Trudeau is not the only Canadian who embodies the spirit of his nation’s founding document

The brand of Canada that most American citizens know (and appreciate) is not directly a product of the land itself — but of the Constitution Act, 1867. The document that set out the Canadian dream of self-governance and a nation would come into effect in Canada on Dec. 21, 1867, when George-Étienne Cartier met in Montreal with King George V. America was firmly entrenched in an ideology of states rights and a sense of independence and Western interests. The first American citizens were said to have arrived in Canada between June, 1867, and Jan. 20, 1868. The right to join a country was extended to white Canadians via the British North America Act, 1913, but they had to qualify as “non-Slavic” after 1902. Rather than traditional privileges and rights of citizenship, the road to citizenship was paved with nationalism and social unrest.

The laws in America that made post-1867 Canada “legal” were as selective in their application as they were unclear in their meaning, as Justice Antonin Scalia pointed out in his dissenting opinion in Texas v. Johnson, which ruled against Native Americans who sued for the same citizenship rights as whites. It’s a false notion that the Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is simply the sainted descendant of White Fathers fighting Indian wars. “From the onset, Canadian citizenship was bestowed only on white people,” wrote Scalia in 2012. In 1884, Canada explicitly made English Canada the exclusive province of “white persons.” Canadians lived the rest of their lives in an inferior second class. Rather than looking to elevate all citizens to positions of priority, laws passed by the Parliament in Canada treated white Canadians in much the same way Jim Crow operated in the U.S. south. Canada viewed its own economic and social equality as all but unobtainable, but forced integration happened well before legalization.

In contrast, Canada realized that unearned privilege was not its own but due to white Canadian migrants. In 1869, the legislature of British Columbia created the nation’s first and oldest non-governmental organization, the Industrial Development Corp. Indeed, for the first century or so of Canada’s colonial existence, having virtually nothing was what it took to bring people there. Canadian history has always been seen through the filter of issues, namely economic considerations, and what makes Canada unique is the fighting spirit of the settler and Irish migrants in the 1800s and the stubborn insistence of the territory’s first Canadian prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, that marginalized groups be treated with respect.

Inclusivity and humility are an essential part of the Canadian story and — as the fall election of Justin Trudeau as prime minister shows — the people of Canada look to the example of a leader like that of a Macdonald or even a Trudeau to make them see themselves as equal. Whether you choose to accept that Canada is a true work in progress and full of achievements — as many do — or whether you want to believe that all Canadians are equal, the goal is the same: Canada will always remember, as it has done for more than a century, that the road to equality has only just begun.

Without the success of Canadian immigration policy, Canada would be like a third-world country with no skills developed by its citizens. Canadians are proud of the resources they have gained from immigration policy and from its long history. In a country where 13 percent of the population are immigrants, they have developed a vibrant, thriving society. Canada is a model of how diverse populations can become part of the same society. Canada is also a model of how a nation must adopt other peoples’ cultures to become culturally whole and cohesive.

For the first time in Canadian history, Canadian students are recognizing the significance of the day when the Constitution Act of 1867 was enacted. For the first time, a poster will be printed at elementary schools in Ottawa and Toronto, recognizing Dec. 21, 1867, as not just Canada’s Independence Day, but also a day when it finally became a reality.

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