Cover Story

‘We began to lose our national identity when we began to seek it’

October 30 1978
Cover Story

‘We began to lose our national identity when we began to seek it’

October 30 1978

‘We began to lose our national identity when we began to seek it’

Maclean’s Ottawa Bureau Chief Robert Lewis joined Joe Clark, his staff and Conservative MPs in the Opposition leader’s office as the good news steamrolled in. Two days later in the same office, Clark talked for over an hour about his plans for the next few months—and beyond. Near the end of the session one observation by Lewis

sparked a spontaneous outpouring in which Clark provided an unusual glimpse of his views on the country which he hopes to lead. Said Lewis: “It ’s suggested that you will run a kind of Calvin Coolidge administration, wherein social problems will be treated with benign neglect, and that business and the premiers will run the country. ” Clark ’s response:

Look, when I came into the House the committee on which I was most active was Indian Affairs. We are, I trust, going to make considerably more progress resolving that serious problem than governments have so far. The most serious faults of this government have had to do with economic

policy and, broadly, with unity policy. The government has tried to unite a country it never tried to understand. Consequently, any new government has to repair the damage of what went before. But there also are continuing agendas that stay with the nation as governments change. Certainly the problem of native people is one of them. Certainly one that’s becoming more important is work skills and what to do about young people who are coming into the labor force without work to go to. We are not going to be a passivist government. We’re just going to put our priorities in areas other than the present federal government has. We are going to recognize that there are other shows in town, that the central government is not the only agent of change in the country.

There has been a quite consistent gathering - in to Ottawa of authority that is better exercised elsewhere. Now, that assumes that there is a continuing, fundamental role

for Ottawa to play—but it doesn’t assume that everything that has been gathered improperly should be kept here. That applies to the private sector, too. We are looking at what we can do through the tax system, say, to encourage the Kiwanis Club in Barrie, Ontario, to become more involved in low-income housing, instead of leaving it all to Central Mortgage and Housing Corporation, or some government department. On art collection, on a wide range of areas, the tax system could encourage people to take initiative in the national interest. If I were coming in following a Calvin Coolidge, I suppose the repair priorities would be different than the ones we’re facing.

We are moving now toward a cycle in the life of Canada when there will be more

attention paid to the parts of the country than is paid to the ideal of Canada. Indeed, that's not very abnormal. At very rare times, after all, has there been any attention focused on the whole of Canada—60 playing-minutes during Grey Cup, when we play hockey with the Russians, during Expo, elections. We’ve been through a period where, for a variety of reasons, there was attention to the centre—and it was not always positive attention, rather like the House of Commons on television. Now the focus has changed.

One of the great problems we’re going to face is what legitimate means we can find to maintain a national focus. Some of it can be institutional, some of it can have to do with national leadership. Some of it can have to do with playing the Russians. But a large part of it has to do with national culture.

We’ve assumed for a long time that there is some common, national culture— as if there is somewhere lurking in the Canadian bush a bulldog, or an eagle, or some other symbol. I don't believe that any more, I just don’t. What we have is a very strong potential for regional or local culture. The combination we »have to seek is the national consciousness as a stage upon which strong, local cultures can play.

We are a great geographic country, an inspiring place. I’ve been in flat countries, I’ve been in dull countries. We don’t have one. There’s nothing wrong with using that as a cohesive. When I go into Quebec, people who might be indifferent to the fact that I’m the leader of the Conservative party are quite interested that I’m the MP for Rocky Mountain. They’ve heard of les Montagnes Rocheuses—and it’s theirs. Lake Louise belongs to somebody in Ste. Thérèse.

Ever since we became self-conscious about our national identity, you can almost say we began to lose it when we began to seek it. That’s been a fundamental fault of the approach of the Committee for an Independent Canada, and of a number of other agencies that have tried to define some common culture that was supposed to be as eloquent in Corner Brook as it was in Montreal.

Even though I want to see more and more jurisdiction over cultural policy pass to the provinces, where I think it belongs, there has to be a national cultural policy. We have more questions than we have answers. But—time for a commercial— that’s one of the advantages of a change, We’re going to be able to open a lot of these questions that other people haven’t. I credit Mr. Trudeau for a large part of our victory last Monday. But a large part of that quite significant victory was a positive response to the people and the attitudes we’ve struck. We’re going to continue playing our game, and not be diverted by his.