How we see ourselves


Over the past decade, we have lost faith in the touchstones that once guided Canadian society

Peter C. Newman January 3 1994
How we see ourselves


Over the past decade, we have lost faith in the touchstones that once guided Canadian society

Peter C. Newman January 3 1994


Over the past decade, we have lost faith in the touchstones that once guided Canadian society


Once or twice in the average century, like a hurricane that eludes the meteorologists’ charts, history unexpectedly accelerates and blows away the touchstones by which people live. That’s exactly what happened to Canadians between 1984 and 1994. Instead of being able to use past experience to predict future trends, at the end of that turbulent decade we sense the continuity of an age being cut. In this winter of our discontent, most of us believe that what comes now will be very different from what came before. While it’s still better to be Canadian than anything else, every aspect of life is suddenly in motion.

The earth moved.

A woozy feeling of worry and uncertainty dominates the mood of Canada’s 28 million citizens as they contemplate the possibility that the next 10 years will make the past decade or so seem like the good old days. The 10th edition of the Maclean’s year-end poll shows how far we’ve swung away from the national euphoria about our country and ourselves in 1984, when Allan Gregg of Toronto’s Decima Research first started to oversee these surveys. Back then, most Canadians felt lucky and confident, delighted to be living in a state of grace without pressure, waving happy hellos to Queen Elizabeth II, Pope John Paul II and astronaut Marc Gameau, each of whom was touring the country that year. In the first poll, threequarters of Canadians pronounced themselves satisfied or very satisfied with their economic lot and an even larger percentage was optimistic about the future.

Having been the pollster aboard Kim Campbell’s express train to oblivion, Gregg is himself much less certain about his forecasts than he used to be. “Making predictions is more difficult,” he admits. “The experience you’ve gained in the past can be a liability. These days you can’t get 88 per cent of Canadians to agree that today is Friday. I think I’ll take some time off.”

In fact, the volatility of the current situation has driven Gregg temporarily out of the polling business. And the only comfort to be drawn from his confusion is that no one—including magazine writers like myself—is exempt from it. No matter how many so-called experts parade their instant certainties across the nation’s television screens, nobody knows what’s really going to happen. No matter how authoritative the sonorous evening-news anchors sound, they’re only as wise as their TelePrompTers, and if those machines were ever unplugged, they’d be sitting there with their mouths open, sporting the crazed look of expiring guppies.

The other bit of perverse satisfaction is that we’re not alone. Western Europe is in disarray with 18 million unemployed roaming the streets of its historic capitals. The Japanese economy, which was supposed to be the epitome of cool efficiency, is in such a state of panic that stockbrokers now spend much of their time praying at Shinto temples instead of trading. Sweden, our former model, is a muddle. The once powerful Soviet Union’s only remaining growth industry is street demonstrations. As well as suffering from specific economic problems, governments the world over find themselves in deep doodoo because politicians have failed to honor the performance bond with their own citizens.

Lacking a framework within which to accommodate the inexorable impulse for change, Canadians are feeling the hot breath of revolution. So far, this militancy has manifested itself mainly as a tax revolt, with as much as $140 billion in sales and purchases vanishing annually into the underground economy. This boycott of the GST and other levies is something more serious than anger about being taxed beyond endurance. Many Canadians feel too big a slice of their incomes is being confiscated without adequate consultation, and are in the process of revoking their consent to being governed by succeeding platoons of suits.

Taxation without fair representation is how revolutions find expression. (Any day now, The Canadian Press wire service will file dispatches about a flying squad of raging grannies dumping tea into Victoria harbor). Not to worry. The social and economic forces shaking Canadian society are real enough and there’s a tough-minded, angry country out there, determined to inflict havoc on the politicians. But this is Canada and even our revolutions are subtle and bloodless.

What ultimately marks the passage of a revolution is a fundamental shift in a nation’s ethic and personality. And that’s precisely what’s happened to the Canadian character over the past decade.

