Nationalism | The Canadian Encyclopedia



Nationalism is the doctrine or practice of promoting the collective interests of a national community or STATE above those of individuals, regions or other nations.


Nationalism is the doctrine or practice of promoting the collective interests of a national community or STATE above those of individuals, regions or other nations. Canadian nationalism flourished following the First and Second World Wars, but it has also struggled to compete against the forces of provincial identity, especially in Quebec, and the influence of American culture and economic integration.

Revolution, War and the Birth of Nations

Although its historic origins are diverse, nationalism’s modern forms are a product of the late 18th and 19th centuries, particularly of the American and French Revolutions and the unification movements in Germany and Italy. Emulating these European and American models, other national movements of self-determination and liberation have, over the past 200 years, transformed nationalism into a worldwide political and cultural phenomenon. In the first 25 years after the Second World War, 66 new nations were created.

In Europe, nationalist thought has contained a central notion of racial superiority which has frequently been expressed in the display and use of military force—most vividly by Germany's Nazi government in the Second World War. Nationalism does not necessarily have a particular ideological slant, but varies from right to left on the political spectrum; its flavour and content depend upon the historical circumstances.

Canada Seeks its Own Nationalism

Canada came to embrace nationalism in a period when world war had undermined European power and discredited European nationalism. At the same time, the national power and influence of the United States had spread throughout the world. In the Western hemisphere, the two world wars were widely attributed to the excesses of nationalism, which in turn (along with liberal and Marxist historical thought) led to strong anti-nationalist and internationalist reactions.

Canadian national sentiment developed slowly after Confederation, reflecting the strengths of provincialism and, in English-speaking Canada, the overriding sense of membership in the British Empire. There were glimmers of nationalism in the CANADA FIRST movement of the 1870s, and among writers of the 1890s. By 1911 Canada's nationalist dilemmas were becoming evident when the government of Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier was defeated over its modestly independent naval policy and a scheme of reciprocity (freer trade) with the United States.

Canadian Identity Flourishes

Canada's participation and sacrifice in the First World War, and its success on battlefields such as Vimy Ridge, did the most to create a sense of distinct nationhood. The aftermath of the war also brought a surge of cultural nationalism, centered in Toronto and reflected in the paintings of the GROUP OF SEVEN, in the founding of the CANADIAN FORUM, and the literary commentary of William Arthur DEACON in SATURDAY NIGHT magazine.

Political nationalism, under the guidance of the Liberal government of Prime Minister Mackenzie KING, was directed against the fading symbols of colonial ties with Great Britain. This anti-colonial nationalism met no resistance from Great Britain, but it conflicted with the attachment many English-speaking Canadians felt for British symbols, an attachment most persistently expressed politically through the CONSERVATIVE PARTY.

The Second World War thrust Canada into close military and economic integration with the US, which created worries about the strength of independent Canadian nationhood. By 1945 the federal Liberal government and its influential senior civil service believed the country had passed beyond the era of nationalism into internationalism (in diplomacy) and CONTINENTALISM (in economic and cultural relations with the US). In his last years of power, however, King sometimes brooded about the dangers of this absorption and dreamed of greater independence. But, after the spring of 1946, COLD WAR concerns caused King, as well as most Canadians, to abandon such ideas in return for the safety of collective security.

US Culture Pours Into Canada

Canadian national consciousness and the articulation of national interests were placed in suspension for a decade. A vast cultural and economic invasion from the US took place with Canada's tacit consent. The Report of the Massey Royal Commission on NATIONAL DEVELOPMENT IN THE ARTS, LETTERS AND SCIENCES (1951) noted that the Canadian community faced not only dispersal in a vast landscape, but also "influences from across the border, as pervasive as they are friendly." In education, book publishing, magazine publishing, filmmaking and radio, the commission surveyed the American influences on Canadian life and warned of "the very present danger of permanent dependence."

The report’s nationalist program for containing the cultural challenge was increasingly accepted by the Liberal government of the early 1950s, while the same government maintained its indifference to any measures of ECONOMIC NATIONALISM.

The Gordon Royal Commission on CANADA'S ECONOMIC PROSPECTS warned in 1956 of the potential dangers of economic subordination to the US and offered a mildly nationalist program of countermeasures. It was ignored by the government of Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent.

In view of the growth of direct US investment in Canada (see FOREIGN INVESTMENT) and Liberal encouragement of it, both the Conservative and CO-OPERATIVE COMMONWEALTH FEDERATION (CCF) opposition parties spoke in nationalist tones before the 1957 general election—which brought the Conservatives to power. But in six years the government Prime Minister John Diefenbaker could not work out a coherent cultural or economic program. Canada continued promoting economic and military integration with the US, while at the same time antagonizing the US administration with its defiant manner.

