Canada has a strong but humble heart. Modesty is the core of its greatness. It is what will keep us alive to our responsibilities, not just our rights; it will make us mindful of what we must give back, not just take.
If you have ever flown in a plane above Canada, it seems a weird and empty world. A place where almost no-one lives, on a horizon that stretches forever.
What you see are trees – more trees than your darkest dreams ever imagined – an ocean of black and green and, in the fall, foaming seas of red, orange, yellow and brown.
Or giant stones, white in winter, green in summer, called mountains. Or flat plains, like great pieces of paper you can’t reach with your pen. And the rivers and lakes, squirming strings and blots of cold life, restlessly carved into the earth.
The land, the wind, the water and the sky. They are more than us, apart from us, home to us. They were here before we were and they will be here after we are gone.
People have been settled here for millennia, making life in a land that is impossibly hard and impossibly rich. The indigenous peoples held fast to their purchase on this brutal world, sometimes in peace, sometimes in war; Vikings visited and departed, but the French pushed into the country and stayed. Hard as it was, it was better than home. The British followed, devouring the French settlements. And together, the Europeans wrought cruel victory over the first peoples.
Part of their triumph was the formation of the Dominion of Canada, stretching along the St. Lawrence River from the Atlantic to Lake Superior. The Dominion was proclaimed by Queen Victoria, the first step in the political independence of her subjects in the colonies. That was one hundred and fifty years ago, today.
Canada was constitutionally founded on three simple words: “peace, order and good government.” This phrase has drawn sneers and yawns compared to more invigorating mottos (“life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” or “liberte, egalite, fraternite”) but it has proven durable and worthy.
As it turns out, peace, order and good government are the right soil to grow other things: a sense of mutual need and respect; the security people need to step up and be free; righteous pride, but not arrogance; a sense of humour and fun; the optimism and courage to try life in a harsh climate; the moral compass pointing to goodness and the willingness to go fight for it, wherever threatened.
We have built on that constitutional ground – enshrined and recognized the rights of people to live and speak freely, to worship God or not, to join together or to be private, to be treated with respect and live under the rule of law. We have enfranchised every adult and we keenly protect our young. Yes, Canada is a brilliant and beautiful thing – the creation of its people. A magnificent work in progress.
And yet Canada is so damned modest. We joke, often, that the quintessential Canadian word is “sorry.” If someone bumps into us, we say “sorry” – as if it was all our fault. Like many stereotypes, it contains much truth – we are sorry. We regret our trespasses. We are not afraid to see our mistakes – the dispossession of the first peoples, the disenfranchisemnt of women, the residential schools, the internment of Japanese-Canadians, the harrowing lives of so many gay people, for so long. There is almost no sin that we or our ancestors have committed, that we do not see and genuinely regret.
So it should be. We should be sorry. And if we are wise and lucky, we will always be willing to to say “sorry.” In fact, we should be proud to have the character and courage not to flinch from blame. Proud to try and do better. To be better.
Quietly proud, of course.
Canada has a strong but humble heart. Modesty is the core of its greatness. It is what will keep us alive to our responsibilities, not just our rights; it will make us mindful of what we must give back, not just take. Modesty reminds us to remember the rights and interests of others, not just ourselves. It is the path to compromise and good, not glory or greed.
But today, on this the birthday of our wonderful country, we can allow ourselves a moment of immodesty. We can revel not only in the blessings of a rich and fertile land, but a rich and fertile society giving birth to new ideas, new freedoms, new hopes. We can go out amongst our fellow citizens and say, with full hearts and cheerful smiles: “Sorry!”