ESSAY

SOMETIMES A GREAT NATION

WILL CANADA BELONG TO THE 21ST CENTURY? November 21 1988
ESSAY

SOMETIMES A GREAT NATION

WILL CANADA BELONG TO THE 21ST CENTURY? November 21 1988

SOMETIMES A GREAT NATION

ESSAY

WILL CANADA BELONG TO THE 21ST CENTURY?

Starting with Flame of Power (1959), Peter C. Newman, Maclean’s columnist and the newsmagazine’s first editor, has written 12 books. His latest is Sometimes a Great Nation: Will Canada Belong to the 21st Century?, to be published on Nov. 19 by McClelland and Stewart Ltd. In its introduction, Newman examines Canada ’s relationship with the United States and discusses the implications of free trade for Canada ’s future-.

BY PETER C. NEWMAN

Free trade’s greatest benefits have already been achieved. In the process of debating what we might have to surrender, Canadians discovered what we already have.

This election is one of those rare junctures in Canadian history when we can sense the continuity of an age being cut. What comes now will be different from what came before. We may be due for one of those turning points that compress perspectives, redistribute regional allegiances and bid amen to political dynasties.

It has been the combined effect of Brian Mulroney’s passionate free trade initiative plus his Meech Lake accord that triggered the sea change. Such trends represent nothing less than a rewriting of the social contract between Canadians and their government. We have no choice about accepting what American novelist Norman Mailer tagged “the law of life, so cruel and so just, that one must grow or else pay more for remaining the same.”

Ever since the party leaders’ television debate, which most clearly set out the very different Canadian futures envisaged by Brian Mulroney, John Turner and Ed Broadbent, the 1988 campaign has been turned into a referendum on free trade. This has prompted all three leaders to call one another liars and brigands, in what may well be the dirtiest contest for ballots | ever waged in this country.

The problem with free trade as an election issue is that its benefits are diverse; its costs p are focused. The advantages of the U.S.-Cana§

da agreement are long-term and difficult to pinpoint, involving such collective gains as higher national productivity and greater access to larger markets. But the potential harm of the trade treaty is easier to argue, much more dramatic in its short-term impacts, both real and imagined.

The proposed U.S.-Canada agreement has triggered so much raw and very un-Canadian emotion because, without any of the politicians planning it that way, free trade has become a class issue. The Progressive Conservatives, whose last great leader, John Diefenbaker, spent a long and passionate lifetime fighting Bay Street, now find themselves the unwilling champions of the business community, which most clearly perceives free trade as a historical imperative. The Liberals, once the party of C. D. Howe and the vehicle most Canadian businessmen once chose as their political home, have become bitterly antibusiness. (This is particularly ironic because before he went back into politics, John Turner sat on the boards of some of the country’s most powerful corporations, directing assets worth $25 billion.)

Whether or not it actually happens, the psychological fallout from free trade has already taken hold, allowing us to appreciate the contrast between what we’ve been able to preserve in the northern half of North America, and what others have lost. Imperceptibly, but in a very real way, the very idea of free trade has allowed us to jettison our colonial mentality, perceiving ourselves for the first time in

terms of our own rather than imported values.

No one has as yet articulated precisely how the prevailing mood is changing, but, as if by prearranged signal, many Canadians have become fed up with the inferiorities that have held our psyches so firmly captive in the recent past. Not since frontier days has there been such a surge of self-reliance, such a determination by individuals of all ages, both sexes and most circumstances to strike out on their own and exercise more control over their lives. Most of us feel vibrantly alive, veins humming with adrenalin as we begin to assert ourselves. At the same time, the traditional sources of authority are losing their clout. How can we hold in awe, for example, the chartered banks, where we once deposited our money and our consciences, when they turn out to have invested our hard-earned savings in such grounded highfliers as Brazil and Dome?

Ours remains a putty culture, yeasty yet penetrable, but the new generation moving into power is full of ginger, set on getting things done. These new-style Canadians no longer believe, as did their cowering predecessors, that history has to be made across the sea, that business acumen and know-how exist only beyond our borders, or that the best we can manage here is a pale imitation.

At what remains a.subconscious level, Canadians have begun to resolve their traditional self-doubts and instead of searching for a national identity, are putting into practice their separate ones. At the same time, we have realized that the American experience we once so envied cannot be sustained by a country that tosses up a succession of such scrap-iron leaders as Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George Bush. We’re no longer jealous. We can see in our country—and not in theirs—the continued possibility of realizing our true potential. Comparing ourselves with other nations, it’s easy now to see how attractive, egalitarian and relatively gentle our society still is and how full of promise is our future. We are a people with little talent for excess. Most of us would rather be Clark Kent than Superman. Our cities remain oases of relative civility on a continent where most urban areas are armed camps.