Limiting Foreign Ownership of Media

The Conservative defeat of 1963 brought a reformed Liberal Party to power under Prime Minister Lester PEARSON. In the beginning the Pearson government was dominated by the nationalist economic views of the minister of finance, Walter GORDON, a dissenting and atypical member of the Toronto business establishment. Gordon's measures to limit foreign ownership of newspapers, magazines, radio and television were adopted in 1965 and the CANADA DEVELOPMENT CORPORATION was eventually established.

After 1965, however, the Pearson government came to terms with the opponents of nationalist policy in the business community. The Report of the Watkins Task Force on FOREIGN OWNERSHIP AND THE STRUCTURE OF CANADIAN INVESTMENT (1968) was officially ignored, as had been the Gordon Report.

The Pearson government's new anti-nationalism was reinforced by the election in 1968 of Liberal Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, whose opposition to nationalism was the product of his experiences in Québec under Premier Maurice DUPLESSIS, and also his interpretation of European history.

Canadian Flag and National Anthem

The relative failure of Canadian nationalist policies in the 1960s and the evidence of overwhelming American influence in Canada stimulated the growth of a variety of popular nationalist organizations and activities in English-speaking Canada from 1968 onwards.

The COMMITTEE FOR AN INDEPENDENT CANADA lobbied during the 1970s for a range of nationalist policies. The WAFFLE group sought to stiffen the nationalist backbone of the NEW DEMOCRATIC PARTY but was eventually defeated and dispersed. The Public Petroleum Association incorporated nationalists from both movements in its campaign for repatriation of the oil industry.

In 1965, Canada adopted a national flag, the Maple Leaf, to replace the Union Flag. In 1980, "O Canada" was officially named the country’s national anthem.

Quebec Nationalism

The nationalist movement in English-speaking Canada was weakened in the 1970s by a division over attitudes to Québec nationalism. One element, while sympathetic to the cultural and linguistic aspirations of the Québecois, regarded Québec nationalism as a subversive force threatening the integrity of Canada. Another element saw it as a potential complement to Canadian nationalism to be emulated by English-speaking Canadians.

Two Quebec votes on sovereignty tested Canadian nationalism. The 1980 Quebec referendum asked citizens of that province if Quebec should pursue a path toward sovereignty. Federalists, invoking a pan-Canadian nationalism, backed the ‘No’ vote. Quebec nationalists backed the ‘Yes’ vote. In the end, 59.56 per cent of Quebeckers voted ‘No’, a win for Canadian nationalism.

The 1995 Quebec referendum asked its citizens if the province should secede from Canada and become an independent state. Again, Canadian nationalists backed the ‘No’ camp and Quebec nationalists backed the ‘Yes’ vote. Again, the ‘No’ vote won, by a much slimmer margin: 50.58 per cent ‘No’ to 49.42 per cent ‘Yes’.

Trudeau Undercuts Provincial Power

In the election campaign of 1980, Trudeau and cabinet minister Marc LALONDE responded to perceived forces of national disintegration in Québec and the West by adopting strong nationalist-centralist attitudes. Trudeau won the election and would soon repatriate Canada's Constitution from Britain, and also create the NATIONAL ENERGY PROGRAM of November 1980.

This new Trudeau nationalism aimed at undercutting the growing power of the provinces rather than promoting national objectives for their own sake. It provoked strong responses from the provinces and from international business. The government's constitutional policy was adjusted to meet some provincial objections (though not those of Québec) and the energy policy was modified.

Free Trade

The Progressive Conservative government of Prime Minister Brian MULRONEY, elected in September 1984, adopted a policy of general reconciliation with the US which led to comprehensive FREE TRADE negotiations in 1986 and 1987 and ratification of the Free Trade Agreement following the general election of 1988. The Mulroney government's anti-nationalist persistence was unprecedented and prompted the revival of a nationalist opposition (see COUNCIL OF CANADIANS).

In 1993 the Free Trade Agreement was superseded by the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which added Mexico to the North American economic community. Facing substantial popular criticism of the agreement, the Liberal Party promised to reopen the negotiation if it achieved office. But once in power the new government of Prime Minister Jean CHRÉTIEN conducted only token discussions with the US and Mexico and confirmed the agreement without essential change.

Sponsorship Scandal

Following the near-loss by federalist forces of the 1995 Quebec referendum, the Chretien government embarked on an aggressive program to promote federalism in Quebec by advertising Canada at cultural and sporting events across the province. The multi-million-dollar effort became a source of widespread corruption, however, and produced one of the worst political scandals in Canadian history. It led to the 2004 Gomery Inquiry and the tainting of the Liberal brand in Quebec, and contributed to the defeat of the Liberals by the Conservatives in the 2006 federal election.

Reintroducing 'Royal' Aspect to Canada

Since 2006, Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper has promoted a nationalism based on the country’s historical relationship with the United Kingdom. His government heavily promoted the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812 as a fundamental moment in establishing Canadian identity.

It also restored the “Royal” prefix to the Canadian armed forces. His government said it was recognizing a “historical fact,” while opponents said it was a mistake to look to the past for Canadian identity.


Further Reading