Thursday, May 27, 2010


"Where do we go now,
Sweet child,
Where do we go now?"
I started this thread with the question posed by Guns 'n' Roses in their hit "Sweet Child of Mine" and began to wonder about the problems discussed by several prominent Canadian authors and thinkers when they consider our vast country. There's no doubt in my mind that the problems are many and varied, and will take great effort and will to "solve" them. So far, there seems to be a distinct lack of both effort and will to do so. So, I now humbly offer my simple solutions to these issues, in order to tell us where to go.

1) Solve the "Quebec" problem.
The issue of "national unity", or disunity as I like to call it, has been in our faces for the better part of 40 years. Some would say it is more like the last 400 years, but let's not quibble. While the separatist fires have cooled somewhat, the issue lies like a festering boil at the bottom of everything we do or think. I have the distinct feeling that most Quebeckers feel that they are citizens of a small nation living within an uncaring and hostile supra-nation. Contrast this with the general attitude of most non-Quebeckers, who feel that they are living in a large nation with a troublesome and pestering province who have been treated like a spoiled brat for the past few decades and get all the breaks in our federal system. Two solitudes? Of course.

So, we must solve this now and forever. Once this issue disappears, we can move forward and achieve the types of things of which we are capable. I suggest that, right out of nowhere, we should challenge Quebec with a binding referendum with a simple question: are you in, or out? If they want out, we should begin negotiations immediately to create two new countries: Canada and Quebec. We could also create a looser union with Quebec, dealing with matters such as trade, the environment, defence and other common items in a manner similar to the European Union. It would be tough to achieve this, and would involve some emotional trials, but the end product would be better than the sleep walk we are in now.

2) Solve the "Aboriginal" problem.

This is, in many ways, similar to the Quebec issue, but we might not be dealing with the creation of new nations... at least not yet. There is no doubt that Aboriginal peoples in Canada have been treated shabbily over the centuries. Aboriginals are gaining in confidence and stature in our nation now. It is time to do the right thing and stop treating them as wards of the federal state. Recognize them for what they legitimately are: founding peoples of Canada, and nations in their own right. Begin serious negotiations with all Aboriginal nations on land claims. Make these agreements fair and correct. Create new entities out of these land areas and treat them as full provinces in Confederation, not territories. Give Aboriginal governments full authority over issues like education, revenue, land management and resources, tourism, the environment, health, etc., as all other provinces have. The federal government may have to pour huge amounts of money into these new provinces, but it is the right thing to do and will elevate the Aboriginal peoples to full and participating partners in the Canada of the future.

3) Follow Andrew Cohen's advice in foreign affairs.
Cohen had much to say about our place in the world, and other authors and thinkers echo his concerns. Canada has a place in the world, and can offer a unique and creative perspective on how to get disparate peoples to live, work, and co-operate together in difficult situations. We need to listen to Cohen and do what he suggests:
a) enlarge and strengthen the military ( noone listens to a weak and ineffective country )
b) continue our historic efforts to render aid to deserving countries, and make the list of countries we assist a short one: you can do greater good by concentrating resources instead of thinning them out ( like we have done with our military )
c) re-create our foreign service with dedicated, well-trained, well-paid professionals and give them concrete and meaningful assignments, instead of ignoring them and using them to do clerical and custodial work only
d) stay independent but engaged: recognize that we are not flunkies of the US, but are not neutrals either
e) work diligently to vary our trade with the world: the US is too close and too easy for us

4) Strengthen Canadian institutions.

We have many distinct and recognizable institutions is Canada. We need to praise them, become involved with their efforts, and support them, both financially and morally. Things like the RCMP, the CBC, the railways, Canadian artists, writers, intellectuals, musicians, athletes, all of whom compete on the world stage and bring our stories to the rest of humanity should be given greater support. We need to know their names and what they do every day, not just every four years as in the case of Olympic athletes.

5) Make Canada a center of innovation and research.

We have brilliant people in all walks of life in this country. We need to support them as much as the traditional institutions listed above. The federal government should create incentives and rewards for individual and groups of Canadians who are on the cutting edge of research and innovation in all aspects of life: business, science, medicine, energy, agriculture, the environment, and so on. Again, the future demands great thinkers to emerge now. Why not have these thinkers emerge from Canada, and not the US or Europe or Asia, to save the world?

6) Reform government to remove apathy in the citizens.
Do this agressively and honestly, and the people will surely follow. Reform the way Parliament does business. Remove the partisanship, the histrionics, the shady accounting of public monies, and make everything transparent. Then, pass a law making it mandatory that all citizens of voting age actually vote in elections. If they do not, subject them to a fine, which can be garnisheed from their wages if necessary. Create a system whereby politicians who act inappropriately, or betray the public trust, can be removed from office by the citizens who elected them: in other words, create a system of recall that actually works.

There certainly is more that can be done, and should be done. We all believe we live in a great country, but the country is asleep. Let's wake up now, do the right things, and move ahead with confidence and intelligence. Sir Wilfrid Laurier once predicted that the twentieth century would belong to Canada, and, for the first half of that century, it seemed that it would come true. The last half of the century and the first decade of this new one have seen us shrink back, become inferior, worried and inward looking. It is not too late to make Laurier's prediction come true, albeit a little behind schedule. Let's risk change.

