Pierre Berton’s page


April 6 1963
Pierre Berton’s page


April 6 1963


Pierre Berton’s page

THESE THOUGHTS, which have to do with the present election campaign, are being set down on one of those gloriously crisp winter afternoons, when the whole countryside takes on a traditional Canadian textbook look. The scene from my window might have been painted by a Cullen or a Jackson: the swirling hills, in pastel yellows and shadowed blues . . . the darker smudges of the frosted evergreens . . . the spangled glitter on the crusted snow . . . the rutted roads snaking up across the skyline. It is the kind of scene that used to enliven my schoolbooks and for me it continues to evoke all the drama of Canada which thrilled me when, as a boy, I first made the acquaintance of the brothers La Vérendrye and the rebellious Mackenzie and the bulbous-nosed John A., and the white-plumed Laurier. There is nothing dull about Canadian history and when the schoolbooks of the future record this winter election of 1963 — perhaps the most significant and dangerous election of our era — there will be nothing dull about that, either. No doubt the schoolbooks will contain the same familiar winter scenes.

THE MOOD OF THE COUNTRY ÍS indecisive, and that in itself spells trouble. The cry for “strong” leadership is understandable after the vagaries and procrastinations of the past months. But it is also disturbing, for we have heard suspiciously similar cries echoing down the dark corridors of this century — cries born of confusion, despair and cynicism. How often do people confuse strength and decision with wisdom! In a television interview with me last fall Mr. Réal Caouette was at his decisive and irresponsible best, issuing some of the most astonishing statements ever uttered by a Canadian politician. A surprising

number of viewers wrote to tell me that they applauded his “refreshing boldness” even though they disagreed with what he said; they said it was nice to find a man who knew exactly where he stood, as if that quality, in itself, were a virtue.

THE TRAGEDY of the present mood is that the average uncommitted voter knows who to vote against but is less certain who to vote for. He would vote against Mr. Diefenbaker’s waffling, Mr. Pearson’s lacklustre image, Mr. Douglas’ radicalism and Mr. Thompson - Caouette's forked tongue — but who should he support? A significant if minor feature of tiie election is the presence, in Toronto, of a small group dedicated to spoiling their ballots as a kind of silent protest against all parties.

Yet this is the one election in our time which is fated to go into the schoolbooks as representing a turning point in Canadian affairs and Canadian thinking. At last that old campaign cliché about standing at the crossroads has some truth in it. We do stand at the crossroads and it is curious, in a way, that there should be so much indecision when, for the first time, the basic issues are clear-cut —at least in the case of the only two parties worth voting for.

The Progressive Conservative party is positively unbelievable and the Social Credit party is certainly unthinkable but the Liberals and the New Democrats know exactly where they stand on the basic issue of Canada’s place in the world of 1963. They are the only parties to present clear-cut and honestly held alternative programs on the one issue which really matters. These two parties, each mildly to the left, are at odds philosophically, not on the issue of welfare statism versus free enterprise (for each can prove that it believes in both), but on something far more significant — on the direction in which this country is to go internationally. They are offering us a choice, though neither would wish to see the matter phrased so bluntly, between a noble if difficult isolationism or a committed and equally difficult internationalism.

ON THE SURFACE the issue seems to be whether we allow the presence of nuclear weapons on Canadian soil. But this is a specious argument, since our acceptance or rejection of Bomarc warheads doesn’t really matter a damn. Do we join the dreaded Nuclear Club if we take them? Hardly; dub membership clearly presupposes the actual manufacture and control of our own nuclear deterrent. Do we endanger North American defense if we reject them? Scarcely; the Bomarc is already approaching the Tin Lizzie stage in the frightening, fast-changing world of the missile. The great debate over nuclear arms is really a debate over our role in the world and our place in the western partnership. There are two ways in which we can go. Each has its attractions and its pitfalls.

WE CAN GO the NDP way and wash our hands of nuclear arms for perfectly sincere and moral reasons. But if we do this

we must be prepared to be moral all the way and not just hypocritical in the good old Canadian fashion. If we wriggle out of one kind of responsibility we must be ready to accept another. It is no good boasting piously (as we have) that we reject nuclear weapons, if we continue to profit from the sale of uranium to nuclear powers. It is no good saving money on defense, and allowing others to shoulder the financial burden of western defense (as we have), if we simply spend the money on self-indulgences. If we reject the whole principle of nuclear commitment on the grounds that we wish to set an example, and if we then pull out of NATO and NORAD, we must be prepared to set some other examples: to increase by many multiples our assistance to underprivileged nations and to open wide our gates to people in misery everywhere— for surely their misery fans the sparks of the nuclear holocaust we fear.

