CANADA

The Shanghai spirit

BACKSTAGE IN CHINA

Anthony Wilson-Smith November 21 1994
CANADA

The Shanghai spirit

BACKSTAGE IN CHINA

Anthony Wilson-Smith November 21 1994

The Shanghai spirit

BACKSTAGE IN CHINA

ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH

By 10 p.m. one memorable night last week in the bar of Shanghai’s Peace Hotel, these are some of the things that had happened:

• The government leaders of Nova Scotia (John Savage) and the Northwest Territories (Nellie Cournoyea) had twisted enthusiastically to an upbeat version of Red River Valley by the hotel’s famous jazz band.

• The same band launched unasked into a rendition of the old French-Canadian folk classic Un Canadien Errant—per-

haps in honor of absent Quebec Premier Jacques Parizeau.

• Manitoba Premier Gary Filmon, his wife, Janice, and Premier Clyde Wells of Newfoundland slung arms around each other as they observed the Filmons’ 31st wedding anniversary and Wells’s 57th birthday. (Earlier in the day, they were serenaded by Prime Minister Jean Chrétien and the other premiers.)

• Ontario’s Bob Rae took over the piano to play (splendidly) and sing (well, manfully) several standards, including It Had to Be You.

In short, it is almost impossible to conceive when Canadian intergovernmental relations have ever been—or will ever again be—at such a spirited high. True, Parizeau was not

there, and Quebec Vice-Premier Bernard Landry was making sulky remarks about the premiers being obliged to ride in minivans behind Chrétien’s limousine. All that was missing otherwise to make the air of goodwill complete was, say, a new constitutional offer to Quebec and a joint deficit reduction plan.

That this outburst of nonpartisan goodwill happened at all was remarkable: what made it even more striking is that it took place on the day after the end of arguably

the most petty, expensive, mean-spirited and divisive congressional and Senate elections in the history of the United States. Similarly, it is less than

13 months since a Canadian federal election characterized by lesser, but similar, hissy fits and name-calling.

Still, it is worth noting that the now infamous Progressive Conservative ads of a year ago—which appeared to make fun of Chrétien’s appearance and manner of speaking—were small beer compared with American attack ads in which candidates routinely suggested that their opponents were liars, cheats, cowards, racists or—even worse—liberals with a social conscience. By way of further comparison, it is hard to imagine that some members of the American right and left could even sit down in the same room with each other without being separated by steel bars.

All this comes at a time when some Canadians wistfully regard the political structures and ethos of American politics as being somehow superior to our own. Preston Manning’s Reform party, for example, gives a pretty good impression of what the Republican Party might look like if it was led by Ross Perot. The New Democratic Party, like the U.S. Democrats, slavishly retains its ties with labor unions even as the members of those same unions stampede to other parties. Lucien Bouchard, whose shoulders appear increasingly bent from carrying the weight of indignities to Quebec upon them lo these many years, nonetheless manages to be almost cheerful every time he talks about the United States.

But while misery loves company, Manning and Bouchard, for now at least, appear condemned to each other’s company. It is not necessary to agree with all the objectives of Team Canada’s China trip to admire the way that most of the country’s leaders managed to work—and sometimes play—together. Canadians, after all, have for too long been exasperated witnesses to the spectacle of federal-provincial bickering, constitutional wrangling and the apparent conviction of most of the country’s leaders that what divides us matters more than what unites us. Now, they appear to be breaking with that trend, even as the Americans embrace it. The new recipe for national unity: good piano playing, bad singing and the old soft-shoe. Toast it while it lasts.