IN THE autumn of 1948 William Lyon MacKenzie King completed his inch-by-inch retirement from public life as Prime Minister of Canada. He had finally served as head of state for a longer time than had any president, prime minister, consul or archon in the history of democracy, and on the way he had broken several longstanding records of other ministers of the British Crown.

These records apparently meant a lot to Mr. King. Each one that was broken was followed by rumors of his retirement, but the rumors were never specifically denied and Mr. King continued in office, his memory counting the tenure of his service to the hour. Then retirement was forced upon him suddenly one day for the reason of failing health. It was unfortunate that his own studied technique of doing everything as unobtrusively as possible had trained people to expect from him nothing dramatic, nothing that stimulates the imagination, nothing that suggests a crisis. Had he been an American, had he been an Englishman, had he been anything but the kind of Canadian he is, the record he set would have been celebrated with pomp at home and careful examination in other countries. As it was, the announcement of his retirement was noted by the world's press with only such interest as politeness required.

Mr. King's career, no less than the irony implicit in the quietness of his retirement from it, is deeply symbolic of the country he governed. Under his leadership, Canada has developed into the fourth military power among the United Nations, and subsequently into the second most important economic reservoir of western democracy. Few nations in modern times have grown in stature more rapidly. Canada has long ceased to be a Dominion in the original sense of the word; nor has she now, in swinging away from Great Britain, become what so many feared was inevitable, an appendage of the United States. She has become a highly integrated, growing nation, lacking one attribute only which seems necessary for world recognition. Like Mr. King himself, Canada has such a talent for avoiding the dramatic that she too often escapes even the notice of her friends.

What do most outsiders think of when the image of a Canadian comes to mind? Usually of a trooper of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in dress of scarlet, solitary on horseback surveying the Rocky Mountains. Sometimes of a trapper, of a hard-rock miner, of a kilted soldier playing the bagpipes at a Toronto fair, of a raw-boned sportsman who is the salt of the earth but notably unsubtle. On certain levels they remember the competent, mild-mannered, well-dressed individuals, neither British nor American but oddly reminiscent of both nationalities, who represent Canada at international conferences. In any event, Canadians are thought of as preëminently masculine, and this is fair enough; in both public and family life it is the men who are dominant in Canada. A masculine common sense, even a masculine lack of sensitivity, reveals itself in every facet of Canadian life from architecture to food. But the very truth of this fact has diverted nearly everyone who has tried to make visible the psychology of Canada as a nation.

As has often been pointed out, a nation is an abstraction. It is a convenient word or image which we use when we mean a group psychology, a group behavior-pattern or a group policy. And here is the paradox which has caused Canada to be so often misunderstood. Canada, as a nation, is not masculine at all. She is feminine. This feminine psychology has not arisen out of the lives of individual Canadians nor out of the kind of country they inhabit. It came into being because a country with Canada's peculiar history happens to share the major part of the North American continent with a colossus like the United States. Were it not for the United States, Canada would never have been a nation at all, much less the kind she is.

This country, which once was Britain's senior Dominion and now stands on her own, has acquired a purely feminine capacity for sustaining within her nature contradictions so difficult to reconcile that most societies possessing them would be torn by periodic revolutions. Canada has acquired the good woman's hatred of quarrels, the good woman's readiness to make endless compromises for the sake of peace within the home, the good woman's knowledge that although her husband can knock her down if he chooses, she will be able to make him ashamed of himself if such an idea begins to form in his mind. Canada also possesses the hard rock which is in the core of every good woman's soul: any threat to her basic values calls up a reluctant but implacable resistance.

This national feminine psychology becomes amusingly obvious in the attitude of the country towards the United States. Canadians have always clucked their tongues at American flamboyance and recklessness, but they know that life would be drab without it. They watch with indulgent amusement, even while affecting disapproval, the delight Americans take in their own accomplishments, their freedom from inhibitions, their love of boasting, their penchant for getting into the kind of trouble a lesser people would avoid and their correspondingly noisy vigor in getting out of it. During the past 50 or 60 years, Canadians have enjoyed the United States much as a good wife enjoys the spectacle of a robust husband being himself.

