Do you know what the five largest countries in the world are, measured by square miles? (You can measure them in square kilometers if you prefer – the same ones still come out the largest.) In case you don’t know and want to guess, I’ll put the answer after the “Read the rest of this entry,” although that isn’t really the focus of this post.
Russia is by far the largest country, more than half again as large as the next largest. Russia spans eleven time zones, also the most of any one country. I would probably have guessed that the second largest country was China, as it seems immense on a world map. But I know, from having heard the answer to this before, that the second largest country is in North America.
It’s not the United States, which doesn’t really surprise me, as the U.S. doesn’t look all that big on a world map. As a matter of fact, it surprises me that the U.S. is the third largest country – though when I think about it I realize that Alaska’s huge area is what gets us up that high on the list. Our neighbor to the north, Canada, is slightly larger (although its population is only about a tenth of ours).
Considering how close (relatively speaking) we live to Canada, and that we share a common language, you’d think we’d know something more of Canada’s history. But I cannot think of a single history class I had in which we discussed the history of Canada, with the exception of learning about the explorers and colonists who came to the New World, and the “Fifty-four Forty or Fight!” border dispute with Canada in the mid-nineteenth century.
Growing up during the Vietnam War, I knew of Canada as a destination for draft dodgers. I also knew I had been to Expo 67 as a five-year-old, though I don’t think I actually remembered going. (I had one of those post card booklets from Expo 67 and I liked to look at the pictures, especially the Biosphère.) Other than that, I knew Canada primarily as the source of those odd coins that occasionally wound up in the basket where my mother kept loose change for school lunches and bus fares.
I visited Canada on two other occasions, when my high school orchestra went to Ottawa, and when I joined a couple classmates from the Spanish School at Middlebury College to take a day trip to Montreal. But I never thought much about Canada’s geography or history until we lived in Michigan for six years (my husband pastored a church in Houghton Lake). We drove through Canada twice to visit my brother-in-law in upstate New York (that route being shorter than going south to Ohio first and then driving east). And twice we took a vacation in the very nice resort town of Collingwood.
On those trips, I always found myself wondering about the QEW highway, the Queen Elizabeth Way. The only Queen Elizabeth I knew of was the queen of England. Why would Canada name one of their highways for her? (I didn’t realize until today that it was named not for her but for Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, the Queen Mother, who died in 2002.) I knew that Canada had once been part of the British Empire, but surely they had gained their independence long ago.
Of course, those coins that still wound up in my wallet from time to time (even more often in Michigan) also had a profile of a queen. I’m not sure if I knew that the coins showed the queen’s name, Elizabeth II. But they were evidence that even now Canada has a monarch. On the rare occasions when I heard about Canada in the news, there would be mention of the prime minister, or perhaps of the parliament, but I couldn’t remember ever hearing about the queen in relation to Canada.
Of all the things I wondered about, however, it was a pretty minor matter. So I never bothered to find the answer until last year. One day I was looking through Wikipedia, to see what events had happened on that day in history. (I do this periodically, especially when I haven’t thought of anything else to blog about yet.) It was April 17, and I saw that for 1982 it said “Patriation of the Canadian constitution in Ottawa by Proclamation of Queen Elizabeth II, Queen of Canada.”
What in the world was patriation? And what did it mean that the Queen of England was also the Queen of Canada? I spent a while, at Wikipedia and elsewhere, catching up on the Canadian history that the school district I grew up in had evidently not thought I needed to learn. I learned that “Canada dates its history as a country to the British North America Act, 1867, which came into force on 1 July 1867. However, Canada was not created fully independent, as the United Kingdom retained legislative control over Canada, and full control over Canadian foreign policy.”
As a matter of fact, Canada did not gain full legal independence until 1982, although for fifty years the British Parliament had been rubber stamping “legislation to retroactively legitimate the actions of the Canadian Parliament and government.” Apparently there had been a great deal of difficulty in settling on an amending formula to the constitution that all the provincial governments would agree on. Once that was resolved, the constitution was “patriated,” meaning that the process of making any further changes to it belonged to Canada alone.
No wonder I had been confused about the status of Canada’s independence. For all practical purposes Canada had acted as a sovereign nation since long before I was born, but I was a senior in college when it became legal fact. I suppose if they had tried to teach us that in high school we would just have been confused. Students in the U.S. have enough trouble understanding their own Constitution (not that it’s so difficult, but there’s little foundation laid for understanding it prior to a high school civics class when suddenly you have to learn all sorts of details about powers and rights and amendments). Even now I have trouble understanding the principles behind a parliamentary system.
I also finally learned where Queen Elizabeth fits in the picture. She is queen not only of Canada and the United Kingdom, but also fourteen other independent nations. “She holds each crown separately and equally in a shared monarchy, as well as acting as Head of the Commonwealth, and Supreme Governor of the Church of England. As a constitutional monarch, she is politically neutral and by convention her role is largely ceremonial.”
I vaguely remember reading about the Bahamas being part of the Commonwealth when we went to there for our honeymoon (my husband had won the trip as a prize in a United Way campaign, before he met me, and he had jokingly told a good friend from grad school that they would make the trip together, unless he fell in love and got married in the next year), but I hadn’t been clear on what it meant at the time. The concept of sovereign (i.e. independent) nations sharing a sovereign (i.e. ruler) still seems odd to me, but then the only country I’ve ever lived in that had a monarchy was Spain, and Juan Carlos I is king only of Spain.