Canadian Identity and the Loyalist Myth

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Since the process of decolonization, but especially in recent decades, the study of British imperialism has involved examining the development of identity, not only in metropolitan Britain, but in the colonies as well. In the case of English-Canadian history J.M.S. Careless described three schools of thought in 1954, each providing a different stance on imperial Britain’s ties with Canada. The Britannic school, which was predominant from the 19th century until the early 20th century historians claims the British Empire is a community unified by common British institutions and including subjects of a common British race. The Political Nationhood School is more critical of ties between Canada and imperial Britain, instead focusing on how Canada became its own autonomous nation. Finally, there is the Environmental School which argues that Canadian institutions and North Americans were shaped more by their “American” circumstances instead of just imperial British identity being the basis for Canadian identity . Careless himself “encouraged a trend away from viewing Canadian identities in their wider, imperial setting” . This method of studying Canadian identity on the national level has continued from the late 50’s through the 1980’s. Only in the past fifteen years has the study of Canadian identity been steered back towards an imperial setting instead of an insular national one.

However, the debate over the origins of Canadian identity, whether it is more “American”, (imperial) British, or something else continues. This is exemplified by the debate over the impact of Loyalists and Canadian Loyalism in the creation of a Canadian identity. Some of the works analyzed in this essay argue that Loyalists and Loyalism were important in defining Canadian politics, other works emphasized Loyalism’s impact on Canadian cultural identity, some argued that the imperial connection was vital to Loyalists, and some the (North) American connection, and one source largely downplays the Loyalist impact on Canadian identity altogether. It is Buckner’s ideas on Canadian identity that I found myself in agreement with. He emphasizes the common rights, institutions, and ethnicity (albeit a vague concept) between Britain and English Canadians and how that made Canada in many ways a British nation during its history as a colony. This is similar to some of the other works except that Buckner emphasizes the influence of the vague idea of shared British ethnicity, at times based on ancestry in the United Kingdom but also subjectively applied on a broader cultural definition of British values and culture. However, identifying themselves as a British nation, “did not prevent English-Canadians from developing an overlapping sense of North American or Canadian identity” .

Before examining the different relevant works it is vital to understand what the phrase “Canadian Loyalism” implies. This loyalist myth is best displayed in a passage from David Mills’s The Idea of Loyalty in Upper Canada, 1784-1850, which states: “Rather than submit to a successful rebellion they forsook the land of their forefathers—their homes,--their families—in many instances, their friends, and all they hitherto held dear upon earth; and plunged unhesitatingly into the depths of difficulties of a boundless forest, there to teach their children, amidst every species of privation those lessons of patriotism and faithfulness, they had so nobly illustrated in action.”

Canadian Loyalism is based on allegiance to the Crown and common ties with British institutions, politics, and the constitution. However, it is also argued that involves being linked to a common British (white, Protestant, preferably but not necessarily Anglo-Saxon) race. It was not until the 1980’s that Canadian Loyalism, whether its reality or later rhetoric, came to be seen in most English-Canadian scholarship as actually being a positive part of the formation of a Canadian identity rather than a...
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