Another aspect of Canada's feminine psychology is seen in the manner in which her whole career as a nation has been a sort of domestic defiance of the United States. Her history shows that her dominant national impulse is to retain in her own eyes the kind of personality she feels she has, even though she has never been able to define this personality in words. Although she is pleased when Americans recognize her good qualities, she has never sued for American favor because she has been too proud to make the slightest effort to express herself in terms which might lead Americans to believe that she values their good opinion too highly.

The economist and the sociologist find different methods of explaining the psychology of Canada, but with a few notable exceptions, they generally require from the foreign reader more skill in coördinating abstractions than any human being is likely to possess.

Economists tell us that there is no real basis of economic union in Canada. The wheat-producing provinces have generally felt themselves treated like a colonial empire by the large eastern cities. The Maritime Provinces, with their tradition of seafaring and free trade, bitterly resent the tariffs imposed on them by the more populous manufacturing areas of Ontario and Quebec. In addition, many of Canada's most vital industries are controlled in the United States. Sociologists have constantly emphasized that Canadians have no common tradition of patriotism or even of social values. The English-speaking majority and the French-speaking minority are divided not only by religion and language, but are descended from ancestors who once were bitter national enemies, and whose struggles are remembered with deep emotion.

Those Canadians who are their own sharpest critics have attempted to explain the national character in terms of a sizeable inferiority complex. They talk about the reticence of their fellow-countrymen -- both individually and as a national group -- their reluctance to tell the rest of the world what a fine country Canada is. They deplore the behavior-pattern of a proud people who still react to the well-grounded belief that no matter how much they may contribute to a common cause, neither Britain nor the United States will accord them proper recognition. But these are only shadows on the picture. There are still more sides to this complex Canadian personality. The people of the country have also been strongly affected by physical environment, by a mixed religious inheritance, and by the invasion of American ideas from Hollywood and New York. These, too, have made her what she is.

The climate of Canada allows for less margin of error in economic life than does the climate of the United States. The average Canadian farmer is poorer than the average American farmer by at least five weeks of warm weather. Moreover, there is only a narrow belt of land -- all of it lying close to the American border -- which is uniformly fertile. The rest of the Dominion is mostly bush, tundra, hard-rock shield and ice cap. To be sure, Canada appears to be a nation of still untapped wealth so far as mineral resources are concerned, but since man has not yet learned to eat gold and pitchblende, wealth in such terms must be reckoned in basic values.

In addition to the repressions enforced by nature, there are few nations in which established religion has had a greater success in curbing exuberances. The authority of the Quebec priest over his parish is famous. In the English-speaking provinces Calvinism has been endemic from the beginning. Although both religions have done much to fortify Canadian society in the face of geographical debits, they have enormously inhibited the Canadian character in the process.

Finally, Canadian psychology within the last few generations has been subtly but thoroughly worked on by American motion pictures, American radio programs, American books, advertising in American magazines -- a series of pressures which we Canadians have not so far returned in kind. For want of a true native culture which is dramatic enough to compete with New York and Hollywood, they have allowed themselves to absorb that of the United States. As a result, they have tended to understand Americans intellectually better than they understand themselves.

The more one enters into such detail, the more confused the picture becomes. Canada has two official languages, yet the resources of both have failed to provide a single word to designate a citizen of the country. When those of the French language use the word Canadien, they refer only to themselves; the rest of the population are les Anglais. Those who speak English operate on the same principle. They are the "Canadians;" the qualifying word "French-Canadian" is reserved for the inhabitants of Quebec. To date, Canada has no official flag. One of the hottest debates in recent parliamentary history occurred when the project of adopting a national flag was raised and discarded after weeks of exasperated argument. George VI is king of Canada; yet Canada is not a dependency of Great Britain. Canadians have no wish to join the United States, but they are almost more concerned by American national elections than by their own.

