Towards the year 2000

MARCI McDONALD December 25 1995

Towards the year 2000

MARCI McDONALD December 25 1995

Towards the year 2000


Canadians are facing the approach of the third millennium in the grip of unprecedented national despair


Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world —William Butler Yeats, The Second Coming

The old order is dying and the new is struggling to be born. Borders are crumbling as a handful of the newly rich and powerful forge private fiefdoms, controlling the fates of the increasingly impoverished masses with a brutish disregard for all but their economic output. Warily, the populace braces for the shock of a new millennium—perhaps even the end of the world—finding consolation only in the spiritual. Everywhere, thinkers bemoan the fraying of the civil fabric. ‘The cities are depopulated, the country reduced to solitude,” worries one. Another laments how “the strong oppress the weak. The world is full of violence against the poor. Men devour one another like fishes in the sea.” But the most striking aspect of that litany is the prospect that inspired it: the advent of the year 1000 about to dawn over the feudal society taking shape in the wake of the Roman empire’s collapse across medieval Europe.

In retrospect, those millennial forebodings seem nothing short of quaint. At the time, the great universities and cathedrals were yet to be built, Gutenberg’s printing press had still to be invented, forever altering mass communication, and even the nation state itself would not emerge for centuries. Ahead lay some of humankind’s greatest triumphs, and also its most barbaric sprees. But haunting the horizon, too, were doomsday bulletins that would be regularly updated—notably by the 16th-century French physician-mystic Nostradamus with his chillingly precise prediction that a reign of terror would descend out of the heavens in 1999.

Now, modern-day astrologers are warning of a planetary alignment in May, 2000, which will wrench the Earth from its axis, unleashing floods, earthquakes and untold cosmic woe. No matter that previous reports of the world’s end have proved to be greatly exaggerated. Today, science has served up the twin nightmares of a nuclear holocaust and environmental collapse, adding a 20th-century twist to the biblical spectre of Armageddon. That prophecy, in turn, has been newly resuscitated by the fundamentalist Christian right, which sees the signs and portents of judgment day alarmingly close at hand. Indeed, just as the approach to the second millennium appeared terrifying in the Middle Ages, most Canadians are facing the third in the grip of an unprecedented national despair. On the eve of the year 2000, a majority seems ready to agree with singer Leonard Cohen: “I have seen the future, brother: it is murder.” Once more the known order appears to be disintegrating as the tide of globalization sweeps away the niceties of national boundaries and job security. With multinational shareholders and the super wealthy increasingly pulling the global strings, the gap between rich and poor is steadily widening, seeding bitterness and class resentment. And, like those in the Middle Ages who found solace in the divinely ordained fatalism of the church, growing numbers of Canadians are seeking out a newly ecumenical spirituality in their hunger for meaning amid the gathering chaos. Suddenly questioning the faltering promises of materialism, they have turned inward and upward to Hindu mantras and Buddhist meditation, to angels and now the latest fashion, miracles—as if only the miraculous could extricate them from their bewildering worldly fix. “People sense we are about to go through a huge change in everything,” says Alexander Blair-Ewart, the Toronto-based editor of a recently published anthology, Mindfire: Dialogues in the Other Future. “The new spirituality offers them a way of dealing with this crisis.”

Percentage who believe that when the new century begins in the year 2000 ...

Personal taxes will be higher 70”

Social benefits such as welfare and ui will be less generous or eliminated.....89”

Young Canadians will find it harder to find meaningful work................85”

A high-school diploma will be worth less or worthless ..............71”

The Canada Pension Plan will have worse funding or be bankrupt...........81”

The amount of time for leisure and recreation will be no greater.................72"

We will not be attracting a higher calibre of people to run for elected office...........66(

Government institutions will provide no more room than now for citizen input . 64(

The quality of a grade-school education will be no higher............58‘

In fact, that resort to the otherworldly is anything but new. In the twilight of the last century, disenchanted by science and shaken by warnings of cultural collapse, Europeans turned not only to the lure of Eastern religions but to the murky waters of mysticism and the occult to fend off their fin-de-siècle angst. Now, some futurists see the even more momentous milestone ahead as explanation enough for the current dread. “After the year 2000 passes, there will be less fear of change,” says Vancouver’s Frank Ogden, who, at 75, churns out his upbeat cyber-scenarios from a houseboat outfitted with its own satellite dish. But even many who shrug it off as a year like any other are not immune to forebodings. At a time when the world seems on fast-forward, hurtling towards technological and social upheaval at dizzying speed, Ogden predicts the only sure thing is more unsettling uncertainty. “Nothing is safe,” he warns. ‘You’ve got to learn to live with uncertainty and love it.”

