What Canada – and John Franklin – can teach the UK about the independence game

In the fortnight in which one of Franklin’s lost ships was found in the Canadian arctic, and Scotland – like Quebec before it – is voting on independence, the parallels between the UK and Canada have never been stronger. 

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The past and future of Canada and Britain have been intertwined these couple of weeks in a manner surely unprecedented for decades. About ten days ago in the Canadian Arctic (the exact moment a secret), off tiny Hat Island, a relic of our two countries’ shared history was discovered – this, in the same week that a referendum of a kind that Canadians know all too well is threatening the unity not just of the United Kingdom.

Last Tuesday, the Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper was positively gleeful when he made the announcement  in Ottawa that one of Rear-Admiral Sir John Franklin’s two ships, the HMS Terror and HMS Erebus, had been found in the vicinity of King William Island, a part of the archipelago at the top of the contiguous North American land mass that can more safely be called Canadian now. Britons are unlikely to know just how extraordinarily unusual it is to see Prime Minister Harper show any human warmth at all. A photograph taken of the prime minister coldly shaking his son’s hand as he dropped him off at elementary school is an image that is every bit as iconic to Canadians as another, long ago, of a young and suave Pierre Elliot Trudeau, completely different in style (and reviled by Canadian conservatives), pirouetting in his tuxedo in Buckingham Palace.

But these days, happy-making news of any kind is hard to come by in any country, and this is what the announcement of the discovery of one of the two ships of Franklin’s ill-fated expedition of 1845, seeking a Northwest Passage, indubitably was. Certainly it was easy to be cynical about the present and now successful effort – a joint enterprise of the Canadian Coast Guard, Parks Canada and various private investors including Jim Balsillie, one of the Blackberry founders and, ominously, Shell Canada – that was started in 2008.

The whole thing felt like a cover for Harper, who has been indifferent to the writers and musicians he cited last week for keeping the story of Franklin alive, and much worse to Parks Canada, a service that his government has savagely cut and intimidated. It was easy to believe that Harper – so readily bellicose and a man with such a narrow and regressive conception of Canadian history (he is an unabashed monarchist) – was using  and helping to fund the expedition simply in order to entrench Canadian sovereignty claims in a part of the Arctic contested by the US, Russia and Denmark. Less than 10 per cent of the Canadian Arctic seabed is charted to modern standards and, much as rectifying this embarrassing situation makes sense, neither was it hard not to believe that the survey was being carried out for the benefit of the fossil fuel industry of which the prime minister has been such an uncompromising champion.

And yet there is no denying this is terrific news for Canada. Canadians led and designed the search and, to the extent that the navigation and practical use of our own Arctic territories is key to the argument that we own these lands, Harper was right to be gleeful – as many ordinary Canadians were. Last Tuesday, I really did hear conversations in the streets about the find, and the celebratory pages of the Toronto Star, the largest circulation newspaper in the country, were keepers.

The discovery was, as the prime minister described it, a “historical moment,” though serving whom is less certain. In terms of nation-building, the Franklin story said far more about Canada as a romantic subject of song and story than it does as a mystery solved. For as long as Franklin’s fate was the stuff of speculation, it allowed his story to be told differently in Canadian versions of the story; the frozen north is not an insuperable foe as it is, say, in novels about Franklin written in Britain, the US and Germany and critically, the man's condescending English imperial traits render him fallible. (Think David Cameron prior to this week of his Scottish awakening.) The moral of the Canadian telling is that had Franklin paid attention to Inuit inhabiting the region – had he been a good and conscientious fella of the sort that Canadians imagine themselves to be today – then he would have heeded the Inuit and their qaujimajatuqangit, or “traditional knowledge,” and survived. The story of the loss of Franklin and his ships was a Canadian foundation myth, a vessel for what was felt to be Canadians’ better nature, regardless of the plight of indigenous peoples here (that’s how a good myth works). The story, as it was told, was a harbinger of the country that would not come into being for another couple of decades. In effect, the English hero needed to die for the Canadian one to be born.

But, with the remains of at least one of Franklin’s ships discovered, the story reverts to being British, the tale of a heroically intrepid rather than fallible man and another of “Barrow’s Boys”. (Significantly, it was agreed at the outset of the search that the ship and whatever human remains are found on it are British property, their custody and investigation Canadian.) Plenty, too, have used the occasion to clamour on behalf of the Inuit, their qaujimajatuqangit more accurate about the location of the ships than 170 years of science were – this is what remains of the Canadian Franklin story, the last possibility of the indigenously crafted sensibility of the once colonied nation having been superior. But already Adriana Craciun, an academic trained in the UK and teaching in California, is making a cogent case that the ship’s location should be made a UNESCO site, an argument that seems patronising not only towards Canadian science and the country’s pioneering system of national parks, but towards the country itself, if in a manner to which Canadians are well accustomed. And hence, a good portion of the glee: Canadians are well aware of not just how awkward but also humiliating it would have been if some other country had discovered the remains: the US, insisting the waters of the passage are international and no longer limited to sending submarines through; Russia, bullying at every opportunity – or, I’m sorry to say it, Britain, with its historical disregard of Canadian contribution.

