BUSINESS WATCH

Saying “Yes” to Canada’s destiny

The real issue of the Oct. 26 referendum is deciding whether we have a future—not the shape of what that future will be

Peter C. Newman September 14 1992
BUSINESS WATCH

Saying “Yes” to Canada’s destiny

The real issue of the Oct. 26 referendum is deciding whether we have a future—not the shape of what that future will be

Peter C. Newman September 14 1992

Saying “Yes” to Canada’s destiny

The real issue of the Oct. 26 referendum is deciding whether we have a future—not the shape of what that future will be

BUSINESS WATCH

PETER C. NEWMAN

The Oct. 26 referendum will be a contest between heritage and impulse, as the verities of the past compete with the risks of the future.

What we have to lose is far more important than what there is to gain. Henry Havelock Ellis, the British essayist, once defined progress as “the exchange of one nuisance for another.” The current constitutional deal is a bit like that, its creaky provisions smelling of last-minute compromises, its end effect the complication of a government process that barely works now.

Still, a “Yes” vote will grant future Canadian governments at all levels a revolutionary mandate: that despite the many complaints Canadians have about their politicians, they love their country and won’t give it up. In a world where UN membership has jumped by 14 per cent in the past five years, as formerly large nations have opted to break up into their components, that’s an important act of faith.

A “No” vote would carry precisely the opposite message: that Canadians have become so mesmerized with the petty constitutional expressions of their regional differences, that they would rather lose their country than move a millimetre away from their prejudices, or hold out their hands in a gesture of understanding and goodwill. It’s entirely in character that the only significant political movements to come out on the negative side of the equation have been the Parti Québécois and the Bloc Québécois—both dedicated to their own brands of separatism that would break up the country and destroy the Canadian dream.

Too many of the deal’s opponents in English Canada have concentrated their anger on Robert Bourassa’s slippery tactics during the constitutional negotiations and the seemingly endless roster of Quebec’s demands. What they fail to comprehend is that if Quebec separates, the rest of Canada in the long term could not and would not survive. We would inevitably stumble into being absorbed by the United States, a fate that

few Canadians would sanction or applaud.

That’s why the real issue of the referendum is deciding whether we have a future—not the shape of what that future will be. Few countries have more trouble appreciating their selfworth than Canada. We continue to put ourselves down, while the citizens of just about every other country on earth are badgering our immigration offices, trying to get in.

That curious dichotomy bothered Michael Davies, former publisher of The WhigStandard of Kingston, Ont., after a recent world tour. “If you meet someone in Europe and tell them you’re Canadian,” he told pollster Angus Reid, “they regard you as someone who comes from one of the most privileged countries in the world. They really don’t understand why we would ever want to break up such a rich, prosperous and democratic society.” The two men volunteered funds to survey 4,510 citizens in 16 countries about their views of Canada. The study, also backed by the Royal Bank of Canada, Southam Inc. and Baton Broadcasting Inc., published earlier this year under the title, Canada and the World, turned out to be a fascinating document.

Understandably, the prevailing image of Canada abroad is that of “lakes, mountains, prairie, forests, snow, wide-open spaces.”

These natural endowments, which we so carelessly take for granted, dominate what Reid calls “the international community’s top-of-themind perception” of Canada, for the very good reason that very few other countries share the beauty and expanse of our land.

Except in France, few outsiders are aware of our constitutional problems, and one of the few negatives offered about Canada, mostly in the Asian countries surveyed, are complaints about racism in the treatment of our aboriginals. Another criticism dealt with the fact that so much of our foreign policy slavishly follows U.S. initiatives.

One finding that will amaze Canadians is the international community’s all-but-unanimous rejection of the notion (so dear to so many of us) that this is a dull country to live in or visit. While there was a strong overall rejection of the Canadian angst that we’re boring, Australians surveyed were particularly high on travelling here, with 90 per cent adamantly proclaiming Canada as the exciting place to be.

The survey agreed with a previous UN study that ranked Canada as the best country in the world for the quality of life enjoyed by its citizens. The factors measured that led to this favorable conclusion included public awareness of environmental concerns, degree of personal freedom, safety of our banking system, provision of adequate social welfare, and above all, our health care system.

The Reid poll recorded the view, all too familiar to Canadians, that the cost of our universal social programs is translated into very high tax rates. This was especially true of Canadians who were also surveyed for their perception of their homeland. Fully 93 per cent replied in anguish that indeed we are paying too damn much tax. There was almost as high a level of agreement on how Canadians feel about their governments. “More than any other country in the poll,” Reid reported, “Canadians dislike their government. For more than the past decade, national governments in Canada, regardless of their political stripe, have spent most of the time facing massive public opposition. Nor is the citizenry’s antipathy reserved for the federal level of government. In just the past couple of years, there has been a changing of the guard in a number of provinces, and some of the incumbents are as unpopular as their federal cousins.”

What the international survey really proves is that to know us is to love us. Respondents who have relatives here or have visited Canada felt only good vibes about us. Maybe it’s time we began to love ourselves a little. In the next seven weeks, that will mean ignoring the negative exaggerations placed on the referendum’s possible rejection, because any constitution hammered together anywhere at any time is bound to be less than perfect. This one was drafted by 13 politicians and four aboriginal leaders, all of whom put their personal futures on the line in agreeing to compromise some of their traditional goals.

Maybe the 20th century never really did belong to us; but if we don’t, as a country, vote “Yes” on Oct. 26, we won’t belong to the 21st.