Wednesday, April 28, 2010


Guns n Roses were one of the most kick-ass bands of the 1980's. Not only did the music provide an adrenaline rush of power cords, heavy bass, pounding drums, screeching vocals and arguably the best guitar licks of all time, they lived the heavy metal life style to the fullest. Women, booze, dope, and loud and brash behaviour were their hallmark. Ironically, one of their best known songs, "Sweet Child of Mine", featured some of the most interesting lyrics. Introspection, revelations of fear and insecurity, and placing hope in another trusted person seemed to grind against the usual cacophany. The chorus asked the question "where do we go now?", a plaintive cry for certainty in a very uncertain world. It remains one of G N R's most remembered and best liked songs.

The question "Where do we go now?" could easily be applied to Canada in the second decade of the new century. Much recent reading and discussion seems to focus on a type of angst, a great uncertainty, and a lack of clear vision that pervades our national life, much as it did the unnamed narrator of "Sweet Child of Mine." In the song, there was no answer to that question, and none seems to loom on the horizon of our country. Consider the following recent readings that your humble blogger has encountered in the past few months:

The plight of the Canadian military is wonderfully portrayedin Rick Hillier's book "A Soldier First." Hillier described, in sad and embarrassing detail, the demise of our military over the last 40 years as one of the most shameful examples of how not to run a country. Hillier has many items in his criticism, but the most recurring theme is the "risk-averse" mentality of the senior officers and, especially, the beaurocrats in Ottawa. Prime Ministers do not escape his lash, either, for it is their lack of vision and will that has permitted this travesty. Hillier also lambasted the Canadian public, who, for the longest time, did not care about the military and were, in fact, quite hostile to soldiers as society's misfits, people who could not keep jobs in the real world. Thankfully, attitudes seem to be changing slightly, mainly because of the sacrifices in Afghanistan.

Andrew Cohen, in his book "While Canada Slept" follows Hillier's lead in criticism of Canadian leadership. ( Actually, Cohen's book came out in 2003, well before Hillier's, but I choose to examine them in the order I read them. ) Cohen's book is about the Canadian foreign policy and diplomatic service, once one of the best in the world, highly professional, highly trained, expert in dealing with the superpowers of the world, able to achieve great things for a country that was, and still is, a middle power. In Lester Pearson's words, we "punched above our weight" in the golden age. Now, because of the dithering of political leadership and the apathy of the populace, our status and stature in the world is slipping into a type of mediocrity and irrelevance that does not serve us at all.

"The Walrus" magazine has, in its last two issues, published articles and editorials on similar subjects. In the recent edition, an article by Chris Turner described the recent environmental and economic innovations sweeping Europe in the last few years, and how Europe will outstrip Canada and indeed the rest of the world for years to come. We Canadians have become quite smug about our approach to such things, because we believed that, since we are a relatively young country, the future will belong to us. This article smashes this assumption and reveals it for what it really is.... self-delusion. John McFarlane, the editor of "The Walrus", has written about the same lack of innovation in the automotive sector. On a visit to China in the early 1980's, McFarlane was told by his aged Chinese host that the one thing he would love to visit in Canada was not Niagara Falls or Banff, but the recently completed Autoplex in Oshawa Ont., the most modern assembly plant in the world. No longer is GM a world leader, as we all know. And no longer is Oshawa in the forefront of GM's thinking and planning, if there is any, for the future. McFarlane also wrote, in a fairly recent editorial, how the terrible behaviour and lack of decorum in Canada's parliament has stifled true and meaningful debate, creative problem solving, and has instead fostered a contempt and apathy among the Canadian public toward its leadership. McFarlane suggests that, even if there was good leadership coming from Ottawa, which there isn't, people would be too tuned out to notice and care.

Pierre Berton, perhaps the dean of Canadian popular history, wrote a book several years ago which foretold all of this. It was, on initial read, a celebration of Canada's centennial year, when all things seemed possible for our nation, and that the world and the future would eventually fall into our enlightened sphere of influence. Ironically, however, Berton called his book "1967: The Last Good Year", suggesting instead that our greatest achievements, our greatest sense of confidence, our greatest feelings of nationhood, lasted from Vimy Ridge in 1917 to the last crowds who exited Expo '67 in Montreal. From that time onwards, we have stopped moving forward.

Even in the world of sports, there is cause for concern. Feschuk and Grange wrote about perhaps the most hallowed institution in English Canadian culture, the Toronto Maple Leafs, and how they have gone from perrenial champions to laughing stock in 40 years. The tale is more about the Canadian psyche than about hockey. The organization has been poorly lead, concerned about money and prestige more than it has about winning. There is no confidence, no vision, no determination to succeed in the Leafs, except for the bottom line.

The best example of how Canada has slid is "A Fair Country" by John Ralston Saul. In this sometimes rambling, but thoughtful and angry book, Saul severely criticizes just about everything we've done recently as a nation, and saves his most poisonous jabs for the business, political, beaurocratic, educational and other elites, who he calls the "castrati". The elite is governed by fear, cowardice, lack of conviction, and lack of scruples. We don't stand for anything, Saul argues, because our leaders don't stand for anything. They manage, but do not lead. The result: a type of grey boredom in the country.

There are several other examples I could cite. When I discuss Canada with my friends and colleagues, the same type of disappointed apathy emerges. Whether it is at the Grey Goat, at the lunch table in the English Department of GL Roberts, at a cottage at Whitestone Lake, at Rick's breakfast table,over beers with Brian at the Irish Embassy, or in my living room talking with Lou, a constant theme emerges. We are no longer an important or relevant country. My cousins in England, my friends in the US or Australia know nothing about us, nor do they care. What's worse, my students and many of my friends here in Canada are the same: they know little or nothing, nor do they give a rat's ass.

Where do we go now? The future seems to be more of the same. In my next post, I will have some outrageous suggestions as to how to fix it. Stay tuned !

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