July 1, 2015 | No Comments
I’m writing this on the morning of Canada Day 2015, thinking about all the fascinating things I’ve read about and all the people I’ve met. One thing I’ve come across is the persistent concern many Canadians seem to have about how we define ourselves, and the way we can fret about how other countries see us.
Jerry Agar wrote about how fervently many Canadians define themselves as “not American”. Bill Brady comments on how inferior we sometimes feel to the Americans. Part of the WikiLeaks revelations involved American authorities talking about Canada’s “inferiority complex” when dealing with the United States. In his book Canadians: A Portrait Of A Country And Its People, Roy MacGregor quoted journalist Walter Stewart, who wrote in the 1970s that smugness had become our “national disease”.
Irvin Studin writes about how content we supposedly are to follow in the footsteps of other countries, whether they be the United States or the UK, instead of acting more vigorously to develop our own national institutions in many fields. Randall Denley talks about how content we supposedly are to stay home and let the world come to us, instead of going out and actively engaging it.
In his book A Fair Country, John Ralston Saul writes about the colonial mentality of many of our elites, and how content they are to play second fiddle to other countries, and define their worth relative to what the elites in other countries think of them. The Franco-Québécois expression about a “peuple de petit pain” (people of little bread), refers to a people who are always going to be second-rate and mediocre. As early as 1949, Merril Denson commented in a speech to the Empire Club of Canada about Canada’s “inferiority complex”, and many Canadians’ inability to celebrate, or even know about, their country’s own successes.
It’s a pity, then, that so many of us feel this way when you consider the impact that Canadians have had on the world, an influence far out of proportion to our small population.
Militarily, Canadians have become renowned for their fierceness and skill in fighting. In the American Revolution and the War of 1812, British soldiers teamed up with Francophone Canadiens and First Nations warriors to drive out American invaders. In World War I, German troops became afraid to face Canadians in battle, even when the Canadians had to contend with poor equipment and worse leadership. In World War II Canadians fought fiercely throughout Europe, notably at Normandy, Dieppe and Italy, playing a critical role in saving the world from Hitler’s twisted evil. Lester Pearson’s peacekeeping initiatives in the Suez Canal crisis earned him the Nobel Peace Prize and led to him being credited for saving the world. His legacy continued to live on as peacekeepers have helped to reduce conflict in places ranging from Mozambique to Haiti to Bosnia. Canada also joined the American coalition to fight Saddam Hussein in the first Gulf War, helping the Kuwaitis regain their freedom.
Diplomatically, Lester Pearson also helped establish the modern state of Israel. Robert Borden helped establish the British Commonwealth by insisting that the British dominions should be treated as diplomatic equals to Great Britain itself. John Diefenbaker was ahead of his time when he got the British Commonwealth to expel South Africa for its practices of apartheid, an effort Brian Mulroney would later build on when Canada helped to finally put an end to South African apartheid.
Scientifically, Canadians have developed insulin treatments, standard time zones, the electron microscope, the pacemaker, an early version of the lightbulb, the Canadarm, the telephone handset, and much more.
Culturally, Canadians ranging from Mary Pickford to James Cameron to David Cronenberg to William Shatner have all made a tremendous impact on American television and film, which has been further broadcast to the world. Homegrown television shows such as SCTV, Bizarre, The Raccoons, Murdoch Mysteries, Due South and The Red Green Show have attracted international followings. Red Green has also become a huge fundraiser for American public broadcasting.
Musically, Canadians are represented not only by the likes of Celine Dion and Nickelback, but also the Guess Who, Rush, Leahy, Glenn Gould, Randy Bachman and Susan Aglukark.
In sports, Canadians are represented by the likes of racers Jacques and Gilles Villeneuve, figure skaters Jamie Sale and David Pelletier, boxer Lennox Lewis, runner Donovan Bailey, and of course hockey players like Wayne Gretzky, Bobby Orr, Bobby and Brett Hull and Gordie Howe. Canadian sports figures have also left important legacies for future generations-the annual runs begun by Terry Fox have raised millions of dollars for cancer research, while Dr. James Naismith’s invention of basketball has provided an entertainment and outlet for thousands of people both in Canada, the United States and beyond, enabling them to develop their talents and their communities.
This is hardly a complete list of the contributions Canadians have made to the world, of course. That said, they do reflect the fact that we don’t need to insult other countries to feel good about ourselves, or feel inferior to them and follow meekly in their footsteps. Our successes speak for themselves in many different fields, contributions that show just what we’re capable of when we strive for the best.
Vive le Canada uni!
June 21, 2015 | No Comments
The Aboriginal Truth and Reconciliation Commission recently presented its findings about the ghoulish legacy of the residential school system. Some people have reacted to the Commission’s findings by wondering why nothing seems to change. Why should they be made to feel guilty for something that they were not involved in? Why are the programs and the money currently allocated to support Aboriginals not enough? Why don’t Aboriginal people just “get over it”?
