Is Canada a nation adrift?
My reading consists primarily of books on history and political philosophy, and does not include memoirs of has-been politicians. I would not have read Joe Clark’s How We Lead: Canada in a Century of Change had it not been a Christmas gift from my daughter. Had I relied on my prejudices, I would have deprived myself of an outstanding read.From the perspective of today’s viciously divided politics, Mr. Clark’s portrayal of the country’s history is balanced and laudable. His assessment of the state of Canadian politics is a sobering wake-up call.
Clark discusses the roles played by non-governmental organizations, industry and government throughout the 20th century, and of the importance of their cooperation in building the country. He recapitulates civil society’s active engagement which led to the creation of the CBC, Medicare, equalization, bilingualism, NAFTA, and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Our sense of identity as Canadians, from coast to coast to coast, is built on and maintained through institutions and policies of this kind.
Clark refers to our evermore divisive political discourse and the concentration on immediate and material concerns in parliament, as much as in civil society, as “troubling trends.” He notes that the “impact [of lobbyists] on public policy in Canada has grown immensely…, and much of it is exercised privately, rather than in the more public arenas of the House of Commons or Senate.”
One passage struck a particular chord with me. Clark refers to a question put to him by Arab-Canadian leaders during the crisis of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait: “Do you realize how many six-year-olds in Toronto schools are named Saddam Hussein, and can you imagine what their reaction is when their foreign minister and prime minister and media say repeatedly ‘Saddam Hussein is evil’?” The question took him by surprise although he knew “how exclusively six-year-olds identify themselves, and no one else, with their name.” How many six-year-olds in Canada carry the name Stephen Harper today? How often, in our criticism of governments, do we refer to them not as federal or provincial governments, but by the personal name of the executive branch’s principal officer? How many six-year-olds named Stephen Harper hear repeated comments by adults about Stephen Harper being an XYZ?
Clark is concerned about the growing focus of election campaigns “on the narrow and the negative – mobilizing an existing vote, attacking your opponent.” He reminds us of what “national conversations” have achieved for Canada and Canadians in the 20th century when focused on “goals and purposes that keep us moving forward as a national community, overcoming our reticence and differences in order to identify and pursue our purposes as a country.”
We will not solve any of our problems if we relegate unfinished business to the closet. The Charlottetown Accord (remember that referendum?) was supported by all provincial and territorial governments, but was rejected by voters. One of its provisions was Senate reform: it proposed a triple “E” Senate – equal, elected, and effective. The past year has shown that ignoring the Senate did not resolve the problems associated with that venerable institution. Cutting taxes, programs and services, closing libraries and ending mail delivery will not fix whatever is wrong with the Senate or bring us any closer to tackling our many environmental, economic, and social problems. There is more to a society than a strong economy; Canada is more than Walmart.
The purpose of this column is not to promote Clark’s book; it is not a book review. However, better than any book I have read in a long time, How We Lead depicts my concerns about the direction in which we Canadians are drifting, and whether the country my grandchildren will inherit will still be the vibrant, tolerant, compassionate and multifaceted Canada that welcomed me in 1963.
Andre Carrel is a retired City Administrator, journalist, author, and full-time grandpal.