In spite of such contradictions, Canada is probably the most stable country in the world. Her standard of living is second only to that of the United States, and a close second at that. Canadians are more law-abiding than Americans, they are conservative no matter to which language group they belong; yet -- as their social legislation proves -- they are not reactionary. When Mr. King retired and handed the leadership to Mr. Louis St. Laurent, there was no perceptible change in internal or international policy. Mr. St. Laurent, a Roman Catholic of Quebec, continued calmly where Mr. King, an Ontario Presbyterian, had left off. One can only conclude, therefore, that Canada must contain some invisible common denominator which has kept her people stable and has drawn them together politically in spite of the dichotomies of which she is composed.

Canada became a nation through the unwilling coöperation of two distinctly different kinds of people, reinforced by a third group which had nothing in common with the social background of the other two. The first two were the French, who were the original European inhabitants of the country, and the United Empire Loyalists, of English stock from the Thirteen Colonies. The third group were Highland Scots. In subsequent years there were immigrations from Ulster, southern Ireland, England, Scotland, Wales and the continent of Europe, but it is extraordinary how little these later settlers altered the psychological mould which was set in Canada in the early days. They never counteracted the vital fact that the three original settling groups became Canadians because the nations or factions to which they had belonged had suffered total defeat in war. It was in their response to the challenge of these three separate defeats, a response which in each case was remarkably similar, that the common denominator in the Canadian character was forged.

In French-Canada today there is a much-used slogan, notre maître, le passé. The glorious past of French-Canada has overshadowed her immediate present ever since 1763. The greatest names in Canadian history -- indeed, in the early history of the North American continent -- are all French. What men can historians of the English colonies set up against Cartier, Champlain, Cavelier de la Salle, Père Marquette, Brébeuf, Joliet, d'Iberville, Radisson, Frontenac, Laval and Montcalm? Such names ring like bugle calls across the whole of America. Always working with fewer resources, both of men and materials, handicapped by corrupt governments in France, unsupported by sea power, the French under such leaders more than held their own against superior odds for a century and a half. And then suddenly their glory and their hope collapsed.

After the fall of Quebec in the Seven Years' War, the inhabitants of New France found themselves without a mother country. By the Treaty of Paris in 1763, France formally abandoned them to England, their hereditary foe. Sixty-five thousand Frenchmen of Catholic Norman stock, most of whom had been born in Lower Canada, found themselves alone in a hostile, Protestant, English-speaking continent, helpless before their conquerors' whims. Voltaire, in a cheap epigram, wrote of the country for which they had fought and suffered as "a few acres of ice and snow." Not only were the French-Canadians robbed of a mother country when France deserted them, they were robbed of one of the greatest dreams ever cherished by a human society, the dream of a French-speaking Roman Catholic empire extending from the Gaspé to the Gulf of Mexico.

After receiving such a blow from the British, why did the French-Canadians, barely 16 years after the fall of Quebec, choose to remain under the British flag when the seceding American colonies sent Benjamin Franklin to beg them to join their revolution?

To answer this riddle is to explain how French-Canada met the challenge of her defeat. Two years before the outbreak of the American Revolution, the British Government had passed the famous Quebec Act, the most liberal political document enacted by a conqueror up to that time. It guaranteed the French-Canadians freedom of religion, the right to preserve their own language in the courts and to teach it in the schools, as well as the right to continue the use and practice of French civil law. In addition to the official attitude of the British Government, as expressed in the Act, the first British governors happened to have been humane, chivalrous and intelligent men.

In contrast to the behavior of the British, the attitude of such Americans as the French had known was deplorable. In the colonial wars it had been Americans who had insisted on the expulsion of the Acadians, and Americans who had treated Louisburg like a modern Carthage. Immediately after the fall of Quebec, New Englanders had swarmed north in the hope of despoiling the new province. They were bitter Protestants, intolerant of any aims or values but their own. Now, in 1776, the Catholic hierarchy let it be known that they regarded with abhorrence the principles behind the revolution.

