Monday marks 150th anniversary of first meeting of Canadian parliamentarians

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The real story of these 150 years is best expressed in how we govern ourselves.


First published on Monday, November 6, 2017 in The Hill Times.

OTTAWA—Monday marks the 150th anniversary of the first meeting of Canadian parliamentarians.

Celebrations include the usual fanfare, with a declaration in the House of Commons, and a commemorative plaque unveiling.

But the real story of these 150 years is best expressed in how we govern ourselves.

Americans live by the credo of exceptionalism. They (falsely) believe that the country of opportunity shaped by the American Revolution is unique in the world. Their Congressional Pledge of Allegiance is overarching, laying claim to one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

In Canada, we would cringe at the notion of one nation. Our Parliament recognizes Quebec as a nation, stemming from the unique linguistic origins of one of our initial founding partners.

At last count, there are also 617 First Nations across the country, all party to the reconciliation discussions so high on agenda of the Liberal government.

The most common adverb in the Canadian vocabulary is ‘sorry’. It is an expression that defines us around the world. Along with our Scottish-purloined pronunciation of out and about (oot and aboot), the “sorry” status of Canadians is fodder for many late-night comedians.

This constant state of apologia is not accidental.

It stems from the origins of Parliament, when the founding fathers (and there were only fathers) created a Parliament based on the “Great Coalition” of two languages.

The stark difference between Canadians’ love for diversity and Americans’ belief in exceptionalism stems from very different political choices in the beginning.

Just last week, the Canadian government announced plans to increase its annual immigration level to one per cent.

Concurrently, in response to the New York cyclists’ terrorist attack, American President Donald Trump threatened to curb immigration. He blamed it for terrorism, as the terror suspect allegedly received his immigration papers in an American “diversity” lottery.

In recent weeks, Canadians have been debating the Quebec government’s decision to limit the face-covering niqab in provisioning of public services.

We have also been hearing more about the anti-150 anniversary movement, which led a Haligonian student leader to face a university disciplinary hearing because of her Facebook postings.

The hearing was eventually cancelled, but the controversy surrounding a Dalhousie Student Union cancellation of “colonial Canada 150 celebrations” continues.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau welcomed anti-colonial protesters to the lawn of Parliament during the Canada Day events. By so doing, he drew attention to their cause and dampened the vitriol that might have otherwise marred festivities.

Can you imagine American president Donald Trump even speaking to protesters at a Fourth of July anniversary event? He would be more likely to tweet that they should be deported to Guantanamo Bay.

While some would argue that the difference between the two leaders is one of personality or party affiliation, I believe it speaks to the larger differences in the founding tenets of both countries.

The United States of America was born out of bloodshed, both in its war of independence and bitterly fought civil war.

Canada was born out of compromise. In the spirit of inclusion, Parliament included a recognition of the inclusion of two languages.

That pivotal decision led to a Parliament that incorporated accommodation as a core value.

Some point the finger of differentiation at our specific decision to embrace a federal multiculturalism policy, back in 1971. But the roots for that decision began during the period of the Great Coalition that preceded the first Parliament, a linguistic and cultural coalition between English and French-speaking political leaders.

Our country was founded on the notion that two languages could thrive within a single state.

National cultural institutions, like the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and the National Film Board, have never shied away from challenging the myth of monoculturalism.

The recent Quebec attempt to ban the niqab in certain public places may have been popular there and, surveys show, in other parts of the country. However, it mimics the American “exceptionalism” motto which requires that all others meld into a single, “exceptional” mold.

The Catalonian crisis is a jarring example of what happens when there is no space for two nations to coexist within a single state.

The Quebec niqab ban will be struck down by the courts. That is a good thing. Whenever the state promotes a view of national exclusivity, it dooms the nations within to assume the only way to survive is to leave.

Respect for diversity is the key to many 21st century challenges.

Back in the 19th century, the first Canadian Parliament got it right.


Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.