Living next to the United States has been reminiscent of an old-fashioned marriage, with the husband insisting, “If you do exactly what I want, dear, we’ll have a really good time.” Or, to switch metaphors, the Americans think of us (if they think of us at all) as an attic in their mansion. Attics tend to be taken-for-granted storage spaces somewhere up there, occasionally essential but a topic of concern only if they are the source of strange noises or cold drafts. Should free trade be implemented, we will be moving down from the attic into American living rooms, or at least into their pantries. That’s good reason to be very nervous. We’ll find ourselves thrown into the much tougher world of the international marketplace, having to make our way through Darwinian swamps of unfettered competition where survival of the fittest and the fastest is all that counts.

The problem with having the United States

as a neighbor is that it’s a nation whose instinctive imperialism is an all-pervasive force of nature. “It envelops us as a mist, penetrating every sphere of our cultural, political, economic and social environment,” according to University of Toronto political economist Abraham Rotstein. “For that very reason we seem

to feel powerless, unwilling and unable to achieve the perspective necessary for an appraisal of our situation. It sometimes seems as superfluous to ask what should be done about the Americanization of this country as it is to ask what should be done about the weather.” In confronting the United States, we must accept the proposition that we are dealing with what Arnold Toynbee called the American Empire, a sentiment reflected as far back as 1776 in Thomas Paine’s dictum: “The cause of America

is in great measure the cause of all mankind.” Senator Kenneth Wherry picked up the anthem when he chirped to his Nebraska followers: “With God’s help, we will lift Shanghai up and up, ever up until it’s just like Kansas City!”

This imperialistic writ is the context in which we are planning to enter a free trade area with the Americans. The prospect of being part of a five-trillion-dollar economy stretching from the North Pole to the Rio Grande is alluring. But the risks are enormous. In the past, we could afford the luxury of not having to choose between surrender and resistance to the magnetic pull of the American Dream on the basis of economic considerations. We were the resource storehouse to the free world, and everyone wanted what we had. That is no longer true and, equally important, all of the other major industrialized countries are joining or have joined trading blocs that will give their domestic manufacturers access to markets of a hundred million people or more. By 1992, Western Europe expects to be so thoroughly integrated that it will be using a common currency.

For Canadians to reject the free trade pact strictly on the grounds of its undoubted threat to Canadian sovereignty is too simplistic. The alternative—trying to preserve a vanishing status quo—could be even worse.

What bothers me most about the free trade deal—apart from its cultural dimensions—is its energy aspect. U.S. energy experts predict that declining domestic production will raise America’s current 25to 30-per-cent dependence on petroleum imports to 50 to 60 per cent by 1995. Philip Verleger Jr. of Washington’s Institute for International Economics estimates that the value of U.S. petroleum imports will rise to $130 billion by 1995 from $44 billion in 1985. Access to Canadian energy sources—lock, stock and oil barrel—would

fuel the American industrial machine for the foreseeable future.

Even when we start to run out of our own oil, under the terms of the treaty, Canada must provide “proportional access to the diminished supply” without price discrimination. Our energy exports would not, of course, be limited to oil. The main reason Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa supports free trade is that it would allow him to sell immediately $3 billion worth of Manicouagan and James Bay power to New England over 10 years. Precisely such an arrangement was blocked by Ottawa’s National Energy Board in June, 1986.

Economic union between the two countries would dismantle the tariffs that still encumber the $160 billion in annual trade across the U.S.Canadian border, giving our manufacturers access to a quantum jump in potential customers. At the same time, American factories would be swamping our domestic markets with their output, taking advantage of the built-in price differential of their longer production runs. More seriously, future industrial expansion would almost certainly take place south of the 49th parallel because the four main factors that go into deciding where to produce any item—climate, social service costs, proximity of market and cost of labor—would clearly favor U.S. locations.