But few Canadians share his enthusiasm for the question marks suddenly looming over the national landscape. A profound malaise seems to have infected the land, erupting in random outbreaks of rage as many confront a future where their half-century-old expectations of security have abruptly been foreshortened. On a cross-country tour promoting her book, Straight Through the Heart, which argues that the Liberals have abandoned their traditional commitment to the country’s social policies, political activist Maude Barlow was stunned by the palpable sense of betrayal among her audiences. “When you go on talk shows, you get the blast of this anger and fear,” she says. “There’s a real sense things are going to get worse.”

pee access to health care and nedicare will be restricted according o income or eliminated altogether.....62%

he quality of life for senior ;itizens will be worse...............53%

quality of the environment be no better ..........................60%

region or province will be in serious iiscussion about joining the United States 39%

he government deficit will be significantly ower or eliminated altogether.........8% lours of work for the average lerson will be no shorter............59% he crime rate will be higher.........58% lanada will be a worse place to live ............31% lanada as we know it will no longer exist........29% lanada's international eputation will be worse..........22% he gap between haves and ave-nots will be wider...........65%

That gloom is all the more remarkable in a nation lauded again this year by the United Nations Human Development Index as the best place in the world to live. But with a blithe disregard for that compliment, Canadians have surveyed the beleaguered body politic and detected intimations of national mortality. Nearly a third of the respondents in this year’s Maclean’s/CBC News poll are convinced that by the year 2000 the country as we know it will no longer exist. Asked to conjure up a post-millennial vision, an overwhelming majority quick-sketch a bleak, diminished nation—one where the social safety net survives as a threadbare shadow, if at all.

Barlow puts the blame for the growing national identity crisis squarely on that assault on social programs. “That was what differentiated us from the Americans,” she notes. “Both countries had a Depression, but we dealt with it a different way. And it cut across the political spectrum: every party bought into the notion that we are a collective society.” Critics scoff at the suggestion that a country that existed long before medicare and unemployment insurance cannot carry on without them. But as nations find themselves steamrollered into an increasing global sameness, historian Desmond Morton, director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada, is concerned. ‘Those social policies are important binding factors,” he notes. “There aren’t many things beyond a shared history and geography that keep us here.”

Still, the greatest cause for the pervasive gloom may be intangible—the threat to the country’s very idea of itself. While Americans have flexed their muscular individualism around the globe, often to mixed reviews, Canadians prided themselves on a broader, more inclusive vision that won them envy and a distinction out of all proportion to their numbers on the world stage. Now as the calendar watershed of a new millennium approaches— the sort of date that sets a benchmark against which future generations measure themselves—many see that vision being narrowed and guided by a meaner spirit, one that risks erasing their very sense of uniqueness.

For University of Toronto economist David Foot, who grounds his projections for the future on demographics, dismantling the social infrastructure is sheer illogic on the part of governments. Over recent decades, every social hiccup and trend has been provoked largely by one unavoidable reality: the behavioral swings of the massive generational bulge known as the baby boom. “Now, the baby boom is aging, so there will be increasing demands on health care and things like hospitals,” he says. “But just when we need them shouldn’t be when we’re getting rid of them.”

It hardly comes as a surprise, then, that poll respondents have given up on government, which seems hellbent on getting out of the business of governance itself. At a time when corporations often appear to have replaced kings and prime ministers as arbiters of a population’s fate—and when the money markets call the tune to which politicians are obliged to dance— most are no longer counting on Ottawa to look after their interest. Scanning the political bull pen, they see no mythic hero emerging—only leaders of increasing ineptitude.

That situation is eerily similar to the plotline of The Age of Improv, a new novel by Globe and Mail columnist Rick Salutin, set in early 21st-century Canada. Through an electoral fluke and the power of TV, an actor with no managerial skills whatsoever has emerged as prime minister. He proceeds to stroll through the role with the gift for seat-of-your-pants improvisation he once reserved for Second City workshops. But as he discovers, Salutin writes, “It wasn’t clear there was anything to do. Government wasn’t about doing any more.


72% young Canadians (18-24) expect the year 2000 to be "special" or "a new beginning"

It was about approaching the point of zero public activity, political entropy.

