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From the archives

Pax Atlantica

NATO’s long-lasting relevance

A Larger Role for Unions

Organized labour may be shrinking but the rhetoric is still upbeat

This United League

Will not die, will not perish

Canada Daze

Barrelling toward a strange kind of death

Stephen Marche

I can’t recall the first time I heard the phrase “so‑called Canada,” but I am quite sure it must have come from somebody paid by the government. It’s the kind of phrase career bureaucrats say. Several of our universities have used it in official documents. Non-profits, in their grant applications, sometimes use it. It’s the world’s most casual form of political resistance, shorthand for the country’s inherent illegitimacy as a product of colonialism. Anyone who says “so‑called Canada” is almost certainly an academic or an activist-journalist or an arts administrator, among a shrinking cadre whose income, in one way or another, derives from the very government the phrase delegitimizes.

Political illegitimacy is only one implication of “so‑called Canada,” though, and not the most important, I think. The other implication of the phrase is that the current political organization of the territory of Canada will stop existing, and that it should stop existing, the sooner the better. “So‑called Canada” implies that this land is a kind of future historical curiosity, like the Holy Roman Empire or Yugoslavia. And who’s to say that’s wrong? The name “Canada” may take on the dusty romance of the abandoned globes children discover in attics, whether it represents a fable or a forgotten dream. The country’s nearly broken up twice in my lifetime, and the security of living next to the world’s most powerful military increasingly doesn’t look like security at all.

There has never been a worse time to try to tell a Canadian story. To come into existence, a Canadian story must either be transferred to an American setting or submit to the national virtue machinery. Either way, the connection to the political entity called Canada perishes in the process. The disappearance of Canada, the end of the Canadian story, would be a strange kind of death. No one is coming to conquer us. No ideology is exploding under our feet. The end of so‑called Canada would be a death by willed irrelevance, a narrative suicide.

There has never been a worse time to try to tell a Canadian story.

Brian Gable

There is one story from so‑called Canada I would like to tell, however, even as I know there’s no market for it, even though I know it does not fit what the people of Canada want to hear about themselves or what anybody else wants to hear about Canada. It is a story that I haven’t been able to shake, a story that explains — at least to me, at least a bit — how the people here work and how they don’t work, and how I am like them and how I am different from them. It is a murder mystery — a mystery about a murder, anyway. The facts are not in dispute; their meaning is where the confusion sets in. A hundred and fifty years ago, on a remote corner of the western prairie, a band of Plains Cree murdered a man named John Delaney. He was one of nine victims (if “victims” is the right word) of the Frog Lake Massacre, which coincided with the Second Riel Rebellion of 1885. Delaney believed that he was safe with the people who murdered him, up to the moment he was taken from a church, unarmed, and shot in front of his young wife, Theresa, along with eight others. The murder itself was unexceptional, banal even. So was Theresa’s subsequent kidnapping. History has seen — is seeing — plenty of both. The peculiarity lies in the reception. Despite the randomness of his death, despite the brutality of the event, John Delaney’s descendants, without exception, believe he deserved it. Not one alive today would consider his fate unjustified, if anyone’s fate is ever justified. And I know that because his descendants are my family.

The narrative collapse of the country has been at the hands of the very best of the Canadian spirit. The process of truth and reconciliation, begun in 2008, has been an attempt — and largely an honest attempt — to deal with the nation’s fraught origins. Overcoming the settler-colonial narrative was an attempt to encounter a history that had been forgotten — the legacy of residential schools, the conscious destruction of languages and religions — and, hopefully, in the process, to help the country to become itself, rather than an addendum to the metropoles of New York or London.

Two Months in the Camp of Big Bear, the primary account of the Frog Lake Massacre, is a classic example of the settler-colonial narrative that so‑called Canada has been trying to overcome. In it, Theresa Delaney explains that when she arrived in 1883, Frog Lake barely deserved the name of a settlement, consisting of little more than a handful of buildings on the edge of a vast pristine lake near what is currently the border between Alberta and Saskatchewan. Bands of Plains Cree and Woods Cree camped nearby. In 1879, Ottawa had appointed her husband, John, Indian instructor for the region, alongside an Indian agent named Thomas Quinn. There was Léon-Adélard Fafard, a Catholic priest who led a small church, and there were a few traders from the Hudson’s Bay Company as well. John Gowanlock, whose job was to build a flour mill, arrived at the settlement later and brought along his wife, also named Theresa, also from Ontario. (Theresa Gowanlock contributed her own account of the Frog Lake Massacre to the book.)

