In past centuries, utopian movements sprang from religious impulses and secular imitations of the same nature.
Religious examples include communes which, in extreme forms, separated themselves from what they viewed as an impure world. The goal was utopian: to create a mini-heaven on earth.
Secular utopian movements included 20th-century Marxists – be it Russian revolutionaries in 1917 or Pol Pot’s Cambodia and his Khmer Rouge killing fields in the 1970s – with plenty of other deadly examples in between. The common impulse was a utopian vision of radical economic equality.
Previous religious and secular utopian movements were anti-reality. Those utopians ignored human imperfection or diverse human abilities, desires and choices, but such dreamers at least focused on creating a future paradise.
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In contrast, today’s reflexive Canada critics apply utopian thinking to the past. They look back and see that Canada’s first prime minister, John A. Macdonald, or some other historical figure was imperfect. Or didn’t have 2022 views in 1867.
But why would we expect them to be flawless when we’re not? Or expect a 19th-century politician to follow 21st-century policy prescriptions?
The result of such utopian thinking as applied to the past is the inevitable attempts to try to ‘cancel’ such figures, to send their history and praiseworthy accomplishments – the creation of a nation – down some 1984-like memory hole.
Utopianism is one mistake when looking in the rear-view mirror. Another is to see the flaws in history as definitive for a nation like Canada and not ask: How did we move away from past wrongs that were once routine in almost every civilization?
Slavery was ubiquitous in the ancient world until recent centuries. Slaves of every colour, creed and ethnicity were taken captive on every continent: Africa, Asia, the Americas, and even Europe and the North Atlantic regions. Historian Robert Davis has catalogued how one million Europeans were taken into slavery between 1530 and 1780 by slave traders who originated in North Africa.
Slavery was, tragically, once a reality worldwide. But why and how did it come to be abolished?
It was the result of people like British parliamentarian and lifelong abolitionist William Wilberforce and the British Empire post-1833, including pre-Confederation governors in Canada.
So why should Canada be celebrated this Canada Day?
Not because it was ever perfect or is now, but because pre- and post-Confederation Canada was ahead of the curve on that and other issues.
While Canada effectively abolished slavery in 1820, it took the Americans until President Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation to declare slaves free and the Union’s 1865 Civil War victory over the slaveholding south to make that declaration a reality.
Many other nations didn’t abolish slavery until the first half of the 20th century. These included China, Malaysia, Morocco, Turkey and Kuwait. About a century and a half after Canada abolished slavery, Oman and Mauritania finally outlawed slavery – in 1970 and 1981, respectively.
Or ponder the emancipation of women. Canada granted the vote in federal elections to women in 1917. It took until 1944 in France, 1949 in China, 1950 in India, 2005 in Kuwait, and 2015 in Saudi Arabia – and only for municipal elections.
Or consider another evil in human history: the rampant mistreatment (or worse) of those different from the majority – which can be defined by colour, ethnicity, religion or language. Institutional discriminatory treatment was once routine (and still is in Quebec). What’s remarkable is the move away from seeing people as defined by such characteristics and instead being treated as individuals in law and policy.
Canada was again ahead of the curve. Ontario passed laws against discrimination in employment and accommodation based on colour, ethnicity, religion or gender in the early 1950s. Yet some in 2022 claim that Canada is institutionally racist, conflating personal prejudice with systemic racism, when in fact, institutional reforms were enacted 70 years ago.
There are many reasons to celebrate Canada on Canada Day. Don’t let the utopian perfectionists who think the past should have been perfect dissuade you from celebrating a tremendous accomplishment: Canada.
Over time, Canada has become a free and flourishing nation for ever-more peoples.
Mark Milke is the executive director of The Aristotle Foundation for Public Policy. His newest book is The Victim Cult: How the Grievance Culture Hurts Everyone and Wrecks Civilizations.
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