Nobody loves Canada

The parties’ lack of vision may reflect a broader dearth of nationalistic fire

JOHN GEDDES January 23 2006

Nobody loves Canada

The parties’ lack of vision may reflect a broader dearth of nationalistic fire

JOHN GEDDES January 23 2006


Nobody loves Canada

The parties’ lack of vision may reflect a broader dearth of nationalistic fire



It’s easy enough to blame the politicians for the lack of vision in the federal election campaign. Prime Minister Paul Martin is running less on grand ideas about where he would take the country than a grim warning about where Stephen Harper might. Harper once represented a clear enough vision— small-government conservatism inspired by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher—but it’s been diluted for electoral purposes to the point where the Conservative party platform looks as watery as his eyes. Jack Layton pleads for his NDP as a can-do, co-operative bunch who deserve to be noticed more than they are, not as the social-democratic firebrands of old. They all offer voters some respectable policy to mull over. But vision? It’s a choice between the negative, the nebulous and the neglected.

There’s another way of looking at it, though. What if politicians have simply sized up Canadian voters as being unreceptive to grand vision? After all, political parties can’t be expected to think big if the people don’t want to dream national dreams. And just now, Canadians appear not to be feeling particularly excited, or patriotic, about their country. A national poll conducted by CROP Inc. last

year found voters increasingly detached from common touchstones of national identity. Perhaps the most troubling finding from Quebec’s oldest polling firm: just 6l per cent felt “very proud” to be Canadian, way down from the 80 per cent who felt that way when CROP asked back in 1985. “The Canada brand has not been aging well,” concludes CROP president Alain Giguère, “and is in serious need of a major overhaul.”

It’s no surprise that the need is most acute in Quebec, where 65 per cent were very proud to be Canadian in 1985, but just 32 per cent in 2005. That low figure might reflect in part the impact of the sponsorship scandal. But the pride picture is only somewhat better in the rest of the country, where Justice John Gomery’s hearings were not such an obsession. In Canada excluding Quebec, the very proud figure fell to 71 per cent last year, down from 85 per cent two decades ago. Another stark measure of a dwindling sense of traditional patriotism: back in 1985,62 per cent said they would be willing to fight for their country, but only 30 per cent last year (43 per cent said it would depend on the war). Quebecers were pronouncedly less likely to be willing to bear arms, with just 16 per cent answering yes when CROP asked the question in 2005, down from 49 per cent in 1985.

Faced with such findings, past generations of political leaders might have turned to the institutions built to generate a sense of identity. But their effectiveness is now in serious

doubt. Take the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, created in the 1930s to counter the cultural seductions of American commercial radio. Back in 1984,34 per cent of Canadians said CBC and Radio-Canada, its French-language arm, were very important to being Canadian. In 2005, only 18 per cent did. And while the drop was most dramatic in Quebec, to 13 per cent from 43 per cent, it was also significant in English Canada, down to 20 per cent from 31 per cent.

And then there are those twin pillars of Canadian nationalism that emerged in the 1960s and solidified into orthodoxy—bilingualism and multiculturalism. According to CROP, bilingualism was viewed as very important to Canadian identity by 63 per cent of Quebecers in 1985, but by just 33 per cent last year. In the rest of Canada, intriguingly, the sense that bilingualism is vital slipped by much less, to 25 per cent, down from 31 per cent. CROP’S polling suggests Canadians are generally less convinced that multiculturalism lies at the core of the country’s identity— but Quebec has, again, lost faith more decisively. Where 40 per cent of Quebecers said multiculturalism was very important in 1985, just 19 per cent did in 2005. The drop in the rest of Canada was more modest, to 38 per cent, down from 45 per cent. (The findings are based on interviews with 2,699 Canadians, and are considered accurate to within two percentage points 19 times out of 20.)