Yet there is ample reason to have confidence in our ability to compete. Since 1984, we have consistently led the industrialized world in job creation and, with adjustment for the purchasing power of currencies, Canada achieved the second-highest per-capita income of any major economy, ahead of both Japan and West Germany. Manufactured goods currently amount to more than two-thirds of our exports, and we have become a serious source of international investment capital. Despite soft commodity prices, our gross national product has, during the past half decade, expanded faster than that of any other country. The most recent edition of Fortune’s “International 500” includes 35 Canadian companies, the fourth-highest total on the list. We have grown fully competitive with American industry, racking up an $82-billion surplus on merchandise trade in the past four years. “Canadians have little to feel inferior about,” Toronto publishing tycoon Conrad Black trumpeted in his last Globe and Mail column. “This is a great country capable of competing with Americans or anyone else. Precisely those who are more antagonistic and contemptuous towards the United States are those who would perpetuate an irrational fear of that country and a puny self-image of this one.”

What if Conrad Black is right?

The free trade initiative—if we take it up— will require a drastic realignment of the traditional Canadian personality. We have always displayed a distinct aversion to risk-taking, believing profoundly in the notion that moderation is not just a safe course between extremes, but a secular mandate on how to conduct one’s life. Historically, deference to authority has been our prevailing ethic—an orderly attitude, rooted in collective survival rather than individual excellence colored what more people did

and, especially, didn’t do. It stressed life’s sombre virtues—the notion that there is nothing more satisfying than a hard day’s work well done, that the good man always earns more than his keep. In dramatic contrast to the individualism of the United States, the idea was to be careful, to be plainly dressed, quietspoken and, above all, close with one’s money and emotions. Flashes of pleasure and moments of splendor had to look accidental, never planned. We made up in loyalty and moral fibre what we lacked in creativity and exuberance.

You could immediately spot a Canadian at any gathering: he or she was the one who automatically chose the most uncomfortable chair. It was all part of our national affinity for discomfort and self-denial. We learned to excel in making the worst of bad situations, underestimating our individual and collective worth, living out poet Earle Birney’s dire diagnosis of Canada as “a high-school land, frozen in its adolescence.” Fearing disorder more than oppression, we dribbled away our self-esteem and patrimony in the

revolutions we did not launch, the risk we failed to take, the acts of daring we managed to avoid. We became Don Quixotes in parkas singing a cappella blues.

Our prevailing attitude was all too reminiscent of the story about two jazz fans who once approached Duke Ellington on the street, vaguely aware he was a musical great but not certain which one.

“Hey, man,” one of them demanded, “ain’t you the Duke?”

“Baby,” was the reply, “I’m whoever you want me to be.”

All too often, we were who and what outsiders wanted us to be. In allowing foreign aspirations to define indigenous goals, we became citizens of a country for others to build their dreams on. Henry James complained about “the complex facts of being an American.” Being a Canadian was simple: deference was our state religion, prostration

0 our national posture. (We

1 even practised dishonesty u with ingratiating overtones:

while Revenue Canada estimated that billions of dollars in federal revenues had gone unreported through deliberate tax evasion, Ottawa also revealed that 91 per cent of those fraudulent returns were filed exactly on time.)

The quintessential Canadian statesman of this colonial period was Mackenzie King, who ruled us longer than anyone else, had the sex life of a gnat, never took a political chance and, on a 1949 visit to his good friend John D. Rockefeller Jr., was so fastidious that he took along six spare shoelaces. “The most successful politician in our history resembled a bald Queen Victoria and for recreation talked to spooks,” the iconoclastic painter Harold Town once remarked. More recently, Olympic speed skater Gaétan Boucher explained why he competed in the American, not the Canadian, way. “The attitude most Canadians have is not really right,” said he. “They come to you and ask: ‘You were 10th, eh? Well, that’s not too bad.’ But it is. Compare that with the Americans. 9 They do everything to win, not to finish 10th.”

Unable to figure out whethz er we were the least of the i great powers or the greatest

of the small powers, we decided, in the smug afterglow of the Second World War, to become something we called a “middle power.” We sent contingents of peacekeeping soldiers into trouble spots where they would be shot at, mauled and manhandled but not permitted to return fire or retaliate in any way. It was perfect casting. Out of that dazzling display of deference grew our reputation as world-class fall guys. It meant, for one thing, that Canadian passports became an invaluable commodity; having one immediately identified its bearer as harmless. Several of the most senior Soviet spy masters (including such major players as Robert Soblen, Col. Rudolf Abel and Gordon Lonsdale, who obtained the plans of Britain’s nuclear submarines) operated on Canadian passports. Olaf Rankis, executive vice-president for security and intelligence at Gordon Liddy & Associates, the Miami firm that supplies mercenaries to various industrial groups, once confessed: “I always travel wearing a red maple leaf pin in my lapel. Nobody hates the Canadians.”

