Column

The salvation of Canadian society may be in taking our clothes off in public

Barbara Amiel November 5 1979
Column

The salvation of Canadian society may be in taking our clothes off in public

Barbara Amiel November 5 1979

The salvation of Canadian society may be in taking our clothes off in public

Column

Barbara Amiel

One charitable. day last So winter it was I decided that I found to be myself standing in a straggly line leading to the cash register of a local drugstore, clutching a large box of the cold remedy Neo Citran. Each moment of the lengthy wait confirmed the wisdom of my decision: what is a human being who lacks charity? My friend was lying in bed, her face blotchy and raw from the friction between skin and handkerchief, and I was about to bring

I reached the counter.

her the symptomatic relief she desired. “Neo Citran, please,” she had whispered, which had turned out not to be a European car, as I initially feared, nor a nasty new political movement which had escaped my vigilant eye, but rather some sort of lemonade-y drink to stop the sniffles.

“Have you used this product before?” asked the cashier. “No, I haven’t, actually,” tinkled I with a warm smile. “Well, you can’t buy it till you’ve talked to the pharmacist. Go to the back of the line.” Charity lingered—nearly

2,000 years of His influence could not be so easily dispelled. “I’m buying it for a friend who has used it before,” I ventured. “Sure,” said the cashier, “that’s what they all say.” “Is it against the law to buy it over the counter?” I asked. “No,” shrugged the store assistant, “it’s against store policy. It keeps the government off our backs.” I persevered. “If it’s not against the law, then, I’ll buy some right here.” The cashier was triumphant. “No,” she said. “What makes you think you’re above the system?”

Ah, the system. Of course the answer was simple. We are all above the system. We have spent a great deal of time honing the very system that allows us to be above it—to question, argue and change it. We still live—even if increasingly less rather than more—under the rule of law, and that law can be challenged by cantankerous citizens such as myself. This is not to condone the juvenile sort of rebellion that would, for example, automatically object to a law prohibiting the sale of Neo Citran except by prescription if such a precaution were shown to be necessary. But in this case the only excuse for restricting its sale was vague little noises about “excessive use” and “allergic reactions”— noises that could as easily lead to saleby-prescription-only of sugar, butter and woolly underwear—and probably will, if our regulation-crazed legislators have their way.

But to blame legislators alone is scapegoatism. Canadians sui generis seem to suffer from a reflex forelocktugging that makes us the most passive

lot in the Western world, with the possible exception of the great automaton society of Swedes who manifest their rebellion every now and then by jumping off roofs at a considerably higher rate than we do. We refrain from burning autumn leaves in our backyards to please city councils. We fill out forms to park our cars in front of our own houses. We buy inedible sandwiches in order to have a drink. We line up endlessly in stores on a Sunday because of secular laws limiting the number of employees on the Sabbath. We are almost Germanic or Japanese in our obedience to regulations, as if the great movements of individualism that swept Britain, France and America froze when they hit the St. Lawrence River. Pass the War Measures Act, mention the barn-burning Mounties, and Canadians nod and carry on. This “obedience” ranges from nuisance laws to those affecting our vital interests.

“There’s no duty on antique clocks,” my sister told me after picking up an extraordinary crate of vicious-looking springs and dials from Canada customs. “Then why did you pay all that money?” I asked. “They charged duty on the transportation and crating,” she replied glumly. “Still, it’s less than what they charge me for the Canada Pension Plan and the Unemployment Insurance for my au pair girl. You see, she’s not even eligible but when I complained about paying, Ottawa explained it was a hidden tax because I was employing a nonCanadian.”

Complain, I thought. Whine. Write to your MP. I vowed to agitate about our law that in effect could prevent any private person from publishing anything personally unfavorable about a candidate before an election. Given that approach in the U.S., no one could write anything during campaign season about, say, U.S. Congressman Wilbur Mills’s exotic escapades along Washington’s Tidal Basin. If complaining doesn’t catch the attention of the legislators or the press, perhaps we should try taking off our clothes.

For the same passivity that infects Canadians in their attitude to arbitrary laws is found in spades in our media. Genuine protest against the status quo is conducted only by small, unconnected, often eccentric groups, ranging from Toronto’s proselytizing tailor John Bulloch to the Citizens’ Coalition or the new HALT movement. Important though such groups are to the fabric of democracy, they rarely capture the interest of the media and certainly do not have the intellectual outlets that dissenting voices have in the U.S. and England, clustered around such established magazines as The Public Interest and Commentary or the Spectator (and, yes, Private Eye). In Canada, our print and electronic media have little interest in alternate voices. Unless they take their clothes off. Which was the brilliance of the Doukhobors and may be the salvation of society. Perhaps we can find people with both the bodies and brains to jolt this passive land out of its long sleep. Any volunteers?