Michael Bliss’s books in medical history include The Discovery of Insulin, Banting: A Biography, William Osler: A Life in Medicine, Harvey Cushing: A Life in Surgery, and The Making of Modern Medicine: Turning Points in the Treatment of Disease.
Related Letters and Responses
So Michael Bliss thinks the 20th century did not belong to Canada after all. As a schoolboy in 1951, imagining Canada and the world in the way schoolboys do, his hopes for his country were as great as those of Sir Wilfrid Laurier. The optimism of Master Bliss wasn’t entirely unfounded; a half century after Laurier’s conﬁdent declaration, Canada had survived war, depression, disease, drought and civil unrest. As Bliss came of age in the shadow of the Second World War—from which Canada had emerged with a thrusting economy, the world’s fourth largest military and the beginnings of its ﬁnest foreign service—it was not just boyish exuberance to see a country of wealth, power and consequence on the top of North America. His Canada was conﬁdent of itself, addressing the great questions of the world, untroubled by the demons of identity.
Oh, how things have changed. Reﬂecting on a distinguished career as biographer, essayist and commentator, Bliss is less sanguine today. With the 20th century gone, so has the boast that it would belong to Canada. More troubling, the vision of Canada of Laurier and MacDonald has also faded in a country “moving into global irrelevance and social and political incoherence.” His unhappy coda: “In the histories of the contemporary world written outside of Canada, this country does almost nothing worth noticing.”
And so here we are again, asking the same existential question: “Has Canada failed?”
Bliss seems to thinks so. He sees decline in his home and native land, a view at odds with the enthusiasts such as columnist John Ibbitson, who declares: “Sometime, while no one was watching, Canada became the world’s most successful country.” Rest assured, Bliss wasn’t watching.
The elements of decline? A vision of the North that never came to be. A search for identity that has yielded multiple or regional identities, or perhaps none at all. A commitment to neutrality, of sorts, in the struggle against communism. A retreat from good government and the erosion of civic life. A dysfunctional federation of restless provinces and a weak centre. A poisonous anti-Americanism.
Some will dismiss this as the nostalgia of a white, sexagenarian, Anglo-Saxon. Some will see this as yet another lament of a stuffy Upper Canadian who misunderstands the West, Quebec or the new Canada. But as Bliss argues, this isn’t a lament for a nation, it is a meditation of what we saw for ourselves and what we have made of ourselves. To this Bliss brings 38 years as a professor of history at the University of Toronto. We should listen to him and his jarring home truths.
Of course, agreeing with Bliss about today’s Canada doesn’t necessarily mean embracing everything he believed about yesterday’s Canada. While Bliss was right about Canada’s material wealth and the ambitions for the North in 1951, Canada was already falling short of Laurier’s prophecy. True, Canada had a stronger sense of national purpose then, as the Depression generation did. But if “the French Canadian minority seemed to have made its accommodation with the country’s majority generations ago,” as he says, it wasn’t sustainable. It took a quiet revolution to address real inequities between English and French in Quebec. As for the rest of Canada at mid-century, it is easy to romanticize. The country was Protestant, parochial and pinched, a dull place where the French, the Jews, women and immigrants knew their place. Canada was also less equitable and less wealthy.
That, in itself, wasn’t why the 20th century wouldn’t belong to Canada in 1951. The reason was that it would belong to America. For all that Canada would be, the United States would be more, as it usually is.
But what of today? Are we really living in a foundering, failed country, somewhere between not yet and not ever?
In the last generation or so, we do seem to have lost a sense of ourselves at home and abroad. We stopped becoming a nation of great purpose, ﬁghting a war, building a railway or a seaway. We wanted to make ourselves wealthy, which we did, and we wanted to create the welfare state, which we also did. We turned inward, ﬁghting the Constitutional Wars.
Our rising regionalism, as well as a narcissistic multiculturalism that has become an end in itself, has deepened the enervating ambivalence toward the country. Is it any wonder that Maclean’s reported recently that fewer than half of Canadians would take up arms for Canada (and only 16 percent in Quebec)? Stephen Harper trumpets “Canadian values” in our commitment to Afghanistan, but what does that mean anymore? We haven’t demonstrated that kind of sacriﬁce since Korea.
Bliss doesn’t consider Quebec here, though he might. There the symbols of Canada—the ﬂag, the national anthem—have vanished. No one uses the term “separatist” in Quebec, because it is stating the obvious. If, as economist William Watson notes, a common phrase is “Canada and Quebec”—as if the two were on an equal footing—it is because Quebec, psychologically, has already separated.
Is it all dark? Hardly. Aren’t we richer today? Better educated? Healthier? A model to the world as a pluralistic, tolerant society?
If we haven’t built the New Jerusalem in Canada, we have built Little Italy and Little India. That we do this in a fractious, uneven world, and that we do it in social harmony, is no small achievement. This reﬂects the better angels of our nature.
