The passage of time has eroded and distorted some of Canada’s most entrenched historical tidbits, as well as the origins of some cherished national symbols, scholars say.
There’s no time like Canada Day to set the record straight.
The Senate: Disaster by Design
Complaints about an ineffective Canadian senate have been a familiar Parliament Hill battle cry for decades. It’s a refrain the fathers of Confederation would be only too happy to hear, said historian Christopher Moore.
There’s a common misconception that the founding fathers, leery of an elected Senate giving too much power to the masses, chose to appoint senators as a way of exerting control.
“I think it’s absolutely the other way around,” Moore said.
“Confederation makers back in the 1860s made the Senate appointed to ensure that it would be weak, to ensure that it wouldn’t have legitimacy to challenge the democratically elected House of Commons.”
Moore’s take on their strategy? “I think it works very well.”
Death, Taxes and Broken Promises
They say life’s only guarantees are death and taxes. In Canada before 1917, that list was even shorter.
Income taxes were imposed as a temporary, last-resort measure to pay for the country’s involvement in the First World War, said Reid.
They even came with a promise: the taxes would stop once the government had recouped its costs.
“Oddly enough, I looked at my pay stub, and I think they’re still taking it off,” Reid deadpanned.
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police have become a powerful symbol of Canada’s national justice system, but historian Dan Francis said the institution’s current mission has been in place for less than half its life.
Originally known as the Royal Northwest Mounted Police, they patrolled the Prairies in search of crime until their future was cast into doubt in the early 20th century.
That’s when their mandate took a surprising turn.
“During the First World War, the mounted police were almost disbanded because it was felt there was no more use for them,” Francis said.
“It was only at the end of the war when the government became concerned about the rise in radical political activity in the country and the actual fear that there was going to be a Bolshevik revolution that the government decided they needed a secret police force to spy on Canadians.”
The organization was renamed the RCMP in 1919 and maintained their spy mandate for decades until espionage duties were handed over to a civilian agency, Francis said.
A Bad Neighbour
Cordial relations with the United States have been a hallmark of Canadian foreign policy for decades, but the relationship between the two neighbours was once openly hostile.
American popular culture is rife with depictions of evil redcoats riding roughshod over the country and threatening basic freedoms, he said, so it’s hardly surprising Canadians might forget they were once an enemy of the States.
British colonies that eventually became Canadian provinces were openly opposed to the American revolution of the late 18th century, and went so far as to launch a major offensive against it from Halifax.
British forces were also responsible for the burning of Washington during the war of 1812, including the White House and other major buildings.
“It’s kind of funny that we could be neighbours to the United States and yet somehow have this imaginary dividing line for our history,” Reid said.
“We think the story ends when you cross the border, when it really is the story of two peoples who just went in different directions.”
The sound of thousands of voices raised in song for “our home and native land” has come to epitomize Canadian patriotism, but it didn’t start out that way.
Mark Reid, editor-in-chief of Canada’s History magazine, says O Canada was originally written in celebration of Saint-Jean-Baptiste day, Quebec’s national holiday.
The tune by Calixa Lavallee debuted with patriotic French lyrics in 1880, when it met with middling success, Reid said. Various English lyrics were penned throughout the 20th century, but it didn’t officially become the national anthem until 1967.
“O Canada is reflective of the ever-changing nature of Canadians and Canadian society,” Reid said. “O Canada says what we need it to say to reflect us.”