Spurred by the prospect of the imminent breakup of the country and the rising chorus of discontent across this most privileged nation, the search is on for the magic formula that will save Canada in the next six months, or at least by the fall of 1992. In this pursuit, the question of the Canadian identity is central. Commissions, task forces, and discussion groups are fanning out across this nation, anxious to find out what “the people” really want. (Whatever happened to representative politics?) Satisfactory answers, however, are scarce. Meanwhile, ultimata are issued, deadlines are set, the pressure mounts, and discontent is still everywhere and seemingly rising. How did we get into this mess? More importantly, how do we get out of it?
Nation building is not a matter of social engineering. It is the fruit of slow, arduous work of generations with a keen sense of historical continuity, respect for the integrity of social structures, and an awareness of human limitations. Much of the talk about constitution remaking is inspired by the ideology of human autonomy and self-sufficiency. This ideology is disrespectful of the vulnerable but indispensable web of institutions, customs, habits, and social bonds that give coherence and meaning to everyday life. It fosters the pretention that our laws and all social institutions can be designed and redesigned at our convenience. Consequently, many now view the state as an instrument of national salvation and the “experts” in constitution and law-making as the solvers of our problems. Amidst the abundance of nonsense proclaimed about this topic, we are fortunate yet to hear, albeit scarcely, a few sensible voices of moderation and caution. They deserve a careful hearing.
Voices of Sanity
William Thorsell, editor-in-chief of The Globe and Mail, has warned that Ontario is in danger of being left behind in the project to reconstruct the Canadian state (February 16, 1991). He reported that a number of “excellent people” working on this task are doing so in a political vacuum because the government of Ontario has not developed a distinctive political identity. In the course of this article, Thorsell faulted University of Toronto historian Michael Bliss. This prompted Bliss to respond in a letter to The Globe and Mail (February 25, 1991) explaining that he indeed believes that certain changes are necessary. At the same time, he warned against rushing into “wholesale reconfederation schemes.” The “constitutional wars of the 1980s,” Bliss wrote, should have made it clear that there is no citizen consensus in support of major change and “large-scale constitutional engineering.” He concluded:
I seriously doubt that Mr. Thorsell and the other “excellent people” who are beavering away trying to reinvent Canada have the wisdom and experience to give us a workable new country. The constitutional Dieppe of Meech Lake does not inspire confidence in the judgment of these generals. In an age when social engineering has failed in virtually every area of public life, the ironies of believing we can snap our fingers and create a new country—making new constitutions the way we used to make new national energy policies—are stunning.
The academics, civil servants and editors who revel in constitution-building seem to me to have so far shown little understanding of the complexities of the real Canadian world. Gradualism humility, and a respect for the organic intricacy of our existing body politic would have served us far better than the mix of innocence and arrogance our constitutional “experts” have displayed in the past several years.
The enemy is them.
Robert Fulford has written that Canadians in this sad season yearn for a national discourse that somehow escapes from the shadow of politics (Financial Times of Canada, November 26, 1990). He continued: “In Canada, politics obsesses us, narrows us and fragments us….Politics promises to free us and provides us with what we need, but in the end its categories constrict us.”
Fulford laments that politics, like the green slime that ate Tokyo in an old horror film, “oozes into every corner of our existence and consumes whatever it touches.” Are there problems in education, in the environment; are families too small, is hospital care inadequate? Then politicians must do something. Even religion, says Fulford, is eaten by the green slime of politics. It, too, must be harnessed to help shape a progressive political climate. Fulford concludes that the Citizens’ Forum, though born in political expediency, even desperation, may yet “help us achieve a degree of the freedom our souls require ~ not political freedom but freedom from politics.”
The Trouble with Nationalism
In a thought-provoking article in the July 1989 issue of Saturday Night, Andrew Coyne describes the preoccupation with Canadian nationalism as one that is essentially negative. It seeks to protect and exclude rather than to include and accept the challenge of open borders and free exchange of ideas, peoples, and goods. He is convinced that the nationalists’ preoccupation with strengthening the sense of Canadian nationhood has done the very opposite. “Far from safeguarding our independence,” Coyne wrote, “Canadian nationalism has made us almost wholly psychologically dependent on the U.S., mixing equal parts envy of American achievement, fear of American influence, and smug contempt for American values, real or imagined, but always measuring ourselves, for good or ill, by the American example.”
Coyne is convinced that the urgent focus on national identity, which even led to the creation of a special cabinet committee called “cultural affairs of national identity,” coincides with a feeling of nationhood that “has never been weaker.” He wrote that the loyalty to the nation that still exists “hangs by the fraying threads of federal spending programs.”
Canadian culture remains profoundly alien to its people; national symbols languish untended and unloved; political institutions command little interest or respect. Confederation, and with it almost four centuries of effort to create a separate existence in the North, is slowly sinking from view, to the vast indifference of its citizens.
And here is the reason: the identity fixation has given nationalism a bad name. Far from generating a sense of ourselves as Us, it has promoted alienation and self-doubt. The policies it has entailed—substituting the bloodless creed of statism for the free will of individuals—have drained all vitality from our consciousness of nationhood.
Instead of joining the frantic search for national identity, we are much better advised to listen to these voices of sanity. For the truth is that the danger facing Canada is not an outside, alien force, not even Quebec separatism or American domination. It lies within ourselves. The enemy is us, particularly our spiritual barrenness.
A good place to start, therefore, is to abandon the illusion that somewhere there is a quick-fix solution of just the right “deal” in constitutional reconstruction that will save us. Fulford has it right: the freedom our souls require includes the freedom from politics.
(The Work Research Foundation, together with the Christian Labour Association of Canada, has made a submission to the Citizens’ Forum on Canada’s Future. The submission stresses 1) that national well-being requires a healthy spiritual soil, and 2) that it is an error to expect national survival to be achievable via the political process. Copies are available upon request.)