GENERAL ARTICLES

Mammoth or Milquetoast?

J. B. McGEACHY July 1 1947
GENERAL ARTICLES

Mammoth or Milquetoast?

J. B. McGEACHY July 1 1947

Mammoth or Milquetoast?

J. B. McGEACHY

FOR eight years ending last fall (to begin with credentials) I lived in London, England. Back in Canada just eight months, I am taken for an Englishman by all Canadians who do not know me—possibly because of a hat bought in Piccadilly around 1942. This headgear, however, deceived no one in England, where I was instantly recognizable as a Canadian.

I realize that these facts add up to a nondescript man without a country, but I call myself a Canadian (uncertificated) because I lived here from 1913 to 1938. In London I tried to keep in touch with Canada and had many chances, some of them nocturnal.

My work on a BBC night shift often compelled me to do a two-mile walk home in blacked-out London between one and five o’clock in the morning, when public transport had closed down arid the few surviving taxicabs were occupied by Americans. On these walks I regularly met Canadian soldiers on leave, lost and looking for a hostel. Guided by instinct and the north star I found the way for at least a battalion all told.

They included men from Charlottetown, Prince Rupert and many intermediate points and on these eerie expeditions, often interrupted by air raid warnings, bombs and shellfire, I picked up Canadian local news and Canadian opinions, often profane, on the English and their ways. I got a better slant

on British-Canadian relations from these errant soldiers, talking in the dark to a man they couldn’t see, than from the generals, cabinet ministers and other nobs who held forth on the subject at press conferences.

I mention this experience—and of course I saw many Canadians by daylight as well-because I think living in London during the war offered a superb opportunity to get to know Canadians as a distinct breed of men, size them up and note how they differed from other people.

Coming back to Canada after eight years, I find, is a little like discovering that your most robust, athletic and self-confident friend is secretly in the hands of the psychoanalysts, having himself tested for split personality or a complex of some kind.

This is not, of course, a first impression. During the early days or weeks in Canada one is wholly occupied in marvelling at the abundance of beefsteaks, the lights on the streets, the enormous newspapers, the singing commercials and the general cheerfulness of the citizen body—phenomena not now found in Britain. The general impression of plenty is overwhelming at first and lasts for months.

But when the period of wonder is over and one gets down to heart-to-heart talks with Canadians, one finds them (or many I have met) engaged in agonizing soul-searching. They are worrying about whether Canada is really a grown-up nation, and if so whether the rest of the world recognizes the fact.

I think back to those innumerable conversations

in London, by day and by night, and for the life of me I can’t recall a single time when these questions came up. No one I met there - Canadian, British or anything else - ever asked whether Canada was a nation. It would have seemed as sensible to ask if Mercury were one of the planets or the Atlantic one of the oceans.

We Look Different

FOR one thing the Canadians as seen by the Londoner were a definite physical type. It seems odd to me that Canadians often say: “We are very like the Americans, of course. You can hardly tell us apart.’’ The differences are striking when a great mass of Canadians and a great mass of Americans can be seen together in the same place—a place strange to both of them.

I’m no anthropologist and don’t know what the people who measure head shapes and compile statistics of eye and hair color would say about this, but in the situation I’ve described (the London situation in wartime) it seemed as plain as ABC that the Canadians were a classifiable variety of mankind while the Americans were not yet. I know, of course, that Canada’s voluntary system of enlistment had something to do with it, so I won’t press that point further.

But in personality the Canadians were equally distinct. Comparisons are odious but inevitable here—so let me take the plunge. In comparison with • the Americans the Canadians were more reticent, less boisterous, better-dressed, better drinkers, less amusing, less surprised that London had electric light, less high-strung and nervously alive, more respectful of law and order, I think more interested (though Continued on page 48

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Mammoth or Milquetoast?

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here the difference was slight) in the folkways and lore of England, a shade more adaptable.

Sometimes the contrast seemed to be between the sedate, broody northerner and the happy-go-lucky, excitable man of the south, but that would be pushing it much too far. The point I make is that Canadians were recognizably men from a particular part of the globe who were not like Americans, Australians, New Zealanders or British but only like one another.

As for the country they came from, it was evidently a country of fabulous wealth and generosity, capable not only of paying its soldiers properly but of making gifts by the billion. As these Canadian supplies poured in the wonder grew that one small power could carry this load.

