Canada An American Nation



Peace, with Friction, for a Century

In the treaty of Amity, Commerce and Navigation negotiated in 1794 between the United States and Great Britain—commonly called the Jay Treaty—its purpose is declared to be “to promote a disposition favorable to friendship and good neighborhood.” On several grounds this treaty is notable. As John Bassett Moore has pointed out, it was the result of the first recourse in modern times to arbitration. Though it confirmed many of his countrymen in their belief that Jay was the most English of Americans, to his disadvantage, its suggestion that the two nations should live in amity so improved relations along the border that Americans in large numbers moved into Canada. From New York State and Pennsylvania many thousands of families—some of them Quakers, many of them Mennonites—traveled the forest trails to Upper Canada; while in the eastern townships of Lower Canada whole townships were settled by immigrants from Vermont and New Hampshire. Racially that section of Canada became an extension of the adjoining states—most of the typical names of New England are to be found in that district to this day. This migration and the welcome given to the newcomers by the {90} authorities were signs that the bitterness of the Revolutionary War was dying out and a “disposition favorable to friendship and good neighborhood” was taking its place. This era of good feeling withered in the atmosphere of contention which attended the dispute between the United States and Great Britain over neutral rights at sea and was completely obliterated by the War of 1812-14.

In the Anglo-American record this war is but an incident; but it has affected relations between Canada and the United States injuriously and sometimes tragically from that day to this. Canadians have never accepted the theory that this war was a by-product of the Napoleonic struggle; and their estimate of the origin of the war and the ends it was to serve is now pretty generally accepted by historians. This was a war of conquest inspired by the aggressive and ambitious believers in the “manifest destiny” of the United States who had been sent to Congress in the 1810 elections, from the states west of the Alleghenies. It was entered upon light-heartedly as being nothing more serious than a military picnic. “How pleasing,” said Andrew Jackson, “the prospect that would open up to the young volunteer while performing a military promenade into a distant country.” The republican standard as the result of this promenade, he predicted, was to be planted on the Heights of Abraham.[1] In the two {91} years’ war there was a succession of sanguinary encounters along the border between relatively small bodies of men, and when hostilities ceased Canadian soil was inviolate except for two small towns on the Detroit River held by the Americans, against which there were ample set-offs in the way of British occupation of United States territory. The war in the totality of its results was a draw; the governments, sorry and ashamed, made peace without a single reference being made to the supposed causes of the conflict. But to the people of Upper Canada it was not a draw. They had put into the field, in reinforcement of the British regular forces, every man who could carry arms; and it became a matter of proud conviction to them and to their descendants that by their sacrifices and their valor they had saved their country.

By the Treaty of Ghent in 1815 peace was reëstablished—this is the famous and widely advertised peace which has now endured for 120 years; but the disposition toward friendship and good neighborhood which Jay and Grenville in 1794 sought to induce was, at least on the part of the Canadian people, destroyed. It is not possible to appraise the consequences, political and economic, which have flowed from the persistence in Canada, for more than a century, of this feeling of latent suspicion and hostility to the United States, which at any time could be readily stimulated into open political activity. This feeling did not derive solely from the resentment left by the War of 1812; {92} it was fed from time to time by clashes of interest and of policy between the two countries which usually had the ending which comes when iron and earthen pots collide. In speeches at international gatherings it is, I have observed, the usual thing to portray the 120 years of peace between the two nations as an idyllic period of mutual admiration and competition in concessions.