The portrait of life before the massacre in Two Months in the Camp of Big Bear is pure colonial fantasia: John cheerfully instructing the Indigenous men in farming while his wife cheerfully instructs the women in housekeeping: “Ours was a happy home; I grew to like my surroundings, I became fond of my Indian protegees.” Theresa, writing shortly after the terrible events, refuses to make explicit political statements on the Riel Rebellion, but she is clear on one point: “There is one thing I do know and most emphatically desire to express and have thoroughly understood and that is the fact, the Indians have no grievances and no complaints to make.” Her description of John is vague, coloured no doubt by the political situation, by the recentness of his death, and possibly even by love.

But there were other witnesses to life at Frog Lake. William Cameron, another settler who survived the massacre, left a different record in his account Blood Red the Sun. John Delaney was responsible for a “work-for-rations” program: no Indigenous person was to receive food unless they worked for the government first. The Plains Cree were starving. The buffalo had died off by the early 1880s, and the buffalo were not simply a supply of food but the basis of their cosmology. They attempted to learn agriculture, but in 1884 the crops failed because of drought. The old gods had perished; the new gods had betrayed them.

Hunger was the weapon Delaney used to degrade and abuse the Cree. He traded food for sex with the starving women. In 1882, a man named Sand Fly protested, and Delaney had him imprisoned on the pretext that he had slaughtered a government ox. Delaney cohabited with Sand Fly’s wife while Sand Fly served four months in jail. He abandoned her after he married Theresa. Delaney and his colleagues were deliberately brutal in their practice of starvation — and for motives less direct than sex. A guide in the region, Louis Goulet, later claimed that Delaney and Quinn intended to make life so unbearable for the Indigenous population that they would abandon the area. “As soon as the land had been cleared, it would be much in demand for homesteads,” Goulet recalled. “They were cooking up a plan to clear the land before it was opened for settlement.”

Hunger is at the heart of the Canadian crime. There’s a famous story about Pierre Trudeau meeting Marlon Brando, who was then touring the world to promote Indigenous rights. “There are differences in the way we treated our natives,” the prime minister told the American actor. “You hunted them down and murdered them. We starved them to death.” At six residential schools between 1942 and 1952, the Department of Indian Affairs set up experiments in which deliberately malnourished children were tested in controlled settings to determine the effects of various nutritional supplements. These experiments were in direct violation of the Nuremberg Code.

Canadian literary nationalism, in its efflorescence from the late 1960s to the 1990s, filled itself with figures like Theresa Delaney: the plucky woman who survives the wilderness. There are other, more famous figures in this national iconography, women who wrote better, less morally suspect books than Delaney’s. Susanna Moodie, in Roughing It in the Bush, and her sister Catharine Parr Traill, in The Backwoods of Canada, embodied a specifically Canadian immigrant narrative: carving small pockets of propriety out of the vast hard country. In the ’60s, Canadian writers repurposed their stories into a kind of proto-feminism that fit well with the new nationalism. Women and Canada against men and America. Margaret Atwood’s greatest collection of poetry remains The Journals of Susanna Moodie, which fuses Moodie’s immigrant narratives with a confessionalist lyricism:

Those who went ahead
of us in the forest
bent the early trees
so that they grew to signals:
the trail was not
among the trees but
the trees

Atwood herself is one of the icons of adventurous women; she grew up, the child of a naturalist, in northern Quebec.

It isn’t hard to find features of Theresa Delaney to admire, starting with the courage required to leave everything she’d known for the daring uncertainties of Frog Lake. The voice permeating her account is humble to a fault: “My readers will have to excuse what may seem egotism on my part, in speaking so much about myself and my husband. But as the subject demands that I should detail, all that can be of any public interest, in my short life, it would be difficult to write my story and not appear, at times, somewhat egotistical.” There is, no doubt, a jumble of prejudices in Two Months in the Camp of Big Bear, but Delaney takes pains to praise the Indigenous people she’s in contact with.