As a people and as individuals, we switched from deference to defiance. With the personal empowerment that flows from their newfound militancy, Canadians have become cranky, spiteful and tough. “They’re not only angry at themselves for having been too deferential for too many years,” says Gregg, “they want to punish those politicians who stole their dreams.”

Deference to authority became Canada’s state religion through the occupation of the West—initially by the Hudson’s Bay Company and later by the Canadian Pacific Railway, the Mounties and the bank branches that sprouted in the tiny settlements thrown up at the elbows of our rivers, on the laps of our mountains and near the shoulders of our shores. Canada’s frontier communities became company towns, forcing their inhabitants to defer to the authority of each occupying institution. That experience indelibly stained our national character. It translated itself into a fondness for order instead of risk, and the gloomy conviction that there is no greater virtue than a hard day’s work well done.

In return, Canada’s politicians governed with a formula rare in the annals of statehood: a combination of creative fumbling and success by inadvertence. Still, the voters’ subservience was rewarded by the state actually doing things for people—providing canals, railroads and an extensive social safety net that included medicare. Even such radical acts as Pierre Trudeau’s 1970 declaration of the War Measures Act to suppress Quebec’s militant separatists was a reflection of Canada’s deferential nature, with preservation of stability and order placed above every other value, including individual civil rights.

It wasn’t until the late 1980s and early 1990s—when it became evident that the state, burdened with debt, could no longer deliver the goods—that the system broke down. Popular expectations were frustrated by a political apparatus that had ceased to function, at least in terms of its relevance to real people.

The demarcation point was the 1992 referendum on the Charlottetown constitutional accord. Here was a deal that had earned the support of just about every member of every elite in the country—political, economic and cultural. That very fact served to ensure its defeat. Canadians rose up and cried “No!” to the various Establishments that had burdened them for so long with the yoke of „ deference, and defiantly opted to discard Charlottetown's constitutional smorgasbord. Every citizen suddenly felt as if he or she was a majority of one. I The man who bore the brunt of “ nearly a decade’s worth of public

disdain was, of course, Brian Mulroney. His rallying cry in 1984, the year he won the prime ministership, was “Jobs! Jobs! Jobs!” That promise was never kept, except for the political plums handed out to his friends. But another pledge made by the new PM in the House of Commons on Nov. 7, 1984—“Give us 20 years, and you will not recognize this country”—came true with a vengeance. His government took many of the radical steps required to prepare Canada’s economy for the 21st century, virtually reinventing Canada’s infrastructure and reorienting it on a north-south axis. It was a brave effort, but in the process Mulroney aroused more hostility and controversy than any previous Canadian political leader. This was unfair because most of Mulroney’s problems—including an unbalanceable budget and the need to bring Quebec into the constitutional family—were inherited from the Trudeau years. But as John F. Kennedy once remarked about political life: “Nobody promised fair.” By last winter, Mulroney had realized that public opinion was frozen against him, and so he quit. When the Oct. 25 election rolled around, voters were determined to exorcise his influence. Like the slayers of a latter-day Count Dracula, they drove a stake through the heart of his party to make sure he would never come back. Mulroney’s greatest contribution may have been that he politicized the country. By providing a target so inviting that

Canadians could blame him for every fallen sparrow, his own unpopularity became the catalyst for change. New political parties and fresh voting alliances sprang up to ensure his swift departure from the scene. While he emerged as the man to hate, Mulroney was only the most visible agent—and most obvious victim—of Canada’s revolution.

Something much more profound and much more fundamental was going on. Canadian society’s traditional values were being blatantly contradicted by the very institutions that were once its guardians. As more and more people perceived that they were being cheated not just by politicians but by those in authority everywhere, benign deference turned into active defiance. What was involved was nothing less than a loss of faith in most of the touchstones by which Canadian society had so recently been guided:

• The deadliest downturn since the Depression of the 1930s shook our belief in an economic system that only two decades ago

had provided the world’s highest standard of living. We had raised our kids to believe that the world would be theirs to shape, and that their lives would be better than ours. Now, all such bets are off. Two Canadas are emerging: that of the fairly

thin crust of computer-literate, well-educated and mentally flexible men and women who can handle the radical workplace changes of the information age—and everybody else. With fewer outlets for our relatively expensive manufactured goods—and most commodity prices at 20-year lows—the country’s economic prospects are grim. At least three million Canadians are currently unemployed or have given up trying to find jobs. The number of children living in poverty has jumped 30 per cent to more than 1.2 million; there seem to be as many food banks as McDonalds.

