Canada: Getting Worse—and Better

The name of our national holiday is, not to put too fine a point on it, very Canadian. The first day of July commemorates the July 1, 1867, enactment of the Constitution Act, 1867, at the time called “the British North America Act, 1867,” which united three colonies into a single country called Canada.

You might think we would have called our national holiday by something that recalls some crucial part of our history, as does “Independence Day” or “Bastille Day.” And we used to call it “Dominion Day,” a wonderfully ambiguous term that spoke both to Canada’s political status as a kingdom independent of Great Britain (“the Dominion of Canada”), albeit with the same monarch governing both, and also to the hopes of many Fathers of Confederation that God “shall have dominion also from sea to sea” (Psalm 72:8).

In what was intended to be a final act of symbolic parting from Britain, and also, perhaps, from Canada’s Christian heritage, in 1982 the holiday was renamed “Canada Day.” It’s rather on the nose, but we Canadians are an earnest and straightforward lot, and “Canada Day” it remains.

Meanwhile, many Canadian Christians understandably feel that those early aspirations for a country thoroughly under God’s dominion have done nothing but fade, especially since that centennial year. A popular culture obsessed with sex, sports, and silly gossip; an intellectual culture relentlessly jaundiced, sarcastic, and contemptuous of Christian concerns; a judicial culture focused entirely on the expansion of individual rights, regardless of tradition or community, let alone religion; and a political culture of three major parties increasingly similar in their ideological flexibility entirely in the interest of power.

On this Canada Day, however, I prefer to light a (birthday) candle rather than curse the (indisputable) darkness. Let’s perform a brief thought experiment. (I’ve performed this elsewhere, even on this blog, but I trust it will be worthwhile doing it again today.)

Regardless of how much Canadian history you know, consider a century ago: 1916. Canada is at war in Europe in defence of Mother Britain and against what has been portrayed to the population as devilish hordes. Meanwhile, however, something like normal life still has to go on, and does. Schools teach kids, hospitals care for patients, businesses serve the public, and so on.

So consider this: Is it better, according to Biblical standards of justice and compassion, in Canada a century ago or in Canada today?

Yes, church attendance was much higher in 1916 than today. Greater than 2 in 3 Canadians were attending church weekly, versus less than 2 in 10 today. Politicians consulted with church leaders and spoke easily in Christian terms. Sundays were clearly “Lord’s Days,” and public schools featured the Lord’s Prayer and Scripture reading. In ways both symbolic and substantial, yes, Canada was more Christian then than now.

But was it better—according to Biblical standards of justice and compassion?

Better in 1916 or 2016…if you’re a woman?

Better in 1916 or 2016…if you’re poor?

Better in 1916 or 2016…if you’re handicapped?

Better in 1916 or 2016…if you’re not heterosexual?

Better in 1916 or 2016…if you’re not white and Anglophone or Francophone?

In fact, the less you look and sound like me, the better it is for you today in Canada than it was in a peak year of “Christian Canada,” 1916.

Cultural change, that is, rarely occurs in a straight, single line. Cultural change is more like an ocean than a river, with multiple currents moving in multiple directions.

Moreover, the increased emphasis on individual rights and freedoms that is so bothersome to many Christians today (and I am among those so bothered) stems from genuinely Christian roots: the dignity of each person as bearing the image of God, and the freedom and responsibility of each person before God.

Canada did need to change in 1916, and change a lot. Non-white, non-wealthy, non-able-bodied, non-straight, non-male Canadians deserved better treatment, and over the last century, Canada has afforded it to them. Not perfectly, of course. Not by a long shot. But definitely.

So as Canadian Christians cast a rueful glance across this vast land on this special day, there is much to pray to God about. But there is much to thank God for, as well.

Canada’s coat of arms contains not one, but two, mottoes. The “from sea to sea” one is quite familiar, but another encircles the shield: desiderantes meliorem patriamdesiring a better country,” taken also from the Bible: Hebrews 11:16. That passage speaks of the aspiration of the saints of God.

So may all true saints of God in Canada be emboldened on this prosaically titled day to be grateful for the ways in which Canada has indeed become a better country, even as we also renew that aspiration that it become better still, under God’s dominion, from sea to sea…to sea.

7 Responses to “Canada: Getting Worse—and Better”

  1. D Goheen

    Very well said. Thank you for your insight and taking our thoughts about our country in a positive direction. It is so easy to only see the negative. Living a year in China has taught me to treasure the beautiful country in which we are so blessed to live.

  2. David Kitz

    You captured the balance that is so often lacking as we reflect on Canada’s Christian heritage. There is a social aspect to the gospel that has had a huge impact on our nation.

  3. Dawit

    One might conclude that as Canada became less Christian and less church attending that social conditions grew better?

    • John

      Hah! You might think that, except that if you compare 1916 to 1816, it’s much better for you as a woman, poor person, etc. after half a century or so of Christianization. It makes more sense to see what’s happened in the last fifty years as a secularizing extension of originally Christian concerns mixed with an individualistic reaction to excessive conformist pressures from what we might call “Christendom” in Canada, especially in Quebec and Ontario. (Hence the almost reflexive repugnance so many Baby Boomers have toward anything traditional, and especially anything identified as “Christian,” as well as a strong concern for individual rights…no matter what.) We historians, however, get anxious when we try to talk about huge historical trends in paragraphs on weblogs, so I need to sign off now and calm myself…

  4. Jim

    Well, one could take the view that as fundamentalism declines, grace abounds and canadians prosper. Keeping in mind that in our past we imprisoned homosexuals, populated residential schools and women could not vote.


Comments are closed.