Barbara Kay: There’s honour, and history, in being old stock
One of the paintings donated by Charles Pachter to the Fort York Visitors Centre(--image--)
I’m not understanding the fuss about Harper’s “old stock” remarks. I get that Jacques Parizeau once used it in a nasty context (drunk post-referendum loss bitterness, implying the “real” Québécois descended from the original 14 French families who came over in the year dot, had been sabotaged by “money [read Jews] and the ethnic vote [read Greeks, Italians and what-have-you].” But as Andrew Coyne explains in his Sept. 22 column, it has also been used in many entirely neutral contexts. And what it means, Coyne says, is simply “folks whose families have been here for a while.”
Ordinary racism my grandfather could deal with. Concentration camps, not so much.
But it means more than that. It has a distinctly positive meaning – at least for me. As B.A. Relfem of Clayton, On, wrote in a letter to the editor, also Sept. 22, he is old stock “and proud of it,” as he should be. His great-great grandfather came here with the British Army to fight in the war of 1812 and was given land in the “middle of nowhere” to build a house and hunt for food. He faced great hardship but “made it possible for me, after five generations, to be in a country that is the envy of the world.” Precisely. It is old stock who made Canada the nation those of middle and new stock wanted to join.
I guess I am middle stock, as my grandfather came here from Poland early in the 20th century. He was escaping anti-Semitism and a future that was closed to him in any meaningful way. He was dirt poor for many years, selling junk from a horse-drawn wagon, but every one of his nine children rose to success and solid middle class comfort. Their children, my generation, were every single one university educated and successful in one profession or another. That would never have been possible in Old Europe. Indeed, if he had stayed there, my family would doubtless have been wiped out.
He wanted to come here, because Canada was a land with infrastructure, promise, freedom and opportunity. Who made it that way? Not my grandfather, but Mr. Relfem’s grandparents. Maybe some old stock Canadians wouldn’t have been thrilled to know people like my grandparents would one day be flocking to the country he and his old stock peers built. But so what? They built it. And I am grateful to them. Ordinary racism my grandfather could deal with. Concentration camps, not so much.
Equality is a wonderful thing. We should all consider ourselves to be equal in human dignity to everyone else. New stock should have the same legal rights and benefits as old stock. But culturally, we’re not all equal. People like Mr. Relfem and his family have memories that are different from the memories of newcomers. Many old stock families have photographs on their mantels of sons who died for their country. Nobody in my family ever went to war for Canada. I respect that difference between me and old stock families. I pay a certain homage in my heart to them. Their losses, their patriotism, paved the way for the cushy, peaceful life of my children and their children.
Look at who is willing to go to war today for our nation. For the the sons and daughters of old stock Canadians there remains a family history of service, stories they have heard, memorabilia they have seen, pride they have internalized going back many generations. Such service seems natural to them in a way it doesn’t to others – at least not in anywhere near the same numerical ratios.
If old stock can never more regain an honorific connotation because of its occasionally negative implications, then there should be a new term to convey its meaning. I myself like “heritage Canadians,” because the experiences of old stock forebears created the conditions under which Canada could flourish into orderly greatness. We inherited untold riches we did not earn. They left everyone – not just their own families – a legacy, a heritage that half the world yearns to call their own. Why shouldn’t heritage Canadians feel special? They have every right to.