It went without saying, of course, that the Canadians were making this war effort entirely of their own volition. No one I met in London ever made a statement, or asked a question, which remotely hinted that Canada was not entirely free to do as she pleased about the war. In Fleet Street in August and early September, 1939, I was asked if I thought Canada would remain neutral. Later on I often had to give reasons why Canada had come into the war.

I remember, for example, being repeatedly asked this question at meetings of the voluntary fire service in London. Stephen Spender, the poet, organized the meetings in an effort to create for the firemen (who often had time on their hands after the blitz was over) something like the Army Bureau of Current Affairs. One question I always got was: Why did Canada come into the war seeing she was not attacked and not obliged to get herself involved? I did my best to explain that the Canadians thought the job of defeating Hitler was one in which they should take a hand.

Perhaps these stray recollections give you a picture. Canada, as seen from Britain while I was there, was most certainly a nation “strong and free,”

in the words of the national song. That was what the British thought and Canada’s men seemed to be in no doubt about it either. They spoke proudly of their country, behaved with self-reliance and were robust patriots without being noisily boastful.

My own impression, contrary to that of some observers, was that they rather liked England even though they found some of its social usages odd. The Englishman, as Chesterton said, is less interested in the equality of men than in the inequality of horses, and his cheerful acceptance of class distinctions (not to mention discomforts) rather upset many Canadians. They talked about it sometimes in a regretful way.

After these years of seeing Canada through the Atlantic haze and thinking of the country as a young self-confident giant, it was (as I said) surprising to come back and find Canadians in a self-questioning mood. I may have frequented the wrong company but I’ve found Canadian intellectuals, both Tory and left wing, talking about “frustrated nationalism” and asking sadly if the great Canadian experiment in nation building has really been a success.

Their doubts astonished me because the impression of any visitor must be that Canada is a brilliant success, free, orderly and prosperous in a poverty-stricken, chaotic world. What was still more surprising: the British connection was sometimes mentioned as a reason for Canada’s supposed shortcomings. I know there are Canadians all the way from Halifax to Victoria who would be ready to dispute that statement hotly. I can only report that many Canadian, speeches, conversations and editorials suggest that this country is still battling against the shackles of colonial status.

Witness the fuss made in Canada when the judges of the Privy Council decided in London that Canada had the right to abolish appeals to them. What else did anyone expect them to decide? Of course Canada has this right, and any other that goes with sovereignty, and no authority in London would dream of questioning the point. It seemed strange to me, and perhaps to others, that seme in

Canada regarded the verdict as a triumph of some kind. It struck me rather as what Punch used to call a glimpse of the obvious.

Is Emotion Unworthy?

I got nearer to the heart of the puzzle when a Canadian scholar, who is also an ardent nationalist, said to me that Canada had not a free choice in 1939 to enter or stay out of the war.

I asked him: “What about Canadian autonomy, the Statute of Westminster, and the obvious fact that no compulsion could possibly have been used?”

“I admit all that,” he said. “What I meant was that the emotional pull of the tie with Britain made it impossible for Canada to take any other course but declare war.”

Let us look at this idea with some care because it may be the kernel of the problem that seems to trouble some of my Canadian friends. But first of all I don’t accept the general argument that a nation which is subject to emotions and acts on them is on that account not adult or not free. If the emotions are generous and controlled by intelligent thinking I would call them a sign of genuine freedom and maturity.

It is true, I think, that Canadians are stirred emotionally by the idea of Britain going to war, Britain in distress or Britain victorious. It is also true that some Canadians are half inclined to disavow this sympathy or perhaps to resent it in themselves as a mark of adolescence. Asked about it in Britain, Canadian soldiers would usually deny that it explained their presence on the war front. Thanked by hearty Britons for “coming to the aid of the motherland,” some would say that they were fighting for Canada; which sometimes left their overseas friends, like the firemen at my meetings, a little puzzled. Others, insisting that they enlisted for adventure, would leave no doubt that in fact they were in uniform because their ancestral home was in grave danger.

I recall an incident of Mr. Mackenzie King’s second wartime visit to London when he spoke to both Houses of Parliament in an immense, gaudy but still impressive room in the Palace of

Westminster. Mid-Victorian in decor and atmosphere, it is a room which reminds the visitor of Britain’s not undistinguished past. Vast murals, extending the full length of the two side walls, depict in old-fashioned heroic style the death of Nelson at Trafalgar and Wellington’s victory at Waterloo. Thus flanked, the Canadian Prime Minister sat on a dais with Mr. Churchill, the Archbishop of Canterbury and other great men of the land while he faced the assembled Lords and Commons. It was an impressive occasion.