Sunday, May 9, 2010


The days and weeks since I started this thread of blogs has led to much soul-searching. It hasn't been easy. Some of the feedback I've received has criticized the rather negative tone of the offerings. But, truth to tell, I haven't set out to be negative in all of this. I have tried to gain insight from all of these readings.... and, also truth to tell, the accumulated negative insights have been nothing more than coincidence. It just so happens that the writers I have picked up lately have found not much good to say about our home and native land. I have merely co-ordinated their thoughts into the summaries in parts 1 and 2.

For myself, I have been wondering how it came to be that we have shrunk so dramatically in the world. I am aware that we are still a large, wealthy, productive country, and that our society, by and large, is still civil and safe and functioning. But I can't help sharing in the pessimism of all the writers I have come across lately. Why, despite our apparent wealth and affluence, are we such an irrelevance in the world? I have some theories:

1) Navel Gazing
Over the last 30 years or so, there has been one over-riding political issue that has shaped our efforts: the so-called National Unity issue. This is really a code word for Quebec: what should we do about them, and what do they want? In the mid 1970's, the spectre of Quebec separation was as horrifyingly real as any nightmare on elm street, and the prospect of Canada breaking apart was unthinkable. As the years unfolded, we have endured provincial and federal elections which placed this issue at the core of how the federal government thought, planned and operated. We have endured referenda in Quebec, the most recent of which almost achieved the ultimate goal of sovereignists in that province. The issue now seems to be on a type of back burner, but if you carefully observe the way power has slowly and almost deviously devolved over the last few years, you come to realize that Quebec is now a member of Confederation only when it benefits them to be so, and only when we choose to mention it. It would not take much to re-kindle the passions associated with this issue, and fan it into a full-blown inferno again.

Similarly, although on a smaller scale, the provinces have been chipping away at the authority of the federal government. Now, instead of having formal first ministers' conferences to deal with co-operation on large issues, the premiers converse with each other and reach agreements with each other, sometimes in groups of 10 provinces, most times in much smaller groups, and enact legislation in their home provinces that resemble that in neighbouring provinces. A strong central government? Where? And what's more, Ottawa seems content to let it happen: the less the federal government has to deal with, the better.

Because of our fixation with "dealing with", or perhaps more accurately appeasing those who threaten the unity of our confederation, we have been paralyzed and unable to do much with asserting our place in the world. We cannot assert who were are to others until we know who we are ourselves.

2) The Economy

Most Canadians, over the last two decades, have become more aware of and intent in creating wealth for themselves. We invest, we pay more attention to markets and trends, we worry about employment and taking care of ourselves and our families. We have become pre-occupied with having our governments act more responsibly with our public finances, while we, as individuals, have wracked up more personal debt than ever before. We consume greedily and believe it to be good. Accountants have taken on more of a controlling role in how institutions make decisions. There is nothing wrong with being fiscally repsonsible, but the trend seems to be going to the extreme. Fiduciary interests take precedence over doing things for altruistic or other reasons. The bean-counters rule, and we seem to like that, as long as we can get some of the money ourselves.

Similarly, in the area of trade, we really have only one significant trading partner: the United States. This makes sense, until you realize that the only reason we are content with the US is because they are large and they are close: we really don't have to work very hard to become wealthy as long as we are attached at the hip to the Americans. Despite a few much-trumpeted trade initiatives with other areas of the world ( China, India, Europe ) we seem to be content to do business with our American cousins. Fine, this has made us rich. But it has also made us fat, lazy, complacent, dependent, and willing to let our big cousin run things.

3) Leadership
Or, perhaps, the lack of it. After Pierre Trudeau, or even Brian Mulroney, can you name a Canadian leader who has actually stood for something grand, some large idea of ourselves and our nation? Can you even name one? Ironically, one man who comes close to espousing a vision of how things should be done was none other than Mike Harris, the devil incarnate. Although I disagree and oppose everything he stood for, he at least stood for something. So did Ralph Klein, Rene Levesque, and Peter Lougheed. Is there no visionary leadership which espouses a type of liberal-democratic philosophy which could shape our nation the way it needs to be shaped? None is present, and none seems to be on the horizon.

4) Ourselves.

I may be a cynical old man now, but I can't help thinking what kind of a society we would be if we actually cared a bit more. We do care about things, of course. Watch what happens if our cable TV rates go up, or if we have to pay a new form of tax, or if we lose Olympic hockey. Watch us when it's Roll up the Rim time, or, God help us, if the Leafs ever win a Stanley Cup. On more serious notes, we grieve whenever one of our soldiers dies in Afghanistan, or if a child goes missing, and we like to contribute donations to earthquake-ravaged nations. But, overall, we seem to be content to sleep walk through national life: as long as we have our iphones, twitter and facebook, a job, a car, flat screen HD TV's, nice clothes, a vacation, and sports, we're happy and who cares what comes down the road? The World? It's opinion of Canada? Our place in it and how we can shape it? What's in it for me?