• The recent histories of some of our blue-chip companies, including the many corporate pratfalls of Bell Canada and the disintegration of the once-powerful Reichmann, Campeau and Toronto Bronfman empires, has undermined the viability of what was once a model capitalist state. Despite the stock market boom, prices of many of the country’s blue-chip companies hit the Dumpster: Royal Trust stock went from $29 to 39 cents before its remains were given a decent burial by the Royal Bank; Bramalea Ltd. dropped from $24 to 13 cents, prompting its president, Marvin Marshall, to complain that it took six shares to buy a cup of coffee—if you could find a restaurant that would accept them.

• Not being certain of our own identity, we have traditionally imported foreign values, among them the measured dignity of the British monarchy. But having the heir to the throne wishfully speculating about reincarnating as his mistress’s sanitary napkin wasn’t part of the menu. The recent airing of dirty royal linen removed the sanctity of

what was once English Canada’s most significant common totem.

• One of our few distinguishing legends concerns the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway, which in 1885 forged the eastwest link that first unified the country. No railroad now runs from sea to shining sea, or anywhere much outside Lake Ontario’s socalled Golden Horseshoe; the CPR’s new corporate symbol sprouts an American flag. (Cheering on the Latinos and Americans who make up the World Series-winning Blue Jays has turned out not to

be quite the moral equivalent of building the CPR.)

• Although never a military nation, we contributed generously to winning two world wars and earned international recognition for the compassion of our “blue berets,” sent out to calm the world’s trouble spots. That proud reputation died on a pizza slice of East African desert named Somalia, where Canadian soldiers stand accused of murder, torture and criminal negligence.

• More than in most countries, the church has always been an essential sustaining institution, with evangelical teams sent into our ovfri hinterland to minister to natives and the isolated. Over the past five years, some 115 church officials have been charged with various degrees of sexual abuse. The end-

less horror stories of nocturnal % gropings by priests in vestries, t churches and mission schools, t re-enacted in courtrooms by victims now old enough to confront their tormentors, have triggered an unprecedented loss of

faith in institutions where faith means everything. • Once treated with the respect due our fiscal father confessors, the country’s banks—the repository of our money and our conscience—turned goofy in the past decade, carelessly shovelling billions of

our hard-earned savings into the coffers of such now-grounded highfliers as Dome Petroleum Ltd., Campeau Corp. and Central Guarantee Trust. In the case of the Reichmann brothers’ real estate empire, the banks granted them credit of $23 billion without even bothering to take a quick peek at their balance sheets.

• There were other touchstones that eroded: the CFL became an American bush league; some 275 Canadian diplomats—once considered our best and brightest—were caught abusing the public trust by padding their expense accounts; the CBC, which used to give voice to Canada’s soul, was downgraded into a shoddy, commercial network that deliberately ditched The Journal, its only worthwhile national showcase.

And so it went. Between 1984 and 1994, we cast aside the symbols that had once tied us together. Worse, no new belief system, no political vision, no freshly minted, credible institutions were taking the place of their discredited forerunners. Even the newly won stance of defiance provided no useful ideology, except perhaps a road to anarchy. “But out of this strange mix,” Gregg speculates, “has come a fatalistic and even cheeky attitude that points to the reawakening of people’s spirits. Yeah,’ they’re saying, 'times are tough. But life goes on and we have to figure out how to deal with our reduced circumstances.’ There may be less of everything, including pride. But there’s suddenly more resolve out there to cope with life in the 1990s.”

Despite the tough times, compared with just about any other land on earth, Canada still is blessed with the mandate of heaven. □