We Are Not Colonial

Like other reporters present I had a mimeographed advance copy of Mr. King’s speech and noted only one departure from the prepared text. It was in a passage explaining Canada’s reasons for being a belligerent. The text read, “Ours was not a response to the call of the blood,” but Mr. King said, “Ours was not only a response to the call of the blood.” This fragment of history interests me. Did Mr. King, confronted by the heart-warming emblems of Empire history, find himself unable to say that Canada was not a blood brother of Britain and did he make an impromptu correction?

More probably there was a typing error in the script, but the incident at the time struck me as almost a symbol of Canadian uncertainty about the emotional tie with Britain. That it exists is perfectly evident. The tide of food parcels flowing from Canada to British families is sufficient evidence. And that being so it appears to me that the real questions are: Did affection for Britain lead Canada to a wrong decision in 1939? Is there any possibility that this sentiment will mislead Canada into a wrong decision in the future? As the answers to both are no, why should not all Canadians, as most of them do now, recognize the emotional link as a healthy, adult and generous element in this country’s personality?

But there is one other question to consider. Does the link in some way keep Canada colonial in spirit, prevent the flowering of Canadian genius in literature and the arts, and inhibit the growth of a genuinely Canadian national character? Some Canadians (I hope no reader doubts me) say yes, but I see no evidence to support them. There is already a Canadian national character. It shone as clear as a diamond in the Canadian army overseas and in Canada it shines again for me as a returning traveller, though with the edges less sharply defined because no contrasts are here for comparison.

As for Canadian geniuses and leaders, I submit they are no more handicapped by the British connection than British geniuses and leaders are by the entente cordiale with France—a, deeply emotional link as Mr. Churchill showed when he made his dramatic offer of union in 1940. In fact, I think every critic would agree that Canadian talent, in the novel, poetry, the drama and the other arts, is showing more vigor and originality now than ever before. Yet, in my view, Canadian fortunes were never so closely linked with British and certainly Canadian services to Britain were never so munificent. I see this Canadian generosity to a kindred nation in distress and the blossoming of Canadian creative gifts as two facets of an emerging national spirit which will bring the country new glory. These may seem high-flown words but I know no other way to say what I mean.

It is a truism that two powerful outside influences, British and American, have strongly affected Canadian life and politics. Naturally it is no disparagement of a nation to say of it that it is influenced by others. But Canada has been uniquely liable to pressures of various kinds, economic and political, from its great neighbor and its partner in the Commonwealth.

In London one is constantly reminded that Britain, far from expecting to have any hand in shaping future Canadian policy, would rather welcome Canadian influence. Responsible people in Britain are nowadays scrupulously anxious to avoid even the appearance of interfering in Dominion affairs, and this has one unfortunate result. The politics and leading men of the Dominions are seldom discussed with any candor in the British press. In consequence the Dominion Prime Ministers, except perhaps General Smuts, are really unknown to the British public. They are benign, elderly gentlemen who from time to time are photographed in the garden of 10 Downing Street with Mr. Attlee or Mr. Churchill, as the case may be, but only the experts know what ideas they stand for. That is sacrosanct ground for the British editor, not to be trodden on. He would much sooner give advice to President Truman or the Prime Minister of France than to Mr. Mackenzie King.

Back in Canada after a longish absence one notices the absence or the relative weakness of British influences.

British newspapers and magazines are extremely scarce. I know that this is due partly to the paper shortage in Britain, but there does not seem to be a lively demand for what is obtainable. Looking for a London Times in the Toronto Public Library about a month after coming to Canada, I found my unusual request courteously dealt with but the latest issue on hand dated before I left Britain.

Visiting British lecturers are almost an extinct species in North America, which some would regard as a blessing. The BBC is heard in Canada for only a few minutes a day. British films are making an impression but those which are peculiarly British in flavor or point of view, like “Henry V” or “The Way to the Stars,” seem to be regarded as rather exotic products for special audiences.

The Southern Influence

If Canadian national identity and culture are in any danger, which can be questioned, obviously that influence comes from the United States. At least that seems plain to one just returned. He notices that American books, films, newspapers, magazines, comic strips, radio programs, songs and political ideas are staple fare for Canadians. Why not, since these United States products are for the most part admirable? The point I make is that Canadians now apparently take this American penetration for granted.

