I was “born at the right time” according to Doug Owram, Canadian historian of the Baby Boom generation. Born in 1953 in Oshawa, I am part of a cohort that has on average enjoyed peace and prosperity. While my father, like so many in my neighbourhood, served in the RCAF or some other service during “The War,” since the Korean conflict fewer than 300 Canadians have died in combat while serving their country.
We Boomers reaped the health benefits that came with the discoveries of a polio vaccine and a range of antibiotics; one of my grandfathers died of pneumonia at age 54 and a grandmother at age 29 as the result of an infection. As recently as 1885, more than 3,000 Montrealers died of smallpox during one epidemic. Contrast this with 44 SARS deaths in Canada during the Panic of 2003.
Looking afield, we Boomers have lived through a time of rapid globalization that has brought with it sharp declines in absolute poverty among poorer nations as well as sharp declines in deaths brought about by war, even with the ongoing turmoil in the Middle East.
When Thanksgiving comes around, or when I stand to sing O Canada before a sports event, I am increasingly grateful for the land of my birth. This July 1 I will celebrate Canada’s 150th birthday, but I hope that I will remember to give thanks to God for this great land that has been a shelter to my forebears and has provided their descendants a place where they could be nurtured without fear.
During Canada’s Centennial celebration I can remember being part of a tumbling team at Oshawa’s Civic Auditorium, the headquarters of the young Bobby Orr, and then joining my classmates in singing the Bobby Gimby song:
(One little two little three Canadians)
We love thee
(Now we are twenty million)
(Four little five little six little Provinces)
Proud and free
(Now we are ten and the Territories sea to sea)
North south east west
There'll be happy times,
Church Bells will ring, ring, ring
It's the hundredth anniversary of
Ev'rybody sing together!
It was a tough song to sing. But in it one hears of church bells and also an echo of Psalm 72: “He shall have dominion from sea to sea…” the Psalm from which was derived the now antiquated “Dominion of Canada.”
For many Canadians, in this “post-national” moment, the only Canada worthy of celebration is the last 50 years. But our first 100 years is worth another look. The Canadian Catholic philosopher, Charles Taylor, has written “the past is sedimented in our present.” An enormous amount of social capital was amassed over Canada’s first 100 years and it was Christian ideas, beliefs and practices, now all but air-brushed from our past, that were critical to this production. It is this social capital, now seen as the legacy of the “Enlightenment,” that has spun a myth of “progress.”
The Globe and Mail columnist, Doug Saunders, recently wrote a reflection on our 150th that the post-1967 Canada is “something much bigger, more complex, but also safer and more educated and urban, something entirely [our] own.” We do have much to be proud in our history over the last 50 years. Canada is a remarkably safe place. But it is good to remember an earlier relatively peaceful Canada.
For the years 1891-1899 there was no murder conviction in Toronto. In 1901 there were only seven murder convictions in all of Canada, a country of 5.5 million at the time. Today, despite the advent of trauma medicine, medivacs and cell phones that allow many victims to be pulled back from the brink, we still have a higher homicide rate than 60 years ago and earlier.
Take another measure of “progress.” Our neighbourhood Safeway supermarket shares a parking lot with The Wealth Shop, an upscale marijuana “dispensary” whose sign declares, “Rich In Health.” While this all too common site will not sink the neighbourhood, the broader drug scene is downright depressing. Safe injection sites may have prevented many overdose deaths but amount to holding one’s finger in the dike. In the last year, over 900 persons died of drug overdoses; emergency crews responded to over 19,000 incidences of a drug overdose. As recently as 1991 there were only 191 opioid deaths in all of Canada. Earlier in the century drug overdose deaths were very rare and usually involved suicide attempts. Ultimately, drug use is a product of a culture.
Addiction is not new, but is less likely in cultures with strong traditions that include a religious tradition. Sixty years ago the entire population, whether single, married, widowed or divorced, all reaped the benefits of the cultural configuration that relatively stable family units brought. Sure, this stability masked much hypocrisy. But many who otherwise would have been a social statistic in the addiction or suicide tally today were not.
How should the Christian individual or the Christian community live today in the radically different cultural configuration that is the Canada of today? Jeremiah, in another discouraging time, called God’s people to marry, have children, build houses, and to work for the good of the city. Jesus still calls us to love the stranger as well as our neighbour.
We face the future with faith, open hands, and yes, we celebrate 150 years of Canada.
Convivium means living together. Would you join us in continuing to open and extend the conversation? Do you know someone who would enjoy this article? Send it to them now. Do you have a response to something we've published? Let us know!