There is a sudden hush in the stale air of the cabin as the aircraft slowly descends over a spectacular blaze of autumn leaves. Weary flight attendants and listless passengers stop their last-minute fidgeting and silently gaze out at an unmistakably, gloriously Canadian vista. From that altitude, it is almost impossible to suppress a rush of love for the beautiful, sprawling country below.
If only that warm glow could be sustained beyond the luggage carousel. But just past the airport’s sliding doors lurks reality—or at least Canada’s peculiar version of reality. Confronted with the current disarray of our home and native land, a pang of nationalist affection quickly gives way to exasperated concern. Having devoted the summer months to another round of enthralling debate over national unity and the future of Quebec, Canadians are once again confronting something a little less fascinating but a lot more frightening. The deficit is back at the top of the agenda.
Last week, after repeated delays, Ottawa finally unveiled its sketchy blueprint for the restructuring of Canada’s bankrupt welfare state. Although the government would prefer not to state it in such stark terms, the proposed social policy reforms could bring about federal spending cuts of $7.5 billion over the next five years. While the usual howls of protest issued from the usual quarters right on cue, the terrible truth is that however controversial the proposed changes, $7.5 billion doesn’t even come close to doing the trick. We are, after all, talking about a net foreign debt of $325 billion and a $30-billion annual tab for interest charges on it. But for many Canadians—including political leaders— there is clearly no connection between the rhetoric of fiscal responsibility and the harsh reality.
In part, the problem is that Canada has evolved into a self-indulgent debating society rather than a mature industrial nation. At the outset, Confederation was brought about through the delicate machinations of lawyers, not the forceful action of military generals. And through decades of relative prosperity, we have had the luxury to build upon that tradition of compromise and consensus. Consequently, Canadians have developed an enormous threshold for chewing over every aspect of a national issue. When matters become too confusing or confrontational, we simply call an election, hold a referendum or, better yet, create a royal commission to study it at even greater length and get back to us with even more detail.
The deficit crisis, however, is utterly unsuited to such quasiacademic tactics. For one thing, there really isn’t much point in agonizing over a menu of social policy options when you can’t afford to pay for the meal anyway. And unlike the Constitution or the separation of Quebec, paying our creditors is not something that can be endlessly discussed and deferred. Nevertheless, instead of imposing the discipline required to address the problem, the Liberal government has produced yet another Great Canadian Discussion Paper. Its purpose, federal Human Resources Development Minister Lloyd Axworthy anxiously assures everyone, is nothing as radical as a proposed course of action. Gosh no. It is merely an exercise intended to initiate a comprehensive nationwide consultation. And as the bitter wrangling over this initiative unfolds in the coming weeks, only one thing is certain: Canada is a much more attractive place from 5,000 feet in the air.
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