ESSAY

Brave hopes, fearful times

Peter C. Newman January 2 1984
ESSAY

Brave hopes, fearful times

Peter C. Newman January 2 1984

Brave hopes, fearful times

ESSAY

Peter C. Newman

As 1983 began, Pierre Trudeau was winging across Southeast Asia on a seven-nation tour, hustling Canadian subway cars, sawmills and Dash-7s. At year end he was on yet another world swing, this time peddling his brave but vaguely worded peace plan. The two trips and their very different impulses bracket the bizarre 12 months just past. Our earlier preoccupation with the need for jobs has given way to concerns even more sombre. The hunger of January was for economic recovery; the longing of December was for human survival.

Suddenly our domestic divisions seem irrelevant, not because they have been resolved but because of the loom of mushroom clouds on our mental horizon. The delicate political consensus by which this country historically has been governed was never programmed to deal with the insanity of nuclear war. The peace movement spent 1983 operating largely outside our existing political institutions, but its message governed much of our popular consciousness.

On the world stage, Trudeau’s disarmament mission amounted to no more than a cameo appearance. Many Ottawa critics saw his trips as a vain attempt to rescue his faltering domestic leadership. Anything to get out of town. In

the strange calculus of disarmament negotiations, authority depends on how much each participant is willing to throw into the pot. Under Trudeau’s stewardship, Canada became the only democracy in world history to voluntarily disarm itself. His crusade thus became a lost cause.

The international incident that revealed our real standing in the world was the Oct. 25 U.S. invasion of Grenada. We are the senior Commonwealth nation in the hemisphere, spending $150 million a year on foreign aid in the Caribbean—and yet when the Americans decided to wade ashore, they notified our external affairs department an hour after their landing and only 60 minutes before we could read all about it in The New York Times.

Even if during his occasional 1983 visits to Canada Trudeau spasmodically lapsed into affability, his string was clearly running out. In office for a generation, he has surpassed the unpopularity of his predecessors, who at least managed to hold on to most of the middle-class vote that has always been the Liberals’ strength. It was the loss of this stolid political base during 1983 that drove the Liberals even lower in the Gallup polls, triggering the process of political succession.

On June 11, when Brian Mulroney won the leadership of the Tories on a steamy fourth ballot, the balance of power

swung to his party. Neither rebel nor reactionary, Mulroney probably comes as close as anyone to personifying his party’s “Progressive Conservative” label—which is a contradiction, like “military intelligence” or “Canadian humor.”

One of the great disillusionments of 1983 was that we turned out to be living in a paper world. There was a time when few contracts seemed more hallowed than bank loans. But if you were big enough—Dome, say, or Massey, Brazil or Argentina—you could roll over your debts, with interest added to principal, and no one seriously expected that promises of repayment would ever be honored.

In the United States the political scene continued to be dominated not so much by Ronald Reagan the man as by the outdated mentality he tried to impose on the world. It was sheer 1950s vintage Hollywood—every good guy a John Wayne, every woman a pug-nosed dream. Reagan differed from other U.S. presidents not because he was such a hard-shelled conservative but because he was so pushy about it. The huge budgetary deficit notwithstanding, during most of 1983 the United States enjoyed sustained economic growth with tolerable inflation. By year end the Democrats, still searching for a modern reincarnation of the Roosevelt magic—F.D.R.’s charm and Eleanor’s balls— seemed ready to settle for the abstract decency of Walter Mondale, thus guaranteeing Reagan’s re-election.

In Western Europe public controversy raged over the deployment of cruise and Pershing II missiles, but the great unspoken issue was the future of the Germanys. Although elections in March confirmed in office Helmut Kohl’s centreright coalition, the Social Democrats abandoned their support of NATO’s “twin track” option—to arm while negotiating. Instead, they lent legitimacy to growing sentiments of neutralism that might eventually bring about German reconciliation and reunification of its splintered halves.

The Mediterranean was meanwhile becoming a Socialist lake, and Yuri Andropov cast an uncertain shadow over the scene. In post-Falklands Britain, Margaret Thatcher won a landslide victory on her Victorian economic policies (her government’s borrowings being the lowest in the industrialized world), and the voters promptly went on a credit binge which rescued the British economy. Meanwhile, clashes in Central America and the war in Lebanon perplexed even the most sensitive observers.