Part of the problem is that the abuse of the residential schools went on far longer than most people realized, the last one closing in 1996. Over all that time, the abuse and trauma many Aboriginals suffered led to alcoholism, violence, and other problems. Given how long the schools operated, and how many generations they affected, it’s not surprising that change is so slow. Would any of us have done any better if we were forcibly dragged away from our families, beaten for speaking English, told that our ancestral cultures were stupid and primitive, and repeatedly been forced to move our homes by the government?
The actions of the past are responsible for the problems of the present.
A larger reason why many things don’t seem to change, though, is the fact that we don’t fully understand the Aboriginal perspective on their Treaty rights. For many non-Natives, the Treaties were bills of sale, and the Aboriginals were expected to assimilate into the rest of society. For most Aboriginals, however, the Treaties are sacred agreements to share the land with non-Natives while still maintaining their own self-governing communities. The Treaties, and the rights associated with them, have an almost religious meaning for many Aboriginal people. As Harold Cardinal wrote, asking them to abandon their Treaty rights is like asking them to abandon their faiths and identities. Many of them don’t like the Indian Act any more than anyone else, but it’s still an implicit recognition of their distinct status. They’d rather continue to live under it than abandon their Treaty rights.
The big problem is that too many people still insist on adhering to the non-Native interpretation of the Treaties, the one that expects Aboriginal people to assimilate into mainstream society. The residential schools were meant to “civilize” Aboriginal youth for assimilation, which in practice led to beatings, assaults and attacks on their identities. Non-Native Canadians don’t understand where many Aboriginals are coming from, and resent being associated with the schools. Many Aboriginals, on the other hand, feel like they aren’t being listened to. Even if they aren’t being violently forced to assimilate, the underlying attitude that Aboriginal people are seen as “primitive” still remains.
A better way lies with the original spirit that the Treaties were signed under. Recognizing Aboriginal self-government and Treaty rights would go a long way towards healing the wounds and frustrations many Aboriginal communities feel, enable them to contribute economically to Canada and allow Canada to get rid of the Indian Act. While many Aboriginal people insist that they are distinct, they wish to be distinct within Canada. Being Canadian would be the bond that continues to unite them with the rest of us.
We would be able to leave the past in the past, and look forward to a brighter future than we could ever imagine.
This article was originally published in the St. Albert Gazette on June 20, 2015 and is available online at http://www.stalbertgazette.com/article/20150620/SAG0903/306209969.
May 24, 2015 | No Comments
Some people criticize what they view as the government’s increasing interference in people’s lives. They say the government should get out of people’s way, and stop meddling in things that it doesn’t have business regulating. A few of these critics say that things were better in earlier eras, when the nanny state wasn’t trying to run every part of people’s lives.
What most people don’t realize is that we simply had a different kind of nanny state back then.
For a long time, Canadian and American governments imposed heavy restrictions on things like divorce, property ownership, and homosexuality. Women were treated as being dependent on their husbands, and often not allowed to own property or businesses without the husband’s consent, or to vote in elections. Divorce was also heavily restricted-in extreme cases, like 19th century Alabama, couples needed the state legislature’s approval before a divorce was legal. Homosexuals were arrested and jailed for their sexuality. Various U.S. governments imposed the abhorrent “Jim Crow” laws that restricted black peoples’ freedom in many areas of life, such as where they could go and live, and who they could marry. The Canadian government, as part of its self-appointed goal to “civilize” Aboriginal peoples, empowered its Indian agents to control Aboriginals’ ability to leave their reserve lands, their abilities to acquire food and property, and even who they could marry.
Today, governments are frequently criticized for the restrictions they place on economic transactions, developments that might impact the environment, or the acquisition of property such as land or guns. These claims can often have merit, and the government needs to back off on some of its restrictions. However, the people who compare today’s “nanny state” to the supposedly freer times of earlier eras tend to forget how the governments of those eras frequently ran a much more insidious nanny state by trying to control much more personal and intimate parts of peoples’ lives. Fundamental liberties such as peoples’ freedom of movement, freedom of association, freedom of religion (with laws that made life more difficult for people who belonged to different branches of Christianity, or adhered to other religions or were atheists) were routinely violated in the name of enforcing morality and the common good.
Oftentimes, these changes were imposed based on Christian principles on things like divorce and sexuality. More insidiously, some of them were imposed based on the belief that black and Aboriginal people were somehow “uncivilized” because of their ancestral cultures. In practice, that meant that peoples’ freedom to live many aspects of their lives the way they wanted was heavily restricted by governments. Despite modern governments supposedly being more controlling than older ones, our modern governments are actually less controlling of peoples’ lives in many ways.
