left to do, we still need the 21st.

Desmond Morton is director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada.


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