Ever since the American Revolution, Canadians have loved to define themselves in contrast to the United States. The other thirteen colonies may have been seduced by Thomas Jefferson’s declaration that “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” were inalienable rights, but the colony that would become part of Canada kept a level head—and maintained its ties to Britain.
In 1867, when the fragmented Canadian colonies became a Dominion, the fathers of Confederation picked their own three ideas to shape the new federal government: Peace, Order and Good Government.
The phrase was constitutional boilerplate, used, historically, to confer legislative authority upon British colonies. Over time, though, it came to be seen as a sort of declaration of Canadian values, a rejoinder to the revolutionary fervour that the US phrase brought to mind.
Canadians still go by peace, order and good government, probably more than we realize. Take Ontario’s recent election. While responding to a Post City Toronto questionnaire, Liberal incumbent Kathleen Wynne invoked the phrase while describing the “fairness” in Canadian government in comparison to American “bloodsport.” Canadian writer Stephen Marche wrote in the New York Times that he found it “hard to imagine” anyone less suited to create peace, order and good government than the “Tin-Pot Northern Trump” Doug Ford. After the election, Conrad Black celebrated Ford’s victory in the National Post, using it as an opportunity to denounce the “tawdry and absorbing spectacle” that “isn’t peace, order and good government” happening in the United States. Regardless of political standpoint, each message was the same at its core: Canadians run a more stable society than our raucous southern neighbours.
How quickly we forget that for much of Canada’s history, defending peace, order, and good government involved violence and illiberalism. After all, the rhetoric of these ideals depends on intent: each individual may interpret differently what peace is to be kept, how society should be ordered and what good governance looks like. Many times in Canada, those words have created space for, even actively promoted, intolerance and our own northern brand of authoritarianism.
In 2000, Molson Brewery began running its unforgettably cheesy television advertisement, “The Rant.” In it, a shy but affable good ol’ Canadian boy decked out in plaid walks onstage and, with increasing bravado, lists the multitude of ways in which Canadians are unlike Americans. One of his more political claims: his nation believes “in peacekeeping, not policing!”
The advertisement ran just seven years after the Somalia Affair, when members of the now-disbanded Canadian Airborne Regiment tortured Shidane Arone, a sixteen year-old Somalian who had been caught trespassing on their base, to death. Arone’s last words were “Canada! Canada! Canada!” Subsequent investigations found a disturbing pattern within the Canadian military. Airborne soldiers openly circulated hate literature and had adopted a Confederate flag as a regimental symbol. Following Arone’s killing, pre-deployment photographs emerged showing Corporal Matt McKay, who had encouraged the attack, wearing a Hitler T-shirt and giving a Nazi salute. At a subsequent inquiry hearing, Commander Paul Jenkins testified that “the presence of white supremacists and neo-Nazis in the Armed Forces... was a contributing factor of the disruptions in the military.”
The inquiry by the federal government was shut down prematurely in 1996, but it produced a five-volume report. There had been problems with the military chain of command, but the soldiers, according to the report, had ultimately done “their best,” and the ultimate victim of the whole affair would be “Canada and its international reputation.” Scholar Sherene Razack writes that Canadians believed that their “very niceness and national naiveté” led to the Somalia affair, a perspective that was evident in commissioner Peter Desbarats’s Somalia Cover-Up: A Commissioner’s Journal, in which he goes to great lengths to paint Canada as a non-militaristic nation.
Evidence of their countrymen holding extremist and racist views did not upset Canadians; damage to their brand did. Americans were supposed the be the neo-imperialists, not us.
At home, Canadian immigration policy has always been concerned with maintaining an existing order or building a desired one, be it racial, national or economic. In 1885, in the midst of an anti-Asian immigrant moral panic termed the “Yellow Peril,” Canada passed the Chinese Immigration Act, which set a $50 head tax on all Chinese immigrants. That fee would be raised several times, peaking in 1903 at $500. But immigration continued, and people violently reacted to perceived challenges to the existing racial order: in 1886 and 1907, major anti-Chinese riots broke out in Vancouver.
