“Canada is the distinct society” (Pierre Elliott Trudeau, 1992)
When Pierre Trudeau delivered his historic critique of the Charlottetown Accord at a dinner at the Maison Eggroll in Montreal, Canadians listened. As Globe and Mail columnist Jeffrey Simpson wrote the day after the referendum on the Accord was decisively defeated, “The Trudeau Vision Won.”
What was that vision? Of Canada as a New World country, a country of immigrants — a bilingual, multicultural society of civic nationalism, governed by shared values and beliefs, not by ethnic nationalism and blood relationships. A country shaped by tolerance, compromise and equality of opportunity.
Europe – the liberal democracies of the Old World — paid attention. When Trudeau died in September 2000 the cover of Paris Match featured the famous photo of the former prime minister in his trademark cape with a rose in his lapel and the simple caption “Le Mort d’un Geant” (Death of a Giant). Evidently the editors felt there was no need to even mention his name, he was so well known.
And so was Canada. Many observers in Europe marvelled at the knots we tied ourselves into over Meech Lake and Charlottetown when they had bigger problems to deal with in their own countries, unable to achieve the remarkable level of political integration we took, and still take, for granted. Instead, they continued to struggle with the many societal problems arising as wave after wave of recent immigrants to their borders cause major upheavals and unrest.
Fast forward to the Australian Open tennis tournament of January 2022. If ever more visual proof was needed to demonstrate Canada’s singular accomplishment, this is it. From Canadian tennis stars of the past, such as Peter Burwash and Eugenie Bouchard, the roster of world class players calling Canada home has now expanded to include Milos Rainic and Vasek Pospisil (the sons of refugees from communist regimes in eastern Europe) and Denis Shapalovov (the son of Russian Jewish refugees via Israel) to Felix Auger-Aliassime (son of an immigrant from Togo) and Leyla Fernandez (daughter of an immigrant from Ecuador.)
As then Vice President Joe Biden told Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, son of the legendary Pierre, in December 2016 at a state dinner in Ottawa, “The world is going to spend a lot of time looking to you (Canada)…because we need you very badly.”
Yes, Canada is far from perfect. Yes, the pandemic has demonstrated a much greater level of inequality in our society than most of us would have expected or want to see. And yes, the pandemic and other recent developments have also underlined in stark detail the problems faced by First Nations in a settler society. But opinion polls throughout the past two years have consistently demonstrated that most Canadians believe reconciliation with indigenous peoples is important, just as they still see immigrants as a positive factor in our development, and the drive for social justice as an important aspect of our political culture. Not many other liberal democracies can say that.