It took a long time to get there and required lots of government activity to wind government down—but the goal was in sight. Now you could hardly remember what governments once did.”

That realization might help explain why the country’s youth, who have the least expectations from a system that has already foreclosed on many of their dreams, emerge as the most hopeful that the millennium will mark a new beginning. “We take it for granted that demographics are against us—that there’s very little room for us in a crowded house,” says Irshad Manji, a 27-year-old Toronto television commentator who is writing a book on how her generation is facing the millennium. “This is the thing about being young today: reality is so in your face that you can’t afford any expectations of security or balance. But I can’t afford to be pessimistic, because if I am, I’m negating my own future.”

Instead, she sees her contemporaries taking a feistier, more flexible approach—relying not on job status for their sense of themselves, but increasingly on their emotional internet with friends and loved ones. “That is your anchor, your rudder,” she says. ‘We have been so let down by so many door closings, we have been turning to relationships as the source of uncontested confidence. It’s one area where you can feel a sense of control and responsibility when you have no control over the job markets.”

But beneath the quicksand of an employment wasteland lies a more ominous motive for pre-millennial angst. Suddenly society’s fundamental assumptions— that progress is desirable, that work is valuable in itself—are up for grabs. Throughout recent history, from Arthur C. Clarke’s sci-fi adventure, 2001: A Space Odyssey, to Bill Gates’s current medit ation, The Road Ahead, those who spun tales of the future have scripted a dazzling tomorrow in cyberspace: a techno-utopia where automation has freed the populace from the dehumanizing grind of assembly lines and the world’s pleasures awaited at the touch of a keyboard or modem. There, a new elite of the information age would flourish—an oligarchy of computer wizards and knowledge professionals who would control society’s destiny and wealth from behind the gilded ease of their gated communities.

But what those heady scenarios glossed over was the dark underbelly of that fantasy: the fate of the remaining population, who find themselves either consigned to society’s subsistence-level drudgery or worse, stuck with no income and no hope of employment or purpose. Shunted aside as economically irrelevant, they have been dubbed by U.S. economist Jeremy Rifkin as potential “outcasts of the global village”—and its greatest threat. In his recently published book, The End of Work, Rifkin, president of the Washington-based Foundation on Economic Trends, warns that, unless the world hastens to offer them an alternative, it faces the prospect of a new dark age scarred by class warfare—an anarchy outstripping even Yeats’s dark vision in The Second Coming.


If the expectations of a significant portion of Canadians—and particularly Albertans—are borne out, Canada will be a diminished nation as the new millennium dawns.

33% in Alberta think Canada will be a worse place to live (just above the national average of 31%)

30%; * Canada's in Alberta reputation think in the international community will decline (compared with a national average of 22% and a low of 18% in British Columbia)

Rifkin advocates a new “social contract” complete with a redefined set of values. In his ideal society, the unemployed and underemployed would volunteer their time and skills to rebuilding disintegrating communities and nurturing the social fabric in return for tangible rewards—tax incentives or a guaranteed annual income. In such a social transformation, he sees the potential for nothing less than “the rebirth of the human spirit.” Indeed, if Rifkin is preoccupied with the economic nuts and bolts of that restructuring, he is not alone in his call for a new consciousness. From New Age lore to a landmark speech last year by Czech president Vaclav Havel, others have urged a second run at the human condition—one where the twin currents of optimism conveyed in this year’s Maclean’s poll—the longing for spiritual transcendence and the growing urge for human reconnection—ultimately converge. But that utopian ideal underlines what could well be the most daunting challenge of the next epoch— creating a society that works for all, not just a few. To what extent will it be possible? And in the event of failure, how great will be the cost? The answers, like the future itself, remain unknowable. Only one thing seems clear: success would require boundless imagination, magnanimity and every ounce of brainpower hitherto devoted to getting and spending. That and, of course, the most essential baggage for those about to cross the threshold into any new millennium: courage.


Whatever Canadians' expectations are for the new millennium, a crimefree society is not among them.

9% of respondents believe the crime rate in their community will be lower by the year 2000

The most pessimistic:

63% in Ontario and 62% in British Columbia expect crime rates to rise

The least pessimistic:

50% in Newfoundland, New Brunswick and Saskatchewan expect crime to increase

Perhaps it is wishful thinking, then, that makes...

51% that of respondents sentencing believe and punishment will be harsher on criminals by the year 2000