BUSINESS WATCH

Empowerment: the cry for the 1990s

‘We created a revolution. We’ve laid to rest the opinion that Canadians are not interested in public affairs.’

Peter C. Newman May 20 1991
BUSINESS WATCH

Empowerment: the cry for the 1990s

‘We created a revolution. We’ve laid to rest the opinion that Canadians are not interested in public affairs.’

Peter C. Newman May 20 1991

Empowerment: the cry for the 1990s

BUSINESS WATCH

‘We created a revolution. We’ve laid to rest the opinion that Canadians are not interested in public affairs.’

PETER C. NEWMAN

Last week, the Spicer commission began to draft its final report, and nobody was holding his breath. It's not just that its chairman has become the lightning rod for everything that’s bugging Canadians—politicians, the GST, yesterday’s lousy weather, their neighbor’s dog—but that it’s so easy to guess what the document will contain.

Despite Keith Spicer’s inability to establish his own and his commission’s credibility, his report will define the great populist revolution of the 1990s: empowerment. People don’t want anything or anybody imposed on them any longer. The once-smug citizens of this once-smug nation are mad as hell and are not going to take it anymore. The core of this new attitude is that individuals, not parliaments, must become supreme. The notion that voters can exercise power on their own behalf is what propelled Bob Rae into office and could reward Preston Manning with at least 40 seats in the next federal election, granting him a balanceof-power position.

Because he’s not a commissioner, but more of an uninhibited animator who is not ashamed to shed tears for his beloved country, Vancouver-based broadcaster Laurier LaPierre is a good source to tap about the Spicer circus’s probable findings. Despite his name, Charles Boyer accent and rural-Quebec francophone background, LaPierre is truly bicultural, having obtained his doctorate in history at the University of Toronto and having taught English (to Conrad Black, among others) at Upper Canada College.

“We created a revolution,” he told me in a recent interview, “and have laid to rest forever the opinion so well nurtured in the past that Canadians aren’t interested in discussing public affairs.” He adds: “We discovered that there were a hell of a lot of people in this country who came out in the middle of winter so they could be heard. We’ve also laid to rest the notion that there are no shared values that transcend regional boundaries in Canada. There is a Canadian nation, and part of its common ethic is a belief in the value of a cleansed environment, the importance of compassion and equal treatment in human affairs. There is everywhere, including Quebec, a strong feeling for this entity called Canada. Constitutions are only means to an end, a matter of how you arrange the furniture.”

As a former television host, LaPierre believes that the Spicer hearings would have made a great documentary because they caught the genuine concerns of ordinary people who believe, almost desperately, in the country’s future. He’s convinced that the commission’s most important long-term contribution will be its methods, rather than its conclusions—that, having turned Canadians on to the idea of dialogue, no one will be able to turn them off, and that citizen power will continue to thrive during the 1990s. “The need for participatory democracy is irreversible,” he says. “It’s not only a Reform party phenomenon, it’s spread over all the elements of society.”

LaPierre used the occasion of hosting some of the commission’s public hearings to practise his profession. Instead of talking about current problems, he lectured about how Canadians have historically had to face today’s dilemmas over and over again because of the basic nature of the country, the diversity of its geography and the thin line of its population. He evoked the images of waves of immigrants and how they retained their identities, and how it was mainly because of Quebec that the newcomers were integrated rather than assimilated—as happened in the melting pot of the United States.

That process created a country prone to self-assertion, which is why Canadians have become part of the worldwide phenomenon that has witnessed the reach for independence of the onetime Soviet satellites in Eastern Europe, and the once-quiescent republics that make up the Soviet Union. He rejects the old image of Canada as being populated by men and women who patiently defer to authority, rather than challenging it. “In the past,” says LaPierre, “we’ve always considered the citizen’s relationship to the state as having to flow through a process of information sponsored by governments—with people limited to expressing their approval or disapproval only once every four years, at election time. Now, we’ve discovered a relationship between Canadians and their governors that is much more meaningful and much more continuous. That new mood of empowerment will become, or is already, a significant instrument for democratic action.”

Unlike most Canadian commentators, LaPierre has spent six months on the road, measuring the public mood. What worries him most is that no one is replacing the strategies of doom with strategies of hope. “I once said to a journalist,” he recalls, “ ‘Why is it that your strategies of doom are real, and I’m just an emotional Laurier because I talk about the strategies of hope? Your strategy hasn’t worked, maybe mine will.’ The people are tired of being told that nothing works.”

Despite his penchant for pontificating, LaPierre softens his discourse with a self-deprecating wit, hugely enjoying the story of a northern B.C. citizens’ group that invited Spicer to address them. When LaPierre was offered as a substitute, the organizer declined with the comment, “We’re accustomed to the prince, we don’t need the valet.”

The weakness of LaPierre’s vision is that given Quebec’s self-imposed deadline of holding its referendum by the end of 1992, there may not be time to create the kind of ideal country he visualizes. “It can be done,” he insists. “Federalism is an instrument for sharing powers, that’s all it is. Sir John A. Macdonald and Sir George Etienne Cartier created one set of divisions in 1867. Now, we must create another.”

The formula for such a nation-saving device will not be found in the Spicer commission’s report. Trying to divine solutions to our constitutional impasse was not part of the inquiry’s mandate. But if Canada is to continue as an independent, united country, its citizens first have to be convinced that it’s worth saving.

That will be the chief legacy of Keith Spicer’s rocky ride: Canadians have said loudly and clearly that they want this country to survive—if only so they can continue arguing about it.