In April 1775, the British essayist Samuel Johnson wrote, “Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.” He was wrong. There is a profound difference between nationalism, which is bad, and patriotism, which is good.
Nationalism is one nation lording it over other nations. It is the expression of national superiority that causes even good people to do evil things in the name of the Motherland or Fatherland. The common adage, “My country right or wrong” is an expression of nationalism, even by people who would not otherwise think of themselves as being nationalistic.
Do you recall the film Chariots of Fire? There was tremendous pressure put on Eric Liddell at the 1924 Olympics to violate his Christian conscience by running in a race on Sunday. He refused. So incensed was Lord Cadogan, head of the British Olympic Committee, that he exclaimed, “In my day it was King first and God after.” That’s nationalism. Einstein put it very well when he described nationalism as “an infantile disease” and “the measles of mankind.”
Patriotism is not nationalism, because it doesn’t denigrate other nations or claim to have any inherent superiority over them. It is simply the heartfelt love of country. On this Canada Day, patriotism has its place. There are times when even we reserved Canadians need to celebrate our national heritage and say that for all the problems and difficulties in this nation, Canada remains one of the finest places on earth in which to live and raise a family. There is nothing jingoistic in rekindling the pride of being Canadian, thanking God that we live in “the true north strong and free.”
God has blessed Canada-especially as compared with other civilizations in the history of the world. The Athenian Pericles built a civilization based on culture, and it failed. Caesar developed one based on power, and it too failed. Hitler tried to build a civilization based on racial purity and it led to the deaths of countless millions. Lenin, Stalin and Mao sought to build a civilization based on a materialist utopian ideal, and it failed miserably.
But the fathers of Confederation who founded Canada built a nation based on the rule of law and sound government dating back to the Magna Carta. They formed a constitutional monarchy in which the dignity of the individual and the common good are both valued; in which French and English, Catholic and Protestant, come together rather than oppose one another; in which unity and diversity, compromise and confederation join hands in a middle way of civil discourse, mutual respect and consensus.
Take, for example, the first prime minister of Canada, Sir John A. MacDonald. He was a man of many imperfections, but he was precisely the kind of leader required to move Canada forward as a nation. He finessed a reluctant union of four central and eastern provinces into a strong nation, despite indifference from Britain and annexationist sentiment in the United States. In the face of considerable challenges and threats, MacDonald had a vision for this country with all its crinkled diversity and improbable distances.
He connected the nation through a railroad that eventually would link the east and west coasts. Despite the tensions of different languages and religions, he held English Protestants and French Catholics together, if more in a marriage of convenience than a loving embrace. Unlikely though it may have seemed, his labours were successful, and despite all the difficulties between Quebec and the rest of Canada, we remain one nation today.
MacDonald had his share of sorrows and made his share of wrong decisions. There was the birth of a disabled child during his second marriage. There was Louis Riel’s rebellion, the army’s slaughter of the Metis, and MacDonald’s struggle to decide whether Riel should hang. (He did.)
Then there was the death of his dear friend and colleague D’Arcy McGee. No one fought the elements of intolerance in Canadian life more than he. When the Fenian Brotherhood threatened our national unity with its dreams of revolutionizing Ireland and annexing Canada to the United States, it was McGee who took an uncompromising stand against the militants and attempted to balance core values with minority rights-a precursor of today’s multiculturalism. For his efforts at promoting toleration and national unity, McGee was assassinated on the doorstep of his Ottawa boarding house on April 7, 1868. MacDonald never forgot his friend or the legacy he left Canada.
As the 150th anniversary of Confederation approaches, Canada, though young, is, paradoxically, an old country as federations go. Only the American and Swiss federations are older. And history is littered with failed federations and multinational empires. Even today, Britain is threatened with breakup as the Scots seriously contemplate independence. What an irony it would be if ancient Britain fell apart as a united country while Canada remained whole.
This nation holds together, and in so doing it sets an example to the world on how people of different races, religions, cultures and ethnicities can join together as one people, live in mutual respect and practise tolerance in one glorious Canadian mosaic. I sometimes think that when the first President Bush spoke about a “kinder, gentler America,” he had the Canadian model in mind. We have achieved what most of the world can only dream of.
God has blessed Canada in our civility, compassion and social cohesion. But God has also blessed us with abundant natural resources. Practically every commodity that we need abounds in this country. We have fertile lands for crops and livestock. We have abundant water. We have never known famine. We go down under the earth into our mines and find every mineral we could ever need. From the shores of Newfoundland to the oil sands of Alberta, we have access to ample oil and gas for the next century and beyond.
If that were not enough, God has also given us a feast for the eyes. The grandeur and magnificence of the Canadian Rockies are indelibly etched in my mind. The Gulf Islands off the coast of Vancouver are about as pristine as one can possibly imagine. The Cabot Trail in Cape Breton is Canada’s answer to the Big Sur in California. The countryside of Quebec is truly La belle province. And let’s not forget Ontario where we can enjoy the majesty of the Great Lakes and the gentle serenity of rolling hills and farmland, while just a few hours away lie the rugged Bruce Peninsula and the Canadian Shield with its spectacular lakes and rocks.
God has also made Canada a welcoming land of opportunity. Think of all the immigrants who have come to this country and prospered. They have enhanced our commerce, participated in our politics, edified our minds, stirred our souls and touched our hearts with their imagination, invention, initiative and industry. This is a land of opportunity.
But God gave us more. Since 1982 we have been protected by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which ensures that, even in dire circumstances, civil liberties and the rule of law prevail. If you are like me, you were disheartened by the hockey riots in Vancouver last year and the actions and treatment of the protestors at the G20 Summit in Toronto in 2010, or the student unrest in Quebec, still unresolved.
But I don’t despair even when Canadians don’t act Canadian, because there is still accountability through the courts and the justice system. Rights and freedoms are still cherished, and the rule of law still matters. Just look at the world. How many nations can we count that enjoy the same civil liberties or that can call law enforcement to account for its actions? Painfully few!
Is Canada perfect? We know better. An article in Canadian Business magazine suggested that Canadians are richer than Americans and our nation is now the envy of Europe. If so, we still have grinding poverty in this country-in our cities and especially in our indigenous communities. Many of us may recall the national outrage at the substandard housing in northern Ontario’s Attawapiskat community, which was reported last December. Poor diet and housing chronic unemployment, alcoholism, drug addiction, and violence against women, teen pregnancy and a host of other ills plague many people in our nation. Even in my hometown of London, Ont., the food banks and charities are indispensable for the survival of many people. No, this nation is not perfect.
The Bible is clear that what makes a nation great is its compassion for the least, the last and the lost among its citizens. It is our willingness to extend mercy to the vulnerable and marginalized that shows the true character of a nation. On the night before he died, Jesus told us how to live as his disciples, saying, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” To love others as Jesus loved us-that is the Christian ethic pure and simple. A nation is only as Christian as it practises that commandment by putting love into action.
On this Canada Day, it is fitting that all of us make a personal commitment to live lives pleasing to the Lord, and then demonstrate that commitment in the unselfish management of our resources, the prayerful support of our leaders and a loving reaffirmation of the principles that have guided our country over the years.
On July 1, 1960, in a speech on the Canadian Bill of Rights, Prime Minister John Diefenbaker spoke words that have resonated with Canadians to the present day. I close this sermon with his words: “I am a Canadian, free to speak without fear, free to worship in my own way, free to stand for what I think right, free to oppose what I believe wrong, or free to choose those who shall govern my country. This heritage of freedom I pledge to uphold for myself and all mankind.”
May it ever be so, O God, made it ever be so!