Let me begin with a rant.
July 1st is not Canada's independence day. I cannot tell you the number of times I have heard people say this over the years. It annoys the hell out of me. On July 1st, 1867 Canada did not become independent of anything. It is more correct to say that it was the creation date of the federal government. Not the most romantic of images but certainly the most Canadian. Nothing defines a nation so much as its birth. Ours was peaceful and gradual.
There is no specific date which can be pointed to when Canada became an independent state. Some will argue for our signing of the Treaty of Versailles. Others to the Balfour Declaration (not the one about Palestine). The more legalistically minded might say the Statute of Westminster in 1931. The particularly cautious will say 1982, the year the constitution was patriated. A handful of republicans will argue that Canada is still not an independent state, considering Her Majesty is still on the money and all. Needless to say that we, here, take the opinions of republicans at a severe discount.
It's a quibbling nonsense and very foreign. The idea of an independence day is unCanadian. It is mostly an unconscious American import. Well, if the Yankees have it then so must we. Given that history is not taught in the school it is a plausible enough mistake. One of the reasons we are not taught our history in the schools is that so much of it is, how to put this, British. Not Swinging Sixties British. Not even Cool Britannia British. It's the boring old sort of British. Queen Victoria. Old men in wigs. Long speeches that refer in passing to Magna Carta. Very dull. Since history abhors a vacuum many Canadians simply import whatever they've picked up about our southern neighbours.
It is one of this blog's governing theses that Canada is the most boring nation on earth. Boring in the sense that nothing "exciting" ever happens her. No civil wars, insurrections, coups, putsch and the last rebellion was during Queen Victoria's reign. Dull, duller, Canada. That is why the idea of an independence day is so unCanadian. A clean break from something implies drama. A gradual development is very dull. It is also very practical and very sensible, thus very Canadian. We might even venture to say that it is positively Burkean.
I was once asked, many moons ago now, by an American friend to explain how Canada became independent. My explanation ran like this: We went over to London, along with the Australians, New Zealanders, South Africans, Irish and Newfoundlanders and asked, very politely, if we might become independent. Nothing personal. It was just time to leave. We'd definitely stay in touch. Family being family and all. We're definitely keeping the monarchy. Send us a telegrams if the European continent starts getting dicey. All the best chaps.
I can't really improve on that explanation. I'm missing the odd imperial conference, to say nothing of the battle of Vimy Ridge and the Hundred Days. The gist is about right. No muskets, no machine guns, no blood bath. Civilized men speaking in polite tones to one another. A fuss was not made. Everyone was terribly decent. The British officials sighed about how time had passed. Their work was done and all. The final act of parenthood is to see the young ones off. So they did. Nary a tear. Upper lip being kept quite stiff.
Now imagine if the whole of modern history had been conducted in such a fashion. Whatever the draw backs of the slow and sensible approach it has the inestimable advantage of accomplishing its goal, in a pretty reasonable time frame, without people getting themselves shot. Sometimes it is necessary to fight. But only when necessary. Only brutes go out of their way to pick fights.
Canada's march from "empire to umpire" as a Canadian historian described the process, alluding to our sometime role as peacekeeper, is Exhibit A is why the British Empire was on the whole a very good thing. If the Empire was really the malicious, power lusting monstrosity of anti-British legend the imperial authorities would have done everything in their power to stop the empire drifting apart. Such actions would have been both immoral and impractical. Rather sensibly they decided not to bother.
What about the slave trade, Mau Mau and the partition of Palestine? When Canada's first Prime Minister was asked about the weakness of his cabinet, staffed mostly by superannuated non-entities, he remarked that he could only build cabinets with the materials supplied. The same goes for Empire building. Slavery had been practiced by many societies in human history. It was the British Empire that decided to stamp it out, using its vast financial resources and powerful navy. It did not have to do this. Had it not tried slavery would likely have persisted for much longer than it did. The Empire behaved, whatever the materialists may insist, quite often on moral grounds. Many other times its officials took the least worst option available.
The natives were restless? Rather depends on the natives. Again look at the material. Blaming the Balfour Declaration for Arab-Jewish tendencies to loath one another is akin to damning the Almighty for Cain and Abel not getting along. At some point you have to admit the importance of free will and the inclinations of some to be malicious and pigheaded. Jesus, Moses and Mohammed could have agreed to the partition and it's unlikely much would have turned out differently. The same could be said of many other British blamed disasters.
This is not to argue that the empire was infallible. Nothing human is perfect, at least not in the Platonic sense. On the whole the creation of Pakistan was not a good idea. Perhaps London should have been less laissez-faire in dealing with South African race relations. Yes, Amritsar was a tragedy, however the great migration saw far more bloodshed. Life involves quite a lot of fumbling along the way. By that standard, the empire was a good thing. In just the right places it became a great thing producing giants of modern liberty and prosperity.
The visit this week by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge will highlight the "glossy magazine" aspects of the monarchy. We may hope that, if only for a moment, it might cause some of their future subjects to recall why we have a monarchy in Canada. It's origin is in Empire. Canada is Canada because of those roots. Witness the strife and turbulence in the rest of the world and mark the difference. This striking young couple is the living symbol of that difference.