What’s Canada’s secret? A blend of imperial history, bizarre and desolate geography, and provincial politics have forged something unique in the Great White North. Countries now buckling under the strain of xenophobic populism should take note.
The Dawn of a Multinational Nation
The first seeds of Canadian multiculturalism were planted before the United States technically existed. In the 1760s, the British gained control of French Canada, an area that corresponds roughly to modern Quebec. But back at London headquarters, it wasn’t evident that this frigid plot of land was good for much more than beaver pelts. (Even Voltaire dismissed his country’s outpost as “a few acres of snow.”) So, Britain passed the Quebec Act in 1774, which allowed French Catholics to live their private lives as they saw fit, so long as the law remained in the hands of the British Protestants.
“This was a bold accommodation,” said Peter Russell, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Toronto, and the author of Canada’s Odyssey. “It was bold for a Protestant regime [the British Empire] to permit a French Catholic population [the French Canadians] to exist and maintain their own culture.”
The Quebec Act provided an accidental blueprint for the Canadian experiment, Russell said. If the United States was a nation conceived in a life-or-death war for liberty, French Canada was a hyphenation hammered out in messy compromise between the public and private realms: English common law in the streets, French Catholicism in the sheets. From the start, Canada was a curious bargain—a multinational nation.
Canada is a “country based on incomplete conquests,” Russell writes. First, the British incompletely conquered the French Canadians in the 18th century. Second, Canada’s indigenous people have won legal victories allowing them to retain large swaths of land. The 2016 Canadian census found that 5 percent of the country’s population is indigenous, including almost one-fifth of Manitoba and half of the Northwest Territories.
“As indigenous people in Canada survived and strengthened their sense of national identity, Canadians have accepted French and indigenous cultures as nations within a nation,” Russell said.
Open Space, Open Arms
To state the obvious, Canada is big and cold and, unless one is trying to circumnavigate the polar ice caps, pretty much out of the way of everything.
These things have their advantages. In Europe, national borders are a political jigsaw puzzle, where straight and jagged lines are carved by centuries of war and death. Canada’s national borders are mostly drawn by geology. The country is bounded by three oceans and the United States. It’s easier to cultivate a history of openness to strangers when outsiders haven’t spent several centuries trying to kill or conquer you. Plus, it’s harder to illegally immigrate to a country surrounded by cold, vast oceans; so, Canada has been spared from sudden, shocking influxes of undocumented foreigners.