Ironically, it is looking increasingly likely that Britain, whose politics will be altered no matter the outcome of the Scottish referendum, would be a lot better off if such disregard was not the pattern and the country had paid more than feigning interest in the politics of the colony that was for centuries to London and the governors of the Hudson’s Bay Company as Congo was to Prince Leopold (minus the severed hands) – a remunerative territory and an afterthought, in other words. More perspicacious prime ministers than Britain has known would have done as not just Alex Salmond has been doing for decades and contemplated the goings-on in Québec for more than scoffing amusement at Canada’s apparent dysfunction. I can remember seeing The Guid Sisters, the Scottish “translation” of Québecois playwright Michel Tremblay’s Les Belles Soeurs premiered at Glasgow’s Tron Theatre almost 20 years ago, and it is fair to say that all the arguments and actions that have surrounded the evolving Scottish independence movement since then are familiar to Canadians expert in dealing with sovereigntist issues constitutionally and peacefully. (And the contradictions and ironies, too: Tremblay is not a separatist and has been in trouble for revealing as much – and walk the streets of Westmount and you will discover grey stone mansions built by the largely Scottish Montreal aristocratic class that governed the country, not just the province, and was reviled by Quebec separatists before they became Salmond’s confrères).

Watching from afar the three party leaders from Westminster tour Scotland, trying to persuade its citizens to remain a part of the Union, Canadians are reminded of 1995 and the tremendous effort that saw the federalists win that year’s referendum by just a narrow margin. Those Canadians who have been trying to keep the country together for a couple of referendums now, the first in 1980 (as well as the ten provincial elections since the separatist PQ party’s first victory, in 1976, that have amounted to kindred barometers of worry), would readily have shared tips with British MPs and historians and pundits on the inevitable barter between tiers of government that has been holding, against the odds, this largely peaceful territory so challenging to administrate, in one piece. We remember the Unity Rally of approximately 100,000 Canadians, not just politicians, who travelled to Québec to show their love, though also Ottawa’s overly zealous attempts to bribe Québec companies with lucrative federal deals and how the corruption that ensued from such backroom contracts would later bring down the government of the Liberal Party that went out of its way to buy the country into cohesion. (The country has been governed by Conservatives ever since).

But the problem of David Cameron’s incompetence over the independence issue – Westminster’s as a whole – is not just Britain’s. A successful Scottish Yes vote will have serious ramifications here. The whole notion of separatism is so thoroughly emotive that threats such as Cameron is making about the Scottish share of the national debt, or anxious generals about nuclear subs, are unlikely to work. Better, says Canadian history, to pay the bribes and make citizens of the pissed-off rest of the country, wondering why they should have to subsidise the northern malcontents, the countrys political problem. Canadians might also have told Cameron that the inclusion of 16- and 17- year-olds in the franchise was just a bad idea, as their stake is lesser, as was the exclusion of expatriate Scots, who are more likely to have learned a few of the benefits of internationalism in the world. And we know that a successful Yes vote has ramifications that will be impossible to undo whereas a No vote simply leads to another ballot later. The fight for a unified country needs be constant – and vigilant. Canadians understand that all sorts of events that we would prefer to be extraneous can kindle the separatist fire – a particular personality, a bit of political ugliness, a badly managed campaign elsewhere.

If the Yes vote wins, the flames of Québec separatism will be fanned again, the impervious nature of separatist feelings to a country’s greater history evident, to seasoned observers, even in Harper’s reveal of the discovery of the Franklin ship. Harper made the announcement, as has been the custom since Trudeau made the country officially bilingual, in French first of all – and there was no reaction. But when he made the same announcement in English, the whole room erupted into cheers. It’s possible, though it is actually not the case, that a lot of the reporters in the room were not bilingual and therefore had no idea what the grinning prime minister was saying. What is more likely is that the Francophone contingent in the room understood but the news was not interesting to them. Sovereigntist-minded Québeckers are the Canadian group to which the “historical moment” matters least of all, uninterested as they are in this or any of the other details of what is typically and derisively described as the “historical project” of a community of English-speaking Canadians in search of an identity and a history, by Francophones regarding themselves as having a prior, more cohesive and better one. The discovery of one of Franklin’s ships in what was then Prince Rupert’s Land, a part of the territory replete with bays and islands and straits named after British sovereigns and gentry, does not elevate the Québeckers sense of identity one bit. And so only the Anglo-Canadians cheered.

We share a piece of Arctic history – though also a problematic future. That’s what this week brought to light.

Noah Richler has travelled to Erebus Bay a couple of times. His most recent book is What We Talk About When We Talk About War (Goose Lane Editions,  2012)