ANOTHER VIEW

When Canada shuts down

CHARLES GORDON April 19 1993
ANOTHER VIEW

When Canada shuts down

CHARLES GORDON April 19 1993

When Canada shuts down

ANOTHER VIEW

CHARLES GORDON

Most Canadians let loose in the world develop a greater appreciation for their own country and are anxious to get home. Coming back from the beauty, the chaos and need of Africa, we passed through London and walked to Trafalgar Square, where we tipped our hats to Canada House, proud symbol of the peace, affluence and generosity to which we were returning. A week after returning, we read that Canada House was slated to be shut down.

Of course, it was no surprise. Everything else Canadian is shutting down, as defeatism consolidates its grip on the national psyche. Concerning Canada House and Trafalgar Square, nobody in authority in this country stops to say, “What a great spot this is for a building with Canada’s name carved into it!” Nobody thinks, ‘Wow, thousands of people see Canada House every day, and maybe a few will come through the doors to get away from the pigeons and learn something about our country!” Not in these times. Canada has another building in London, the cutback wizards reason. So, the services—the library, the inquiry centre—that Canada House has been providing have gradually been whittled down over the past few years. People coming through the doors have not found much of anything, and now External Affairs is in the process of deciding that it is not cost-efficient to maintain a building that is one of the landmarks of London, and therefore the Western world.

But it is no surprise. Our entire nation is thinking along those lines, and much of the Western world is too. The federal government is providing fewer services and employing fewer people. Concerning Africa, its problems are no longer viewed as our problems, as Ottawa shifts its aid priorities to Europe. At home, faced with an unemployment crisis and

Charles Gordon is a columnist with The Ottawa Citizen. His book How to Be Not Too Bad is published this month by McClelland & Stewart.

Fearful men—for they are mostly men—are in charge, afraid to spend, afraid to build, afraid to innovate, afraid to say ‘yes’

a stalled economy, the federal government retreats into its shell and pulls in its head.

Provinces do the same, governments of both the left and right cut programs and workers right and left, hoping somehow that impoverished electors will reward them for their frugality. The CBC, facing a crisis of funding and nerve, cuts its operations to the bone and gives up on its goal of telling Canadian stories to Canadians and allowing the regions of the country to speak to each other. The private sector is no better. Newspapers retrench, shrinking staff, budget and news space. Factories cut back, move, close. Nobody in Canada has expanded anything in years, it feels like.

Awareness of risk is all-pervasive and willingness to take risk is non-existent. As risk is now defined, it is less risky to contract than to expand, more risky to open than to close. Even onetime radicals have accepted the prevailing ethic, as a look at the governments of Ontario and Saskatchewan shows. It matters not that a young generation of Canadians has never known work, and that the members of an older generation have had the end chopped off their careers: Government and business will not act, except to shrink away.

Why is this? It was only a few years ago that victory seemed at hand. The Cold War was over, won; the peace dividend was ready to be cashed; opportunity knocked. We could begin the task of making butter not guns, plowshares not swords. We could begin saving the environment and improving life for everyone on the planet. None of that happened. Instead, we found, in all sectors, our lives suddenly run by fearful people, their attention rivetted on the risk of losing what we have, rather than the opportunity to create more and share it more fairly. Just at the moment of our greatest triumph, wimps seized the corridors of power. How did they get in?

Some of the problem is lack of ideological competition. Internally, the right rules by default. The left has given up. As Michael Ignatieff, the London-based Canadian writer, has noted, no one questions The System any more. The words ‘The System” are not even spoken. Internationally, the same ideological monopoly prevails. For all the evils of the Cold War, the competition of ideologies did at least promote some risk-taking. Africa got all kinds of help from the West when the West was afraid that Africa would get aid from the East. Now there is, in effect, no East and all Africa gets is lectures from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. That, plus a note from the Canadian International Development Agency, saying that it has revised its priorities.

Fearful men—for they are mostly men— are in charge, afraid to spend, afraid to build, afraid to innovate, afraid to say “yes.” As a consequence, the poor get poorer, the worker gets less work, the consumer gets less choice, the student gets less opportunity, the reader gets less to read, the viewer less to see, the thoughtful less to think about. Canada, one of the most blessed countries on earth, is mired in gloom, paralysed by pessimism. The way out of it is only dimly perceived. It seems to consist of government and industry pinching their pennies, keeping costs to a minimum and hoping that someone else will do something.

When they said that the meek would inherit the earth, what we have now couldn’t be what they had in mind.

The assumption is that this can’t go on forever. But maybe it can. The very fearfulness that rules us ensures the existence of more to fear, unless the cycle is broken. Surely, somebody must be ready to take charge, to try something daring, to expand a plant instead of close it, to start a program instead of end one, to hire instead of fire, to build a road instead of close an agency, to invest in children, the environment, the Third World, the future, instead of hiding under the covers whimpering about credit ratings.

That is the way out of it. That is the way to regain confidence in our country, the way to have a flag we are proud enough to fly over Trafalgar Square. Once we regain pride in the flag, we might even decide that it is worth keeping the building there that already has the name CANADA carved into it.