There was a time, not long ago, when this was not so and when what was called “the danger of Americanization” was a stock topic for Canadian speakers and editorial writers. They would warn their fellow citizens that Canada, to keep its individual character, must beware of adopting American standards and American ways of life, thought and speech. I haven’t heard this subject even mentioned in these last eight months. Canadians in 1947 accept the process of Americanization, along with such events as CanadianAmerican joint plans for the defense of the Arctic, as natural and normal.

This change in the past 20 years

has perhaps gone unnoticed by Canadians who have lived here continuously. .It struck me forcibly, just as a man sees in a friend not met for a long time the physical changes his family hasn’t observed.

To sum it up, my observation is that American influence has increased while British has waned since I last knew Canada in the pre-war years. That is no doubt inevitable as the United States gains weight as a world power and Britain loses some of her former stature.

We’re More “European”

But it seems worth noting that Canada’s special distinction among the nations of North and South America is the European tie. The impulse for the founding of Canada was a decision to keep this peculiarity. One could almost say that the point of Canadian history—from Confederation and the building of the railways to participation in two world wars—was a fixed determination not to break the link.

On the small ship which brought me to Canada last year, one of the passengers was a woman whose husband had served in the diplomatic corps of a European country now in the Russian sphere. As they were old regime they saw no future in their homeland and she was coming to Canada to join her husband who had gone out six months earlier and found a job. They had known both Canada and the United States in pre-war days, so it was natural to ask: “Why did you choose Canada?” “That’s very simple,” she replied, “Canada is still Europe.”

That remark, which might affront or dismay some Canadians, was certainly intended as a compliment. My acquaintance meant that Canadians had kept certain leisurely graces and certain ideas about order and decorum that she admired. She also believed, being a European, that these desirable qualities in Canadian life stemmed from Europe; and perhaps she was right.

But Canadian nationality and character, in full flower, will obviously be neither European nor American but quite distinct—as distinct as Canada’s soldiers were seen to be in an environment strange to them.

We Neglect Our Great

To my mind the chief lack in the Canadian national spirit now is a sense of history. Arthur Koestier in his book, “Thieves in the Night,” speaks of “shared memories” as the basis of solidarity in a family or

community. Canadians share many memories, heaven knows, but they seem to refer mainly to particular places or to events of quite recent date.

The Canadian soldiers in Britain talked together and with British friends about Canada. When they did they talked of it as a physical expanse of land with rivers, mountains and plains, as a splendid natural background for all sorts of enjoyable and fruitful physical activities. They told about fishing in the lakes and streams of the Maritimes, seeing life in Montreal, pitching hay in Saskatchewan, sailing on the Great Lakes, riding the range in Alberta. It was a glowing panorama they unfolded to the listening and often enchanted British. And they were as enthusiastic about it as any tourist bureau could ask. I once heard a Canadian soldier say, in a crowded scene of London gaiety: “Gee, I wish I was in Rosthern tonight.” With all proper respect to that fine Saskatchewan town, it took stalwart love of country to say that.

But these Canadians apparently didn’t think of their country in its historical setting or of its politics as ; particularly interesting. I’ve heard G.I.’s putting Englishmen right about the North and the South or explaining j George Washington and what he did for his country. I never heard any Canadian soldier talking about Sir ' John Macdonald.

Yet it seems to me that Macdonald ' was as fascinating a character as Washington. He also led a North American community to nationhood. If Washington was the father of the United States, Macdonald could perhaps be called the father of the British Commonwealth, another very remarkable political society. In my opinion Canadians don’t see the dimensions of figures like Macdonald on the stage of world history. The nation’s most interesting rebel, Mackenzie, is even faintly deprecated in the best circles ás not quite a respectable character. And as for Riel—!

Is it a certain moderation in the Canadian make-up, a reluctance to exaggerate, or a constant reference to American standards of size that leads Canadians to see their history as a humdrum and small-scale chronicle? Whatever the cause I suggest that the country needs more national heroes and vainglory in its splendid past. The poets, historians, historical novelists, playwrights and film makers can supply the requirement.

It’s only when they’ve done so, in my opinion, that Canadians will see as clearly as outside observers the place their country has already achieved in the world, it