25 years ago, Preston Manning wrote that true Christianity distinguishes itself from spurious Christianity in that true Christianity does not try to forcibly impose its solutions on people who do not want it.
We would do well to heed his words.
This article was published on May 20, 2015 and is available online at http://www.stalbertgazette.com/article/20150520/SAG0903/305209969/0/sag.
April 26, 2015 | No Comments
In the second chapter, Citizen X discusses his opinions of Pierre Trudeau and his impact on Canada. On the one hand, he notes how much of a positive impact Trudeau had in reaffirming the geographic unity of Canada, building on something Citizen X described in Chapter One. He further ties this into Trudeau’s advocacy of bilingualism across Canada. Presuming that Canada’s geography belongs to us all, then the millions of Canadians whose mother tongue is French ought to be able to live their lives in French anywhere they choose.
However, Trudeau’s dream was undermined by the hard reality that building bilingualism across Canada was, at best, a tall order. Citizen X notes that it was further repudiated by the 1995 Quebec referendum results. While the NO side in favour of staying with Canada won by a margin of 51% to 49% for the YES side in favour of separation, some 60% of Franco-Quebecois voters voted yes. As Citizen X quoted Richard Gwyn, what seemed to have died in 1995 was Pierre Trudeau’s idea of Canada.
Citizen X analyzes the flaws of Trudeau’s goals, and notes how tied in they were to his growing up in cosmopolitan, bilingual Montreal. Trudeau himself was the son of an Anglophone mother and a Francophone father, which influenced his views of bilingualism. Unfortunately, things were rather different not only in the rest of Quebec but also the entire rest of Canada. As historian Robert Bothwell put it, Trudeau understood Canada “from one half of Montreal Island to the other”.
The issues Citizen X is referring to are based in the fact that the vast majority of Canadian Francophones call Quebec home. Indeed, in 1995 some 58% of them did not even know how to speak English. It becomes a lot more difficult to tell them that Canada’s geography belongs to them if they have no one to talk to about it. Only New Brunswick has, in percentage of the population, anywhere near the same number of Francophones that Quebec does, and the largest population of Francophones outside Quebec is next door in Ontario. As a result, it’s obviously a lot easier for Quebec Francophones to learn English, than it is for Anglophones outside Quebec to learn French.
Some might conclude there, deciding that French is a dying language and that everybody should just learn to speak English. The issue with that, as Citizen X points out, is that French can hardly be considered a doomed language when some 124 million people around the world still speak it. But this also ties into something else Citizen X points out, namely that saying that French is doomed is another way of saying that Francophones are a conquered people. The idea of the Conquest, as much as we’ve tried to get past it, still impacts us today with the fact that it tied into the fact that French has taken such deep roots in Quebec that the majority there still speak it, that English is the majority language in Canada outside it, and that Quebec has two major linguistic groups. The issue of Quebec standing out from other parts of Canada in this regard is something we can’t simply erase through goodwill.
Citizen X closes out the chapter with some considerations about the idea of French being a doomed language, and that the world will mostly speak English, Mandarin and Spanish in a generation. He points out that, if French is a dying language, one might ask what the fate of Canada, a country with a population roughly equal to the entire state of California’s, will be. And if that’s the case, there’s not much point in worrying about the future of French, is there? Of course, Citizen X notes that the vast majority of people do not live in a world where the majority will only be speaking English, Mandarin and Spanish in a generation. As a result, he considers it more likely than not that there will always be a French majority in Quebec.
-I’ve written before about the “Trudeau Paradox” whereby Pierre Trudeau’s ideas of Canadian federalism and unity were originally meant to turn his fellow Franco-Quebecois away from separatism. However, in practice they ended up taking root much more in the Anglophone majority parts of Canada. When we saw Trudeau and then Brian Mulroney putting so much emphasis on Quebec, and the persistence of separatism in Quebec, other Canadians considered Quebecers to be spoiled and that nothing would ever please them, particularly when they continued to elect separatists to their provincial government and to Parliament.
What few other Canadians really know, then or now, is just how much of an outlier Trudeau was from other Franco-Quebecois thinkers, including his own fellow federalists. A century ago, Henri Bourassa was a staunch federalist, but he also emphasized that Quebec had a particular status and role to play in Canada, being the only province with a Francophone majority. Federalists like Léon Dion, Claude Ryan and André Laurendeau all felt connections to Canada as their country, but they also expressed how Quebec was their home and Canada was their country, or how they were Quebecois first, but Canadians too. Back during the Confederation debates, Lower Canadian leaders like Georges-Étienne Cartier were instrumental in making Confederation a federal system, and sold Confederation to their fellow Francophones by emphasizing how it would allow them to maintain their distinct culture and identity, even though they would also be part of a larger political nationality.
