Preview

Canada at childhood's end: we can grow and prosper in our new reality—or perish in it

Peter C. Newman January 10 1977
Preview

Canada at childhood's end: we can grow and prosper in our new reality—or perish in it

Peter C. Newman January 10 1977

Canada at childhood's end: we can grow and prosper in our new reality—or perish in it

Preview

Peter C. Newman

Like a debutante who has strayed into an abattoir, Canada finds herself in this new year face to face with some harsh new realities. During most of our brief existence as a nation we were all but exempt from the terrors of modern history, a lucky people inhabiting a wonderful hunk of geography. For 109 years the superstructure of Canadian society, which has always depended on some form of French-English understanding, remained relatively undisturbed. Nearly every Rotary Club speaker worth his rubber chicken, after apologizing for not knowing French, would insist that some of his best friends were from “La Belle Pro-vahnce”, while most Quebeckers figured that as WASPS go, at least we weren’t as brash as the Americans. Frenchspeaking Canadians retained the folk memory of their clergy preaching during the long silence after the conquest that “the best way to remain French is to stay British.”

But as 1977 begins and we are being forced to ponder the true implications of René Lévesque’s victory on November 15, we can sense the continuity of an age being cut. What comes now will be very different from what came before. Suddenly each one of us is being confronted with having to recognize just how fragile this country has suddenly become.

The outlook for the next 12 months is that Canada’s future will be decided by an interminably dreary sequence of federalprovincial conferences. Apart from the very real possibility that we can survive simply by talking ourselves into the 21st century, some English Canadians may find the very idea that we should be sitting down as reasonable men to debate our continued existence an intolerable prospect. To those of us who love this country, any discussion among reasonable men on whether or not Canada is worth preserving may seem a little like challenging Euclid to prove that a straight line is the shortest distance between two points. But the issue won’t disappear and the debate has already been joined.

As we begin to grapple with René Lévesque’s terminal threat to our continuity as a nation, it seems to me that only one direction offers any hope of success: the rallying of Canadians from all provinces (including Quebec, where 60% of the voters cast ballots against the Parti Québécois) into a nonpartisan movement dedicated to the idea of preserving Confederation, even if in radically altered form. This new style nationalism would promote in a thoughtful manner the many

practical advantages of Canada’s continued existence by illuminating and magnifying the view we hold of ourselves and the society in which we live.

Before Lévesque and his determined disciples took power it was fashionable to take Canada for granted and the few thoughtful men and women who worried aboutour future were regarded with a kind of benign ridicule, like television preachers or men who devote their lives to collecting rare butterflies.

Despite the fruitless and sometimes tedious quest to define our national identity, it’s high time we realized that Canada is no mere accident of history or some earnest valedictorian’s hazy dream. What we’ve got here is a daily miracle of a country. Ever since 1867 we seem to have lived

out fairly successfully Ernest Renan's dic turn that a nation “is a body of people who have done great things together.”

In the past 109 years we’ve civilized a subcontinent, taming one of the world’s harshest geographies; attained for ourselves a high standard of comfort and contributed more than our share to the defense of freedom in two world wars. Compared with most other nations, we remain a relatively gentle and uncrowded society. Still a country in the process of becoming, our power structure is not rigid and the excitement of new frontiers beckons only an ax-fall away.

But despite our achievements and progress, English Canada has been agonizingly slow to recognize its own potential. Ours is a putty culture, penetrable and unshaped. Anthony Burgess, the British novelist.

beautifully pinpointed our unyielding inferiority complex when he wrote: “John Kenneth Galbraith and Marshall McLuhan are the two greatest modern Canadians that the U.S. has produced.” Only in Quebec has there grown a spirit of selfdetermination. an interior kind of romantic mythology which eventually translated itself into political power. The Quebec revolution proved that a vibrant politics requires a vibrant culture. It was the poets, painters, writers and singers of Quebec who gave the people enough self-confidence to push René Lévesque into office.

What we need and need desperately is a cultural co-revolution in English Canada which would excite us about ourselves.

Ironically, the man who by definition ought to be leading any national effort to counter Quebec’s powerfully entrenched Parti Québécois finds himself a prisoner of his past as a constitutional expert. Pierre Trudeau has been waving the constitution at anyone who’ll listen like some leper’s bell, apparently never realizing that law can be used only as the binding force of an existing consensus, not as the means of changing the attitudes of individual citizens. While it would be less than senseless for Ottawa to treat Quebec with boundless generosity, like some dying millionaire inundating his favorite ballerina with lavish presents, it seems equally silly to keep insisting that the status quo remains a viable ideology. Caught between militant demands and moderate possibilities. Trudeau has retreated into petulance, acting out of political vibrations far removed from reality, instead of those primary impulses and voltages that first brought him into prominence. In the process he has alienated so many of his onetime followers, that instead of wanting to support him most members of his natural constituencies only desire to exact political revenge so terrible that it has no name.

In the circumstances. Confederation’s supporters will have to work through their own, extra-parliamentary channels to mobilize and redirect the strong patriotic feelings that already exist across this country. Once English Canada achieves that state of grace of believing in itself, it should be much less d’fficult to convince enlightened Quebeckers that their best chance of surviving as a proud, autonomous society is through a firm alliance with the larger powers of the Canadian nation. There is no other way to ensure that a highly individualistic culture of not quite six million people can stay afloat in a sea of more than 200 million strangers.