The government wouldn’t effectively ban Chinese immigration until 1923, when internal pressure from its own citizens’ “White Canada Forever” organizations, as well as external pressure from the United States, which had fully banned immigration and considered Canada a backdoor into the country, led to what is now commonly known as the Chinese Exclusion Act. Canadian Justice Albert E. McPhillips argued that the people of Canada needed safeguarding against attempts to “annihilate the nation” through the introduction of “Oriental ways against European ways,” concluding that an Asian presence gave rise to “disturbances destructive to the well-being of society and against the maintenance of peace, order and good government.”
After WWII, the restrictions were slowly lifted. The ban on Chinese immigration disappeared in 1947, and a few years later the Immigration Act ended explicitly discriminatory policies. In 1967, a points-based immigration system came into effect to evaluate the suitability of potential new Canadians, removing the last racially driven restrictions and producing what journalist John Ibbitson has described as “Canada’s highest achievement in the realm of peace, order and good government.”
Ironically, as Canadians have been busy denouncing the rising tides of hatred in the United States, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has been expressing deep admiration for Canada’s immigration policies—and a wish to emulate them. In praising our own immigration system, Canadians often overlook the prohibitive and discriminatory restrictions placed on individuals with disabilities and on those from non-English and nonFrench-speaking nations, and all the other ways in which our immigration policy produces subtle forms of racial bias. It should give Canadians pause that Trump aide Stephen Miller claimed to have taken their immigration model and simply “added things.”
It’s good government, some would say, to protect people from danger. And for almost twenty years, Canadian government didn’t think twice about asserting that Communists—and their right to protest—were a source of danger. Between 1919 and 1936, joining any organization formed to bring about “change within Canada by use of force, violence or physical injury” was a criminal offense. The law, nominally in place to prevent incitement to full rebellion, in practice was used to silence dissent. The phrasing was purposefully broad, creating space for police harassment of leftists. The regulations, which carried a penalty of up to twenty years in prison, were used to suppress Communist and trade-unionist organizing efforts, eventually resulting in the jailing of the general secretary of the Communist Party of Canada, Tim Buck. In 1933, Minister of Justice Hugh Guthrie admitted in the House of Commons that shots had deliberately been fired into Buck’s cell by Canadian authorities during a prison riot at the Kingston Penitentiary, but only “to frighten him.”
In the following years, during the immediate lead-up to WWII, the Canadian government and the Mounties continued to pay much closer attention to the potential threat posed by communism than to that posed by fascism. Anti-semitism and anxieties about Canada’s shifting demographics translated, for many Canadians, into opposition to communism.
Within Toronto, the RCMP were well aware that the Italian consulate was conducting an “exporting fascism” program wherein Italian officials operated “fascist academies” in Canadian schools and churches. Sharing the government’s anti-communist anxieties, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Toronto ran the consulate’s academies out of its schools and churches. Throughout each year of the 1930s, twenty young Italian Canadians were given free trips to Italy by the Italian government, touring around in black shirts.
The RCMP did consider fascism to be a threat, historical documents show—but as communism was considered existentially threatening to the Canadian government, fascists were the lesser of two evils—or even potential allies in the fight against the Reds. The RCMP fınally raided the Italian consulate and shut down its youth programs on June 10, 1940, the day that Italy entered WWII.
In 1965, literary critic Northrop Frye borrowed another phrase: the “Peaceable Kingdom.” Ironically, it came from an early-nineteenth-century American painting that depicts white men trading with Indigenous peoples while white children freely mingle with tamed animals. Frye used it to describe the “haunting vision of serenity” common to Canadian literature. Historians have used the phrase to describe a similarly mythical vision of Canadian history, typically conjured in contrast to the United States.
Canadians want to believe that their country not only is, but has long been, an unusually gentle, tolerant place. But this is dangerous, as it makes Canadians permissive towards each other. When real hatred crops up, it can be denied, or maybe dismissed. It must be an aberration, un-Canadian.
Before bandying about feel-good comparisons to the United States, Canadians should realize that strong-arming is not only a risk that comes with our loyalty to peace, order, and good government: it’s part and parcel of those words, and of who we’ve been all along.
Daniel Panneton is a historian and writer working in Toronto. His previous piece for Maisonneuve was “Incorrigible Women,” which appeared in Issue 67.