Multiculturalism may not make us a great nation if we are unable, as a people, to forge one out of many, as the Americans have. We are content today to accept many out of many. But it may make us a good nation, and that may be enough for us, watered by a river of petrodollars and a regime of social entitlements.
The darker truth is this weakness in our character. It is the weakness of a country given to making one compromise too many, a country that never knows when to stop. It may well be that the next referendum fails in Quebec and the separatist threat passes and that we continue to carry on as many solitudes. This Canada will eventually resemble post-revolutionary America, a loose association of strong states without ambition or direction. The question then will no longer be whether Canada has failed. It will be whether anyone remembers, and anyone cares.
When I read Michael Bliss’s requiem for what might be described as the “top down” model of the Canadian identity, I found myself thinking about the annual talent show at my sons’ school, situated in an intensely diverse Toronto neighbourhood.
The children at Regal Road represent a spectrum of human experience that is simply a marvel. They come from afﬂuent homes and poor homes, from old Canadian families and those who’ve been here for merely months. They come in every colour, speak many languages, practice an amazing array of cultural and spiritual traditions.
For all that, they’re also kids, so they like to show off, which is why the parents organize a talent showcase. The kids propose their own acts, and the adults are treated to the ultimate global variety show. We see a Chinese boy performing Beethoven, a Korean child demonstrating traditional dance, groups of Grade 5s lip-synching Hillary Duff, another girl singing jazz standards, a stage adaptation of a scene from Harry Potter, etc.
The children love to watch each other perform. There’s no ﬁdgeting, as with sanctioned school events. They know they’ve created something raw and special for the parents, we who sit in wonderment at the fact that a group of adults from such disparate backgrounds are sharing this experience. If Professor Bliss wants to see the new “bottom up” Canadian identity in active formation, I’d urge him to come to next year’s show.
I cite this example because it symbolizes a critical point of juncture between immigration, cities, education and culture, and the organic ways in which 21st-century Canada is forging a unique form of cosmopolitan citizenship. Professor Bliss argues that the traditional Canadian identity traces to our natural resources and the effort required to marshal them. In this century, our cities will produce our wealth and also, appropriately enough, our self-image.
The 80 percent of Canadians who now live in big cities exist in a restlessly recombinant environment, deﬁned by the urban energy created by the myriad attitudes and customs of people from all walks of life. The project of Canadian citizenship is to ﬁgure out how to coexist in dense, lively cities connected to the world by trade, culture, faith and politics. Yet we are much more than a hotel stocked with cultural baggage, in Yann Martel’s disparaging characterization. Nor is Canada a melting pot or a cultural mosaic, that hoary Trudeau-era construction. Instead, I’d argue the destination of our daring social experiment is less important than the process of ﬁnding a common civic language.
Professor Bliss can take solace in the fact that the cosmopolitan Canadian identity is a byproduct of a red Tory political culture that assigns as much importance to shared social obligations, livable cities and public institutions as to markets and individualism. That’s the hardware; the software of the globalized Canadian identity is being created in the polyglot urban neighbourhoods where most of us live and go to school. It’s not something I could succinctly describe in a thousand words, but I know it when I see it.
I am extremely disappointed at Michael Bliss’s myopic dismissal of Canada’s historical dreams. He pours scorn on them and only just restrains himself from suggesting that Canada should never have entertained any of them in the ﬁrst place. Perhaps he is angry because none of them to pass.
Bliss provides a chronological summary of how things have transpired but no analysis. He presents this with arrogance, drawing on his 38 years of teaching history but without disguising his personal bias. He is dismissive of the “quaint Heritage moments” without pointing out why we seem to need them in the ﬁrst place. There is a lot more to Canada’s willingness to live with Cuba than the simplistic idea that it is only a “brutal … dictatorship.” He does not even engage in the very difﬁcult debate surrounding ethics in other countries, international law and, the geopolitics of our nation when addressing the two. As a foreign service brat, I heard the “mantras and moralism” that boosted the multilateral power structure of the United Nations. Where is his analysis of how weak even that institution has become in the face of the U.S. invasion of Iraq? This was—and is—“power politics.” To characterize Canadians’ clear wish not to join the invasion as “distaste for truly messy situations like Iraq” is an insult to the many discussions that took place leading up to that decision, a decision that would likely have been different if we had not made our views known to our leadership. The fact that we made a different choice is signiﬁcant.
Bliss slanders history and institutions at will—“the perpetual scandal of the Canadian Senate”—and leads us into the age-old trap of missing the real issue: the House of Commons is the senior democratic institution in the country so should be cared for before the Senate (which is rather harmless in a way that the Commons is not). He dismisses the “dreamers” but laments the “visionaries of ever greater continental economic integration … another of history’s lost causes.” (Note the pejorative and afﬁrmative use of language.) Continental integration certainly is not one of my causes.
Canada and the U.S. are different (so far), and diversity is a positive thing. But I must admit that I am reacting to Mr. Bliss because although he does point out a painful lack of sense of who we are or want to be, I feel he hides his own vision about what that could be. Go south, young man, if you are so unhappy with this country.