Which past is our future?
Kevin Flatt is associate professor of history and director of research at Redeemer University College in Ancaster, Ont. Read more at www.FaithToday.ca/HistoryLesson.
As Canadians we often take it for granted our country is on the side of the good guys. We’re polite, we’re democratic, we have a generous social safety net, and so on.
But just as good and evil fight a battle within the heart of each person, so too they contend with each other to shape the character of a society. A whole society may turn one way or the other at different times, or in different aspects of its common life.
Canada’s history shows we are no exception to that rule. One area where we see this struggle is the way the dominant, majority culture and its institutions treat minorities whose values seem strange or even threatening to Canadian identity. Here we see two Canadas on full display.
The story of the treatment of Indigenous peoples shows the dark side of the story. While European newcomers and the First Peoples of this land originally met as near equals, with the possibility of mutual respect and co-operation, over time Indigenous peoples were increasingly at the mercy of the settlers and their descendants.
By the second half of the 19th century, governments and enlightened opinion tended to see Indigenous peoples as obstacles to be moved out of the way, and Indigenous cultures as primitive relics out of place in the modern world.
In the 1880s the federal government quashed the right of Indigenous peoples to practise traditional ceremonies such as the potlatch and ritual dancing, which officials and mainstream clergymen saw as barbaric and threatening.
OF CANADA’S POPULATION ARE CONSERVATIVE CHRISTIANS (EVANGELICAL, CATHOLIC OR ORTHODOX)
In the same decade the government partnered with the mainline churches to create the residential school system. Although it had some good intentions, such as preparing Indigenous children to succeed in a rapidly changing economic climate, it also aimed to "civilize" Indigenous children, whether their parents liked it or not.
The schools consequently tried not only to teach useful skills, but also to alienate children from their parents’ cultures, values and languages, which did not fit with the Canadian values of the majority. As Sir John A. Macdonald put it, "Indian children should be withdrawn as much as possible from the parental influence."
We now all know what horrors and lasting damage resulted from these kinds of policies.
On a happier note we see a different side of Canada in the historical relationship between Protestants and Catholics.
In the 18th and 19th centuries many British Protestants saw Catholicism as a backward and dangerous faith responsible for tyranny. But when the British conquered New France in 1760, they quickly abandoned the idea of stamping out the French culture and Catholic religion. The Quebec Act of 1774 guaranteed Catholics freedom to practise their religion, participate in public affairs and use French civil law.
The influx of Protestants in subsequent decades eventually made Catholics a minority. Many Protestants still saw Catholicism as incompatible with British values and a free society. But co-operation between wise leaders on both sides won the day, and when Confederation was achieved in 1867, the British North America Act constitutionally guaranteed separate schools for the French Catholic minority outside Quebec and the English Protestant minority in Quebec.
Although the rights of the Catholic minority were challenged and sometimes infringed, as in the Manitoba Schools Crisis of the 1890s, by and large the English Protestant majority learned to create space for the French Catholic minority to preserve their culture and live out their religion.
Today conservative Christians, whether evangelical, Catholic or Orthodox, are a minority (perhaps 15 to 20 per cent) of the Canadian population. We hold to biblical values regarding the protection of human life, marriage and sexuality, and parental rights in education that our enlightened elites and an increasing number of ordinary people see as primitive, barbaric and threatening to our core political principles.
In a word, we are out of step with the new Canadian values.
Now that we’re the unpopular minority, which Canada will win?
Recent events, such as the changes to the Canada Summer Jobs program and the refusal of some law societies to accept graduates from Trinity Western University’s proposed law school, raise the possibility the bad Canada – the one where a majority can curtail the rights of an unpopular minority – is gaining ground.
We need to do better. And history shows us we can.