Trudeau was not trying to impose Quebec’s view of things on the country. He was trying to impose his own view of things to counter the views of most Quebecers, and get them to change their minds. His efforts, for all the very real good he did in other areas, largely failed. Brian Mulroney had to deal with the situation, and his appalling incompetence in doing led to Jean Chretien having to cope with the fallout in 1995. As Jeffrey Simpson noted in Faultlines: Struggling For A Canadian Vision, while Trudeau came out with guns blazing against the Meech Lake Accord, the vast majority of other high-profile Quebec federalists came out in support of it. The failure of Meech Lake infuriated many Quebecers and led to a renewal of support for separatism-and when one considers that 50% of Franco-Québécois voters supported the YES side in the 1980 referendum, Trudeau’s success in “defeating” separatism doesn’t really seem to have been anywhere near as fruitful as many of his supporters outside Quebec liked to claim.
-The fallout of the Conquest is something that still impacts Canada today. However, the actions of many Anglophones outside Quebec did not give Francophone Quebecers much reason for believing that French could flourish outside Quebec. Whether it was broken promises on education rights, censuring legislators for speaking French in provincial legislatures, or anti-Catholic bigotry against French speakers, French speakers outside Quebec have rarely had the same level of support for their rights that English speakers have typically had in Quebec. When they have gotten recognition for their rights, it’s usually had to be through the courts, or through concerted political action, like Louis Robichaud’s visionary efforts as Premier of New Brunswick.
Trudeau himself pointed out as early as the 1960s that actions like these were one of the main things that prevented French from growing more outside Quebec, and led to support for separatism. If Quebec was the only place where they could maintain their culture and identity, then what was the basis for remaining in Canada? Various Anglophones outside Quebec are in effect just as responsible for the unity problems we have to deal with, if not moreso.
-The fact that we have two official language majorities in Quebec makes it, in my view, much easier to justify Quebec’s language laws. Many Anglophones cite the idea of “equal rights for all, and special rights for none” when opposing French-language rights outside Quebec, but how then do they justify the various exemptions and exceptions made for English-speakers not only in Quebec’s language laws, but also the Constitution (for guaranteeing English in the Quebec legislature)? Logically, one might say that if everybody has equal rights and has to speak the language of the majority, English-speakers in Quebec ought to just speak French all the time.
Now, one might justify support for Quebec’s English majority on things like historical factors and the status of English in North America. They are quite right, and this is why it’s important that those exceptions and special exemptions for Quebec’s English minority remain in place. However, given that Quebec is the only part of North America with a French majority, and given the inferior status of French in the other provinces, one could also use such an argument to justify the special exceptions and exemptions for Francophones in other provinces, as well as recognizing Quebec itself as distinct in the Constitution. Otherwise, what’s the justification for only doing anything like this for Quebec English speakers, when the idea of treating everyone the same is used to justify not doing anything for French speakers outside Quebec?
-Another justification for not making special exceptions and exemptions for French outside Quebec is the idea that French is a smaller language, demographically, than other languages like Spanish or Mandarin. While this is true, it overlooks the fact that, from everything I’ve seen, new immigrants to Canada usually tend to end up integrating into one of our two main language majorities. They often use their ancestral languages at cultural or family gatherings, but whenever they need to speak to someone outside these groups, they switch to English and/or French. When their children grow up educated in Canadian schools, their accents and use of our official languages are often largely the same as those of people who were born here.
For this reason, I’ve found French to be far more useful than Hindi or German. It’s enabled me to get a much better understanding of what the Francophone Canadians themselves are saying on a lot of these issues, and why they feel this way in the first place. English and French are the only languages that are bound up with our Constitution and our legal and education systems (e.g., with the official language minority rights in the Charter), and so they have always had a particular status over and above any other in Canada. In my opinion, this is how it ought to be, except for Aboriginal languages in Aboriginal communities. The northern territories provide legal status to various Aboriginal languages, but they also recognize the status of English and French too.
More often than not, these various legal exceptions, exemptions and statuses have strengthened our unity as a country. I’ve noticed how, historically, shaping our institutions and our legal systems to reflect the reality of what we have to deal with often leads to things turning out for the better than if we keep trying to force square pegs into round holes.
April 26, 2015 | No Comments
The gay rights movement has made tremendous advances in the last few decades. Whereas before gays could only express themselves secretly for fear of the consequences, gay rights are increasingly accepted in mainstream society, and discrimination against them is much less accepted. Gays are still threatened by violence, but while gay marriage was previously illegal, gays were condemned as going to hell, and people feared that gays wanted to “recruit” their children, most people don’t bat an eye at gay marriage now, the idea of gay “recruitment” is increasingly discredited and condemning gay people to hell is now opposed by many Canadians, as the Wildrose Alliance found out the hard way in the last provincial election.
