Canada 150: What does it mean?

Faculty of Arts professors weigh in on Canada's recent milestone

What does it mean to be Canadian? Is the 150th anniversary of Canadian confederation a milestone to be celebrated, or rather a moment for much needed reflection about the direction in which Canada is headed? We asked Faculty of Arts professors whose work focuses on Canada, to send us their thoughts on Canada 150. 


I am writing from Bonavista. A few weeks ago I was in Nanaimo. It is impressive to see how local communities coast to coast have embraced difference over these 150 years. Yes, it’s true that we can emphasise past and continuing prejudices and tensions in our society. But what stands out and is truly striking is that Canadians have also accepted the other, out of necessity or love. Canadians have shown over these 150 years that difference does not denote an enemy or stranger but that friendly other who enriches life and our society. This bodes well for our future. 

Professor John Zucchi, Department of History and Classical Studies


For some reason, thinking about Canada's 150th anniversary reminded me of a poem called "Tin Roof," by Michael Ondaatje. In the poem, which is set in Hawaii (such an un-Canadian place) the speaker experiences an epiphany that revolves around a central question: "Do you want / to be happy and write?" Later in the same poem Ondaatje answers the question: "No I am not happy / lucky though." Do you want to be happy and Canadian? Can you be happy to be Canadian? It is probably not fully possible, or ethical, or even desirable.  But can you be lucky to be Canadian? Can you look around and say "No I am not happy / lucky though." You bet.

Professor Robert Lecker, Department of English, Greenshields Chair in English Literature, FRSC


Over the years, I’ve become a bit of a “Canada-holic.” Much of this stems from having had the extraordinary privilege of travelling across the country, literally from sea to sea to sea. I am practically at a loss for words to describe the sheer monumentality of these places. Most important has been meeting Canadians with so many different identities, cultures, languages, experiences, and stories. As a university, McGill is a meeting place and a cross-roads for learning from one another – as students, professors, researchers and visitors - and, hopefully, for better understanding the lands and peoples of Canada in the future.    

Professor Antonia Maioni, Department of Political Science, Dean of the Faculty of Arts


I have been studying diversity in Canada for 45 years. In Auschwitz there was a nickname for the storehouse of provisions, which symbolized life and freedom for the prisoners: kenada. After 150 years, Canada remains an imperfect society when it comes to synthesizing this diversity with opportunity and justice. There is much work to be done. But yet, in broad strokes the trajectory seems positive. As I write, Canada has somehow – so far - avoided the retreat from a welcome to diversity and inclusion which can be found, in varying degrees, in Europe and now the United States. It is to be seen if – and hoped that - Canada can maintain this distinctiveness in the future.

Professor Morton Weinfeld, Department of Sociology, Chair in Canadian Ethnic Studies


It is certainly a stretch to say that “Canada” is 150 years old. The British North America Act of 1867 was one of a series of British Acts that governed northern North American after 1763 and it is difficult to believe that people at the time thought it would “stick” any more than the Treaty of Paris (1763), Quebec Act (1774), the Constitution Act (1791) or the British North America Act (1840).  If 1867 is a date to be commemorated, it must be remembered that two colonies, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland, refused to have anything to do with this arrangement and of the four who entered, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia were dragged into the plan against strong popular sentiment. Canada is not burdened with a glorious origin story and this is has served us well is thwarting excessive national smugness.  Thinking about 150 years lets us consider what kind of Canada we want in the future and this year I am inspired by the way many Indigenous people have been able to commandeer the anniversary to put forward their own political agenda.

Professor Suzanne Morton, Department of History and Classical Studies


My new book on Confederation argues that it was about the money. Canadians, like Britain, France, and the United States, pursued political modernization through a popular tax revolt. But where those countries had successful “country” revolts against corrupt, “court” governments, in Canada the court party of John A. Macdonald and George-Étienne Cartier carried the day and imposed a quasi-imperial fiscal federalism on the expanding polity. They acceded to George Brown’s demand for austerity by writing federal social spending out of the constitution, only to sneak it back in again for preferred political clients, leaving others unprotected. Not, perhaps, Canada’s finest hour.

Professor Elsbeth Heaman, Director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada