Canada isn't all that bad after all

As we prepare for a quintessentially Canadian celebration of our national holiday, hoping the long weekend traffic is not made intolerable by native blockades, I seek reasons to wave a flag. I’ve settled on the national beer glass being well over half full. I know, I know. “It could be much worse” is a quintessentially Canadian rallying cry. I would like to be more positive. But I cannot do a Maple Leaf Forever kind of column, not least because that aspect of our heritage is not exactly popular with the smart set. Americans generally lay aside their grievances on the 4th of July because they regard their history as fundamentally glorious. But here the official view is quite different. Our statesmen were bigots, our industrialists rapacious, our scholars hegemonist, our soldiers war criminals, and our past a shabby nightmare from which we are only now awakening.

As a typical article in the History Society magazine The Beaver grumped a few years back, “Expo ’67 promoted a narrow notion of Canada suggested by the title of the world fair — Man and His World — a place where white, Western, and well-heeled values were paramount. But Expo was a last gasp for a Canadian identity that marginalized the voices of women, Québécois, aboriginal peoples, and new Canadians, even while it celebrated world culture.” Who doesn’t feel like setting off a few fireworks after reading that passage?

I also cannot pick up a Pearson Pennant and go rah rah for the next 500 words because if you look back at the optimistic mood at Expo ’67 it’s clear they didn’t think we’d end up here. I don’t just mean no geodesic domes. Our politics are shabby, our lives frantic, our material possessions conspicuously failing to buy us happiness. Mind you, a Maclean’s retrospective just quoted Montreal writer Hugh Hood, at Expo ’67, that, “It’s too much, baby; it’s something else, total environment, Romantic synaesthesia, the way things are.” So arguably our clichés haven’t gotten worse since, just differently bad.

Be that as it may, we cannot be sanguine about the state of our country. At the superficial level of policy, we cling to the doomed Canada Health Act while chronically underfunding defence, infrastructure and just about every other legitimate core function of government. The way we debate policy is also depressing, favouring novelty over experience, computer models over historical facts, and abuse over discussion. And the whole rickety structure rests on the sand of “value systems,” not the rock of morality.

Hang on, though. There remains much to celebrate. Starting with the fact that I can say such stuff without fear. In Canada journalists can publicly ask ministers of the crown questions such as, “Why are you making a policy announcement in a supermarket bakery?” and not promptly retire out a fifth-storey window. Here we discuss our differences, even yell about them, instead of slaughtering one another.

When the British government knighted Salman Rushdie two weeks ago, I just muttered “Arise, Sir Badwrite.” Whereas Pakistan’s religious affairs minister (be glad we don’t have one of those, by the way) said: “The West always wonders about the root cause of terrorism. Such actions are the root cause of it. If someone commits suicide bombing to protect the honour of the Prophet Mohammad, his act is justified.” If you’re looking for root causes of terror, try willingness to kill people whose opinions you dislike. But don’t blame us.

Like anyone who reads newspapers, I am subjected to an almost daily torrent of criticism, often insulting in tone, of things I cherish.

But in Canada we don’t blow up over them, at least not literally. We debate and argue and sulk and denounce and question and rally and go home and drink beer. We get things wrong in ways small and large then bicker some more and patch them up. But we don’t come to blows. (I write this trusting that no one will mark today’s aboriginal National Day of Action with acts of conspicuous stupidity, viciousness or both.)

We are not perfect, and neither are our results. Our governments lie, cheat and pass laws that infringe fundamental freedoms in ways both silly and consequential. We suffer historical injustices, breakdowns of civility, and attacks of idiocy. But through it all we cling to, and live by, the conviction that free inquiry brings us closer to factual and moral truth than any other system, by a large enough margin to matter enormously.

We could do far, far worse, and we should remember and build on that. Canada remains a free country despite all the scoffing that phrase tends to elicit. I can even wave a Red Ensign while saying it. I sure plan to. And drink at least half a beer.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]