One of the reasons that the gay community has made the advances it has is because more people realize that gays are not a threat to anyone, and that their “agenda” is wanting to be able to live peacefully. Other groups have made similar advances as society realizes that what they’re advocating is often quite reasonable. Social movements that are often seen as “fringe” causes can often become much stronger as they get “buy in” from people outside their own smaller group.
The question, then, becomes how can and should smaller fringe movements build support for their causes? One of the reasons that Communism failed in Canada was because of the mass murder and violence that Communist regimes in other countries engaged in, which didn’t exactly endear Canadians to it here. On the other hand, a large part of the success of getting Canadian women’s rights to vote recognized came from years of tireless advocacy and public education before the federal and provincial governments eventually recognized women’s voting rights. Aboriginal people have been engaging in similar advocacy, whether through Harold Cardinal’s “Red Paper” of the 1960s or the more recent Idle No More movement.
However, what typically isn’t conducive to success are tactics that resort to insulting the very people the advocates are trying to convince, whether attacking them as being stupid for voting against their “class interests” (which, curiously enough, only the advocates ever seem able to properly define for them) or saying that people in dominant social groups who suffer some sort of problems deserve what happened to them, such as American professor Ward Churchill infamously claiming that the people who died in 9/11 deserved their fates. It’s not clear how the advocates who say such things expect the people outside their own political or social groups to eventually agree with them.
On the other hand, advocates who engage in more positive outreach can often get greater support for their messages. If they play their cards right, their goals can also be integrated into the platforms of larger political parties and movements as part of their platforms.
What won’t work, though, is calling people stupid for not supporting your cause. How would you ever get public support that way? And without public support, how will you ever achieve your goals?
This article was originally published in the St. Albert Gazette on April 18, 2015 and is available online at http://www.stalbertgazette.com/article/20150418/SAG0903/304189981/0/sag.
March 25, 2015 | No Comments
With the demise of Sun News Network last month, Ezra Levant announced that he planned to start a new online news network. The network is called “Rebel Media”, presumably to mark Levant and his colleagues as rebels against a presumably left-wing elite that makes up so much of the “Media Party” Levant talks about.
References like these that mark the people who say them as “rebels” supposedly fighting against some big elite have often left me scratching my head. Pierre Trudeau famously talked about how he prided himself on “paddling against the current” of popular opinion, and rallied public support against the “elites” who supported the Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords. Writers like John Ralston Saul and Mel Hurtig have been criticizing Canadian business and political elites for years. The Harper government has often tried to portray itself as outsiders fighting against an entrenched Ottawa elite, even though it’s been in power in Ottawa for almost a decade.
In all these cases, they try to distinguish themselves as standing out from the pack, rebelling against some powerful elite that supposedly wields all the real power in Canada. The odd thing is, though, the “rebels” often themselves have a lot of power, wealth and influence, and could easily be seen themselves as some kind of intellectual, political, or business elite of one kind or another. The identity of the “elite” they criticize often tends to vary too, whether it be reporters, professors or businesspeople.
How does one explain the presence of so many different “rebels” and so many different “elites”? One possibility is that there is no single “elite” in Canada that all shares the same opinions and goals, and that the people who all make up the “elite” have just as many disagreements and different goals as any other group of Canadians. The federal Conservatives, for instance, have their supporters among the university professors and the media, while progressives like the Liberals and the NDP have their supporters among entrepreneurs and the business community.
Another possibility is that there is more than one group of “elites” in Canada, each of whom wields some kind of power and influence. Rob Ford got elected in part by criticizing what many people considered Toronto’s downtown elite and standing up for the ordinary citizen, but Ford himself could easily be seen as part of an elite himself, given his family wealth.
So when someone tries to portray themselves as a rebel in Canadian politics, it’s worth considering exactly who the “elite” they’re opposing is, and just what their own status exactly is. Popular culture often depicts rebels who fight back against elites as heroes, and political commentators will often try to portray their adversaries as elites. In some cases, they might actually be right in depicting their adversaries as elites. However, at the same time they might end up being depicted as elites when someone else begins rebelling against their ideas and actions.
Sometimes, elites and rebels aren’t as different as they seem.
This article was originally published in the St. Albert Gazette on March 18, 2015 and is available online at http://www.stalbertgazette.com/article/20150318/SAG0902/303189974/0/SAG.
March 15, 2015 | No Comments
In the first chapter, Citizen X talks about just why he’s confused about Canada’s future. He recounts hitchhiking to the Gaspé region in Quebec in his youth in the 1960s, and his fascination with la belle province. In thinking about what came afterwards, including the rise of the Parti Quebecois and the separatist movement, he wonders what happened to the visions he had in his youth.
He then goes on to discuss the 1980 referendum, Pierre Trudeua’s patriation of the Constitution, the clash between the visions of Trudeau and René Lévesque, how Meech Lake tried almost to blend them together, and then how the Charlottetown Accord tried to blend those ideas together with a host of other issues other parts of the country had brought forward.
