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Canada Lacks A Definite Narrative About Who Founded The Country

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Next year will mark the 150th anniversary of Confederation. The anniversary potentially offers Canadians an important opportunity to learn more about the origins of their country. July 1, 1867 is widely regarded as the day that Canada was founded and hence the annual national holiday that we call Canada day.

There is an ongoing debate amongst historians about who actually founded the country. We generally associate the 1867 agreement with its chief negotiators, Sir John A. Macdonald and Sir George-Etienne Cartier along with various other gentlemen of British and French origins (though some may question if they were really genteel). What some historians appear less certain about is the constituencies that the negotiators were representing when they struck the agreement. Were they negotiating on behalf of the British and French peoples of Canada or for the four provinces that were the original signatories to Confederation?

The debate remains relevant today as the acceptance that Canada is a nation of two founding peoples has influenced the conversation over whether the country is a bi-national or, for that matter, a multi-national entity.

Those contending that Canada is multi-national include the many First Nations as "one" of the country's founding peoples (Quebec sovereignists are careful to say that Canada is a multi-nation federation and not a multi-national country). However, insisting that the First Nations were founding peoples of Canada requires that 1867 no longer be regarded as the date the country was founded. If that is so it's because Canada's First Nations were not invited to be part of the negotiations of the 1867 agreement.

In effect, the idea of three founding peoples or nations of Canada requires the historic re-positioning of the colonizers (the British and the French) and the colonized (the indigenous peoples and the French) as having collectively agreed to found the country. But that rendez-vous never occurred. An alternative narrative would suggest that Canada was not founded on the basis of an agreed upon pact between peoples but rather on a series of Treaties and Acts across which the Confederation agreement was one

Canada does not appear to possess a definitive or authoritative narrative that properly connects when and by whom the country was founded. While surveys reveal that most Canadians believe that 1867 is the founding date of Canada many of those same people think the First Nations are amongst the founding peoples.

A Leger poll conducted in January 2016 for the Association for Canadian Studies does not give rise to a consensus amongst Canadians as regards the founding peoples of Confederation. Some 37 per cent of Canadians believe that it is the four provinces that are Confederation's founding partners with 34 per cent of the view that it is the Aboriginals, French and British and 24 per cent that see the British and French occupying that role. At 42 per cent, most of the country's allophones (persons whose first language is something other than English or French) chose the Aboriginals. French and English as Confederation's founding partners.

Many seek to develop a founding narrative to support a preferred contemporary one. The Harper government might be described as a key contributor to varying opinion as to the country's founders as it encourages a number of interpretations about the partners (to be sure politically this isn't necessarily a bad thing).

In one of the closest things to an official history of Canada, the Government of Canada's Citizenship Guide states that "from 1864 to 1867, representatives of the Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and the Province of Canada, with British support, worked together to establish a new country...the old Province of Canada was split into two new provinces: Ontario and Quebec, which together with New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, formed the new country called the Dominion of Canada."

The same document notes that: "To understand what it means to be Canadian, it is important to know about our three founding peoples." To be fair, there is no direct association with the Confederation as the founding event. But Canadians reading the document with only some knowledge about Confederation can be forgiven for concluding that the pact was conceived constitutionally by both four provinces and three peoples.

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