“What place is this?” asked Jacques Cartier.
“Kanata,” was the reply from two youth.
Because of a mistake in translation, an Iroquoian name for village became the name of a nation.
The two native youths, while abroad in French explorer Cartier’s vessel during a 1535 voyage on St. Lawrence River, had referred to Stadacona (near today’s Québec City) as “Kanata,” simply meaning a village.
Domayaga and Taignoagny, the sons of Donnacona, the village chief, were directing Cartier to the island of Anticosti when Cartier heard the name for the first time. The youths he was bringing back from France informed him that the route to Canada (“chemin de Canada”) lay to the south of the island. Not quite understanding the true meaning of the word, Cartier believed that Kanata — Canada as he heard it — was the word for all the lands that Donnacona ruled.
The “Harleian” world map of circa 1547, the first to show the discoveries made on Cartier’s second voyage, applied it to an area north of the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the river of the same name, and by 1550 maps were also placing the name south of the river (Canadian Encyclopedia). Actually, Cartier referred to the St. Lawrence as the “rivière de Canada,” but that name was subsequently changed by later explorers.
Perhaps it was appropriate that the confusion of a name for village came to imply a vast expanse of land — dismissed sardoncially as, “A few acres of snow,” by 18th-century French writer Voltaire. After all, what is a nation but a village, an intimate place where people share common aspirations and learn to live together despite their differences.
The village of Canada was founded on July 1, 1867, under the premise of “peace, order and good government,” a term that implies how essential it is for all to co-exist in harmony within a village.
It is not always easy to live in harmony, since views may differ on important issues or some may want to impose their own interpretations of village upon others. Change is the natural order of any village as is adapting to change. It is how people accept and handle change that can wield the potential to disrupt or bring harmony to a village.
Canadians have seen their share of disruption in village life. Yet, despite approaching the very abyss of disaster, somehow we have managed to muddle through.
Sir John A. Macdonald, the nation’s first prime minister, called Canada “an experiment we are trying.”
Actually, the village had its first experimentation years before when French-speaking and English-speaking politicians realized that the common good of the village could only be promoted when everyone worked together.
In 1840, the British imposed their will upon the village and decreed that Upper and Lower Canada should be united politically into the Province of Canada. The Act of Union also proclaimed that the working language of the assembly governing this new province would be English. It didn’t matter that at the time, French-speakers outnumbered English-speakers.
Robert Baldwin and Louis-Hippolyte La Fontaine led the movement toward responsible government — the Crown would act upon the wishes of the elected representatives of the people, rather than imposing its will upon the people. They believed reform would remove the injustices that were created in 1840. The significance was that the two men were leaders in linguistically different poles of Canada, but responsible government meant that for the first time, and despite language differences, the village could be united to respect each others’ differences.
Parliamentary democracy was realized in 1848 when reformers took over the assembly and Governor Lord Elgin, appointed by the British government, acknowledged they represented the will of the people and asked them to form the government.
When Lord Elgin made the Speech from the Throne in both English and French, the acceptance of responsible government was complete and the village could again live in harmony.
It was this early harmony which allowed for the creation of an even bigger village in 1867 that would gather together other people who had never before aspired to join in such an experiment. George Brown, who loathed Macdonald, joined with his political foe to form the Great Coalition that smoothed the process for enlarging the village.
Brown and Macdonald both knew that a village must grow or die. It may be a slow process, but its death is an inevitable outcome. And, it is sometimes necessary to step outside the village’s borders to ask others to join to ensure its existence. That is exactly what Brown and Macdonald did when they crashed a party in 1864 that had called for the creation of a proposed village to comprise the then British colonial provinces of Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland and New Brunswick. Their success came when they convinced Nova Scotia and New Brunswick to join their village. P.E.I and Newfoundland would join later when they realized how the village to their west had prospered, as would Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and B.C.
“Let us gratefully acknowledge the hand of the Almighty Disposer of Events in bringing about this result,” said Brown upon the birth of the village of Canada on July 1, 1867, “pregnant with so important an influence on the condition and destinies of the inhabitants of these provinces, and of the teeming millions who in ages to come will people the Dominion of Canada from ocean to ocean and give its character in the annals of time.”
The creation of the new village was called a “supreme act of faith,” by historian A.R.M. Lower, since people of diverse interests and backgrounds had joined together in pursuit of a common goal — the establishment of a new nation in North America, free to fashion its own destiny.
“Canada has been created because there has existed in the hearts of its people a determination to build for themselves an endearing home,” he added.
Confederation was further described by historian P.B. Waite as “a gargantuan, grandiose, some might even have said a harebrained scheme. There were 3,500 miles between Newfoundland and B.C., but 3.5 million people in 1867.”
The scheme has worked for 146 years, although sometimes the villagers have threatened to revolt or to separate.
“And I will say this, that we are all Canadians ...,” said Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier on December 10, 1886. “We may not assimilate, we may not blend, but for all that, we are still the component parts of the same country.”
It is the component parts that have made our village of Canada so successful.