Defence Minister Peter MacKay's restoration of the royal honour has not gone without comment. The MSM editorials are running overwhelming against the change. What might have been a simple nomenclature shift, a bit of symbolic reconnect with out military traditions, has highlighted the low intensity culture war that exists in modern Canada.
The modern Canadian Establishment is overwhelmingly dominated by products of the Pearson-Trudeau era reforms. The junking of the royal military monikers in 1968 was a landmark moment for this class, another important step in Canada's move away from its supposedly stuffy colonial past. To those less enamoured with the Trudeaupian project, the creation of a large and unsustainable welfare state matched with a systematic attack on this country's British heritage, these changes represented an undermining of the Canadian way of life.
While the Harper government may be faulted for many things, its spendthrift fiscal policies and weak willed economic reforms, it has had a subtle and profound impact on Canada's culture wars. Since the Pearson-Trudeau era the conservative movement has been in near constant apologetic retreat. Calls for national unity couched in the language of appeasement to Quebec nationalists, demands for fiscal moderation on the grounds of the long-run sustainability of social programs, at every step conservative values espoused in a half hearted and compromising manner.
Over the last five years we have seen a strong and full throated support for the State of Israel, outdoing even that country's historic patron, the United States. Such a policy may have picked up a few votes in Forest Hill, yet its real value has been a tremendous shift in our foreign policy. There would be no relativistic hand-wringing over Middle East policy, Israel was a free nation with a moral right to defend itself against its sworn enemies. A whole set of values was consequently brought into view: Canada should defend freedom and those who support freedom.
This may not seem a radical approach to our American readers. It would not have seemed out of place in the Canada of 1956, which welcomed thousands of refugees from the Budapest uprisings of that year. But then came Pierre Trudeau and his merry little jaunts with Fidel Castro a generation later. Freedom? That's just some people talking. Those three nights in Havana back in 1975 are so much part of the modern Canadian's mental furniture, we're friendly to Cuba and the Americans are not, that the depravity of that visit goes without much comment.
Let me state what should be obvious but has been pointedly ignored. During the Second World War, when Canada played a vital role in the defence of freedom and civilization, the wealthy and well educated Pierre Trudeau used his connections to absent himself from military service. While hundreds of thousands of Canadians volunteered to serve their country against a great evil, most of whom came from quite ordinary backgrounds, the privileged PET loafed around at Harvard. To some men such conduct might be a disgrace. In some other time and place such behaviour would have barred a man from ever holding elected office. But the Canada of the 1960s was a very different place and time indeed.
While other young men worked for a living, PET spent his youth jumping from job to job, a sometime government lawyer, occasional magazine editor and one time law professor. He was famous in certain circles for being glamorous in the relatively drab intellectual and cultural life of post-war Canada. A flash of colour in a gray landscape. Such men can be amusing but they are rarely useful, either to themselves or others. He did daring things, like visiting communist China. Had Pierre Trudeau been born in China, it is unlikely he would have survived Mao. Totalitarianism and flash do not go together.
Then there was his buddy Fidel. What a lark. Canada, one of the leading industrial democracies of the age, whose honoured dead are buried by the thousands in foreign graves, should have its leader visit the world's largest island prison camp. How very witty, how very daring wrote the columnists in the Toronto Star and the Globe and Mail. Take that America, chortled their colleagues at CBC. Those who weep so eloquently for the poor think very little of the poor in communist countries. So Pierre and Fidel laughed and sang. In the old, stuffy Canada such behaviour would have lead to his removal from office and possibly even charges of treason. The modern Canada was not so stuffy. Freedom, after all, was just some people talking.
Gerry Nicholls has rightly pointed out that the royal return for the military is part of Prime Minister Harper's revenge against Pierre Trudeau. Disgusted with the Trudeaupian excesses he has bided his time and struck a small but powerful and symbolic blow for what we today call conservative values. Once they were not called conservative, or liberal or anything but simply Canadian values. We have taken a two generation detour from ourselves.
The Pearson-Trudeau reforms were not a natural organic evolution from colonial to nation state. Canada was already a nation state. It was one of the most successful nation states in the world. To men of moderation and modesty this success might have lead to reflection and careful adjustment. But the 1960s were an ambitious time filled with ambitious men. While ambition is a very good thing in business, science, art and engineering, it is a dangerous thing in politicians.
So these ambitious men, one rather dull and one rather colourful, went about making Canada very modern. Trudeau was well into middle age when he became Prime Minister. Mike Pearson was an old man. Age had not improved them. They went about the nation's affairs in the manner of neurotic adolescents desperately trying to gain acceptance of their peers, rather than their parents or teachers. Our role model would not be aged old Britannia, now in very sad decline. It would be the nations of the future, Red China, Soviet Russia and Castro's Cuba.
To the generation that came of age at that time, that merry band of now aged Canadian Jacobins, this was an expression of independence from the past. There is a subtle but vital difference between stepping away from the past and abandoning it. Yes we did need to assert our Canadian identity in the 1960s. That is not what actually happened then or since.
Every young nation, like every young person, needs to make such an act of assertion. We were not, however, like the young man or woman who leaves home and seeks out their own taste in art, music and friends. Rather we are were like the young man or woman who changes their name, paints and pierces themselves in a ridiculous manner and then, as if they were the first person in history to do so, proclaims their individuality. So facile a rebellion, however, is not an assertion of individuality, it is a pathetic substitute for it.
Dropping the royal honour in 1968 was just such a facile rebellion. Our younger, but clearly more mature, Commonwealth brethren in Australia have no problem with a Royal Australian Air Force and a Royal Australian Navy. They do not regard retaining their historic traditions as "abject colonialism." We are not reverting to a second-class colonial status with the restoration of the royal honour. For the first time, in a very long time, Canada is again remembering itself. We are now outgrowing the juvenile antics of the Pearson-Trudeau era.