The Nation’s Business

Au revoir but not goodbye

Peter C. Newman June 7 1999
The Nation’s Business

Au revoir but not goodbye

Peter C. Newman June 7 1999

Au revoir but not goodbye

The Nation’s Business

Peter C. Newman

I have laboured in this editorial vineyard for more than 40 years. During that interval, nearly every issue of Maclean's has carried my column, written either as the magazine’s business editor, national affairs editor, Ottawa editor, for 11 years its editor-in-chief, and for the past 17 years as a columnist on this page.

At my request, I am now trading these weekly appearances for a monthly slot. It has been a hell of a ride, those estimated two million words I strung together, pretending to hold some rational view of Canadian politics and business.

Filled with a sense of constantly renewed curiosity, I went tapping my way along the winding corridors of power, like a blind man, trying to make sense of the noise and the darkness. Instead of telling readers what was happening, I attempted to explain why it was either significant, or a farce, or both—and what was likely to happen next. That approach, incidentally, remains the essential difference between newspaper and magazine journalism.

Trying to encourage the pace of change and reform in this country has usually meant criticizing whatever coalition of hopefuls happened to hold authority in the political back rooms and corporate boardrooms. Whenever possible, I have reported what I’ve seen and heard firsthand, instead of repeating what I might have read or overheard from secondary sources. I’ve always believed that the medium is as important as the message. Good writing requires clear thinking, but feelings are the most essential element in capturing any incident or personality in prose. Only feelings can transmute words into emotions.

Even magazine columns like this one, which has been the fulcrum of my professional life, must end. Mostly written overnight for looming deadlines, I’ve worried over every word and paragraph. My worst prediction? That Jean Chretien would never be PM. Maybe what I meant was that he would never act like a prime minister. Still, it’s been a blast.

It seems a particularly appropriate moment to get off the weekly treadmill. Even disillusionment has its limits. I have always believed that Canadian governments, whatever their stripe, would always defend Canada’s interest. As of last week, that turns out to be bunk. By buckling to American pressure on the magazine issue, Chrétien has set a precedent of such magnitude that it will be pivotal in the downward spiral of Canadian history.

Sharing a continent has never been easy. But until they succeeded in neutering Bill C-55, the Americans at least recognized there was a sovereign country perched in their attic. But

now that Ottawa has given in to the Time Warner-inspired lobby pushing the U.S. state department to defang Canada’s magazine legislation, there is no longer any doubt about our status. We became just another client state of the American empire: a Panama with polar bears. This doesn’t mean that I equate Canada’s future with the future of magazines. (Actually I do, but that’s not the point I’m trying to make.) If merely threatening a trade war— which could be challenged under both the North American Free Trade Agreement and the World Trade Organization— was enough for the Americans to get their way, the Liberals will not stand up to future demands—such as a Yankee grab of our water or territory.

Our new national incarnation as the scaredy-cats of the industrialized world puts us in the same category as the wife in those old-fashioned marriages, where husbands used to insist: “If you do exacdy what I want, honey, we’ll have a really good time.” It’s that serious.

Since I left the editorship of Macleans in 1982,1 have happily settled on Canada’s West Coast, currently at Hopkins Landing, a dot on the utopian Sunshine Coast, just west of Vancouver. Savouring the smells, the sights and sounds of the faring tides on these Pacific shores creates an alluring fourth dimension of shared silences, in which I happily luxuriate with my wonderful wife, Alvy. We intend to spend more time aboard our tug Titan, marvelling at the wildflower-hung cliffs, prancing killer whales, and the elegance of the blue heron. Call it coasting.

I have long subscribed to the wisdom of Spanish philosopher George Santayana’s evocative synthesis of life: “The world is not respectable; it is mortal, tormented, confused, deluded forever; but is shot through with beauty, with love, with glints of courage and laughter; and in these, the spirit blooms timidly and struggles to the light among the thorns.”

Since my family and I landed here, escaping the Nazi terrors of wartime Europe in 1940, the credo that has animated my own life is that Canada happens to be the most fortunate country on Earth. Most Canadians don’t subscribe to that notion, preferring to bellyache and curse their destiny. That’s wrong. To be a citizen of this country—with all its faults and unrealized potential—imposes an obligation not to take its many freedoms and privileges for granted.

If I have been too idealistic in these columns, it is because I have always believed that although it may be absurd to advocate innovation and reform, it’s far more absurd not even to try.