Anything for a party, but the idea Canada was born 150 years ago is absurd: Don Pittis

Economically speaking, and even politically, Canada was not born 150 years ago. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise.

Indigenous people were active economically centuries before Confederation

Fifty years ago Bobby Gimby wrote his Centennial song to carefully specify that the country was celebrating 100 years since Confederation, not since the country's birth. (Quality Records 1967)

Poor Bobby Gimby.

The man with the Pied Piper horn chased by children singing his 1967 Centennial anthem CANADA worked like a trooper to squeeze "Confederation" into the song in both English and French. Now the word has been almost forgotten.

Instead, headlines repeatedly refer to Canada's birthday on July 1.

Choosing a country's moment of birth is inevitably political. And clearly no country is born fully formed. But whether economically or politically, there are historians who say the 1867 date is tenuous and maybe even arbitrary.

I had a reminder of that fact this month when my online library software with a mind of its own offered up the book La Salle: Explorer of the North American Frontier by French historian Anka Muhlstein. I decided to take a look because I recalled that René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle as his full moniker goes, was the first to describe a Six Nations community, Teiaiagon, on the banks of the Toronto's Humber River not far from my home.

The writing style quickly drew me into the story and I only later discovered that Muhlstein's biography is a winner of the history prize from the Académie française, and that she has also been honoured with the Prix Goncourt, France's highest award for literature.

Already Canada

In the story, the moment when La Salle settles into Quebec in 1667 brought Canada's 150th party to my mind.

"He stepped ashore and felt somewhat disappointed. The name Canada, with its Indian sound, had stirred his imagination, but the place was tamer than he had expected," writes Muhlstein.

Not only did he arrive in a thriving economic hub such that he was able to raise capital to pay for his future explorations in the interior, but the place is already called Canada 200 years before our celebratory date of origin.

And unlike the image portrayed in some older histories of the place, it is clear that the Canada where the French had settled was not an unpopulated, forested wasteland.
Canadiana Village just outside Montreal, now a site for movie shoots and private events, represents an 1800s community from before Confederation. (Sotheby's International Realty)

When the French arrived it was not they who went out and gathered the beaver skins so precious for the manufacture of hats for European fops. Trade routes that brought the furs to Quebec were long established, as a well-known Canadian text on economic history relates. 

"For example, copper from the Lake Superior region had been traded into the lower Great Lakes region for centuries," says A History of the Canadian Economy, now in its fourth edition.

Although a few coureurs de bois were already sneaking off into the bush to live and trade with the Indigenous communities, for the most part the French waited for the furs to come to them through established Indigenous trade routes.

A merger of peoples

"We used to run the Canadian economy," the president of the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business, J.P. Gladu, once told me. "We used to be the fur traders, the economic powerhouse of this country."

La Salle, a scholar and linguist trained by the Jesuits but subsequently alienated from them, believed, like Samuel de Champlain before him, that Canada's future was a merger between Indigenous and French peoples. According to Muhlstein, that merging was already well underway.

"The Indians wondered at the sexual prowess of their guests," she writes.

From Champlain's founding of New France five decades earlier, many of the community's first families were half French, half Indigenous.

The Indigenous part passed on its preference for bodily cleanliness. It is hard to know what else they passed on, such as egalitarian values and solving political problems through long discussion.

When it came to industry and commerce, it is clear that La Salle is already buying and not making many of the things he uses.
A 1927 stamp commemorating Confederation shows how little of the country was part of the 1867 deal. In 1927 Newfoundland and Labrador still aren't in. (Archives Canada)

"There is manufacturing going on," says Guelph economic historian Kris Inwood. "And to the extent that we have exchange between households, then there must be a service sector which buys and sells." 

The place remained Canada and mostly French-speaking long after it was traded from one European power to another European power as a tiny bargaining chip in European wars, says Inwood.

And during a gradual process of population growth, first with an influx of English-speaking loyalists following the U.S. revolution, and heavy immigration from the British Isles during the early 1800s, the name Canada never went away, now divided into Upper and Lower Canada.

Changing complexion

"It had much of the structure of what we got with Confederation already there," says Inwood. "Really what 1867 did was add New Brunswick and Nova Scotia."

P.E.I, Manitoba, British Columbia and other provinces came later. Newfoundland, of course, didn't join until 1949.

And the process is far from over. 

A glance at the video with the skipping children indicates the complexion of the country has changed substantially in only 50 years. The idea of such a lily-white cluster of singing children seems quite foreign to our current self-perception.

The point is that Canada was not born 150 years ago. And it is still being born. 

As Bobby Gimby noted in his song, Canada is not celebrating its birthday. It is celebrating Confederation, a single and perhaps arbitrary moment in that long, continuing birthing process. 

But heck, even that's a good enough reason for a party.

Follow Don on Twitter @don_pittis

More analysis by Don Pittis


Don Pittis

Business columnist

Based in Toronto, Don Pittis is a business columnist and senior producer for CBC News. Previously, he was a forest firefighter, and a ranger in Canada's High Arctic islands. After moving into journalism, he was principal business reporter for Radio Television Hong Kong before the handover to China. He has produced and reported for the CBC in Saskatchewan and Toronto and the BBC in London.


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