Treading water became our national sport; we loved poking fun at ourselves.

“Why does a haircut in Canada cost $8?”

“Two bucks for each corner.”

The music critic Larry Le Blanc described the most popular Canadian singer of the day with the quip: “If you close your eyes and think of a naked Anne Murray, parts of her always come up airbrushed.” People magazine dismissed the songbird as “coming across like a Madonna of Sunnybrook Farm.”

The one indisputably great aspect of this country is its size, and the most astounding aspect of its history has been its survival imposed on that enormous hunk of geography. Few land masses of such outrageous dimen^ sions can withstand the tensions of democracy. ^ The stresses and strains of stretching the rule of law across 88 degrees of longitude and 42 degrees of latitude virtually guarantee inefficient central government. Even though most =1 Canadians think the Precambrian shield isa ' birth control device, territorial integrity (holding on to our northern turf) remains our strongest sustaining myth. We happily give away our energy sources and minerals at rock-bottom prices and sell off the most profitable parts of our secondary manufacturing sector. But let a Yank demand one drop of our water or sail through our Northwest Passage, and we go ape. That’s why Arctic sovereignty, fishing rights and acid rain (or, for that matter, Quebec separatism, which was perceived by most English Canadians as a threat to the physical continuity of our reach from sea to sea) have become such hot issues.

If survival has been our most noteworthy achievement, as Margaret Atwood and others have claimed, so be it. Survivors are the winners in almost any game. Toronto novelist and broadcaster Harry J. Boyle had it right when he praised “the south-sharpening satisfaction that comes from being a survivor.” And we have survived with dignity, if not with joy.

Becoming a Canadian never required conversion to a burning faith, or even a salute, since we had no distinctive flag during the first

98 years of our existence. Founded on individual allegiance instead of social compact, Canadian nationhood proceeded so slowly that it took 38 years after Confederation in 1867 for the other provinces to join—except Newfoundland, of course, which waited another half century just to be sure.

Because no officially sanctioned Canadian Dream exists, we can bitch about our country and adore it at the same time. It’s such a mood of irreverence that sets us apart from citizens of the United States, where the American Dream continues to circumscribe its true believers and bedevil its malcontents. The distinction between the American melting pot and the Canadian mosaic remains our single most

important national characteristic. Here, most of us—the country’s founding races, plus the Europeans, Asians, West Indians—arrived trailing our own roots, now firmly transplanted into fertile new ground. What makes Canada so special is the unwritten compact that bigotry will not be condoned (except in every smalltown pub) and that instead of abusing one another, we can almost always talk out our problems and sometimes even our prejudices. It’s vital that we never lose hold of this fragile but essential quality: that everyone is permitted to live and let live, allowed to curse the politicians while loving the land, to debate endlessly the meaning of our national existence while living it day by day.

There are no magical windows through which to proclaim the future. The Laurier prediction that the 20th century would belong to Canada never did come true, because we behaved during most of it as if we still belonged to the 19th. The next century will not belong to any nation east of Hawaii, as the world’s eco-

nomic centre of gravity shifts ever westward to the Pacific Basin. Whether Canada will belong to the 21st century is the real question. Looking back over the last few years, it seems to me that we finally are growing up.

The essential element of that newfound adulthood is that we stop asking ourselves who we are. We may lack a homogeneity of purpose, but our nationality exists because Canada exists. It is the same emotion once described to me by Will Ready, a Welsh poet and essayist who was chief librarian at Hamilton’s McMaster University: “Wales rings in my mind like a bell in an underwater belfry. I am of Wales, and everything I write and dream about is framed in that Welsh context.”

A variation on this theme was the testimony of Dr. J. H. Maloney, former minister of development for Prince Edward Island, before a CRTC hearing about regional alienation and identity. “Certainly in the Maritimes,” he said, “there has been no loss of identity. We’re very sure of that. In Prince Edward Island, if anybody ever said he was alienated, I would say: ‘You are not alienated. I can tell you exactly who you are; you are the illegitimate son of your Aunt Mary ....’”

That’s it. One by one, we can create the sum of our national identity. Canada is a collection of 26 million characters in search of an author.

After feeling far more than a century that being Canadian was a journey rather than a destination, we have arrived at last. We have attained a state of delicious grace which allows us to appreciate that what’s important is not so much who we are but that we are—that sometimes a large nation can become a great one.

Copyright © by Peter C. Newman and McClelland and Stewart 1988.