This is why things are the way they are, at least to me. So, it's easy to complain and be cynical and wring hands. How to solve it? Well, I feel that I am closer now to offering some solutions, but they will arrive in my fourth and final post in this thread.

Thursday, May 6, 2010


"Cooking With Stella" is a funny movie which made the rounds in recent film festivals. It didn't get wide release in most cinemas because of one fundamental mistake in its production: it is a Canadian film. How many people rush out to watch Canadian movies? Exactly.

While the movie was funny and, at times, charming, it had a very dark core to the story. Briefly, a young Canadian couple and their toddler daughter find themselves in New Delhi, India. The pretty young wife works for the Canadian foreign service and has been posted there. The husband, an aspiring chef, tries to settle into their new digs and comes across Stella, their Indian housekeeper and chef. Stella seems to be a nice lady, a good cook, and is very kind to their little daughter. But the reality is that Stella is a thief, a grifter and con artist of the highest order, who steals from the family as she has done from all her previous employers. The upshot of this nasty, mean-spirited story is that poverty forces people to commit crimes, lie, corrupt innocent people, and that Canadians are naive, guilt-ridden, gullible and , basically, stupid. No wonder people didn't beat down the doors to see this film.

While watching this film, I was in the midst of all the readings I summarized in my first post. I found the film only added fuel to the fire because it was not made or written by foreigners, but rather by Canadians. (Actually Indo-Canadians, who took shots at both cultures.) It seemed to emphasise the notion that there is something inherently immature and nerdy about Canadians. All the Canadian characters are lacking in conviction, confidence, and a clear sense of purpose as to why they are present not only in India, but in their particular place and station in their lives. A small screen metaphor for the nation as a whole.

In the most recent issue of "The Walrus" magazine, there are two timely articles which fit into my recent considerations. The first is "Immature Design" by Jennifer Welsh. It is a current analysis of Canada's foreign policy, which follows up nicely on the ideas of Andrew Cohen in "While Canada Slept". The two pieces are about seven years apart, and, sadly, indicate that things that C0hen wrote about in 2003 have not changed, but instead gotten worse. Welsh writes of the "mishmash of conflicting priorities and half-baked, underfunded initiatives" which combine to make our country look like a modern-day recreation of the Beverley Hillbillies in the eyes of the rest of the world. She points out three main reasons for the failure: 1) the fact that Canada is a federal nation, and that the federal and various provincial governments often have conflicting views on how to deal with other nations; 2) the fact of multiculturalism in Canada, and its attendant complication of people from so many divergent nationalities insisting that Canada aid their homeland; and 3) the fact that Canada has had to deal with minority governments in the recent past, and the lack of firm and decisive leadership due to shaky power bases for the governing party. All these issues seem to explain why our foreign policy doesn't work. Sadly, the only solution Welsh offers in her piece is to create our own version of the American National Security Council, which could co-ordinate all matters regarding foreign policy, streamling it and making it work more seamlessly, thus making us look less inept in the eyes of the world. Other than that, the article is a dreary litany of our failings as a nation among the larger family of nations in the world.

The next article in "The Walrus" was written by the excellent author David Macfarlane and is titled "Hockeyland". Macfarlane travelled to three NHL cities in the US South in order to experience how the Americans have adapted to "our" game and discovered, to his great shock, that the game is ours no more, and that the Americans have taken over our game, not because of any great love of hockey, but because the game at the NHL level fits into the middle-class mystique of American life: hockey arenas are just like chain restaurants, shopping malls, amusement parks, cineplexes, retail outlets, etc., all of which act upon the "family values" of American life, getting people together as families to do one thing: consume. Because of this, Canada will never reclaim its national game. But Macfarlane implies that the fault for this lies not in the US sunbelt, but in Canada itself. We let this happen. We quietly gave up control of the one game which, we thought, defines us as a nation. We probably didn't realize that we were giving up this control while it was happening, and woke up to it too late to do anything about it. Hamilton, Winnipeg and Quebec City have virtually no chance at acquiring or re-acquiring NHL franchises any time soon, despite the fact that sunbelt US franchises are not exactly swarming with die-hard hockey fans. The mere fact that they exist in these US cities means that they will continue to exist in their own little niches, feeding the beast that is US culture. All we can do is stand on the outside, looking in, with sadness and a little wistfulness.

These items serve to re-enforce the ideas covered in the readings which I summarized in my previous post. It has been a sobering last few months for me. I have little faith in my country now, and feel that I have been sand-bagged by all the commentators, writers, thinkers and politicians that I have listened to over the last several years. Most of them have told us that our country is still respected around the world, that Canadian values of fairness and willingness to share and help are still strong, that we are peace-keepers and honest brokers, and that we are truly the "good guys" in the continuing melodrama that is the world. The sad fact is that none of this is true any more, and the only ones in the world who believe all of this is us. The only conclusion one can make from all of this: Canada is very sick and in desperate need of radical surgery to cure it of its ailment. In the next post, I will offer some possible solutions... I know I said this at the end of the first installment, but this is taking longer than I thought. Maybe I should stop reading and do more thinking. More later.