Citizen X then moves on to a discussion of Charlottetown’s failure leading to the 1995 referendum, wherein Canada almost broke apart. At first, on the morning after the referendum, Citizen X thought that whatever happened in Quebec was no business of his, noting that most of the rest of the country didn’t seem at all prepared for what might have happened. His sister, however, pointed out to him that he wasn’t fascinated by Quebec so much as he was by the separatist movement. She reminded him that English-speaking Canada is pretty much impossible without Quebec, and he countered with the fact that Quebec was pretty much impossible without English-speaking Canada. He then noted that many Canadians had spent so much time worrying about what Francophone Quebec might do, that they hadn’t spent nearly as much time thinking about what their Canada is. He then notes that the old idea of merging with the United States was gaining credibility again, which in turn made him wonder whether this was the reason so many people weren’t as worried about Quebec leaving as they might otherwise be expected to be.
He closes out the chapter with a look at Canada’s vast-very vast, geography and how it ties into what Canada is all about. Canada, he says, is the result of geographic facts like the rivers that led to the canoe routes used by the fur traders, which in turn were revived by Canada’s railway transportation network. In many parts of Canada, transport by canoe was much more viable than it was in most other parts of the country, and so the technology of canoeing and portaging, first pioneered by the Natives, played an essential part in uniting the large geography of Canada that now belongs to all of us. However, a friend of his pointed out that such an idea meant little to her Franco-Quebecois grandfather, and doesn’t make nearly as much sense for them as it does for most English-speaking Canadians.
My thoughts so far:
-Citizen X’s travels to Quebec, and his fascination with the province, mirror my own in some ways. In my mid-twenties, I spent a month in Jonquière in the Saguenay region, and then the next summer in Quebec City, having studied the history of the province extensively in my history and political science classes. While the separatist movement certainly fascinated me the way it did him, studying Quebec history also made me more aware of the diverse voices that have infused the debate, voices from guys like Louis-Hippolyte Lafontaine, George-Étienne Cartier, Henri Bourassa, Claude Ryan and Léon and Stéphane Dion.
A lot of this probably comes from the fact that I did all my schooling in a French immersion setting, even at the university level when I attended the Campus Saint-Jean at the University of Alberta. Despite its image as a supposedly inward-looking place only concerned with itself, Quebec and its inhabitants have actually played a much more significant, albeit overlooked, role in our history, ranging from Lafontaine’s influence in bringing about responsible government to Cartier’s influence in the Confederation debates to the crucial work done by Francophone immigrants to Ontario and the Western provinces who would eventually pave the way for European settlement and Canada’s expansion into the Northwest Territories.
-Citizen X’s sister’s remark about how so few of us have been interested by Quebec itself is dead on, in my view. Far too few of us have ever actually tried to see things from the Franco-Quebecois point of view, to see just why so many of them have supported separatism or Quebec’s language laws. I’d like to think that, with my own studies, I’ve tried to do so, and in that way I’ve actually developed a lot of sympathy and support for Quebec nationalism and the province’s language laws, if not the ways they’ve sometimes worked in practice.
Guys like Lafontaine, Bourassa and others have shown me just how much more complicated the debate is between Trudeau-style federalism and Quebec separatism. Political scientist Samuel LaSelva wrote about how Trudeau and Lévesque each only understood what the other failed to grasp about Quebec’s place in Canada-how many Quebecers are attached to their province first and foremost, much more so than most other Canadians are attached to their provinces, but many of them also do have a sincere and genuine attachment to Canada. Léon Dion called Quebec his home, and Canada his country, while Claude Ryan said that he was “Quebecois first, but Canadian too”. That’s something that most other Canadians have never truly understood-particularly when, as Alan Cairns pointed out, most of the rest of us tend to have more of an attachment to the country than to our provinces. That ties into what Citizen X also talked about when he mentioned that many of us are attached to Canada’s geography, while many Franco-Quebecois are attached moreso to their province first.
In my mind, though, the geography issue shows why we have so many regional squabbles not just with Quebec, but with and between other parts of the country as well. William Lyon Mackenzie King thought that sometimes, Canada had too much geography, which made it much harder for people in one part of the country to always understand what people in other parts might be thinking. The federal government has had to put a lot of time and resources linking the different parts together not just physically through railroads and highways, but also culturally with its support for the CBC, various elements of Canadian culture, and so forth. It also explains why Ottawa will frequently take some parts of the country for granted-after all, if we’re so big and have such an uneven population distribution, why not tailor policy and spending to benefit those areas you need to win government?
The U.S. has managed to avert a lot of this by the way they built a brand-new political framework and identity from the ground up, and constitutional features such as every state having the same number of senators and the presidency being decided by the electoral college. As the country expanded, new territories were incorporated into this political framework and made to fit it. While the Americans tore down their old political system in the American Revolution and built an entirely new one that formed the base for their national identity, Canada’s challenges were quite different.