Theresa Delaney had her virtues. But with her, as with the rest of the country, the only way to understand Canadian evil is to inspect, scrupulously, Canadian virtue. At the outbreak of hostilities between government forces and Métis fighters led by Louis Riel, the white settlers of Frog Lake did not fear for their lives. The local North West Mounted Police inspector sent them a letter instructing them to return to nearby Fort Pitt, but, after a meeting, they decided against flight. The Métis, the descendants of white voyageurs and Indigenous women across the West, were a separate group from the Cree or from any other Indigenous community. The settlers believed that, for one thing, the Riel Rebellion did not involve the Cree, and for another, that these communities were their friends and neighbours and would not harm them.

The most significant reason for their sense of security was the decency and credibility of the Plains Cree leader Big Bear. William Cameron remembered him as a statesman in the grandest tradition: “Big Bear was then perhaps sixty years of age,” Cameron wrote. “He had an amazing voice and when he talked, as he often did, with his right arm free and the left holding the blanket folded across his broad chest, with the dramatic gestures and inflections natural to him, he reminded me of an imperial Caesar.” Imasees, the son of Big Bear, gave his personal assurance to the settlers that they would protect them from any Métis incursions. Unlike most of the other Indigenous leaders, Big Bear had not yet signed a treaty with the Canadian government. He was holding out for a better arrangement, trying to find adequate space for his weary people. But Big Bear’s pursuit of peaceful negotiation with Ottawa had yielded only deeper humiliation and degradation; the war chief Wandering Spirit wanted to try blood instead. Cameron knew Wandering Spirit as well. He remembered “eyes that always seemed to bore into one’s very soul.”

The conflict had been simmering for years before the Riel Rebellion, and it probably would have continued to simmer if Big Bear had not gone hunting in the mountains. While he was away, Wandering Spirit raided the local store for food and found alcohol and opiates. By the time Big Bear returned, sleeping off his exhaustion back in the camp, Wandering Spirit had held his own council. In full war regalia, his eyes ochre, wearing his lynx fur headdress with eagle feathers, one for each man he had killed in battle, he and his men gathered all the white people in Frog Lake and led them to the church where Father Fafard was saying mass. It was Holy Thursday. Wandering Spirit wandered into the service and knelt in a mocking salute.

Wandering Spirit’s plan, insofar as his deep rage had a plan, was to lead the settlers to his camp as hostages. Most of them agreed and began walking from the church. Quinn, who was always the hardest man at Frog Lake, refused. Wandering Spirit asked him to go three times. Quinn refused three times. So Wandering Spirit shot him, and the others in the party took the shot as a sign for general slaughter. Father Fafard died giving John Delaney last rites, Theresa draped over him. Big Bear, who was still in the camp, heard the shooting. He ran toward them shouting, “Tesqua! Tesqua!” (Stop! Stop!) His cry of anguish came too late.

Big Bear cried out in anguish for the murder of John Delaney. Theresa’s descendants don’t, and they are a family of Canadian storytellers — my family. My wife is currently the editor-in-chief of Maclean’s; her father, Robert Fulford, is the most prominent Canadian journalist of his generation; Bob’s father, A. E., was a leading reporter for the Canadian Press who led the coverage of the Dionne Quintuplets (John Diefenbaker called him “the Quint Man”). A. E.’s aunt was Theresa Delaney. “Reading her words, as I’ve done occasionally over the last twenty-five years,” my father-in-law once wrote, “I’ve often wished she had been more curious, more questioning, more foresighted — an exception to something evil rather than an example of it.”

