Posted by: Nathan M. | March 18, 2009

George Grant-the Father of Nationalism

This is an essay that I wrote on Lament for a Nation for my Canadian Politics Class-hope you enjoy it.

George Grant’s book, “Lament for a Nation”, has inspired Canadian citizens from all across Canada to re-evaluate if their nation is truly sovereign from the very first year that it was published in 1965. Canada has suffered from insecurities and uncertainties in its identity since founding, but it was George Grant’s book that really brought the insecurities to a focus, and led many Canadians to call for a larger focus on Canadian nationalism. And yet, Grant’s book argued that Canadian sovereignty was something that could not be regained. In fact, Grant argued that Canada as an independent nation had ceased to exist, and because of this, Grant was mourning “the end of Canada as a sovereign state”. Why is it that, despite this, Grant is generally viewed as the founder of Canadian nationalism? How can a man who had already conceded the death of a nation be described as that nation’s primary father of national pride and dignity? The answer to this question is not one that can be found with ease, because it is not what Grant said in his book that has given rise to his fathering of Canadian nationalism. In fact, Grant initiated Canadian nationalism through the things that he did not say-primarily the answer to the question of what it means to be Canadian. Grant’s presentation of Canadian culture as rooted within a British framework meant that Canada’s move away from Britain and towards America was a rejection of Canadian culture itself, and thus the dying of a nation. However, this assumption begged the question-what if our identity is not wrapped up within British roots? And furthermore, if to be Canadian is not necessarily to be shrouded with British culture, what does it mean? It is these questions that have come out of Grant’s book that have caused a wave of nationalism to sweep Canada since the 1960’s, and this is the reason why Grant is considered to be the father of Canadian nationalism. This essay does not attempt to explain a Canadian identity-that is a task that requires much more time and thought. This essay is an attempt to explain the reason why Canada began initially asking these questions, largely as a result of George Grant’s “Lament for a Nation”, and theGrant’s Lament for a Nation consequent rejection of a purely British identity.

Canada and Britain

George Grant was born on November 13, 1918, the very day that Allied troops were able to occupy Constantinople, the capital of the Ottoman Empire in World War I. His life was riddled with a great deal of immense political movements, such as the great fall of the German power, the deterioration of Britain as the prime world power, the rise of America as the world superpower, and most importantly, the rise of Canada as a nation that interacted with the international world. Through this, Grant observed significant shifts in the power-balance of the world, and he witnessed a Canada coming into being that had the ability to hold sway in international decisions. Grant perceived Canada as a power that had the ability to rise in prominence, and perhaps one day rise to the status of a superpower, although this was always doubtful. Canada had the fourth largest Air Force in the World during World War II, and the third largest navy and army by 1945.This led Canadians to look forwards towards a greater Canada, one that would become more active in its role in the international world-and not become submissive to its large neighbour to the south. Grant viewed this rising Canada with pride, and looked to the future with hope, as did most Canadians of the time. With this hope came an assumption of certain principles about Canada as a nation.

Grant viewed Canada as gaining power and prominence largely through its connection with Britain. Britain had pulled Canada into both wars and had formed a close relationship with Canada, giving Canada the ability to become more involved in the world. Britain appeared to respect Canada’s influence in decision-making throughout the world, and this gave rise to a Canadian independence that was partly based on British approval. However, this approval was overlooked by most Canadians, and the assumption was made that Britain was giving Canada a type of international independence. This view caused many Canadians to cling to the British connection to Canada, and George Grant was no exception to this trend. Grant viewed British ties as one of the most triumphant aspects of Canadian culture.

