Should we cheer? It’s hard to be sure. On July 24, in 1534, Jacques Cartier stuck a cross on the Gaspé Peninsula and claimed it for France.
On the one hand, yay Canada. On the other hand, boo European imperialism on unceded native land. But yay Quebec and the French fact. Except that sticky business about the cross, still oddly belted out in our national anthem in the name of political correctness (you know, the bit where “ton bras sait porter l’épée,/ Il sait porter la croix” that rushes in where “all our sons” no longer dare tread). So on the whole it’s a date we no longer celebrate, preferring instead to ignore it and hope everyone else does too. I do not think we should.
For one thing, I am among those who regard the settlement of the Anglosphere nations of North America and the South Pacific as a powerful blessing for mankind even while deploring the dispossession and demographic catastrophe that struck the original inhabitants. Without Britain I do not believe the world would have self-government, and without Britain’s former colonies I do not believe it would have survived the 20th century.
Liberty is a great thing for everyone of every race. We cannot undo the past but we can now extend its benefits to everyone in Canada without regard for race. Especially as I do not subscribe to the politically correct idea that before Europeans showed up, the inhabitants of the Americas were peaceful, tolerant or ecologically sensitive. They were like people pretty much everywhere for better or worse and there’s a good deal of “worse” involved.
The territories they inhabited when the Europeans showed up had not been in the continuous possession of any particular group for very long, and had not been acquired by peaceful negotiation, purchase or right of first possession. They had been seized in chronic low-intensity warfare. I find it absurd that many people argue that the land should be put in the hands of the descendants of those who happened to hold it when Europeans first arrived and made records of the situation, without the slightest interest in who had been dispossessed of it a few decades earlier.
For all that, I cannot contemplate the disruption and disaster, including the most important catastrophe caused by diseases passed on unwittingly, without profound grief. Europeans were bound to cross the Atlantic with an enormous, overwhelming advantage in technology and organization for reasons that (as Jared Diamond analyzes in Guns, Germs and Steel) date back to the end of the last glaciation and were driven by geography and ecology rather than any inherent difference between the inhabitants of different continents. And when they did, the diseases which had bred first in extensively farmed fields and then in crowded cities were bound to devastate those still living in far more scattered communities or as hunter-gatherers. And yet it is a tragedy.
Would you, then, have the continents remain forever separate? I have elsewhere suggested that without the “Little Ice Age” that destroyed Norse settlements in an arc from Scandinavia to the northern British Isles to Iceland and Greenland, the process might have been slower and less catastrophic. But if it had to happen, far better even for the locals that the free people of the British Isles should have been the dominant element than to be conquered even by the Spanish or Germans, to say nothing of various other possible colonizers.
As for the French, their empire failed in large measure because it was bureaucratic and unfree. I do not regret the existence of Quebec, but unlike Jean Chrétien I would not have wanted to wake Montcalm in time for him to win the Battle of the Plains of Abraham. Nor do I believe that if he had, the far greater dynamism of British North America would not have prevailed.
So knowing the downside I do still salute Cartier’s courage and enterprise. Yet I also celebrate a Canada with a Constitution similar in principle to that of the United Kingdom despite now needing some rather urgent repairs.
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