|After 100 years, Canada hasn’t come far
January 2, 2000.
World still spinning counterclockwise? Check. Canada still in one piece? Check. The Second Coming still overdue? Check. Worldwide computer meltdown? Nope. Between the religious freaks and computer geeks over the past two years, you’d have thought that yesterday was supposed to be the end of civilization as we know it. Admittedly, that doesn’t sound entirely bad-the world would undoubtedly be better off without Adam Sandler movies, political correctness, sport-utility vehicles and the Vancouver Grizzlies-but some doom ‘n’ gloom scenarios have resembled panicky Cold War-era survivalism. Computer glitches, like the one that afflicted a British bank, were dealt with in an orderly manner. How like the British!
Pragmatically, this New Year’s was little different from any other, but emotionally and psychologically it was unusually significant. As it marked the final countdown to the end of the 20th century, it destroyed one of the great constants of our lives. Except for very old centenarians, every event in living memory happened in the year 19-something. Now all those years are a memory. So long as there was at least one more year to tack on, we could feel a part of the century.
From year to year the change is minimal. We begin to feel the passage of time at the decade level. Ten years is a long enough of time to give us perspective on the past, which is why we tend to mark social and political progress by decades.
The Roaring ’20s and Dirty ’30s include specific adjectives to tell us what those years were like. I don’t know of any collective term for the ’00s or ’10s. After World War II, decades were known simply by their numbers, as if any qualifier were unnecessary. Just saying “The ’50s,” “The ’60s,” “The ’70s” etc. conjures up a panoply of social, political, musical, personal images and feelings. Whether each decade represented progress over the previous one is debatable, yet we all represent the sum total of these decades.
When a New Year (unofficially) ends a century, the cultural distance back is almost untraversaible, at least this is the case with the 20th century. Those who lived during the Middle Ages would have seen little if any change. For my birthday last month I received the book Century-100 years worth of annotated pictures weighing almost six kilograms. It’s hard to connect the grainy black and white pictures of the Spanish American War and the Boxer Rebellion at the beginning with the same century depicted in colour photos of the Columbine high school shooting and an eccentric German production of Beethoven’s opera Fidelio.
It may seem silly for me to wax nostalgic over the end of the 1900s, but I feel as if a glass door has closed. Behind it is a room of everything I have known and was a part of-now I look through it and see distant museum pieces. To make matters worse, the idea of starting a whole new counting system reinforces the illusion that the future, not the past, holds the answers to our problems. We may have celebrated the year 2000 yesterday, but really we were celebrating, if that’s the right word, the end of the 1900s. Death, not rebirth, makes this New Year’s particularly mystical.
As Canada prepares to leave the 1900s behind, it can look back on great accomplishments-like the discovery of insulin, and bravery in two world wars-yet if I had to select one word to describe the past century for Canada, I’d say “wasted.” Nationally speaking, we aren’t much better off than when we started.
As it entered the 1900s, Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier proclaimed that the 20th century would belong to Canada, just as the 19th belonged to the United States. In retrospect, this little bit of bravado looks as fatuous as Rick Mercer’s claim that Canadian television is the best in the world, but, at the time, perhaps Laurier’s optimism seemed warranted.
From 1901 to 1921, foreign investment quadrupled to nearly $5 billion. During these first two decades, writes historian Ramsay Cook, “materialism, optimism and nationalism” typified Canada’s outlook and was the image it projected to the rest of the world.
Though Canada was still a British colony, rumblings of Canadian nationalism were beginning. These rumblings got a boost in 1903, when Mother England sold out Canadian interests to the U.S. in the Alaska boundary dispute.
Behind this optimistic façade, though, lay a critical weakness that still plagues us-complacency.
Canada’s early economic prosperity was built almost entirely upon exports of raw materials-wheat, minerals, furs, forest products, fish and cattle-especially to the U.S. and Britain. Also, most of that prosperity favoured Ontario and Quebec. Second, nation-building, which began so promisingly, was abandoned. Weak governments and short-sighted businessmen preferred the easy profits to be made from resource exports and foreign investment to developing a national economy.
Canada emerged from WWII a strong, united country in the forefront of world politics. Over the next 10 years it indentured itself to American capital, as if it were looking for a new colonial master. Now continentalism, once vigorously rejected in the 1911 election, has become the new economic reality.
We began the 1900s a colonial country, and a colonial country we end it. Pity.