Nobody loves Canada
The parties’ lack of vision may reflect a broader dearth of nationalistic fire
PRIDE IN THE COUNTRY HAS DROPPED SIGNIFICANTLY
BY JOHN GEDDES • It’s easy enough to blame the politicians for the lack of vision in the federal election campaign. Prime Minister Paul Martin is running less on grand ideas about where he would take the country than a grim warning about where Stephen Harper might. Harper once represented a clear enough vision— small-government conservatism inspired by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher—but it’s been diluted for electoral purposes to the point where the Conservative party platform looks as watery as his eyes. Jack Layton pleads for his NDP as a can-do, co-operative bunch who deserve to be noticed more than they are, not as the social-democratic firebrands of old. They all offer voters some respectable policy to mull over. But vision? It’s a choice between the negative, the nebulous and the neglected.
There’s another way of looking at it, though. What if politicians have simply sized up Canadian voters as being unreceptive to grand vision? After all, political parties can’t be expected to think big if the people don’t want to dream national dreams. And just now, Canadians appear not to be feeling particularly excited, or patriotic, about their country. A national poll conducted by CROP Inc. last
year found voters increasingly detached from common touchstones of national identity. Perhaps the most troubling finding from Quebec’s oldest polling firm: just 6l per cent felt “very proud” to be Canadian, way down from the 80 per cent who felt that way when CROP asked back in 1985. “The Canada brand has not been aging well,” concludes CROP president Alain Giguère, “and is in serious need of a major overhaul.”
It’s no surprise that the need is most acute in Quebec, where 65 per cent were very proud to be Canadian in 1985, but just 32 per cent in 2005. That low figure might reflect in part the impact of the sponsorship scandal. But the pride picture is only somewhat better in the rest of the country, where Justice John Gomery’s hearings were not such an obsession. In Canada excluding Quebec, the very proud figure fell to 71 per cent last year, down from 85 per cent two decades ago. Another stark measure of a dwindling sense of traditional patriotism: back in 1985,62 per cent said they would be willing to fight for their country, but only 30 per cent last year (43 per cent said it would depend on the war). Quebecers were pronouncedly less likely to be willing to bear arms, with just 16 per cent answering yes when CROP asked the question in 2005, down from 49 per cent in 1985.
Faced with such findings, past generations of political leaders might have turned to the institutions built to generate a sense of identity. But their effectiveness is now in serious
doubt. Take the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, created in the 1930s to counter the cultural seductions of American commercial radio. Back in 1984,34 per cent of Canadians said CBC and Radio-Canada, its French-language arm, were very important to being Canadian. In 2005, only 18 per cent did. And while the drop was most dramatic in Quebec, to 13 per cent from 43 per cent, it was also significant in English Canada, down to 20 per cent from 31 per cent.
And then there are those twin pillars of Canadian nationalism that emerged in the 1960s and solidified into orthodoxy—bilingualism and multiculturalism. According to CROP, bilingualism was viewed as very important to Canadian identity by 63 per cent of Quebecers in 1985, but by just 33 per cent last year. In the rest of Canada, intriguingly, the sense that bilingualism is vital slipped by much less, to 25 per cent, down from 31 per cent. CROP’S polling suggests Canadians are generally less convinced that multiculturalism lies at the core of the country’s identity— but Quebec has, again, lost faith more decisively. Where 40 per cent of Quebecers said multiculturalism was very important in 1985, just 19 per cent did in 2005. The drop in the rest of Canada was more modest, to 38 per cent, down from 45 per cent. (The findings are based on interviews with 2,699 Canadians, and are considered accurate to within two percentage points 19 times out of 20.)
No wonder Gov. Gen. Michaëlle Jean earned such rapturous praise when she called for a less fragmented sense of Canadian identity in her remarkable Sept. 27 installation speech —arguably the closest thing to an expression
of vision recently at the top echelon of Canadian public life. “We must eliminate the spectre of all the solitudes,” said the Haitian immigrant from Montreal, “and promote solidarity among all the citizens who make up the Canada of today.” Jean called for a new spirit of unity built around nothing less than
our shared love of freedom.
gue with so uplifting a principle? But a more mundane concept is suggested by the CROP poll: the unifying allure of the good life. Consider this shift in emphasis: in 1985, just eight per cent of Canadians chose quality of life as the top reason they were proud of Canada; in 2005, quality of life was the top source of pride for 20 per cent. And unlike some other shifts, quality of life climbed markedly in importance both inside and outside Quebec. “Live comfortably” might not sound like much of a visionary rallying cry for the twenty-first century, but then, Canada was founded in the 19th on the similarly prosaic Constitutional slogan of
“peace, order and good government.”