That word “evil” resonates with me. Bob wasn’t writing as some journalist-activist in 2024; he was writing in the 1970s as a widely respected conservative-leaning cultural commentator. Even then, even in that frame of reference, it was not hard to see that the evil of the murder itself was negligible in comparison with the evil of history’s sweep. My wife’s cousin Marcus Gee, a columnist for the Globe and Mail (there are a lot of journalists in the family), wrote more recently about Two Months in the Camp of Big Bear: “In a way, this mostly forgotten volume helped lay the ground for the long and determined campaign to suppress Indigenous culture — a campaign that included banning the potlatch and sweeping thousands of children off to residential schools.” I think I should point out — though I’m not sure that it matters — that my wife’s family, as a group, is the most decent collection of people that I have met. They’re part of that blessed species of humanity who feel better when they do the right thing, who enjoy being decent.

Back when Justin Trudeau told The New York Times Magazine that Canada was the “first postnational state,” he was giving political expression to that fundamental decency. “There is no core identity, no mainstream in Canada,” he said in 2015, and it was a statement of pride, of defiance even. The folly of that exclusive power — the nation — would not infect us. Trudeau was indulging in what we might describe as Canadian exceptionalism, an anti-exceptionalist exceptionalism. It gave a halo to the Canadian incapacity to build myths. Specifically, it was a counterpoint not just to the rising tide of global populism but to Quebec nationalism. We’re too smart to take pride in ourselves.

But that counter-nationalism has had consequences. What filled the space of national pride was a radical skepticism toward the Canadian project as such — a furious self-flagellation overseen by government-funded organizations. Canadian Art used to be a magazine. Then it decided to analyze the foundation of its power. It stopped existing. The National Gallery of Canada attempted the process of reconciliation, but then it realized that that would involve just simply dying. “What is decolonization? What would it entail?” the museum’s new CEO asked recently, after a purge of the institution. “I’m not even sure I’m interested in thinking about it. I’m interested in building something, not de‑building it.” The CBC used to be the absolute centre of Canadian narrative life. Trudeau upped its funding to unprecedented levels, only to see its audience collapse because all it can do is criticize the country it is supposed to amplify. Less than 5 percent of the population currently watches it in prime time. Over a third of Canadians want to defund it completely.

And that is what is so strange about the phrase “so‑called Canada.” At a certain point the question becomes this: If you really hate the Canadian project, if you believe that it is fundamentally illegitimate, why try to improve it?

From the moment of her capture, Theresa Delaney’s story left the enclosed garden of family history and entered history proper. The Mountie in charge of the area, and therefore of her rescue, was Francis Dickens, the son of Charles Dickens. Francis was not a successful human being. He was born the year after A Christmas Carol, and his colleagues found a description that fit the son in the father’s book: “secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster.”

The North West Mounted Police represented Francis Dickens’s last chance. If the British Empire sent its criminals to Australia and its greedy to South Africa, it sent its idiot sons to Canada. Francis was one of them. “His unspectacular career was marked by recklessness, laziness and heavy drinking,” reads one description of his life. “Dickens can be blamed for worsening relations between the Blackfoot and the NWMP and for the growing antipathy of the officer cadre toward Englishmen.” His response to the crisis at Frog Lake could hardly have been worse, though he did leave an extensive diary of his failures. He barricaded Fort Pitt with sacks of flour and oats, even though he must have known it was strictly a morale-boosting effort. There were hundreds of Plains Cree and twenty-two settlers in the fort. Eventually he got around to organizing a retreat, but the scow they took down the North Saskatchewan River was so poorly constructed they had to bail it out for the entire six-day journey to Battleford, with their clothes freezing to their bodies.

Ultimately a Métis interpreter named Johnny Pritchard saved Theresa Delaney, even though he had to ask a friend to give him a horse to trade for her. “It was all they had and yet they willingly parted with that all,” Delaney wrote. “He not only proved himself a sincere friend and a brave fellow, but he acted the part of a perfect gentleman, throughout, and stands, ever since, in my estimation, the type of God’s noblest creatures — A TRULY GOOD MAN.” By the time of her escape, the press response to her capture was already in full froth. The Riel Rebellion produced a spasm of imperialist supremacy. The month of the publication of Two Months in the Camp of Big Bear was a turning point for the country. John A. Macdonald was determined to hang the Métis leader Louis Riel, “though every dog in Quebec bark in his favour.” The Frog Lake Massacre, a sidelight conflict, had more terrible consequences. The first prime minister had planned to give every Indigenous man the vote. He couldn’t after the women’s book appeared. After Two Months in the Camp of Big Bear, the process of banning rituals and dances began. The number of surveillance agents on reserves increased. Theresa Delaney was not just a reflection of Canadian evil; she contributed directly to it.