The desire to preserve a close connection to Britain went beyond simply Grant’s belief that Britain gave Canada a freer reign within the world. Grant had an entrenched belief that the connection between Britain and Canada was what was sustaining Canadian culture. Grant defended this belief when he said that, “the great politicians who believed in this connection-from Joseph Howe and Robert Baldwin to Sir John A. Macdonald and Sir Robert Borden, and indeed to John G. Diefenbaker himself-make a long list. They [saw the connection] as a relation to the font of constitutional government in the British Crown. Many Canadians saw it as a means of preserving at every level of our life-religious, educational, political, social-certain forms of existence that distinguish us from the United States.” Because of this apparently nation-wide belief in a connection with Britain, the movement away from Britain created an identity crisis which many, including Grant, believed would lead to the non-existence of Canada as a sovereign nation.

Canada and the United States

There was another battle aside from holding onto British connections that needed to be fought in order to sustain Canadian sovereignty according to Grant. It was

this battle that Grant viewed Canada as loosing terribly, and was a large instigator in Grant’s lament. This battle was not a fight for prosperity or military success. This battle, primarily, was an ideological battle between Canada and the United States. Grant had experienced first-hand Canada’s growth as a nation built on Conservative principles that had largely been developed and taken from Britain. This ideology was described by Grant as the first wave of modern political thought, rooted in Machiavellian and Hobbesian thought. This wave believed that man stood within a natural order, and was not outside of this order. Man’s position in the world was not as ruler or maker, but as species within a natural order-although this order may have placed Man on top. This wave, which Grant believed in as the truth, was contrasted by the second wave which placed man outside of nature. The second wave, as described by Grant, was initiated by Jean Jacques Rousseau. The wave held that Man, because of his freedom, was outside of nature. Because of this, Man had the ability to perfect nature, interfere with it, and make it into what was beneficial to Man. This notion came from the teachings of Rousseau that stated that the sovereignty of the people is infallible and perfect. Essentially, Rousseau taught that man, as a combined body, has the status of a god.Grant saw a serious flaw in this thinking, because it enabled man to become destructive and manipulative towards nature and, more importantly, towards the actual status of mankind. Grant viewed the second wave as glorifying freedom to the extent that humans felt that they could interfere with the natural way of human beings. This led, in the long run, to a great deal of development in technology that focussed on the “unnatural” manipulation of nature, according to Grant. This is Grant’s main argument for the fact that America is a part of the second wave of political thought. Grant argued that since America is made up of large corporations that pursue new ways to manipulate nature and mankind, America is obviously consumed with the second-wave thought process.

Grant’s Canada was a nation that was not purely controlled by the drive for success and control of nature, but by a higher sense of principles and ideals. This, Grant argued, was something that Diefenbaker desperately tried to hold onto, but Diefenbaker had been rejected as a result of the increased control of Americans over Canadian economy. As Grant said, “since 1960, Canada has developed into a northern extension of the continental economy”. Because of this, Grant saw an increase in the control of American culture over Canadian culture and politics. Canada, to Grant, had inherited British ideals of a natural place for mankind within a natural world, but these ideals were being rejected as a result of the rise in focus and the take-over of technology. This belief made the assumption that British conservativism was opposed to the manipulation and control of nature. Of course, this overlooked the fact that the industrial revolution was initiated largely by British development, although America quickly became the hero of the movement, due to World War I and II. Grant placed this British conservativism in such a prominent position within Canadian identity that he made the claim that since this British conservativism could not last in the world as it is now; Canada had no chance of lasting either.In essence, Grant viewed America as a nation that triumphed human control over nature through technology. Canada, in contrast, was built on the notion of humans living in their environment with a type of harmony that does not seek to control nature, but to subdue and cultivate it. The rejection of this ideology in Canada, largely as a result of increased American corporate influence,would inevitably in Grant’s mind lead to the destruction of Canadian sovereignty. This reasoning came from the assumption that Canadian identity could not change without destroying Canada. The flaw in this, however, is the fact that British ideology was largely controlling Canada prior to this movement towards America, and yet Canada remained sovereign. Why should it not be the same with America as with Britain?

