Sometime during the 16th century — 1534 to be exact — King Francis I sends Jacques Cartier out to sea in search of a shortcut to China’s Spice Islands.
After 20 days at sea he eases his way down the western coast of Newfoundland and drops anchor just off the Gaspé Peninsula.
For whatever reason — fog on the coast, fog on the brain — Cartier immediately raises anchor, catches an offshore breeze and glides due south and onto the wide and placid St. Lawrence River.
While Cartier’s escapades did little to fill the king’s spice rack, he did manage to put a lot on his plate: Canada.
Somewhere in between 1534 and today, Canada happened.
And it still is “happening” today.
Monday’s election, which put conservatives in power on very shaky legs, is a clear indication that Canadians know their long history and are wise to what it all means in the short term.
Over the last 500 years this country has been picked apart and put back together time and time again.
Acadians somehow survived the horror of 1755. And in quite marvelous fashion somehow managed to keep their culture together.
Today their history serves as a reminder to all of us that, according to Acadian urban anthropologist Clive Doucet, “we all travel through life as exiles.”
Newfoundland’s grip on cultural longevity is equally remarkable.
Time after time, the reality of a failing economy strangles the Rock, but not for long, and not for certain.
Journalistic historian Peter Newman says it all.
“Newfoundlanders are a great people because they have a way of surviving without ever becoming victims.”
Canada’s First Nations are not so fortunate.
French and British expansion into the New World unleashed on our original inhabitants both cultural and economic devastation: a one-two punch that is usually fatal.
However, their spiritual commitment to land and livelihood is keeping them in the fight.
But the enduring battle of major consequence to the future of Canada, and a major factor in Monday’s election, is again the question of Quebec sovereignty.
Robert Bothwell, professor of History at the University of Toronto, summed up the problem in the title of his last book: Canada and Quebec — One Country / Two Histories.
But then again, Canada is and has always been a singular country built of many histories. This is what makes Canada hard to govern and exciting to live in.
And there is little doubt Harper’s victory will serve to remind us of both the difficulty and the excitement.
Toronto Star National Affairs Columnist James Travers makes the following points:
“Harper and his party will form the next government mostly because Canadians grew weary of the last.
“The NDP’s recovery marks the first time it has been able to win more seats after co-operating with a Liberal minority.
“Layton emerges stronger and with a party anxious to argue that it is the strengthening voice of Canada defining social values.
“But the country doesn’t have to worry about the secret agenda Liberals insisted Conservatives would impose. This government’s hold on power is simply too shaky to permit any wild deviations from the consensual course.
“That’s the balance voters struck by opting for change with very little risk.”
I believe Travers is right, up to a point.
Weary we all were for sure.
But weary because Liberal politicians were simply not getting the job done.
The divisive social agendas spawned by the early escapes of interventionist/explorers like Cartier, the deportation of Acadians, the fall of Montreal to the British in 1760, the many rebellions in Upper and Lower Canada, the rise and fall of Louis Riel and his North-West Rebellion, the Allied invasion of France and the sticky issue of conscription, French President Charles de Gaulle’s pronouncement “Vive le Québec libre,” the back and forth political tennis match between Trudeau and Joe Clark and Trudeau and Mulroney, have left us a rich and complex history that neither pure liberalism, pure conservatism nor alternative “NDPism” can treat in isolation.
Given the complex, highly personal and sensitive history of Canada, it should come as no surprise to learn that politics tracks history.
Given this fact we should not, if necessary, be hesitant to take to the ballot box again in less than two years to tweak our political fortunes once more.
We are living in extraordinary times and given our rich history we may have to live through a disquieting series of political adjustments.
The goal, of course, is for Canada to get it right. In order to get there, we may need mid-course corrections undertaken with very little risk.
We must be careful, however, not to read too much into Monday’s election.
Voters where not declaring all out war on gays and lesbians.
We were not giving licence to gun owners to fortify their gun collections with complete anonymity.
We certainly were not giving Parliament the right to do away with the regulation of toxic chemicals.
And no one party, as far as I could tell, ever campaigned on a platform of increasing the pollution of our air and water.
This election was a voter-driven search to find common ground.
They all are.
This election is also about finding big answers to big questions: What is the right balance between necessary social programs, environmental sensibility and economic growth?
How do we reconcile the religious beliefs we want to maintain in order to preserve our families with a techno-culture that feeds on our young people’s innocence?
And, ultimately, how do we continue to stimulate the cultural diversity, which has arisen as a direct result of our complex history, to buffer us from the two most serious threats to Canadian sovereignty: internal disaffection and external exploitation.
I believe we found a partial answer to that question in Monday’s election: opt for change when necessary, but do so with as little risk as possible.