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A Portrait in LettersA Portrait in Letters

A Portrait in Letters

With that in mind, I picked up a copy of Charlotte Gray's Canada: A Portrait in Letters from the library. Reading through the book—which features letters from Canada from 1800-2000—one gets a glimpse of what letters from the past say about what it meant to be human of the Canadian variety.

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Topics: Religion, Institutions, Legacy
A Portrait in Letters August 5, 2011  |  By Brian Dijkema
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My colleague Alissa Wilkinson wrote eloquently a few weeks ago about "letters to the future." She suggests that blogs offer the possibility of some future historian working through posts to reconstruct "what it meant to be a twenty-first century human."

With that in mind, I picked up a copy of Charlotte Gray's Canada: A Portrait in Letters from the library. Reading through the book—which features letters from Canada from 1800-2000—one gets a glimpse of what letters from the past say about what it meant to be human of the Canadian variety.

As I read through letters from Irish immigrants, aboriginal leaders, British colonial administrators, and various other women and men, I am struck by the persistence of some Canadian themes.

Take the Canadian economy's reliance on resources and the desire to "add value" through refinement or manufacturing. After describing the riches of the land, a Lancashire farmer writes, in 1818: "On the other hand, we want manufacturers of every useful commodity; industry, whichever way applied, is sure to meet with more than ample reward." Change the commodity to oil, and the industry to refinement, and the letter could be featured in today's Toronto Star!

Or take this piece, from a petition sent by Messissaga (sic) Indians to the lieutenant governor of Upper Canada in 1829:

. . . your Red Children look for protection. We pray that the late abuses, which we have suffered may be inquired into. Some white men tell us that we have no right to complain of Roberies of our hunters, and violence on our women, we believe you know, and if white men do not understand that Red men are to be protected, you will please to say, to what privileges in law the Indians are entitled to.

That question is still not answered to anyone's satisfaction, as I've noted elsewhere.

Most striking, at least among the letters I've read thus far, is the ubiquity of the Christian faith. From letters to Bishop Strachan from prisoners seeking clemency, to the testimony of explorers of the Northwest recounting the death of their fellow travellers, Christianity is everywhere. It is present in the daily lives of common individuals as well as deeply entrenched in the emerging halls of power. To be Canadian in the 19th century was to be deeply enmeshed in cultural, legal, and social institutions shaped by Christianity.

That remains true in Canada today, despite the scarcity of Christianity in the public square. In fact, I can't help but feel that the loss of a public square leavened by Christianity is a loss for society writ large. Can you imagine a prisoner today appealing to the Christian charity of members of provincial parliament and getting a hearing, like one Edward Blewett did in 1822? I can't.

That said, the book also conveys the very real dangers of the establishment of Christianity, particularly for Christianity. The example of the treatment of Mississauga Indians shows how the faith is scandalized when public institutions which claim to be the embodiment of Christianity carry out unjust policies. It appears that the possibilities and tensions of religion, culture, and politics are also persistent Canadian themes.

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