In this great crisis in continental history, the attitude of French-Canadians hardened into a mould which has remained distinct to this day. After the Quebec Act was passed, the only aims they had left were to survive ethnically, to remain defenders of the Catholic faith and the French legend in North America, to preserve in so far as they could the tradition of their mighty ancestors. Then and now, they accepted the realities of their position. Their Norman common sense has continually enabled them to recognize what was to become a real principle in Canadian political life: when choices are few, take half a loaf and remember it is better than no bread.

It was a supreme irony of history which soon thereafter caused the French-Canadians to share Canada with tens of thousands of the very Yankee Protestants they had hitherto detested more than any other people on earth, the Loyalists in the colonies who had sided with the mother country during the Revolution. These people -- men, women and children -- were hounded north into the wilderness of Ontario and the Maritime Provinces, bounding Quebec on both sides, by the self-righteous rage of their own blood-relations.

Professor Toynbee has pointed out that no people in the history of Christendom had up to this time suffered such a fate for purely political opinions. The Loyalists were still Yankee in character and Protestant in religion. Their decision to remain loyal to England might have been wrong, but it had been as sincerely formed as was the decision of the others to revolt. Their treatment at the hands of their former countrymen, followed as it was by the virtual indifference of the British to their plight once the war was lost, produced in their collective psychology a kind of traumatic shock. They never gave way to the self-pity which was to retard the recovery of the American South a century later, nor did they glorify the legend of their own past. They had too much to do and too much to learn to brood upon it, since most of them came from a settled environment and now found themselves pioneers in a cold, unbroken country. As their social culture developed through the years it was seen to be more rigid than that of the United States, more cautious, less optimistic, more close-mouthed. In the early days, few of them expected Canada to amount to much and they retained their old dislike of Quebec. But they were determined to survive as British subjects in North America; like the French, they had made up their minds that half a loaf is better than no bread at all.

The third racial group, the Highlanders, became Canadians as a result of the infatuated loyalty of their chiefs to Charles Edward Stuart. After Culloden, while Charles did his best to drink himself into forgetfulness of his helpless dupes, the British set out ruthlessly to break down the clan system. This policy was later followed by enclosures, and when it became increasingly difficult for the clansmen to get a living in the Highlands, whole villages departed in communal ships to Canada. They settled in small, closely-knit communities in the Maritimes, in Ontario and even in Quebec, and, though they retained the Gaelic, they quickly set out to learn English. Few peoples, with the possible exception of the Japanese, have ever accommodated themselves more rapidly to the methods of European civilization. They remembered their past, but in a spirit which Santayana would commend, for they had no intention of repeating it. Loyal by tradition and nature they might be, but they would never again be loyal in the suicidal spirit of Cameron of Lochiel.

Thus, if the members of each of these original groups which settled Canada had been able to voice their feelings in the hour of their tragedy, they would have spoken identical words: "Never again will we submit ourselves to the humiliation of being discarded by the friends for whom we were prepared to give everything we had."

For a time the distinct sections of what came to be known as British North America were governed as individual colonies of Great Britain. And then the growing pains of the American Republic caused a series of crises which directly affected these provinces to the north. Through their response to these new challenges they finally became a self-governing Dominion with a national psychology based directly on the past history of the three original groups.

The first crisis was the War of 1812. American armies were repulsed from their invasion of Canadian soil by the joint efforts of the Loyalists and the French-Canadians, assisted by small bodies of British regulars. For Canada, it was a decisive victory.

The second crisis was precipitated by President Polk over the question of the western boundary. Canadians were once more prepared to fight if invaded. War was averted, but Polk's imperialism made the Loyalists and the French realize that they had more to gain by standing together than by bickering.

