By Godless Poutine @ My Secret Atheist Blog
Canada, a country covered with snows and ices eight months of the year, inhabited by barbarians, bears and beavers. – Voltaire (1753)
Celebrated eighteenth-century French Freethinker Voltaire had many choice words about the Canada of his age. I’ll grant that he’s right about the winters – especially in Quebec, where my patriotism wanes every February along with all the other snowbirds – a very Quebecois phenomenon.
Voltaire’s bitterness was rooted in his contempt for the Anglo-Franco war over this new world. People were dying over this faraway land that contained little of value, at least according to him:
Voltaire’s famous quotations about New France were for the most part written between 1753 and 1763, shortly before, and then during, the Seven Years’ War. . . . He thought that the war was a mistake for France and he used several opportunities to ask the French ministers to simply quit the war. . . . Voltaire’s position that France should let go of its North American colonies was in accord with his position about the war in general. For him, handing over New France would appease Britain. His position about the European war likely increased his tendency to paint New France as being of little value.
At this centenary of the War of 1812, let’s not forget the words of one of Christopher Hitchens’ great heroes, Thomas Jefferson, who seems to have had little regard for Canada:
The acquisition of Canada this year, as far as the neighborhood of Quebec, will be a mere matter of marching, and will give us the experience for the attack on Halifax, the next and final expulsion of England from the American continent.
The famous nineteenth-century agnostic Robert Green Ingersoll was only slightly more gracious in his assessment of the Canada of his time. During an interview in New York State, May 5, 1893:
Question. Are you in favor of the annexation of Canada?
Answer. Yes, if Canada is. We do not want that country unless that country wants us. I do not believe it to the interests of Canada to remain a province. Canada should either be an independent nation, or a part of a nation. Now Canada is only a province—with no career—with nothing to stimulate either patriotism or great effort. Yes, I hope that Canada will be annexed.
Ingersoll apparently saw Canada as a ship without a rudder, in the constant tow of the British Empire. However, in January 5, 1892, in New York, Ingersoll, was at least a bit partial to the idea of Manifest Destiny:
I think that this country is going to grow. I think it will take in Mr. Wiman’s country. I do not mean that we are going to take any country. I mean that they are going to come to us. I do not believe in conquest. Canada will come just as soon as it is to her interest to come, and I think she will come or be a great country to herself. I do not believe in those people, intelligent as they are, sending three thousand miles for information they have at home. I do not believe in their being governed by anybody except themselves. So if they come we shall be glad to have them, if they don’t want to come I don’t want them.
These words hurt me a bit – but perhaps they are true. Canada was still young 120 years ago. Since then, it has changed a great deal – for the better.
Even in his day, Ingersoll gave hints of seeing Canada as a beacon of more progressive thought. He saw that Canada had disposed of the heinous practice of slavery decades before his country did and without the horrendous bloodshed it took the states of his union to accomplish during of the Civil War. In this passage, he laments the terrible Fugitive Slave Laws highlighting Canada as free soil:
If a woman ninety-nine one-hundredths white had fled from slavery—had traveled through forests, crossed rivers, and through countless sufferings had got within one step of Canada—of free soil—with the light of the North Star shining in her eyes, and her babe pressed to her withered breast, both parties agreed to clutch her and hand her back to the dominion of the hound and lash.
Let’s now fast-forward to today. I think that both Ingersoll and Voltaire would be, on the whole, impressed with the progress Canada has made.
Today there is much fanfare, at least amongst progressives, in the States about “Obamacare.” Congratulations, you are one step closer to taking care of your own people. In Canada, way back in 1946, the first province to adopt a Medicare type system was Saskatchewan. Contrary to many panicked cries south of the border, this has not caused the economic downfall of our nation (at least not yet). It’s interesting to note that Tommy Douglas was a fundamentalist Baptist with views diametrically opposed to those of many of the now current Republican Party in the United States. How things change!
Pierre Elliot Trudeau, who responded to being called “an asshole” by Richard Nixon by saying “I’ve been called worse things by better people” (seen here looking dreadfully uncomfortable with Nixon), was a member of the Humanist Fellowship of Montreal. This organization of Secular Humanists also included prominent members such as Bertrand Russell and atheist pro-choice feminist Henry Morgentaler. Like him or hate him, (and it seems there is no in-between on this one), Trudeau was Canada’s most famous and recognizable prime minister and he was responsible for finally giving us our Constitution and Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Nobody can deny that getting all of Canada to agree on anything is a great feat even with the “notwithstanding clause,” which Trudeau himself lamented being forced to include.
Today Canada is one of the most secular countries in the world. Only 36% of Canadians consider themselves religious with Quebec shining as the most secular place on the entire continent, coming in with just 22% self-identifying as religious. Within Quebec, the process of secularization has accelerated since the people threw off the shackles of the Roman Catholic Church and with church attendance at an all-time low. Ontarians are becoming less and less placid about their support of religious schooling. Canadians have become suspicious of religion – the organized kind at least.
Look, I know there are still problems. But even when the theocratic Conservative Party has inroads, there seems to be a healthy media in Canada ready to pounce and expose it to everyone. Take for example the public ridicule afforded to the Conservative minister of science and technology who disagreed with evolution. Then there is the ill-fated Wild Rose Party in Alberta, which seems to have lost the election based at least partially on the anti-gay comments of some of its candidates.
Then there’s the 2005 legalization of gay marriage – what seems to be a great hurdle in the religiously-steeped United States, simply occurred in more-secular Canada. This was followed by the stand-off between civil rights groups and religious institutions over Bill 13, which would afford protections to bullied gay students in schools and force Ontario Catholic schools to cease teaching homophobic hate against gay students and allow them to use the word gay in the name of their now legal school clubs. In short, the Ontario government told the Catholic Church to stuff it.
Just recently, the British Columbia Supreme Court struck down the ban against assisted suicide, another step forward for Canada! You may disagree, but I believe that it is my right to decide when I shall leave this earth and I believe that the vast majority of opposition to this is religiously motivated.
At least a couple of today’s atheist heroes (if I may use that term) have recognized Canada’s forward-thinking – in particular within Quebec, which is the most secularized part of Canada. Daniel Dennett in particular has commented on this with Richard Dawkins.
Let’s face it: Canadians seldom pat themselves on the back. It’s just not in our culture. But I think on this day, our national day, we should all take a close look at our country and realize that, when it comes to being a liberal, secular society that takes care of its people, Canada isn’t doing badly at all. In fact, I think that we have quite a bit to be proud of. If Ingersoll were alive today, perhaps he would revise his opinion. Awesome job Canadians! This is truly a great nation, and I am proud to be Canadian!