This is, of course, a fairy tale. For at least a century, first in Canada and afterwards in the Dominion, no general election was ever fought without at least an attempt being made by the Party of the Right to make political use of this anti-American sentiment. The formula was simple. In its earlier form the Party of the Left was charged with disloyal sentiments and separatist tendencies, its fell purpose being to transfer the country to the United States. The classic contest of this kind took place ninety years ago; and it injected a virus into our political life which was to affect successive generations of voters. In that struggle Sir Charles Metcalfe, the Governor-General, took the active leadership of what he called the “British party.” The reformers were assailed as traitors and annexationists. The Mohawk Indians of the Bay of Quinte put the issue to the liking of the governor when they presented him with an address in which they said that “the question is simply this, whether this country is to remain under the protection and government of the Queen or to become one of the United States.” Though the governor won a sweeping victory in {93} English-speaking Upper Canada, the steadiness of the French Canadian electors nullified its effect and turned it, with no great lapse of time, into a defeat. Sir Charles went home a broken man. Lord Elgin came out to bring in the régime of limited self-government which his father-in-law, Lord Durham, had recommended. But the recollection of Sir Charles Metcalfe’s success in stampeding a whole province by successful flag-waving became to political campaign managers a tradition of tactics; and as occasion offered the issue, so beautifully expressed by the Mohawks, was projected into election contests, sometimes with the deadliest effect. The outstanding instances were the reciprocity campaigns of 1891 and 1911; in both cases what looked like certain victory for the Liberals was turned into defeat by a resurgence of ultra-Imperialistic and anti-American feeling.

Yet there is the fact which may well appear amazing and incredible to older countries that in spite of occasional friction, misunderstanding, conflict of interests, and clashes of feeling, Canada and the United States have kept the peace for so long a period of time that the possibility of war between them no longer finds a place even in popular imagination. The thing to our minds in inconceivable. The traditional European policies of defense when propounded to Canadians as necessary for their security seem amazing in their absurdity. A personal illustration may be in point. Some twenty-five years ago, a young {94} Englishman, who was then beginning a public career which carried him to heights just short of the first rank, spent some time in Winnipeg; and while there took time off to expound to me what he said were the principles which governed the foreign policy of Great Britain and all other European powers. The fundamental rule was that a country must regard every other country as a potential enemy unless it had an open or a secret understanding with it. Failing this, defensive preparations must be made. I at once applied the rule to the relations between Canada and the United States and put the problem up to him. We had no formal understanding with the United States. Should we arm against them? Should we dot the frontier with Martello towers as our grandfathers did? Should alert sentries challenge the wayfarer by night and day? The young man was game. He contented himself with saying that the rule was absolute. I am afraid I answered by saying that it was absolute nonsense. I said that the course of prudence, common sense and security for Canada was to continue to do nothing. But what if the Americans swooped down on us? In that case I said it would be a case of a head-on collision between a steam roller and a bulldog and it would be just as well, if it had to occur, that it should take place without premeditation. About the time of this conversation there appeared in England a book working out in detail a defensive plan for Canada against the United States. The sites for the forts were carefully {95} chosen and that sort of thing. The writer was a major general of the British Army, Canadian born, a member of one of our most notable families.[2] The budding young statesman and the veteran soldier were both alike obsessed with the Old-World idea of the frontier—its perils and its responsibilities. “Frontiers,” Lord Curzon once said, “are indeed the razor’s edge on which hang suspended the modern issues of peace and war, of life or death, between nations.” But not in North America, thank God!

There has been, I believe, a great ebbing in the strength of this hereditary anti-American feeling in the past few years; and this abatement is due chiefly to two causes. With the definite achievement by Canada of the status of nationhood, one pretext for political excitation of this feeling has been removed. The relationship between Canada and Great Britain has now been defined and accepted; in it there enter no elements of overlordship or paternalism. Our loyalties are reciprocal; they are those of kinsmen, not of master and dependent. The cry of “separatism” has thus become politically no longer profitable; if raised, as it still is tentatively, it encounters a pro-Canadian reaction powerful enough to give pause to the political engineers looking for results. Its availability for political use is thus gone; and with it has gone the twin appeal to the fear that the United States, with the {96} connivance of Canadian politicians, might gather us in for the purpose of putting a few more stars in the American flag. Those feelings of timidity and apprehension have evaporated. There is now an almost universal acceptance of the fact that Canada has launched her ship on the great tides and currents of the world and will sail a course under her own captains, to whatever destinies lie in the inscrutable future. No man can foretell what the centuries may bring; but at this time its political absorption by the United States seems much the unlikeliest future for Canada. I use the word absorption, which has a definite meaning. This does not exclude the possibility of an understanding or even an alliance. If the world takes the road which the fates—if we may dignify the present madness of the nations with so heroic a name—seem bent on forcing it to take, something like this may indeed be necessary for the preservation of that North American civilization which is our joint possession.