And in consumer culture, if not so much in the political realm, the association of Canada with a particular vision of the good life seems undiminished. Michael Budman, the U.S.-born co-founder and president of Roots, says his brand’s familiar beaver and maple leaf symbols consistently conjure up visions of open spaces, fitness and even a desirable sort of society—not only among Canadian shoppers but around the world. “We’ve found,” Budman says, “that people really love wearing Canada on their chests.”
For politicians, it’s something of a chicken-and-egg conundrum. Are they shying away from statements of grand vision because they know Canadians aren’t receptive, or has our patriotism waned because no one is offering up a vision? Certainly, the main debating points in this campaign fall more neatly under “quality of life” than any other heading. Martin and Flarper clash over how best to guarantee quicker access to health care, which sort of tax cut leaves the right amount of money in the right pockets, what reforms might do the most to curb gunplay on city
streets. These incremental policies might answer the demands of a public more concerned about the everyday threats to their comfort and security than any great projects. “For all we complain about lack of vision,” says University of Toronto history professor Michael Bliss, “this is a rich and pretty happy country right now. Maybe it’s a country in which we’re content in our private lives, and since nobody expects much from the public sphere anymore, the fact that the politicians aren’t delivering vision doesn’t matter to people.”
But Bliss doesn’t make that point with much enthusiasm. In his next breath, in fact, he bemoans what he views as a decline in Ottawa’s relevance and a rise in provincial power. Liberal MP John Godfrey, a key architect of the Martin government’s policies on child care and cities—which come closest to having a visionary feel about them-argues no politician worth the name is really content with nip-and-tuck programs. “That’s ultimately why you go into politics. It’s not to be a good manager,” he says. “Every generation’s political leaders have to say, ‘What are the big things out there on my watch?’ ”
When it comes to declining nationalism, we seem to be alone in the Western world. A 2005 Gallup poll found that 6l per cent of Americans were extremely proud to be American, up slightly from 2001, when 55 per cent of Americans felt the same way, wrote Thomas Sander, executive director at Harvard University’s Saguaro Seminar, in an email. In Europe, Germans feel no less German, Brits no less British, for example, despite the fact they are increasingly bound up in the monolith of the European Union, according to Eurobarometer surveys that monitor public opinion on such matters. “They’re still German, they’re still French—but they’re also European,” said Jeffrey Kopstein, director of the Institute of European Studies at the University of Toronto. “The thing about the EU is it allows people to have the multiple identities.” Just now, talk of big things in Canada is
being drowned out by smaller concerns. Martin accuses Harper of being in thrall to U.S. right-wingers. Harper suggests that Martin’s willingness back when he owned a shipping company to register vessels under other countries’ flags shows that he lacks patriotism. Canadians whose pride stirred briefly when they heard news reports of the new Governor General’s plea for unity, or who make a point of wearing a maple leaf logo when they travel, might just be ready for a reminder of why they once felt prouder of their country. It looks like they’ll have to wait until after the campaign.
AND IN QUEBEC,‘QUIET SEPARATION’OR FRESH START?
BY BENOIT AUBIN • Two little events that occurred at the same time in Montreal last week help explain why Stephen Harper’s Conserva-
tives were able to get a bandwagon rolling in
“liberal” Quebec without too much difficulty. On Tuesday, the Rolling Stones repeatedly called out to their audience in French at the Bell Centre. Mick Jagger opened with a resounding, and vernacular, “Salut, les Québécois!” and then went on to joke that the 18,000
fans had filled the cavernous arena only to escape the leaders’ debate taking place across town. And at that two-hour, French-language marathon in the bowels of Radio-Canada on Blvd René-Lévesque, only one of the four leaders allowed himself to slip into English: Gilles Duceppe. He referred in English to “nationbuilding” to explain why Quebec and Canada should be good neighbours instead of one country. And he chastised the feds’ “Ottawaknows-best” attitude as the main source Quebec’s beefs with Canada.