The third and most serious crisis arose out of the resentment felt by Americans against the British at the time of the Civil War. Even before Lincoln's first inauguration, Canadians had viewed Seward with justifiable alarm. Their apprehensions reached a climax when the war ended and Lincoln's restraining influence was removed. Some American statesmen talked openly of annexing Canada in reprisal for British "violations" of neutrality during the Civil War. The American action of terminating the Reciprocity Treaty of 1854 was viewed by British North America as a direct threat. The answer of the provinces was to form, in 1867, the Confederation which made Canada a nation in fact, with a federal parliament of her own. Thus, without meaning to do so, the United States brought about the establishment of a nation composed of peoples who had no desire to unite, but who -- true to the lesson their respective pasts had taught them -- chose union with each other in preference to absorption by another state which would care nothing for the respective heritages they cherished.

It was in the years following Confederation that the present era of friendship and good will between Canada and the United States began. Confederation proved to American statesmen that Canada was not a military outpost of Great Britain, and with the departure of suspicion on one side and fear on the other, the sentiments of Canadians rapidly warmed to their southern neighbor. The Puritan descendants of the Loyalists, now that the slaves were liberated, were at last willing to admit that the Revolution had been not only successful, but had been fought with loftier motives than to keep Sam Adams and John Hancock out of jail. Although Great Britain was respected and even loved by English-Canada, and though loyalty to the Crown was inculcated in the schools, Canadians were always conscious of being North Americans.

Now the great saga of continental development was being celebrated by American writers and propagandists, soon to be followed by American motion pictures and radio, and this saga was part of the blood and bone of the Canadian people. American spokesmen constantly expressed ideas and emotions which Canadians shared. The analogy to the good wife appears once more. A man triumphs over great adversities, he civilizes a wilderness, he becomes rich and performs feats that stupefy the world. He boasts and glories in his achievement, and the world recognizes and honors him. His wife remains silent, but she knows in her heart that to more than a small extent his story is also her own.

So much for the good wife analogy. One returns inevitably to the career of William Lyon MacKenzie King, because he must be explained, at least in part, in any study of Canada today. This solitary bachelor with the tufted eyebrows, with a voice like that of a Presbyterian minister and a face which contrives to be both well-plumped and rugged at the same time, has done more than retain personal power for a record number of years. He is one of the few constructive political geniuses of the century. The fact that his face, as he has grown older, has assumed the expression of a watchdog pretending to be meek and melancholy is no accident.

During a good part of the Second World War, Mr. King was probably the most unpopular man in Canada. It was his aim to keep Canada united, to enable her to work for victory in the widest sense of the term, and to guide her towards a larger, independent development as a nation. For six years he walked the tightrope with confidence because he knew that the maintenance of social stability is, in Canada, a categorical imperative. He knew that no matter how deep lie the emotions of the people, no matter how profound their frustrations, French and English alike have an overriding common aim upon which the Canadian national character, whatever its individual manifestations may be, firmly rests. Both groups know subconsciously that the security their ancestors lost so dramatically, and which their descendants so painfully regained, must be preserved at any price. Again and again, Canadians have shown that whenever their emotions come into conflict with this principle, the principle will prevail.

In the autumn of 1944, during what came to be known as the Conscription Crisis, the emotions of English-Canada were represented by the late Colonel Ralston, Minister of Defense. All thought they knew the French point of view: Quebec threatened secession if conscription was imposed. Mr. King, remembering how badly national unity had been bruised by the conscription bill of 1917, contrived by various dexterities to postpone the issue as long as enlistments were meeting needs. But in 1944 it could be postponed no longer. Mounting casualties had struck the nation with grief and threatened the effectiveness of the army.

The real issue at stake -- whether or not the nation should permit the generous volunteer to assume an extra burden of danger which compulsory service might mitigate -- was kept by the Prime Minister as far in the background as possible. His technical skill in doing this reached the levels of necromancy, for at this period the Puritan conscience of English-Canada was working overtime. Colonel Ralston was embittered because he felt that a moral wrong was being committed before his eyes. The issue should stand forth. The nation should face its own conscience at home if it was afterwards to face its returned volunteers.

