Back-Talk from the ‘Old Stock’

First published in Dissident Voice (14 October 2015),; and in the Toronto Star (15 October 2015), . 

By Michael Keefer

Stephen Harper has been talking recently about “old stock” Canadians — and at the same time stirring up fear and loathing against more recent arrivals in this country, notably those of Muslim faith, in order to mobilize electoral support for his Conservative Party.

I think it’s time “old stock” Canadians shared their opinion of these antics. Perhaps I qualify for the job, since my ancestors arrived here two and a quarter centuries ago. (That’s a blink of the eye by native standards, but we may have preceded the Harpers.)

The first thing to say is that my family — the widow and two sons of a New Jersey farmer who died in 1783 fighting against the army of George Washington during the American Revolution — came to Canada as refugees. Faced with the confiscation of their farm, the widow, Mary, sent her sons George, then 16, and his younger brother Jacob to scout out a route to the Niagara peninsula. After clearing a plot of land in what is now Thorold, the boys returned to fetch their mother and what possessions they could carry.

Like more recent refugees, they contributed as best they could to their new country. In 1824, George Keefer became first president of the Welland Canal Company. One of his sons, Thomas, my great-great grandfather, designed Montréal’s and Hamilton’s waterworks, and was elected president of the Canadian and American societies of civil engineers, as well as of the Royal Society of Canada. His older brother Samuel was also a well-known engineer whose major projects included a suspension bridge over the Niagara gorge; as deputy commissioner of public works, he was responsible in the 1860s for the design and construction of Canada’s Parliament buildings in Ottawa.

Despite having taken refuge in a closet at a moment of danger, Stephen Harper seems to fancy himself as a military leader. He has fetishized the War of 1812; he goes in for photo-ops with military people in the background; he wears pilot’s wings he’s not entitled to; and he has never seen a postcolonial war he wouldn’t like Canadians to die in. As it happens, my family has had some involvement in that side of national life as well.

During the War of 1812, George Keefer served as an officer in a militia regiment, and fought in the battles of Chippewa and Lundy’s Lane (where one of his sons was killed). His first wife, Catherine, died when their house in Thorold was converted into a hospital by the invading Americans and she contracted a fever from enemy soldiers she was nursing.

The family didn’t go in much for military careers, but my great grand-uncle Harold was a member of the first class at Canada’s Royal Military College in 1876. My grandfather Thomas, another engineer and RMC graduate, served in World War One, as did a cousin, a fighter pilot who died when he lost control of his SE5.

In World War Two my father Thomas, a mining engineer, was an artillery officer in Normandy. His brother Bill, who was a torpedo boat captain in the English Channel and the Mediterranean, died after the war, a victim of what we now call PTSD. A distant cousin of theirs, George, was a Spitfire ace. Finally, my two older brothers and I are members of the Royal Military College’s Old Brigade, meaning that we entered the college a half-century or more ago.

What does all this add up to? For me and my house, it adds up to nothing. Any compatriot can feel pride, and perhaps shame, over the doings of prior generations. Most of us bear traumas, inter-generational scars of inherited suffering. But we also know that even if memories of our ancestors’ acts of love, generosity, and self-sacrifice have perished with them in the drift of time, those acts have contributed to shaping whatever is good in us.

Claims of reflected merit that go beyond this level of acknowledgment are absurd, even obnoxious. But my family history does give a particular flavour to my judgments of Stephen Harper and his government.

As a descendant of refugees, I feel a deep contempt for the ways in which the Harper government has obstructed the access of refugees to this country, and for the squalid falsehoods with which ministers like Jason Kenney and Chris Alexander have tried to justify taking away refugees’ right to medical services. Canada’s record in rejecting Jewish refugees from Nazism during the 1930s was shameful: on a per-capita basis, we admitted one-fifth as many as did Britain, the U.S., and Australia; and in a repetition of the notorious Komagata Maru episode, in which Sikh would-be immigrants were sent back to Asia, we turned away the M.V. St. Louis, which had to sail back to Europe with a human cargo most of whom perished in the Shoah.

I am appalled at the thought that our Prime Minister — with direct PMO interference in the processing of Syrian refugees, with legislation permitting the cancellation of Canadians’ citizenship, with pot-stirring over the niqab, and with proposals that Canadians spy on one another for evidence of “barbaric cultural practices” — is deliberately seeking to inflame racial and sectarian prejudices for his own electoral advantage. He is trying to drag us back to a past of racism and McCarthyism that most of us thought we had grown out of.

And as an RMC graduate, I am angered and disgusted by Mr. Harper’s treatment of veterans. Two of my RMC classmates who had honourable careers in the Canadian army suffered serious exposure to depleted uranium and other toxins during their years of service. Both became ill, and both were at different times denied by Harper’s Department of Veterans’ Affairs — which deliberately underspent its parliamentary allocations — the medical treatments and nursing care they urgently needed. Pat Paterson died three years ago, Peter Ludorf just last week. I will be remembering these friends and comrades when I cast my ballot on October 19.


Michael Keefer is Professor Emeritus in the University of Guelph’s School of English and Theatre Studies, and a former president of the Association of Canadian College and University Teachers of English.

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