No wonder Gov. Gen. Michaëlle Jean earned such rapturous praise when she called for a less fragmented sense of Canadian identity in her remarkable Sept. 27 installation speech —arguably the closest thing to an expression

Are Very proud’ to be Canadian, down from 80%

of vision recently at the top echelon of Canadian public life. “We must eliminate the spectre of all the solitudes,” said the Haitian immigrant from Montreal, “and promote solidarity among all the citizens who make up the Canada of today.” Jean called for a new spirit of unity built around nothing less than

our shared love of freedom.

Who could argue with so uplifting a principle? But a more mundane concept is suggested by the CROP poll: the unifying allure of the good life. Consider this shift in emphasis: in 1985, just eight per cent of Canadians chose quality of life as the top reason they were proud of Canada; in 2005, quality of life was the top source of pride for 20 per cent. And unlike some other shifts, quality of life climbed markedly in importance both inside and outside Quebec. “Live comfortably” might not sound like much of a visionary rallying cry for the twenty-first century, but then, Canada was founded in the 19th on the similarly prosaic Constitutional slogan of


Of Quebecers are4 very promt to be Canadian

“peace, order and good government.”

And in consumer culture, if not so much in the political realm, the association of Canada with a particular vision of the good life seems undiminished. Michael Budman, the U.S.-born co-founder and president of Roots, says his brand’s familiar beaver and maple leaf symbols consistently conjure up visions of open spaces, fitness and even a desirable sort of society—not only among Canadian shoppers but around the world. “We’ve found,” Budman says, “that people really love wearing Canada on their chests.”

For politicians, it’s something of a chicken-and-egg conundrum. Are they shying away from statements of grand vision because they know Canadians aren’t receptive, or has our patriotism waned because no one is offering up a vision? Certainly, the main debating points in this campaign fall more neatly under “quality of life” than any other heading. Martin and Flarper clash over how best to guarantee quicker access to health care, which sort of tax cut leaves the right amount of money in the right pockets, what reforms might do the most to curb gunplay on city

streets. These incremental policies might answer the demands of a public more concerned about the everyday threats to their comfort and security than any great projects. “For all we complain about lack of vision,” says University of Toronto history professor Michael Bliss, “this is a rich and pretty happy country right now. Maybe it’s a country in which we’re content in our private lives, and since nobody expects much from the public sphere anymore, the fact that the politicians aren’t delivering vision doesn’t matter to people.”

But Bliss doesn’t make that point with much enthusiasm. In his next breath, in fact, he bemoans what he views as a decline in Ottawa’s relevance and a rise in provincial power. Liberal MP John Godfrey, a key architect of the Martin government’s policies on child care and cities—which come closest to having a visionary feel about them-argues no politician worth the name is really content with nip-and-tuck programs. “That’s ultimately why you go into politics. It’s not to be a good manager,” he says. “Every generation’s political leaders have to say, ‘What are the big things out there on my watch?’ ”

When it comes to declining nationalism, we seem to be alone in the Western world. A 2005 Gallup poll found that 6l per cent of Americans were extremely proud to be American, up slightly from 2001, when 55 per cent of Americans felt the same way, wrote Thomas Sander, executive director at Harvard University’s Saguaro Seminar, in an email. In Europe, Germans feel no less German, Brits no less British, for example, despite the fact they are increasingly bound up in the monolith of the European Union, according to Eurobarometer surveys that monitor public opinion on such matters. “They’re still German, they’re still French—but they’re also European,” said Jeffrey Kopstein, director of the Institute of European Studies at the University of Toronto. “The thing about the EU is it allows people to have the multiple identities.” Just now, talk of big things in Canada is


Would fight for their country, down from 62%

being drowned out by smaller concerns. Martin accuses Harper of being in thrall to U.S. right-wingers. Harper suggests that Martin’s willingness back when he owned a shipping company to register vessels under other countries’ flags shows that he lacks patriotism. Canadians whose pride stirred briefly when they heard news reports of the new Governor General’s plea for unity, or who make a point of wearing a maple leaf logo when they travel, might just be ready for a reminder of why they once felt prouder of their country. It looks like they’ll have to wait until after the campaign.

See the CBC as 'very important.’ down from 34%