This is the stand that must be taken if we are to render ourselves secure from the charges of hypocrisy and selfishness that would turn our arguments to dust in the parliament of nations. It is a hard, hard course to follow — almost impossible,

I should think, to sell to the Canadian electorate. Certainly the NDP (whom I publicly supported in the last election) has not indicated that it intends to go this far. Yet nothing else will do. We have struck too many false poses in our time.

IT HAS BECOME a Canadian habit to invent high-minded reasons for shirking our duty. “National Unity” has been one of our well-worn excuses. In the name of national unity in World War II several thousand young Canadians died needlessly because their units went unreinforced in battle, thanks to our indecision over conscription. The problem might have been solved in another way, by merging our forces with those of our allies, but something called National Pride interfered. We refused to do battle with Hitler unless we were Distinctively Canadian. And so until 1943 (w'ith the brief but honorable exceptions of Hong Kong and Dieppe) we let other armies do the fighting.

The situation in Korea was less excusable. Again we put National Unity ahead of international responsibility. We supplied only a token force, and even among those men there were some who could fairly be called the dregs of the society they came from. Rather than draft a single able-bodied Canadian w'e scraped the barrel until the staves squeaked. Medical examinations were so cursory that rubby dubs actually got into the lines. On the day I joined the Princess Pats as a war correspondent there were three corpses outside the orderly room; rubbing alcohol, not Chinese bullets, had caused these casualties. The army censors did their best to hush up the incident but no amount of censorship could stifle reports about the incredibly high rate of Canadians returned from the Korean theatre for medical and physical reasons unconnected with combat.

THERE ARE THOSE who still cling to the beautiful Canadian Dream that we can go our own sweet way in the world of the

Sixties without reference to our neighbors and that we can “be ourselves” in the nineteenth-century sense. But the vision of a Fortress Canada surrounded by an undefended and invisible cultural barrier is as dead today as the pterodactyl. National sovereignty is on the wane. If this election proves anything it proves that anti-Americanism is finished as a political issue. We have cast our lot with this continent for better or for worse and the people know it. The world is reassembling itself into larger units and i doubt we could escape the tide even if we wished to.

But all the evidence suggests that in spite of some high-sounding talk, we don’t wish to. We have eagerly accepted the American way of life, lock, stock and bauble whenever it has been profitable, comfortable or amusing to do so. Thus we find ourselves part of the WesternAmerican social unit and if we are to achieve our distinct identity we must now do so within that unit and not outside it. This does not mean we need to become the 51st state; it does mean that we have become a junior partner, perhaps one of several, in a new kind of larger fraternity which finds the United States, for the present at least, in the senior position.

THUS, UNLESS WE ACCEPT the NDP alternative, which is essentially isolationist, we must shoulder the responsibilities of partnership, disagreeable though they sometimes may be. Surely this is the crux of Mr. Pearson’s position. We cannot make promises one day and go back on them the next, as we have been doing. We cannot stand aloof from the continent and at the same time expect a voice in the continent’s future, as we have been doing. If we want a Distinctive Canadian Identity that we can wear with pride, then we must earn it. This means we will have to contribute more than the bare minimum for mutual defense and mutual aid; it means we can no longer, with honor, let the U. S. spend twice as much per capita as we do defending us; it means we may have to accept nuclear arms, unpalatable though that may be, if the consensus of the partnership supports that conclusion. We will, of course, continue to have a voice in these partnership decisions; but that voice will only be as strong as our reputation.

To earn a reputation we must stop the pretense, the indecision, the fence straddling, the welshing and the double-dealing which have characterized our relations with our partners. Otherwise we ought to get rid of them as partners, get out of NATO and NORAD, and go it alone.

THOSE ARE the clear alternatives. No — wait! There is a third choice: We could, I suppose, take a high moral stand against nuclear arms, keep our foreign aid and our defense budget comfortably small (thus saving in tax dollars what we lose in dignity) and continue to enjoy the benefits of our present partnership. But to continue in this fashion would be, like the present state of the Tory party, unbelievable and, like the prospect of Social Credit, unthinkable.

“if we want a Distinctive Canadian Identity we can wear with pride then we must earn it... Our voice will be only as strong as our reputation.”