In the eyes of English-Canada, Ralston became a hero overnight. His rôle was infinitely more popular than the Prime Minister's could possibly be, and he was totally sincere. Mr. King's behavior at this time was respected by hardly anyone; yet, when passions subsided, it was recognized that he had displayed a moral courage of the most difficult kind, for it was the essence of his position that he had to make himself appear to the public to be less of a man than his antagonist, vacillating and weak while inwardly he not only knew himself to be right, but to be the strongest man in the country. Colonel Ralston so forcefully opposed Mr. King's policy of temporizing that his resignation was demanded by the Prime Minister. General MacNaughton, whose devotion to the army was unquestioned, for a few days seemed to be in agreement with Mr. King. The issue became too clouded for emotional intensity to find any direct outlet. Thus Mr. King, by playing on the national psychology with the skill of a magician, managed to save everything at once: the unbroken continuance of the war effort, the life of the government, national unity and his own place in history. The bill was passed in such a way that the English got their reinforcements, while the French, though losing on the actual issue, were able to feel that their stand on conscription had not only been morally right, but that English-Canada was grateful to them for having sacrificed their principles for the sake of national unity. Even Colonel Ralston, still a member of Parliament though out of the Cabinet, suppressed the enormous emotion he was feeling during the tense debate on the issue and conducted himself with calm dignity. He uttered no word against Quebec, he cast no slur on the integrity of the Prime Minister's tactics even when he most abhorred them. He was sufficiently Canadian to know that he himself, like his fellow-countrymen of both races, could never take the ultimate action which would wreck Confederation.

Mr. King's entire career has been marked by such feats, and there is no doubt that Canada owes much of her present stature to his strange species of resolution. Unfortunately, there is a debit side to his influence. In all of his public utterances he has described Canada in terms so uninteresting that only a man with superhuman determination could have kept the pattern so consistent. He never allowed anyone else to speak for him in the press, he discouraged photographers, he reduced to the barest minimum all attempts to dramatize Canada's rôle in the war. He must clearly have felt that the growing exuberance of a people awakening at last to their own strength and to a new vision of their country's beauties was dangerous.

Habits of thought are as difficult to break in nations as in individuals. Although Mr. King has encouraged some of the ablest young men in the country to enter public life, the effect of his ponderous insistence on removing all human contrasts and color from political activity will be reflected in Canada's relations with other countries for some time to come. But it will not last forever. Strong forces from outside are helping strong forces from within. Canadians of the younger generation are much less inhibited than their parents. With the advent of Mr. St. Laurent -- an urbane, integrated man of great personal charm -- Canadian public life already seems less chilly than it was. A considerable body of art and literature is beginning to be recognized as the visible, articulate expression of a new facet of the national character. Canadians are thus feeding their own hungry longing for self-expression and self-realization, and a wider understanding on the part of the rest of the world is bound to follow.

The same basic principle which has guided Canada through the maelstrom of local emotions into nationhood is today the basis of her foreign policy. Though it cannot be repeated too often that Canadians like and respect the United States, few of them would consider that a world dominated wholly by American methods and American materialism would be an unqualified blessing for mankind. Canada is more than thankful that the leadership of Franklin Roosevelt led Americans out of their former immaturity in international affairs, but her present orientation towards Washington does not imply a rejection of Great Britain. Canadians recognize, as the British do themselves, that the center of gravity has moved not only to Washington, but to the whole North American continent.

The day when the Canadian character could be adequately represented by mounted policemen, husky dogs, trappers, scenery and big game has disappeared. Canadians may seem to the world to be less colorful figures than their own tourist advertisements make them out to be, but American statesmen who frequent international conferences have been known to say that they feel more at ease with Canadians than with the representatives of any other nation. Of course they do. Instinctively, if not consciously, they know that Canadians understand their motives completely; their neighbors to the north are probably the only people in the world who regard the United States with a respect untainted by so much as a single grain of envy.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now