DiefenbakerDiefenbaker vs. America

Diefenbaker, in many ways, was Grant’s Don Quixote of Canadian nationalism. Diefenbaker was described by Grant as a courageous but confused nationalist who simply could not understand the inevitability of the death of Canadian nationalism.Diefenbaker fought a battle against an American ideology that was often waged in the wrong places-they were the windmills of Diefenbaker’s struggle against American cultural dominance. What Grant described as the most defining battle that Diefenbaker fought for Canadian nationalism was the Defence crisis of 1962 and 1963. Grant viewed Diefenbaker’s attempt to stand against American influence as confused, but noble. Likely one of the most taken out of context quotes from Grant was when he said that “nothing in Diefenbaker’s ministry was as noble as his leaving it”.What Grant meant by this was not a stab at Diefenbaker’s honour, but a tribute to the infallible stubbornness of Diefenbaker’s nationalism. Grant viewed Diefenbaker’s exit from politics not as a defeated villain, but as a defeated hero who, even when he could have compromised and saved his political career, refused to budge from his doctrines. To draw on a pop-culture analogy; Diefenbaker is the man in the popular film, “A Knight’s Tale”, who has the choice of running and living, or maintaining his dignity with a Knight’s heart, and facing the consequences. “I’m a Knight!”, the man cries, just as Diefenbaker cried out a resounding “no” when asked to follow America in Canadian defence policy.

Diefenbaker’s hard stance on Canadian nationalism coupled with his dedication to a connection to Britain brought a great deal of complications when Britain began to move towards a greater connectivity with America.Because Canadian nationalism taught a separation of Canada and America in Grant’s mind, and it also taught a connectivity between Canada and Britain, British connectivity to America created obvious problems. This was the reason for Diefenbaker’s confused dealings with the issue of the Canadian Arrow and the American Bomarc. Diefenbaker was pushed towards accepting the Bomarc and nuclear missiles because that was what Britain expected of Canada. However, following through on this path meant that Canada would be largely reliant on America for defence. This was a notion that was not acceptable in Diefenbaker’s mind, and so he resisted the acceptance of nuclear missiles on Canadian soil, while still trying to work with the Americans and the British. This issue made the assumption that it was wrong and against Canadian identity to accept teamwork programs with America. However, by trying to appease the British, Diefenbaker cancelled the Arrow, which was one of the most revolutionary airplanes of its time, and would have contributed greatly to Canada’s reputation in the world as a strong military nation. This issue, although Grant neglected to view it as an issue, was a very important aspect of Diefenbaker, and Grant’s nationalism. In many ways, Grant viewed Canadian identity as being wrapped up in Britain, and thus a stagnant status as an independent nation. This view was, as Grant rightly perceived, impossible to sustain in a world consumed in change and fluctuation. However, Grant erred greatly when he assumed that this was the only view that could be labelled as a Canadian identity. In fact, a Canadian identity outside of Grant’s developed very rapidly following Diefenbaker’s time in office, particularly during Pearson’s time as Prime Minister.

Diefenbaker rejected options for Canadian protectionism in investments, because he believed in a conservative free-enterprise system. In fact, Grant argued that Diefenbaker’s rejection of protectionist measures was, in some ways, a form of Diefenbaker’s own slightly confused nationalism. This confused nationalism was what characterized Diefenbaker’s time in office as Prime Minister, and it was this confused nationalism that Grant perceived as Diefenbaker’s honour.As a result, Grant argued that Diefenbaker’s attempt to hold onto a nationalist view of Canada, and Diefenbaker’s scramble to find policies that would sustain Canada’s sovereignty result in the tragic fall of the Diefenbaker government, which is synonymous to the fall of the last effort to try to stem off the inevitability of Canada becoming completely immersed into the American culture. Grant viewed Diefenbaker’s failure as the final death-throw of Canada, but Grant forgot to recognize the fact that human beings are adaptable and are able to find new ways to sustain themselves. Diefenbaker’s failure led to Grant’s assumption of the death of Canada, but this assumption led to the question of what Canada actually is. A different perspective on Diefenbaker’s administration was that he simply could not adapt in the modern world, and thus made it difficult for Canada to adapt its identity to the changes occurring in the world. In essence, one could argue that Diefenbaker’s stubbornness was anti-nationalist, and held Canada back.

