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We're just a bunch of losers
By MICHAEL VALPY
Monday, July 30, 2001 – Page A9
Canada is a nation of losers, a notion attributed most recently to historian Desmond Morton. While the fact is not in doubt -- most of us come from backgrounds of defeat -- no one is sure what it means. This remains a mythological work in progress.
The First Nations, Metis and Inuit peoples were the first -- and biggest -- losers. Most have lost lands and culture, dignity, well-being. They lost the Red River and North-West Rebellions. The Beothuks have disappeared. Even when they win, as with the Nisga'a in British Columbia, they can never be sure the government won't try to make them lose again.
The French have lost twice -- three times, if you count the expulsion of the Acadians. They lost at Quebec City in 1759 to Wolfe's British army. They lost again four years later, when the colonial government of New France and most of the colony's educated elites abandoned them to return to France.
The native peoples and the French lost on home ice, in full view of everyone. Other Canadians and their ancestors first lost some place else.
The first big wave of English settlers were losers: the Loyalists from the losing side in the American Revolutionary War.
The Scots were losers. There were so many Scottish immigrants that, for a while, Gaelic became the third most common European language in Canada. The Scots fled from the defeat of Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Highland clearances, from high rents, bad harvests and overpopulation.
Thus, as novelist Hugh MacLennan wrote in The Psychology of Canadian Nationalism: "The three original settling groups became Canadian because nations or factions to which they belonged had suffered total defeat in war."
The 19th-century Irish immigrants were double losers, escaping from oppression, crop failures and famine at home and meeting class resentment, discrimination and disease when they arrived in Canada.
The Chinese, too, were double losers, escaping poverty and political instability at home and encountering ugly discrimination in Canada -- among other things, denied the vote until 1947 along with other Southeast Asians.
And the list goes on. Whatever the group -- Russians, Ukrainians, Jews, Somalis, South Africans, Latin Americans, Vietnamese -- they came to Canada to escape bad economic, religious and political conditions. Even the new investor class of immigrants, Prof. Morton points out, are coming here out of fear for their money.
Poet Al Purdy wrote:
to belong somewhere
no longer alien
and outlawed from the land
of their birth.
So what does it mean? Prof. Morton suggests that people with the experience of having been losers may be more sympathetic to other losers, more tolerant of them. Maybe. The jury is still out on Canadians' tolerance for one another.
Maybe it accounts for our reputed self-effacement, our humility, our conviction that we apologize to everyone and everything, including doors we walk into.
Then again, maybe -- more darkly -- it explains the lobster joke and the mythology that Canadians loathe each other's success. John Robert Colombo, Canadiana collector extraordinaire, first heard the lobster joke in Manhattan 15 years ago.
Two tanks of lobsters are in a restaurant. The first has a cover to stop the lobsters from climbing up the sides and escaping. These are American lobsters. The second -- the Canadian tank -- doesn't need a cover. Every time a lobster tries to climb over the top, the other lobsters pull him down.
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