So do like Mick, and tell Quebecers they exist on their own, even in the eyes of peripatetic British rockers. Do like Gilles: using English words is all right, even cool in Quebec, now that most Anglos are bilingual and English is not perceived as the threat it used to be. Or do like Stephen: tell Quebecers you know they’re different, that they have special needs, which require special responsibilities, and that you respect that. You’ll make a lot of friends, fast, despite being an anglo with a right-wing agenda.
Some local Liberals rolled their eyes in alarm when Paul Martin took “national unity” out of its semi-retirement, telling other Canadians that Liberals were the only ones able to save Canada from the separatist threat. Threat? It’s all so quiet in Quebec at the moment. No outrage, no passion, no crowds marching in Montreal protesting this or that about Canada. There is only Gilles Duceppe —who incidentally gave little more than lip service to “la souveraineté” during that French-language debate—for fear of alien-
ating his many not-too-separatist supporters.
In the 1970s, René Lévesque personified the Québécois underdog, chastising “Westmount Rhodesians.” In the nineties, Lucien Bouchard rode the wave of public outrage after other Canadians refused to recognize Quebec as a distinct society. Today’s buzz? “Indifference,” says Alain Giguère, the head of the CROP polling firm. “People here feel
less and less Canadian. Our belonging to Canada has become increasingly trivialized— Canadian symbols play an ever decreasing part in the personal identity of a number of Quebecers,” he says. Many people here, especially the younger ones, see themselves as citizens of the world, with a culture brewed in Quebec. Maple leaf, just incidental. Mick Jagger got that one right.
Giguère’s conclusion? “After the Quiet Revolution, we may be headed toward some form of Quiet Separation.”
Jacques Frémont, a constitutional expert, had reached roughly the same conclusion, even without reading CROP’S data. “I’m not sure 100,000 Canadians could be mobilized to come to Montreal to beg us to stay, like they did in 1995; Canadians have moved on to other things, and Quebecers are identifying less and less with Canada.” His own conclusion: “The days of passionate divorce talk are over; what lies ahead could well be dissolution, separation amid indifference or boredom.”
Well, at least no hard feelings. But a bad taste remains in many people’s mouths, Frémont adds. “It’s become very difficult to be a Quebec federalist nowadays.” Why? “There has been so much crap, so much cynicism going on, that citizens have stopped taking the political process seriously. They don’t recognize themselves in our institutions anymore.”
Forget for a moment that the sponsorship scandal was the hideous pork-barrel caper that gave birth to the Gomery inquiry-and then to this premature winter election. Its very concept—boost Canadian patriotism in Quebec by shoving the flag down everyone’s throat, so to speak-was ill advised. CROP’S polling, Giguère says, shows that “the traditional national symbols, such as the Queen, the CBC, bilingualism, the prime ministereven hockey-have lost traction as identity
was just much more dramatic in Quebec.” Save the country by flogging a dead horse? “Canadians and Quebecers have evolved, their attitudes have changed, but the message about the country has not followed.” Canada needs a new pitch, new symbols, a new rallying cry: “Maybe then, interest would be rejuvenated.”
Frémont looks at it in more political terms. “There was a great opportunity for renewal two years ago, when Paul Martin and Jean Charest were elected: two Quebecers, two staunch federalists. I’m afraid that opportunity was missed.” Cue Stephen Harper. He comes to Quebec, admits there is a fiscal imbalance (in Quebec, that’s code for “federalism-gone-bad”), hints at a form of decentralized confederation, and, voilàl
Quebec has been there before, of course: Brian Mulroney, Robert Bourassa. “The Meech Lake debacle is still reverberating in Quebec today” says Senator Jean-Claude Rivest, a close adviser to Bourassa at the
time. Quebecers today are still longing for “double-talk federalism”—a strong Quebec inside a united Canada. “I am convinced that support for separation would not be as high as it is now if there was a middle-ground option available between the centralizing federalism we have seen in the last decade, and another referendum on separation,” Rivest told Maclean’s.
Stephen Harper’s somewhat vague promise of “flexible federalism” has allowed him to claim this elusive middle ground, between the rock and the hard place. Rivest, a Quebec Liberal, was named to the Senate by Mulroney, a Conservative, but he’s been sitting as an independent, saying he could not support the Conservatives’ right-wing agenda. Today? “A Conservative government would probably be good for Canada,” he said. “It would change the political culture in Ottawa.”
And thus, save national unity, maybe? M