C. P. Champion. The Strange Demise of British Canada: The Liberals and Canadian Nationalism, 1964-68. Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 2010. 336 pp. $32.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-7735-3691-3.
Reviewed by Daniel Ross (York University)
Published on H-Canada (August, 2011)
Commissioned by Stephanie Bangarth
Reclaiming Canada for the British World
Reports of the death of British Canada are highly exaggerated, according to C. P. Champion. In The Strange Demise of British Canada, he questions the idea that Canada made a decisive break with its British past during the 1960s. Drawing on international scholarship on nationalism and Britishness, Champion emphasizes the imperial origins of the Canadian nationalism championed by Lester Pearson’s Liberal government (1963-68). For all their talk of the Maple Leaf and a new Canada, weren't Pearson and his contemporaries themselves products of a distinctly British Canadian culture? Along the way, Champion criticizes colony-to-nation teleologies and argues for further study of the influence of British ethnicity and culture in Canada. Although limited by its top-down approach, the book contributes to our understanding of the politics of nation building in the 1960s, and raises interesting questions about the place of the British connection in recent Canadian history.
This is not the first study of national identity in postwar English Canada to appear in recent years. In The Other Quiet Revolution: National Identities in English Canada, 1945-62 (2006), José Igartua argues that, like their counterparts in Quebec, English Canadians underwent a national awakening in the 1960s. By the end of the decade an identity based on ethnic Britishness gave way to a more inclusive civic nationalism. Champion covers some of the same terrain--including the 1964 debate on adoption of the Maple Leaf as the national flag--but where Igartua emphasizes change, he sees continuity. The civic identity of post-1960s Canada, he argues, represents a fulfillment, not a rejection, of Canada’s British heritage.
The Strange Demise of British Canada is broken up into eight chapters. The first, “Canadian Britishness in the History Wars,” surveys the literature on Britishness in Canada, and finds it in a sad state. Historians have been so concerned with discovering what is uniquely Canadian, Champion argues, that they have reduced Canada’s imperial past to a prologue. This contrasts scholars in Australia and New Zealand, who have done a much better job of situating their respective societies within the “British World” that shaped their development. Like Phillip Buckner before him, Champion calls for historians to rediscover the place of empire in Canadian history.
The next two chapters repeat this appeal, as Champion lays out his approach for studying British identity. He argues that Canadian Britishness cannot be reduced to ethnicity, or to the culture of a majority demanding conformity from marginalized groups. Nor should we understand it as foreign or anachronistic. Instead, Champion suggests that Britishness in Canada has always been more fluid, a home-grown “cluster of identities” shaped by the intersection of factors like ethnicity, education, religion, and class (p. 75).
Chapters 4 and 5 apply this approach to the trajectories of Pearson and a group of elite men--Champion calls them “Eminent Pearsonians”--who were his contemporaries. The list includes, among others, prominent Liberals Andrew Thompson and Brooke Claxton, public servant J. W. Pickersgill, and historian F. H. Underhill. Based on memoirs and personal papers, Champion argues that the lives of this privileged few were profoundly shaped by Anglo-Celtic Protestant upbringings, military service for king and empire, and study at Oxford. Anglophiles in dress and manners, they embraced British ideals and adapted them to the Canadian context. Their nationalism represented the rejection of one strain of Britishness--ethnic nationalism--in favor of another, liberal imperialism. That doctrine held that British principles and institutions would provide a framework in which local nationalisms and particularities could thrive. To Champion, liberal imperialism provides the common thread linking the British Empire to a Pearsonian nationalism that promised unity through recognition of Canada’s linguistic and cultural diversity.
Champion also briefly examines how Canadians of other backgrounds interpreted Britishness. Chapter 6, “Courting Our Ethnic Friends,” explores how the Liberals and Tories competed for the support of so-called ethnic voters in the 1960s. Champion argues that Canadian politics did not marginalize voters of non-British, non-French origins in the postwar era, and that many in fact were attached to the British heritage of Canadian institutions and culture. While the chapter presents some interesting material--including organizer Thompson’s memorandum on targeting ethnic voters in Toronto--it only skims the surface of how Canadians of other origins related to Britishness.
The remainder of the book explores two ways in which Liberal nationalists put their ideas into action. Chapter 7 focuses on the 1964 flag debate. Champion asserts that the Liberal narrative of the debate--pitting true Canadians against supporters of an anachronistic ethnic particularism--has dominated the historiography. He proposes instead that both parties offered Canadians a home-grown nationalism with British roots: one based on the Red Ensign and a more traditional British Canadianism (“paleo-nationalism”); the other on the Maple Leaf and liberal imperialism (“neo-nationalism”). As a result, while the Liberals’ victory led to the invention of new traditions, it did not alter Canada’s essentially British character. Similarly, the unification of Canada’s military (1963-67), covered in the final chapter, did not end its adherence to British traditions. British Canada was, and British it remains, despite some cosmetic changes.
The Strange Demise of British Canada is an ambitious book. Champion challenges us to rethink not just the policies of Pearson’s Liberals, but also the origins of Canadian nationalism and its influence on the historiography. He demonstrates that the British connection was an important influence in the lives of postwar English Canadian elites, including some of the architects of Pearsonian nationalism. He also reminds us that the Maple Leaf, like the new nationalism it represented, was the product of a specific cultural and political moment. The chapter on 1960s military reforms is interesting in light of the Conservative government’s recent decision to give the armed forces back their pre-Pearsonian titles (Air Command reverts to the Royal Canadian Air Force, etc.).
However, Champion’s larger claims about the persistence and evolution of Britishness in Canadian culture go untested, since his research is limited to a tiny elite. Multiculturalism policy may owe something to the ideology of liberal imperialism imbibed by Ottawa elites, as Champion argues; however, its development also depended on the daily efforts of individuals and institutions across Canada to negotiate diversity. We get little or no sense of how Canadians outside of the corridors of power related to Britishness, or--with the exception of the chapter on the flag debate--what they thought of the new Canadianism promoted by Pearson. The public celebrations and cultural production surrounding the 1967 Centennial, which Champion ignores, would be an excellent place to start. Because of these limitations, Igartua’s study, which relies on extensive reading of newspaper editorials, school textbooks, and public opinion polls, remains a more credible source on public expressions of national identity in the era. In spite of these flaws, The Strange Demise of British Canada is a welcome addition to the historiography. Alternately fascinating and frustrating, Champion’s book is certain to fuel debate on the history of nation building and national identity in postwar English Canada.
. Phillip Buckner, “Presidential Address: Whatever Happened to the British Empire?” Journal of the Canadian Historical Association 4 (1993): 3-32.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-canada.
Daniel Ross. Review of Champion, C. P., The Strange Demise of British Canada: The Liberals and Canadian Nationalism, 1964-68.
H-Canada, H-Net Reviews.
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