BUSINESS WATCH

Common sense to the rescue

Considering the alternatives, most Canadians are ready to give the country another chance

Peter C. Newman July 1 1991
BUSINESS WATCH

Common sense to the rescue

Considering the alternatives, most Canadians are ready to give the country another chance

Peter C. Newman July 1 1991

Common sense to the rescue

BUSINESS WATCH

PETER C. NEWMAN

Considering the alternatives, most Canadians are ready to give the country another chance

T his special issue of Maclean 's proves that given the opportunity to consider the alternatives, most Canadians are ready to give the country anoth-

er chance—not as some valedictorian’s vague utopia, but as a congregation of people who can enjoy a decent life together.

That’s an epic breakthrough, considering the lassitude most Canadians seem to feel about national unity. Saving this country is turning out to be a growth industry for underemployed academics and little else.

According to a recent Environics poll, the proportion of Canadians who identify with their country (rather than with their region or province) has dropped to 49 per cent from 62 per cent in the past decade. At the same time, an Angus Reid Group survey shows that 80 per cent of Canadians believe that the country is about to split up. Yet in a study by Prof. Reginald Bibby of the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canadians ranked national survival only 11th out of 19 “very serious issues” facing the country. And a May poll by Corporate Research Associates of Halifax reveals that only five per cent of Atlantic Canadians—who would be the most affected by a Quebec split— consider national unity the country’s most pressing priority.

We’re a strange people.

Nearly every time freedom is threatened anywhere on the globe, we rush in as peacekeepers. Five times this century, we’ve mobilized highly effective forces to save embattled regimes as far away as Korea and Kuwait. Yet when the continued existence of Canada is threatened—as it now surely is—we stand back, yawn and wonder, “What else is new?” This unwillingness to get excited about our own future is rooted in Canadian history. Becoming a Canadian never required conversion to any burning faith; we have no equivalent of the American dream. The country simmered up slowly, based on individual allegiance, however reluctantly given, rather than some grand social compact.

The best of our historical figures have always taken their time, moving as slowly as the seasons, testing the waters—then testing them again—before deciding to wet a toe. We celebrate Canada’s birthday on July 1, as if the country had emerged fully formed on that longago day in 1867. In fact, only four provinces got to the party in time. It took another 38 years for the others to enter—all except Newfoundland, of course, which waited almost another half-century. Just to be sure.

Procrastination is our state religion; prostration, our national posture. No other country in recorded history took 98 years to decide on its flag, or 100 years to formally sanction the words of its national anthem.

It’s that national characteristic of waiting for things to happen, rather than bringing them about, that makes the current situation so dangerous. Quebec’s proposed referendum on its future is due to be held in October, 1992. Using that province’s 1980 referendum on sovereignty-association as a precedent, it takes about five months for these exercises in plebiscitary democracy to gear up. That means any negotiations with Quebec would have to end by May, 1992, or only two months from the March, 1992, deadline Brian Mulroney has set

for his newest constitutional committee to report its findings on which the federal position will be mainly based.

It doesn’t wash.

Trying to reinvent Canada in that brief interval of 60 days would be like trying to scale Mount Everest on a dinner date. It can’t be done. Timing has become the central problem. The Meech Lake fiasco proved that the pressure of a self-imposed deadline is counterproductive. As pollster Reid puts it, “The millions of average Canadians who initially watched the Meech Lake story with the disinterest of window-shoppers were transformed into an ugly mob ready to torch the store.”

The politicians are not only repeating the mistake of setting a deadline they can’t meet, they’re also telling us—just as they did in June, 1990—that if the newest constitutional arrangement isn’t approved, the country will disappear, split up, be kaput, done for. This time, it could be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The moods of French and English Canada are not only drifting apart, but toughening. Pollsters indicate that there is almost no support in the rest of Canada for Quebec’s preferred option of sovereignty-association. Most English-Canadians refuse to consider the prospect of negotiating an economic union with Quebec as an independent state and laugh at a Quebec Liberal party report’s suggestion that the province should continue receiving federal equalization payments after separation.

Ironically, nationalist constitutional experts testifying before Quebec’s Bélanger-Campeau commission acknowledged that the Canadian Constitution has no provision for allowing a province to withdraw from Confederation. José Woehrling, a law professor at the University of Montreal who testified before the committee, suggested that it would be a lot easier under the Constitution to pass an amendment allowing Quebec to depart than trying to alter the rules in a way that would allow the province to stay.

That’s a highly dubious proposition because no federal political leader, nor any premier, would want to be remembered as having presided over the death of the country. Even if they haven’t learned anything about avoiding deadlines, our politicians cannot avoid involving people, rather than only themselves, in devising a formula for national salvation. A new constitution, no matter how cleverly worded, that lacks direct public support is doomed. Yet any referendum held by Ottawa to approve its constitutional initiative is bound to be interpreted as a popularity poll on Brian Mulroney’s administration. Unless he can engineer a dramatic recovery, that could doom us right there.

Few of the Canadians who participated in the Maclean’s weekend on the country’s future share common cause. That’s why they were picked: to reflect accurately the current fragmentation of the country and the confused future we face. But even if they share no sustaining faith, they do share an attitude.

They know that because of all the disappointments and shattered illusions, it may be absurd to advocate innovation and reform of the Canadian state. But they also believe that it would be far more absurd not even to try.