Books

'Masters of suspicion'

Canadians are not the boy scouts they used to he

DEIRDRE McMURDY March 3 1997
Books

'Masters of suspicion'

Canadians are not the boy scouts they used to he

DEIRDRE McMURDY March 3 1997

'Masters of suspicion'

Books

Canadians are not the boy scouts they used to he

DEIRDRE McMURDY

Few things are more reassuring than the assumptions people make about themselves—as individuals or as a society. Canadians, for example, have traditionally viewed themselves as law-abiding, polite, conservative people—tolerant peacekeepers to the rest of the world. But that is no longer an accurate self-portrait according to veteran pollster Michael Adams. His new book, Sex in the Snow, presents a portrait of the modern Canadian character that will surprise and alternately encourage and unsettle those who cling to the conventional view.

The title of the book may mislead thrill-seekers: in fact, Sex in the Snow is a serious and intriguing analysis of a nation and society in transition. The “snow” is an allusion to Canada’s framework of established values. The “sex” is a reference to the new emphasis on hedonism and self-determination.

author is a sociologist. That background has imbued him with a strong instinct to classify and to superimpose order on a chaotic universe in a way that may strike some readers as a trifle too convenient. Adams neatly divides Canadians along tribal lines, based roughly on their age groups. The progressive fragmentation of Canadian society, according to Adams’s theory, is revealed by the increased number of divisions among younger generations. The “elders” category, for example, includes only three distinct tribes, while Generation X has five tribes. The “rational traditionalists” dominate the elders, the “disengaged Darwinists” (or neoconservatives) are the strongest tribe among baby boomers, and the “aimless dependants” are, by a narrow margin, the kingpins of Generation X.

This tribal analysis is at the heart of his thesis about the pressures and shifts that have shaped and will continue to shape our culture. But the slightly clinical tone he brings to the detailed dissection of the groups interrupts the chatty, effortless style of the rest of the book.

Adams’s thorough comparison of Americans and Canadians is probably the best chapter of Sex in the Snow. He observes that Canadians are more flexible in the definition of family, more tolerant of youth and diversity, and more morally sophisticated. Where Americans tend to see complex human issues in terms of good and bad, black and white, Canadians see infinite shades of grey. And that perception meshes elegantly with his heartening conclusions about the future of Canada and the prospects of its citizens. That willingness to see all sides, which some might see as indecisiveness, is instead, Adams argues, evidence that Canadians are more open and adaptable to a rapidly changing world.

At a time when cultural trade with the United States has become increasingly complex and contentious, that is one of the reasons why Adams holds out strong optimism for the future. He concludes that there has been “much less socio-cultural assimilation of Canada by the United States than is often feared.” Furthermore, Adams makes the case that Canadians’ pragmatic tolerance, as well as the flexible structure of Canadian society, position this country especially well in the era of rapid technological change, virtual borders and global cyber-culture. Canadians, he concludes, “have a richness of spirit we are only beginning to become aware of or admit to.” But then, what could be more Canadian than that, eh?

tral government. He suggests that the convergence of public-sector spending cuts and private-sector corporate layoffs has rocked Canadian confidence in the paternalistic order of the Establishment. At the same time, Canada’s history of cultural tolerance, combined with technology, has contributed to the creation of an increasingly flexible social order, complete with a redefined set of moral priorities.

In fact, according to Adams, this new set of values is far more influential in shaping Canadians’ reactions and priorities than ethnic loyalties or demographics. Instead of coloring within the lines drawn by social class, economic status, religion, race or age, Canadians are now forming connections based on mutual interest, affinity and need. Canada, declares Adams, has entered the age of “post-individualism.”

At heart and by education, the 50-year-old

SEX IN THE SNOW

By Michael Adams (Viking, 220 pages, $27.99)

The book’s reflection of the recent changes in the collective soul of Canadians is not always flattering.

We may still be kinder, gentler and less violent than our American counterparts, but, Adams argues, we are not the boy scouts we have usually thought ourselves to be. Instead, he says, today’s Canadians are fixated on instant gratification, participate vigorously in the underground economy, and have a diminished attachment to their anthemhonored “home and native land.”

The result, the author maintains, is a new sense of individualism that asserts itself in a variety of unfamiliar ways. The most obvious manifestation is the overt rejection of traditional authority. Now, Canadians have become “masters of suspicion.” Rather than accepting the status quo, they question, challenge and discard it to an unprecedented degree. A function of this new “mental posture,” he writes, is a greater propensity for bashing the banks, launching tax revolts and taking politicians to task.

Adams argues that the new edge to the Canadian character stems, in part, from the abrupt withdrawal of an interventionist cen-