Having to incorporate independent entities that did not have a shared history of fighting together against a common enemy, as the and in having at least one region where non-Anglophones were the majority (unlike the U.S., where all of the Thirteen Colonies had Anglophone Protestant majorities), Canada’s growth was much more that of pragmatic compromise. This had its advantages but also unfortunately caused more than one region to feel as though it was getting mistreated by the federal government for the benefit of another region (as the Prairie and Maritime provinces have both felt at different times for their own reasons, believing that Ottawa’s primary concern was the needs and issues of Ontario and Quebec, and that it saw the rest of the country as second-rate hinterlands).
There was also less consensus in the United States about exactly what kind of country Canada ought to be-as far back as Confederation, some of the Anglophone Fathers sold the populace on the idea of one big country from sea to sea, but the Francophone Fathers sold the idea in Lower Canada based largely on the idea of maintaining their internal “home rule”. Canada was, and still is in many ways, the result of an ongoing compromise between the desire for a central government that speaks for all Canadians, and the local needs and identities of different regions and provinces. A lot of that comes from Canada’s geography, which in part makes these differences that much bigger and balancing them more of a challenge.
All that said, though, both Citizen X and his sister were right when they said that Quebec and the other parts of Canada could never have survived without each other. At the best of times, we’ve been able to make things work despite our vast geographical differences, and our misunderstandings with each other, and forge a common identity that, while very different from the American one, is no less compelling in its own way.
That’s something to be proud of, even with everything we’ve been through over the last 40 years.
March 15, 2015 | No Comments
For many years, I have been writing about Canadian politics and history, and studying the commentaries of many different Canadian thinkers and politicians. My motivation for doing this stems from my Canadian nationalism. I grew up during the fierce political conflicts and debates of the late 1980s and early 1990s-the rise of the Reform Party and its statement that “the West wants in”, the Aboriginal standoffs at places like Oka and Ipperwash, and the 1995 Quebec referendum. I recall the often bitter invective Canadians threw at each other-the Western Canadian Reformers were greedy, selfish racists; the Natives were violent, criminally-inclined thugs; the Quebecers were spoiled and whiny.
Something always struck me as being fundamentally wrong about those claims. What motivated Quebecers to hold the 1995 referendum, for instance? Was it really just the “fact” that they were supposedly a bunch of spoiled brats? What motivated so many Westerners to support the Reform party when, so far as I could tell, the West was already “in” Canada? Why were the Natives organizing blockades and standoffs? What was going through all these peoples’ minds, and why did they have so much support?
That’s one of the reasons I studied Canadian history-to try and better understand just why so many Franco-Quebecois wanted to leave Canada, why so many Westerners felt alienated, and so forth. This grew into a more general interest in Canadian identity and national unity for me. My exposure to American media showed me how so many Americans defined their country and identity on things like a shared commitment to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, which of course works well for them. However, it made me wonder what Canadian nationalism is like, in turn, and what defines us as a country besides being “not America”.
Canadian nationalism, for me, goes far beyond simply left-wing politics and disliking the United States. Indeed, while the details on some of his claims are sketchy, no less than Stephen Harper called for a Canadian nationalism that is not defined by anti-Americanism.
Canada is so much richer in so many ways than the anti-Americanism its nationalism is so often associated with, and it’s a shame that Canadian nationalism so often ends up being conflated with anti-Americanism. Canadian nationalism can, is and ought to be so much more than that. One of my personal goals in trying to understand Canada is to make people more aware of our proud, and distinct history, and how it’s shaped not only ourselves, but the world.
Which brings me to the subject of this article. I’ve read numerous books like John Ralston Saul’s Reflections Of A Siamese Twin: Canada At The End Of The Twentieth Century and What Is A Canadian? Forty-Three Thought-Provoking Responses, edited by Irving Studin, on the subject. The one I’m currently working on is titled Who Are The People Of Canada Anyway? Waiting For The Next Referendum, by an author who goes only by the moniker of “Citizen X” in 1997. “Citizen X”, a civil servant who gave a tongue-in-cheek explanation for his pen name by saying that he wanted to keep his job after publishing the book, ponders the history of Canada leading up to the fateful 1995 referendum, and the possible future of the country. I’m already a few chapters in, and it’s got me thinking about not only many of my past readings, but also a lot of my own personal experiences.
What I’m trying with this article is something new for me. I’ll be posting a chapter-by-chapter summary of the book, adding in my own thoughts and commentary along the way.
Hopefully, in doing so, I’ll be a step further to finding something I’ve been spending a good part of my life searching for-the idea of what Canada is truly all about, what keeps it together, and what we share as a heritage and identity.
