Confederation-Becomes-Official Day Thoughts of Stephen Leacock

We can safely assume that Stephen Leacock would have been happy to celebrate July 1 2017, although it is not certain what he would have called it. He might have approved the Conundropian choice of name and approach, or he might not. He was a man of Unsolved Riddles. He himself might have been prepared to solve this one; we cannot, because he is not here to give us the answer.

I think we can assume he would have approved most of what the country has become in the 73 years since his death, some aspects perhaps more whole-heartedly than others. We cannot assume that he would have held the same opinions that he did away back when. He may have have entertained some wistful regret for some of the changes, but his views concerning the country were both romantic and realistic. He formed his opinions as best he could according to the realities and hopes of his time, which is not our time. He might well have re-invented himself as he went along if he had lived to be 147.

For example, he was a romantic about being British, and about Canada being a country of British and French collaboration, and about the potential of massive immigration (100,000,000 people!) in the future along the same lines as the past. He viewed Canada as a prosperous sanctuary for the surplus population of Great Britain, as it had been in the 19th Century and the first half of the 20th. The second half of the 20th revealed that Great Britain had no such surplus, and that the refugees of the world would come from elsewhere, including those parts of the former British Empire that he would have preferred to exclude.

He would have rejoiced if a British-French two-pillared Canada had further evolved as it did evolve during his lifetime. We can only guess what he would have thought of the multicultured four-pillared Canada that has evolved and is evolving since, but by looking at the essence of his thought we can make that guess a shrewd one.

I think he would have easily accepted as a practical economic necessity the emergence of immigration from the Caribbean, India, Pakistan, and other parts of the old Empire. He was an Empire tribalist, and once the need had been established, Empire immigration would certainly have seemed better than none. He might have jibbed at the ensuing social changes, including official multiculturalism, but he would not have been alone in that, even today. I think he would have got over it. I wish everybody else would too. It’s long past time.

He would have accepted further waves of immigration, of whatever kind, because he would have seen the economic benefit, which he would have tied to the continued search for social justice. He believed that a decent level of material prosperity and equality of opportunity were necessary to social justice by any modern standard, and if we believe he was wrong about that we must prove it by finding any part of our world where that is not so.

His ideas about economic development, although romantic, were not fossilized. In 1936 he concluded an article about industrial development of the North by saying: “We, speaking collectively, have for the present at least made a mess of the rest of the world. Our contriving wits and calculating selfishness ha[ve] somehow cheated us of what seemed our inheritance. Man struggles in the grasp of his own machinery. … For the North let us make it different. Let us see to it that in the new trust of the future of the North we make fewer errors than in the old.” These are not the thoughts of a mindless economic booster.

He would have had acid things to say about some side-effects of the opening of wider economic and professional opportunities for women. He might well have accepted that women should have those opportunities if they wanted them. Although he preached otherwise in his writing, even sometimes rudely, there is no sign that he ever acted otherwise in his classroom. He would not have seen any social justice in large numbers of women being effectively forced to choose between wage-labour and child-raising. He viewed maternal child-raising as valuable both economically and in the pursuit of social justice, as part of equality of opportunity.

I must admit that I am having trouble imagining what he would have thought about the search for a reconciled accommodation with indigenous people. That is a quest of such complexity, both historically and under contemporary conditions, and such a challenge to our habitual ways of thinking, that any effort to project his ideas there becomes purely speculative. We know that he craved social justice, and that he believed economic progress of some humane kind was necessary to it. We know that he believed fervently in equality of opportunity, and in education as a principal means. We know that he believed in the role of governments as balancing agents and regulators, that private enterprise and initiative, however vital and necessary, are not sufficient. We know that he valued Knowledge, Imagination, and Compassion in the pursuit of progress, and that Conversation, Negotiation and Accommodation are the tools. We also know that he held some of the prejudices of his time, and did not live long enough to see them challenged as they are nowadays.

In other words, what he might thought here is an Unsolved Riddle. Fortunately we have no need to solve it. We have an acute need to solve that Riddle as we ourselves are concerned.

We have Confederation, and have had for 150 years. It has proved durable. We are going to need more of it, and differently, before the next big celebration in 2067.


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