That same month, Wandering Spirit and seven other Plains Cree were executed at Battleford. Wandering Spirit, when captured, had tried to kill himself by stabbing himself in the heart, but he managed only to pierce a lung. The other condemned men went down smiling and singing, shouting war cries. White witnesses claimed Wandering Spirit went to his death in silence. Cree witnesses claimed that he sang a low love song to his wife.

Evil is supposedly mysterious, the subject of theological and philosophical speculation. I don’t find the evil in John or Theresa Delaney even remotely hard to fathom. John believed he was out there fighting the good fight, but he had his secret vices. He was out in the wild preparing the Cree for the twentieth century — instructed by the forces of civilization to render them thrifty, decent, and proper. Shouldn’t he get his little something out of it for his trouble? He was manifestly on the right side of history, and he took his comforts where he could. If the recent past has taught us anything, it’s that the belief that you’re on the right side of history permits all kinds of habits of mind to evaporate — like common decency, basic compassion, reliance on facts, and the recognition of ordinary human fallibility.

The unique pathology of Canada is that we conquered the land by passive aggression. Just as the violence that gave birth to the United States is reflected in its current proclivity for mass murder and incarceration, here it is sanctimony that kills. The weapon of annihilation is righteousness. The iconography of the plucky Canadian woman was always predicated on a massive act of forgetting. “Often have I grieved that people with such generous impulses should be degraded and corrupted by civilised men,” Susanna Moodie wrote about the Indigenous people near her settlement. “That a mysterious destiny involves and hangs over them, pressing them back into the wilderness, and slowly and surely sweeping them from the earth.” Virtue is a hell of a drug. It allows you to forgive yourself so much. To prove ourselves better than the Americans — more upright, more loyal — is the central tenet of Canada’s founding. The anglosphere divided itself up like a dysfunctional family: England the brutal bullying drunken father, America the glamorous rebellious son with a violent streak, and Canada the daughter always trying to smooth everything over, always trying to bury the dark secrets.

In June 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission described Canadian evil in a phrase: “cultural genocide.” That’s what the residential schools were. They were sanctioned factories of oblivion. They took families, whole cultures, whole ways of life, and chewed them into unmarked graves, into buried dark secrets. They starved Indigenous people to death for their own good. Canadian dehumanization is not wild slaughter. It works through bureaucracy in the name of progress and decency.

The lesson of colonialism is that what you do to the other, you eventually do to your own. If you build your country by stripping away all that is original and distinct in the name of some distant faith in progress, you will eventually strip away in yourself all that is original and distinct in the name of some distant faith in progress. The inheritance of Canada’s passive-aggressive conquest is that Canada has never possessed, and probably never will possess, an original culture. At the moment, we are in a particularly low ebb of mediocre sanctimony. So much is worthy in Canadian culture, and so little is worthwhile.

The truly unique cultural tradition here is a totalizing form of cultural appropriation. “Cultural appropriation” may not even be the correct term for it: “fraud” might be better. There is a long and continuous habit of white artists pretending to be Indigenous. At times, the literary imposters have even been rebranded as producers of “early Canadian autofiction,” and they have been some of the most popular and successful writers in the country’s history. Grey Owl was a massive bestseller. Joseph Boyden, the most prominent “Métis” novelist of the current generation, was found to have no ancestral link to any Indigenous group. A few years ago, the CBC cancelled the second season of its series Trickster, based on the work of Eden Robinson, a Haisla and Heiltsuk author, after the Indigenous status of its director was thrown into doubt. The director later commissioned a professional historian who established “two ancestral lines that run through her paternal and maternal grandparents.” It didn’t matter by then. The show had been terminated. Most shocking of all was the case of Buffy Sainte-Marie, arguably the best-known Indigenous musician. She was adopted into a Cree family as an adult, in her twenties, meaning she grew up as a settler. In 2018, she won her latest Juno — our pathetic equivalent of a Grammy — for Indigenous music. If you want to understand Canadian progressive culture in a single scene, here it is: The same year, Kelly Fraser, an Inuk singer, was nominated for her album Sedna. Fraser died by suicide in 2019. But first, everyone left the Junos aglow with their own virtue. The entire scenario was engineered to make the white people running it feel like they were improving the world, so that they could go home with the warm feeling that they had pushed reconciliation forward. The heart of the Toronto hipster is a twisted suicide in waiting. There is no absurdity that such people will not commit in the quest to feel vaguely righteous.

The reconciliation culture industry is a white pathology: The settlers of Canada won’t tell their own stories, but they will listen to Indigenous stories so long as they’re told, secretly, by white people. The basic condition of being a settler is so hateful to the Canadian conscience that it literally has to reject its own reality. And this has become another regular burden on First Nations: having to reject white people pretending to be them, having to insist on their right to their own identity. Once again, the hunger for virtue is annihilating.

Because the Canadian culture industries — film, books, music, much of journalism — are not market-driven but government-funded, they are primarily devoted to virtue. But they’re never satisfied because they’re still operating on this land. If you are young and creative in Canada, you should leave. It will be generations, if ever, before the people in power care more about your talent than the service your identity can provide to their institutions. Unless you want to play their pointless, endless expiation games, leave. Canadian culture is a junkie mother, and her drug of choice is virtue. If her children want her attention, they all must bring a taste.

Recently I attended a lunch at Massey College, the fanciest of the ersatz Oxbridge colleges on the University of Toronto campus. The last time I had attended one of these lunches, I recalled to my hosts, there was a Latin grace. I asked if there would be a repeat. They all laughed. That was ancient history, of course. Then, a few moments later, they invited an elderly gentleman to recite a land acknowledgement. The content had changed, but the action was the same: demonstrably erudite, institutionally validated self-humbling before the bread rolls. Canadian piety is now, and it has always been, the weapon of settlement. A land acknowledgement is more than a statement of historical guilt. It is also a statement of ongoing possession. Before any public event, we say: This land is ours now. We took it. We feel bad, which is why we deserve it.

I’ve always been grateful for the Canadian literary nationalists, even as their success led us to stop asking what Canada means. If someone 200 years from now wants to know what my mother’s life was like, they have only to pick up Alice Munro. It’s all there: the huge arc from one-room schoolrooms to high-towered condos, the serene surfaces that cover fervid depths, the smothering silences, the internal expanses. There is not, nor will there be, a similar chronicler of my own generation in Canada. To be a writer in Canada today is to operate within a bubble of insignificance. There is a numbness to experience. The material of life will not serve as creative grist unless America can be interested, or unless it fits into the systems of virtue that Canadian cultural institutions live by. If Canada is to be loved now, it is to be loved in silence.

Every country is a haunted house. Every national identity is a murder mystery that the authorities don’t want solved. Even for those who follow the clues, the search never leads to the clarity of judgment, to the longed‑for recognition given the name of justice or to the peace that is supposed to flow from justice. The cry that wakes me in this haunted house I inhabit is Big Bear’s, as he turns, shouting, “Tesqua! Tesqua!” What was he trying to stop? The massacre at Frog Lake? The defeat that he must have known would follow for his own people? The annihilating stupidity of the inevitable response from the sanctimonious elites? Or was he raising his voice against the ecstasy of revenge? Against the movement and counter-movement of history itself? Big Bear — a wise, compassionate, and diplomatic man trying to rebuild a society after the collapse of its material and spiritual foundations, a practical man focused on the realities facing himself and his people — couldn’t stop a thing. He couldn’t stop the murder of John Delaney, he couldn’t stop the horrors of the Canadian response, he couldn’t stop the degradation and willful starvation of his own people in the name of virtue. He couldn’t stop anything because nobody stops anything. History keeps coming, no matter what you cry out.

Stephen Marche is the author of The Next Civil War: Dispatches from the American Future and On Writing and Failure, among other books.