February 24, 2015 | No Comments
The tragic murders of many of the artists who produced the satirical French magazine “Charlie Hebdo” have revived debates around free speech and what’s considered acceptable to publish. Some critics have said that cartoons like the ones Charlie Hebdo published on Islam were offensive and merely fed into Islamophobia with crass insults. They support the refusal by certain media to re-publish the cartoons. Others say that the cartoons are an important example of free speech, and that a refusal to publish them is giving in to terrorist threats.
The Charlie Hebdo situation ties back into satire and its larger role in society. Satire like Animal Farm, Gulliver’s Travelsand Huckleberry Finn have made important commentaries about society and contributed to its growth. Speaking truth to power is one of the most important roles art and artists can play in society, particularly when that power is tyrannical or violent, as it is with terrorism.
However, satire is like any other form of art, in that it can be ill-informed, tacky or just plain bad. Too often, though, it seems like any criticism of satire or satirists is treated as an attack on free speech itself. Anybody who dares to say that satire like Charlie Hebdo’s work, or of commentators like Jon Stewart or Ezra Levant, is almost themselves set up for being attacked as opposing free speech, giving in to terrorism, or what have you.
This, in itself is a subtle danger, in that it makes criticism of the satirists and artists themselves almost off-limits. Just because something is satirical does not necessarily mean that it is well-thought out, or that its producers should be immune to criticism because of who they’re directing their messages at. Nor does it necessarily mean that anyone else should feel pressured to reproduce satire or messages that they disagree with, particularly if they feel that it’s badly done.
Free speech is an important tool for satirists and artists to use in keeping the powerful accountable and informing people of social problems. Violence in response to it deserves to be punished, and the terrorists who murdered the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists got what they deserved.
However, free speech also serves another important role in society-namely that of keeping the artists and satirists themselves accountable. There is no reason why satirists cannot themselves be satirized or criticized if their work is badly done or is misinformed.
The best way to counter a use of free speech that you do not agree with is to use your own freedom of speech to counter it. Satirists are just as fair to criticize as any elected official, and can rightly be called out if their work is mistaken or bad. Another recourse, too, is just to ignore it. Just because someone produces a work of art does not mean you have to like it, much less that you have to watch or read it.
After all, the freedom to do something also includes the freedom not to do something.
This article was originally published in the St. Albert Gazette on February 14, 2015 and is available online at http://www.stalbertgazette.com/article/20150214/SAG0903/302149990/0/SAG.
January 22, 2015 | 1 Comment
I’m currently reading Brent Rathgeber’s excellent book Irresponsible Government: the Decline of Parliamentary Democracy in Canada, which describes the methods that Canadian prime ministers have used to consolidate power in the Prime Minister’s Office, and force their Members of Parliament to follow all of their directions. MPs are now expected to only obey the prime minister, instead of keeping him and his Cabinet accountable the way Canada’s system of responsible government has traditionally required.
Many Canadians have been increasingly turned off by this system of top-down control. Samara, an organization dedicated to strengthening Canadian democracy, has noted that many Canadians believe that Canadian politicians and parties only want their votes, and don’t care about listening to their concerns. MPs are only seen as representing the views of their parties, instead of their constituents. Samara also found that even many MPs themselves came to feel that their efforts to represent their constituents were hampered by the dictates of their political parties. Many citizens told Samara that they had become disengaged from politics because they didn’t feel that it was really addressing their needs, and made them feel like outsiders. Significantly, many MPs also came to feel as though they became outsiders in their own parties.
Stephen Harper is not the first prime minister to increasingly centralize control in the Prime Minister’s Office. However, it’s been said that he has continued this trend because of the experiences of the Reform Party in the 1990s, when some of its candidates made statements that were later used by its opponents to smear the Reformers as bigoted and intolerant. These types of “bozo eruptions” can be a major political hazard, such as in the 2012 Alberta election. The statements made by Wildrose Alliance candidate Alan Hunsperger about gay people dying in a “lake of fire” are widely seen as a major factor in the Wildrose’s defeat.
The Reform party and the Wildrose both prided themselves on engaging their grassroots, and enabling members to speak their minds freely. This can make people feel like they’re being listened to, and their views are being taken into account by the party leadership. However, it also brings the risk that those views can be used by the party’s electoral opponents to make them look bad and turn voters off.
The challenge for political leaders, then, becomes how to listen to citizens’ views and make them feel as though they’re being listened to, while also determining which ideas are the best ones to act on and how they will be perceived by the public.
This would require a complicated balancing act, and not everyone would be happy with the results. However, it would still be better the current trend of centralizing power at the top of the party leadership, which then dictates how Members of Parliament vote and exercises top-down control on them. That trend has only turned countless Canadians off of politics, and weakened our democracy as a whole.
-This article was published in the St. Albert Gazette on January 14, 2015 and is available online at http://www.stalbertgazette.com/article/20150114/SAG0903/301149997/0/sag.