Friday, October 22, 2010

Are we Worthy of this Canada?

By Andrew Cohen, Ottawa Citizen, October 17, 2010
Now he (Ken Dryden) makes his case for an engaged Canada in a slender, penetrating book, called Becoming Canada: Our Story/Our Politics/Our Future. It's a sobering if elegant assessment of our politics and a crie de coeur for a self-aware Canada.

"We have paid a huge price for having the wrong sense of ourselves as a country," he writes. "It has forced us to live under a ceiling of expectation and ambition that is so far below what we can do and can be."
If you see yourself as modest or inconsequential, he says, you cannot address unemployment, hunger, poverty, climate change, political dysfunction or any other problem. To do better you have to think bigger.
As he says, it's time for "the how" not "the what"; "the way" not "the will"; "the us" not "the me"; for "purpose, not politics."
To Dryden, we can no longer accept that big, exciting things happen elsewhere -- like the election of Barack Obama -- because that is America and this is Canada. Just Canada. Lil' ole Canada. We need to talk about aspirations, even if our conversation doesn't understand the language of hopes and dreams. It might not be the government's currency, he says, but it should be ours.
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If you see yourself as modest or cannot address unemployment, hunger, poverty, climate change, political dysfinction...To do better you have to think bigger.
To be sure, it is a Canadian creed to see ourselves as modest, inconsequential and it is also a Canadian fact that none of the larger issues are being addressed.
We are a country of political yahoos, little six-inch tall gremlins grabbing for every last morsel that falls from the table of our "rich" uncle to the south. Jonathan Swift could easily have been writing about Canadians in Gulliver's Travels.
And, once in a century someone enters the national consciousness who tells us that we are merely striving for the lowest rung on the ladder of civilizations and we can do better. And we suddenly say, "Oh, that sounds like a novel approach," and elect him Prime Minister (as in Pierre Trudeau).
In this iteration of the theme, Dryden, he of few Liberal Party votes in his leadership bid, says what everyone knows to be true ever so elegantly and almost quietly, so that no one will take issue by hearing him in the fullness of his national aspirations and then shooting him down.
As the  Molson Canadian advertising spot declares, we are made from the land, this beauiful, big, sprawling and magnetic "backyard" that is our heritage, from the cosmic gods. And, periodically, as in the winning of gold at the Vancouver Olympics, we all luxuriate in "standing tall" and then, like 34 million bears, we crawl back into our holes, silent unless and until some piece of drama awakens us from our national unconsciousness.
And yet, we cannot walk anywhere on the TransCanadaTrail, and not be in awe of the magnificence of the autumn colours, the strength of the rock outcroppings (on the Canadian Shield) and even the fortitude of our ancestors who built our national rail lines, many of them now integrated as part of the "trail." We are one of, if not the most, privileged peoples on the planet, given our resources, our honourable attempts at integrating differences (even though there is an argument that this is fairly superficial) and our tradition of compassion and civility.
However, compassion and civility, without vision and confidence and assertiveness and pride, are like salt and pepper without a main dish, reliable, perhaps even a little dramatic in terms of the capacity to "add flavour" but certainly not servable as an entree.
Canadians, in a somewhat religious, perhaps puritan mode, disdain confidence as "snobbery," and disdain the "future" in deference to the "past" as our talisman and touchstone for national ambition.
We have, it is said often in public ceremonies, generations of proud leaders behind us, while we disavow any ambition to generate proud leaders for tomorrow. We would prefer to denigrate and even to dismiss a new idea than plant it in an incubating garden and nurture it and watch it grow.
We would love to see someone else step forward and take the responsibilty for leadership, than face the heat of the public "eye" including that of the media, and even to those who do (as in hundreds if not thousands in the current municipal elections across Ontario) we pay polite lipservice to their front-door visits, without actually engaging them in dialogue about anything more complicated than "lowering taxes," that placebo offered by all non-thinking political aspirants, which is really no substitute for articulated, imaginative and novel policy ideas.
In our universities across the country, there is not one chair for "future studies" as one sure sign that we are not interested in such "speculation," because presumably it is not verifiable using the scientific method.
And while continuing to worship at the altars of national banks, and one or two national institutions (like CBC's "The National"), we complacently plod along thinking we are the best in the world because those very banks did not implode during the recent recession/depression, while those very institutions chalk up the largest profits in their history, at our expense, without so much as a "how-would-you-like-to-make-this-country-grow" with your idea to potential innovators.
We have a Health Care Act that is verging on erosion, in need of new energy and imagination and perhaps new funding formula. And we collectively do nothing except perhaps call another commission to study it, making it "off limits" for political debate.
We have an education system that lurches from one pedagogical fad to another, without taking seriously its intimate and dangerous trends in staffing, curriculum and in failed practice in both leadership and citizenship education.
We have a private investment in "tarsands" oil, without a national policy for preserving the environment to accompany the project.
We fail to even discuss a national financial regulatory agency, a minimum requirement coming out of the implosion of 2008.
We fail even to discuss with any urgency, a national policy for climate change and global warming.
We fail to take seriously the provincial barriers to labour movement, trade restrictions, and energy requirements, putting provincial hegemony ahead of national aspirations and national need.
We fail to move, or even to discuss, the appalling conditions of child poverty, homelessness and hunger here at home, preferring platitudes of piety and dispassion to getting our hands dirty from rolling up our sleeves and moving the mountains of vested interests out of the way of a sea-change.
In fact, sea-change is our greatest enemy, our greatest fear and our national impediment to development.
As myopic local leaders of small projects put it, "That (idea or person or way of thinking or operating) will bankrupt us!" leaving new approaches to their silent death on the boardroom tables, where they can be swept away with the crumbs from the timbits, at the end of the meeting. Like the amoeba, Canada moves inexorably and inevitably "away" from the light, in the smallest and most silent of movements.
We cannot deny our obsequiousness to the false gods of political correctness, while at the same time, noting our unconscious smugness that we are the best place in the world to live. We cannot deny our intimidation by the outside world, while attempting to "please" those very outsiders in our Afghan commitment.
We cannot deny our failures to generate significant national debates, while seeking representation in the inner sancta of world debates.
These ceilings are not imposed from without; they are our own design and construction. And we can only hope that their "papier mache" reality will emerge from the fog of our unconsciousness, and dissipate through collective aspiration, action and accomplishment.
Like individuals, the nation will have to "behave" its way to full health and full development.

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