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Wednesday, October 18, 2006
A Great Big White Waste of Time?

ROY MacGREGOR believes Tony Blair is Johnny-Come-Lately to the whole Commonwealth vision thing:

"This is the way it is when you live in a country that still bites its nails.

Someone pays the slightest attention, and you can't stop shaking for excitement.

Tony Blair says its time for Britain and Canada to renew their magnificent historic relationship, time to throw their arms around each other once again and apologize for any past, unintentional neglect.

“The trouble with the good relationships in the world,” the British Prime Minister told a group of Canadian businessmen and businesswomen in London on Monday, “is that, if you're not careful, you spend little time actually celebrating and focusing on them precisely because they're good.”

Blair seemed actually nostalgic for the old Commonwealth relationship — pink maps, anyone? — and said it's time to renew those old bonds that inadvertently became strained and stretched over the years by such matters as the European Union, Canada's increasing fall into the magnetic draw of the United States and a slight disagreement over the importance of racing off to Iraq to find those Weapons of Mass Destruction — or was it Mass Delusion?

The British Prime Minister spoke of a “whole new horizon” opening up between his country and this country, those strained bonds tightening over trade and energy and environmental concerns and our common goals in Afghanistan. He did not, of course, add that those common goals, given the way public opinion seems to be turning and twisting in both countries, may soon be to get out.

All this attention is admittedly a bit of a shock to a country that got used to being called “The Great White Waste of Time” by British newspapers.

That Canada still feels something strong for Britain is irrefutable — just check out the theatre lines trying to get in to see The Queen these days. A Royal Tour in Canada is still a sight to behold, the crowds deep, the Union Jacks out and even a few hearty and loud renditions of God Save the Queen by people who still don't know the words to their own national anthem.

But when Tony Blair starts talking about the past as if it was always a wonderful, warm and caring relationship — once like a parent and child, then like equal partners — don't be fooled. A great many Canadians might have always felt very strongly about the British connection, and Britain certainly appreciated Canada in times of war, but the historical record suggests it has all been far more of a one-way street (or voyage) than perhaps the British Prime Minister realizes.

Many years ago, the late, great historian W. L. Morton gave a series of lectures at the University of Wisconsin in which he pretty much hammered Britain for a lack of interest that, ultimately, determined the fate of this Great White/Pink/Green Time Share that has been Canada's history.

Following the War of Independence, Morton claimed, the exhausted British simply wanted peace at any cost, details unimportant. John Jay of New York, negotiating for the victorious colonies, proposed cutting North America right along the 45th parallel, basically giving “Canada” a slice of Maine and various portions of what is today Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana, Idaho, Oregon and Washington.

The “United States,” on the other hand, would have ended up with Toronto and Ontario's rich Golden Horseshoe.

(Although, when you think of it, had this happened there would probably be no Golden Horseshoe, with its strategically-based manufacturing economy aimed at the southern markets. And as for the Centre of the Universe, it would more likely to be found along the banks of the Mississippi than the shores of Lake Ontario.) Had Jay's suggestion been picked up, Morton argued, and if all that rich land had gone to what would become “Canada,” then he believed that the new “Canadian” territory, “if populated, spelled continental supremacy in America.” The British, however, thought it wiser to follow the water line and then consider the 49th parallel a more appropriate split. In choosing the higher ground, Morton concluded, Britain doomed Canada to be “the country of the northern economy,” and continental supremacy went south.

It could actually have been even worse. At an earlier peace conference in 1763 that put an end to the Seven Years' War, there had been popular pressure in England to hand “Canada” back to France in return for Guadeloupe.

Guadeloupe, after all, had sugar and rum.

“The British,” novelist Hugh MacLennan once said of this pivotal moment in our history, “were so ignorant of North American geography they did not understand what they were giving away, and they had invited no Canadians to the conference who might have told them.” Prime Minister Blair, to give him his due, foresees a wonderful old relationship rekindled, one that is based on mutual concerns around the world, close friendship with the United States and shared “values that should inform globalization.” He also sees peace coming to the Middle East before he leaves office some time in 2007.

It's hard to say which one is the better bet."

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