The Nation’s Business

Wisdom in a fortune cookie

Peter C. Newman May 31 1999
The Nation’s Business

Wisdom in a fortune cookie

Peter C. Newman May 31 1999

Wisdom in a fortune cookie

The Nation’s Business

Peter C. Newman

I was in Hinton, Alta., recently, on the way to give a speech at Jasper, and stopped for a meal. The Apple Valley Restaurant, the tiny coal mining community’s main eatery, is one of those culinary pit stops that dot the Prairies, serving “American-Chinese” food. That usually means indifferent chop suey and soggy hotdogs. But the spring rolls at Hinton were tasty, the chop suey was steamy, and the owner-waiter was friendly to hungry strangers. The most memorable part of the meal was the fortune cookie that perched, unasked, on my modest bill.

“You have a reputation for being straightforward and honest,” its message read on one side. “ Vous avez une réputation de rigueur et d’honnêteté,” was printed on the other. Finding that politically correct fortune cookie in the heart of Reform country was one of those tiny epiphanies from which journalists like to draw great truths. I asked the owner whether his cookies were a political statement, or if he’d bought them cheap from some less enlightened competitor. All I got back was an enigmatic smile. But it made my day.

Like gold, news depends on its assay. The fortune cookie didn’t make a story, but it triggered memories of Pierre Trudeau’s efforts to make this country aware of its bilingual roots. It had been an awkward skirmish, its most visible field of battle the nation’s schoolyards, as parents enrolled more than 300,000 kids in French immersion courses, while others condemned this educational opportunity as pointless, going against the grain of their own upbringing. Still, the issue was—and remains—a point of reference that defines Canadian life. My own grandson, Adon Kerr, who at age 6 already manifests the IQ of a Star Wars rocket ship commander, currently attends a French immersion program in Burnaby, B.C., to the occasional delight and frequent frustration of his mother, Dana.

Remembering the Trudeau period also brought back memories of how the RCMP had burned down the meeting-place barn of a Quebec separatist group in those far-off days. That tactic was the first to sully my once admiring opinion of these Dudley Do-Rights in scarlet tunics. The Mounties then sold out to The Walt Disney Co., undermining their mandate by making it subservient to foreign image makers.

Last week, it turned out that the Mounties had not only abandoned the notion of always getting their man, but weren’t even willing to cut to the chase. The RCMP gave up its claim to respect, quite apart from failing to do its job, when it refused to follow the trail of the criminals who tampered with the ore samples in a way that—according to Strathcona Minerals Services Ltd., the consulting firm hired by Bre-X, itself,

to investigate the matter— was “without precedent in the history of mining anywhere in the world.”

The pages of Macleans have always dwelt on the imperfectibilities of man and the shortfalls of his grand designs, but that constant questioning has been leavened by the hope that the people who run our defining institutions had some smarts and a sense of purpose. The important test was never partisan affiliation, but the difference between the leaders who wished to continue the Canadian experiment and those who thought it had gone far enough. (The enemies of laughter, by the way, deserve to be treated with the same abhorrence as the enemies of truth.)

The Mounties are not alone in abandoning their moral high ground. We have a federal government in this country so firmly entrenched in defending the status quo that it doesn’t dare to even attempt to resolve the structural issues essential to our future. The existing tax structure is crippling our ability to compete; American entrepreneurs are gobbling up what’s left of our economy without Ottawa raising a finger to protect our core institutions; Quebec’s simmering dissatisfactions within Confederation—some eminently justified—remain unresolved.

There is no sense of movement or action in Ottawa, just the idea of government by crossing your fingers, hoping that Jean Chrétiens rare excursions into lucidity will somehow hold the country together. The Prime Minister is increasingly relying on success by inadvertence.

That’s not good enough and it seems to me that more journalists ought to come out fighting for a Canadian future, instead of allowing it to be lost by default. I’m tired of the artificial attempts at objectivity that characterize Canadian journalism. If the attainment of “objectivity” means fairness and accuracy, then reporters must of course remain true to their sense of evidence. But strict objectivity is as undesirable as it is impossible. The trouble is not that Canadian journalists distort the truth; the problem is that so many of them have reached professional maturity without harbouring much of a notion about what they themselves believe in—except deadlines. They don’t possess the beginning of an idea of what this country must do to survive.

Within the limits of truth and libel, any journalist’s most essential talent is to define what’s authentic, and what’s not—to deal sensibly with the torrent of news, rumours, scoops and trial balloons that arrive daily in our e-mail from an unfolding universe. But that’s only a starting point.

Perhaps those of us who scribble for a living ought to be served flattering, bilingual fortune cookies after every meal.