BUSINESS WATCH

Examining Canada’s self-destructive psyche

‘We seem to be tearing ourselves apart as though we were a Lithuania. It’s madness. What are we doing it for?’

Peter C. Newman July 2 1990
BUSINESS WATCH

Examining Canada’s self-destructive psyche

‘We seem to be tearing ourselves apart as though we were a Lithuania. It’s madness. What are we doing it for?’

Peter C. Newman July 2 1990

Examining Canada’s self-destructive psyche

BUSINESS WATCH

PETER C. NEWMAN

‘We seem to be tearing ourselves apart as though we were a Lithuania. It’s madness. What are we doing it for?’

And so, amid last week’s terminal sputterings of the Meech Lake accord, the creative fumbling that served as Canada’s state religion for 123 years finally exhausted its mandate. Never again can we place our trust in “muddling through”—the constructive improvisations that allowed us to survive so many past crises. Now we face an uncertain future in an unpredictable world, with no guarantees how long we can remain a federated nation-state, stretching without disruption between shores washed by three oceans.

In this climate of unprecedented national distress, probably only a trained psychiatrist can explain why Canada is exhibiting all the symptoms of public and private nervous breakdown. If anyone qualifies as the country’s leading psychiatrist, it has to be Dr. Vivian Morris Rakoff, 62, professor and chairman of the department of psychiatry at the University of Toronto as well as director and psychiatristin-chief of the prestigious Clarke Institute of Psychiatry. Originally from South Africa, Rakoff holds 12 degrees and qualifications; his curriculum vitae runs to 27 single-spaced pages.

When I called on Rakoff recently, I found him profoundly concerned with the Canadian psyche, while disclaiming any expertise in how to fix it. “I’m frightened about Canada shooting itself in the foot,” he said. “It’s quite bewildering. Here we are, one of the world’s happy countries—not perfect, but essentially benign, welcoming and decent—even if we do need a kick in the ass once in a while, because we’re so inert in some ways, so suspicious of excellence. At the same time, we’ve absorbed millions of immigrants and haven’t cracked apart, and while there have been some terrible racial incidents we have had no race riots. We are at peace and perpetuate no major international quarrels. We are the seventh most prosperous country in the world and share our wealth higgledy-piggledy across the country.”

“And yet,” he continued, “we seem to be tearing ourselves apart as though we were a

Lithuania that was annexed without legality, as though we were oppressed by some offensive, powerful, outside regime. It’s madness. What are we doing it for? One reason may be that our politicians are not talking about anything that really affects us. They’re not talking about the price of sausages going crazy, or hyperinflation, or death squads and secret police, or the army about to take over: they’re talking about this funny, mixed-up, blessed, pluralist and decent mess of a society that most of the world envies and is desperate to get into, and that’s about to tear itself apart because of constitutional lawyers’ problems.”

Rakoff’s hope is that the style of benign Canadianism he loves so much reasserts itself. He blames the Meech Lake accord for most of the trouble. “It has a killer clause which makes it impossible to be an instrument of national unity,” he contends. “When you demand unity as the basis of government, it is structurally a bomb; it is diabolically constructed to detonate itself. Unanimity goes against the whole ethos of this country. The only time you get unanimity on anything is when one guy says, ‘Let’s have lunchand everybody says, ‘Okay.’ But unanimity on constitutional matters is a recipe for paralysis and destruction. My hope is they’ll

eventually find some lateral formula, which will undermine the unanimity notion, so that we can return to some form of pragmatism.”

Rakoff lived and practised in Quebec for seven years after arriving from Cape Town in 1961, but finds it difficult to understand why French-Canadians think of themselves as a conquered people. “If this is being conquered,” he observes, “one is driven to unfair comparisons such as the massacre of the Armenians, the displacement of populations within the Soviet Union, not to mention the Holocaust. This perception of Quebec as an embattled, threatened polity makes one recoil a little.” The Toronto psychiatrist is also puzzled by the paradox of Quebec buinessmen ignoring Canadian markets while anxious to compete in the United States. “They’re now going to do battle in a marketplace where no one will speak French, and their own language of business will not be French,” he points out. “Yet they seem willing to accommodate the United States, where their culture will be infinitely more threatened than it is in Canada.” He is equally baffled by the Parti Québécois’s platform which calls for a common currency with Canada, following formal separation. “That’s rather like the adolescent boy who wants to leave home and asks his father for the family car to do it in,” he quips. “I suppose it’s possible that under some new constitutional arrangement, Quebec will still be part of Canada as a kind of different brother who likes to do his own thing, though we still allow him at the family table. All families contain a degree of mutual accommodation to oddity and idiosyncrasy. We’ll just have to take into account that if we’re having a dinner party, he’s likely to appear in a bathing suit.” Rakoff is far more worried about the future of the rest of the country than he is about Quebec. “There is no English Canada,” he insists. “Of course there exists an Englishspeaking Canada, but it has none of the intensity or unity of French Canada. There is no such thing as being an English-Canadian, for that matter. The English in Canada have been reduced to a visible minority. Roast beef has become an ethnic dish.”

While Rakoff takes for granted that Quebec is a distinct society because of its peculiar history and own legal system, he believes it’s wrong—and hopeless—for French-Canadians to battle the realities of the 20th century. “Nobody any longer can dwell inside a zoological garden in which you preserve yourself as a species unaffected by changes in ecology,” says he, “and the ecology of the world is changing drastically. Like it or not, we’re all blood brothers now. The multinationals, once seen as demons, may in fact be responsible for the peace of the world, because now everybody has a share in everybody else’s prosperity.” Psychiatrists are well aware that no relationship lasts forever, and that human frailty somehow always manages to make the worst of a bad situation. But Vivian Rakoff surely is right when he laments: “Why are there people who want to break this country apart? It’s like being given one of God’s great gifts, deciding it may not be totally perfect, and breaking it to see what’s inside.”