Canada’s New Identity

Canadian identity as a comprehensive framework is something that has eluded the minds of Canadian scholars and intellectuals for most of Canada’s life. However, there are certain ideas that most Canadians hold of Canada as a nation that have given rise to an identity that differs from Grant’s view of Canada, but also differs from an American view of the world. I will mention again that this paper does not attempt to provide the answer to the question of what it means to be Canadian. However, for the sake of argument, I shall offer some possible aspects in order to demonstrate other options for a Canadian identity outside of British and American association.

Canadians, since Lester B. Pearson’s time in office, have moved steadily towards the idea of Canada as a peacekeeping nation, heavily involved in what is called “middle-power” operations.Although the amount of assistance that Canada provides through the UN has deteriorated, Canada remains an active participant in NATO, as well as international assistance programs. Through these outlets, Canada is an active participator of international affairs, which is a position that many Canadians have begun to view as Canada’s rightful place in the world. This position as peacekeeper and international player has become somewhat of an identity among Canadian citizens.

One other obvious piece of the Canadian identity that has developed is the Canadian belief that we are a “multicultural” society, a society that embraces all different walks of life. This has become the rallying call for many modern nationalists, as Canadians perceive Canada as a place where people are free to live without restraints on their ways of life. This development is largely in direct contrast to the American society, which has been referred to as a “melting pot”, that immerses all immigrants into the American culture. This aspect of Canadian institutions has created a strong separation between American and Canadian society and, although Grant would not perceive multiculturalism as a traditional Canada, it is a plausible identity that has the ability to hold strong against American influence.


George Grant’s lament seems to bemoan the passing away of a nation built upon a solid rock, and this is where Grant fails in his perspective. A nation cannot be built upon an unmovable rock, it must adapt and change as its people adapt and change, and as the world adapts and changes. Because of Grant’s view of a solid platform for a nation, he views the deterioration of Canada-Britain relations as an end to Canadian sovereignty. Grant views a closer relationship with America as a drastic change away from what it means to be Canadian. In many ways however, Grant is simply casting Canada as having its identity wrapped up in being a satellite-nation of Britain, as opposed to one of the United States. Neither of these scenarios are fully true, and neither lends much answers to the question of what it means to be Canadian. In a world that changes and fluctuates all of the time, it is necessary to be willing to find new goals and perspectives within the international world. This is not to say that a nation must cast off its history and embrace another nation’s culture and identity. However, it must be recognized that nations and people do change. A national identity cannot be encompassed by one slogan, or it will not endure once the goal that the slogan portrays is complete. A nation, as Benedict Anderson said, can be viewed as an "imagined community." Such a community cannot be destroyed through a simple move in history. Relationships are often viewed as the strongest forces on earth, and the relationship between a citizen and a nation is very close indeed.

It has been established that Canada is not necessarily what Grant claims it to be. It has also been established that Canada has adapted and perhaps changed its identity over time. However, it is important to note that if Grant had not presented his view on what Canada is and why it is dying, the question may never had been asked-what is Canada? This is the reason why Grant should still remain in the minds of Canadians as the father of nationalism. Grant tried to establish an identity for Canada and, although it was a crude and unfinished product, Grant’s attempt demonstrated a dedication to a higher ideal of a nation that does not simply exist, but exists within the hearts and minds of the people. Grant initiated the idea of a nation that held onto a higher set of principles-the task still remains to fully determine what those principles are. I personally hope that we keep searching for those principles, because as we constantly strive for what our nation’s purpose is, we grow ever more aware of the fact that only God can truly understand why and what a nation is and stands for.


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