Canada is not 150 years old

As you know, I’m writing this blog because I’m a complete ignoramus about Canadian history who decided to learn more, and to share what I learn along the way. Keep that in mind when I tell you — begging your indulgence here — that it is not clear to me how old Canada is, or why we seem to have settled on this 150 number.

This year, Canada marks 150 years since the three British colonies of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and, well, “Canada,” formed a union in order to collaborate economically and build a railroad. That’s a notable anniversary, but why is it the anniversary?

There are a few other places we could start the clock. We could say Canada is as old as its independence, using the same metric as the United States. In that case we’d turn 35 years old this year, the amount of time it’s been since we’ve had control of our own constitution. If that’s too strict a definition of “independence,” then let’s call it 86 years, the time since Canada’s been able to independently pass its own laws.

Then again, even those landmarks, like Confederation, represent incremental changes to a continuous system of British rule and governing structures that go back 254 years. #Canada254🇨🇦! Hey we suddenly got a lot older!

At this point you’ve no doubt noticed that all of these ages are purely colonial. As long as we’re choosing ages related to colonization, why don’t we recognize the ongoing period of continual European colonization and say Canada is 409?

Or we could pick an age that doesn’t pretend the land called Canada was uninhabited before Europeans arrived. This is still going to be somewhat arbitrary, but if we decide to pick a milestone of human civilization — say, agriculture — then now Canadian civilization can trace its roots back something like 1,300 years, give or take, depending on your source, how strictly you define farming, and how many older archeological discoveries are yet to be made.

As a non-farmer though, I feel compelled to point out that even people who don’t farm are people. So if we push the clock back even further, to encompass all human history in this land we now call Canada, that takes us back… uh, I’m not even sure how exactly to interpret this, but we’re talking at least 14,000 years here, maybe as much as 30,000 years, which is a number too big for you or me to understand, and may as well be forever.

This is more than pedantic. The official government website for Canada 150 invites Canadians to discover “150 years of history,” suggesting that’s how much history Canada has. Such a statement excludes not just precolonial Canada, it even places 250 years of colonial history and another 100 years of European exploration outside the borders of our story.

I don’t have a problem with marking 150 years of Confederation, an important bend in a long, winding river with many tributaries. But 150 is too large a number to mark Canada’s independence, too small to hug the full story of a country of nations that is still incubating. What’s important, I think, is not that we all agree on the same age, but that we recognize the many shifting boundaries we’ve placed on our story, and what each set of boundaries means. Canada is thousands of years old, and it is a day old, and it has not yet been born.

More people should know this:

10 Replies to “Canada is not 150 years old”

  1. That last sentence brilliantly sums up my sentiments exactly – well maybe not exactly, but now that I’ve read it, it’s exactly how I now feel. And as a teacher, and a teacher essentially asking my students the same question, a wonderful reminder of the possibilities that exist in quantifying the history of a specific area.

  2. I am enjoying your posts and your project fits in with my own, all be it modest, project of reading Canadian history and starting with The Illustrated History of Canada. It seems to be a first year university text I picked up at the University of Toronto Bookstore. I am relearning some things and finding out other things I either don’t remember or had not learned before.
    Keep the posts coming they are serving a purpose for me.

  3. Love that last line Chris! I might need to borrow it when teaching my grade 5’s about the pre-confederation days of the explorers…….how’s your French these days, any chance you want to translate it for me so I can get your wording perfect 😉

    1. Hi Andrea that sounds great but ma Francais n’est pas tres bon, c’est probablemant meilleur if you translate it for me and let me know what you come up with!

  4. Thanks for this. I am starting to find the whole “Celebrate 150 years of history” annoying and whenever I get a chance, I try to remind people that is only the last 150 years.
    A book commissioned and published in 1941 by Seagrams, and written by Stephen Leacock called “Canada, the Foundations of its Future” contains this statement: “The continent remained, as it had been for uncounted centuries, empty….The Indians were too few to count. Their use of the resources of the continent was scarcely more than that by crows and wolves, their development of it nothing.” That’s the kind of ‘history’ we grew up with and it’s time to put it away and start to learn and teach facts of the Indigenous peoples who lived and thrived here for 1000s of years before Europeans came along.

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