In Canada the good economic news was hardly overwhelming, since by year end nearly two million Canadians were still unemployed. But the turnaround was taking hold. At the start of 1983 industrial Canada was on the ropes, with once-mighty corporate empires having their credit ratings slashed and the mining and forest industries all but wiped out. Then interest rates plummeted from their spike-high levels of 1982. On Jan. 6, for the first time in four years, the Bank of Canada rate dropped below 10 per cent, allowing consumers to spend again. By the fourth quarter, corporate profits were running 45 per cent ahead of 1982, and the next capital spending boom was starting.

The stock market soared for most of the year, and stockbrokers turned fat margins, but the industry itself was being assaulted by the chartered banks, led by the Toronto Dominion, offering discount trading services. The effect was so devastating that only one seat on the Toronto Stock Exchange was sold in 1983—at a bargain-basement rate of $50,000, less than the going rate for Toronto taxi licences. The TSE took the unprecedented step of advertising other seats for sale, but there were no takers.

\Inside the corporate world, the hard lessons long memorized in individual households were finally being learned. The reigning 1983 buzz-phrase was “Let’s bare-bone it” as

overheads were cut and executives’ liquid lunches turned to Inniskillin instead of Château Lafite.

Ontario placed three renegade trust companies under a yet to be justified trusteeship, but the business story of the year was the nearly $2 billion wasted by Montreal’s Canadair in trying to develop a salable executive jet. (Anybody in the business knows that corporate honchos prefer Gulfstream Ills, “ ’cuz you can stand up in the potty.”)

Sequestered in their pseudo-Tudor offices, most of Canada’s chief executive officers failed to comprehend the new economy over which they were presiding. The trouble was that, unlike Japan, where 80 top private sector presidents resigned because they had not met their 1982 sales targets, Canadian business continued to be run by the same tired gang of uninspired number-crunchers whose idea of experiencing an epiphany was to nibble finger-sandwiches at receptions for superannuated bank chairmen in their favorite haunt, the Toronto Club.

Two separate societies were evolving. The great 1983 paradox was that more businesses failed and more were started than in any previous year. Some towns and regions boomed; others stagnated. We were in transition between one kind of economy and another. Computers, which had influenced the design of almost everything, produced at least one great flub. The Boeing 767, first of the new generation jets designed by computers, was tested for 176 fail-safe procedures—everything except how much fuel it takes to fly past Gimli.

Most provincial premiers tried to adjust to the computer age with grants and new education facilities, but their activities had yet to yield much payback. Most radical among them was William Bennett of British Columbia, who rewrote the social contract for Pacific Coast Canadians, undermining the sedate populism that has always been this country’s pre-

vailing political mode. Instead of repudiating him, British Columbia’s silent majority blessed his efforts—and every other government went on notice to copy him.

In Quebec, René Lévesque tried desperately to rally members of his cabinet (those not holidaying or out on bail) into giving the province reasonable government. At the same time, Robert Bourassa’s resurrection was guaranteed to turn patronage into Quebec’s national sport. The new Liberal leader was yet again busily plotting how to protect himself against his instinct for duplicity.

As the year ended in confusion and alarm, Canadians were perplexed about their individual and collective futures. The desperate circumstances called for a grand act of mischief, and Edmonton artist Peter Lewis was glad to oblige. An understudy of Salvador Dali and student of the successful chain of signal fires slung from Scotland to the Channel Islands in celebration of Prince Charles’s wedding, Lewis is organizing individuals and chambers of commerce to build bonfires across Canada and the United States for 1986. The fire pattern, in the shape of a dove and olive branch, is planned as a group project, stretching through six provinces and 23 states. “The dove’s tail connects Ottawa and Washington,” Lewis explains. “The fires will run as far as southern Oklahoma, north to Moosonee, with the beak at English Bay in Vancouver. All 4,500 fires will be intervisible. The dove in its entirety should be photographed by the nice folks at NASA from the space shuttle. We have a potential audience of 800 million. Why be local when you can be global?”

Like the masked dancers at the Duchess of Richmond’s gala ball before the Battle of Waterloo, Lewis’s bonfires seem as warming a way as any to expend our national energies in this ambiguous moment of suspended annihilation,