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A Fair Country
Telling Truths About Canada
Saul, John Ralston
One thing is clear – the persistence of the Victorian description of Canada’s past lies at the heart of many of our difficulties today. That Victorianism came late, was not a force for democracy, tried to drag us into imperial wars, blocked the sense that we had paintings to paint and books to write that expressed our reality. It is the root of that same Victorianism that still makes many Canadians think the Aboriginal situation is a situation and a problem. And it makes us feel that this country must always be the supplicant of some great power. If not one, another will do.
Because our real history is not part of how we describe ourselves, we live in denial of our reality. Joseph Gosnell, who led the Nisga'a People of British Columbia to success in a quarter-century-long treaty fight, calls it a double denial. We deny our own history and as part of that seem to deny that the Aboriginals really exist - that is, exist in a way that matters to society as a whole. Renee Dupuis, chief commissioner of the Indian Claims Commission, argues that "the history of North America has not yet been written. It is still written in English from an Anglophone point of view, with its colonial origins, in French from a francophone point of view, etc. One of the reasons we are blocked is that we seem unable to look at our roots in a collective manner. We are stuck on the colonizing roots.”
Yet the ability of a civilization to survive and grow lies in its ability to describe itself. I don’t mean in some factual or pseudo-factual or scientific manner. Author Thomas King: "The truth about stories is that that's all we are.” Or Tomson Highway: "Languages are given form by mythologies.” Neither is being romantic. This is one of the rare rock-hard truths of civilization. Again, Guy Vanderhaeghe: "The narrative is how you think of things.” And how you think of things will shape much of what do or what you want to do or how you understand what you shouldn’t do. The single greatest failure of the Canadian experiment, so far, has been our inability to normalize - that is, to internalize consciously – the First Nations as the senior founding pillar of our civilization… “They have much to offer Canada.” The rest of us act as if this is not the case.
Brody made an attempt, brilliant and lucid, to relaunch this more sensible view of how societies work.
Irregular warfare is the only mainstream form of conflict today.
Why are passport officers sweating in bulletproof vests while sitting in the safe inner sanctuaries of airports?
Because their leaders – ours – are insecure men living a personal psychosis of fear. Leaders driven by fear are the source of populism. Their personal dread equips them to find and release that fear that lies within each of us. That is their skill.
Empires believe in order because it allows them to use disorder.
To understand how dysfunctional our elite is, you have only to look at the explosion in tuition fees for medical schools. Government faced by a crisis in the number of doctors, is instead trying to finance universities by making medical schools accessible only to richer families. In Ontario, the combined income of the parents of first-year medical students is now more than $100,000. In other words, the government and the universities are turning medical schools into a class system, not a meritocracy, unless the students are willing to go deeply into debt. The average medical student debt at graduation is more than $160,000. I’m told by medical schools that many of their poorer students are flipping hamburgers or doing other menial labour as an easy way to earn enough to stay in university. Do you, present or future patient, want your ¬future doctors studying while in university or do you want them taking time off to work at McDonald's? Besides, there is a philosophical and ethical message behind these tuition hikes and the resulting heavy debt: Becoming a doctor, the message from our governments says, about making money, not about public service. Yet that is not how doctors want to be categorized.
Finally, this entire situation is increasingly confused by an irrelevant campaign for two-tier health care. There is no example in the world of health care becoming cheaper, better or more accessible because of a two-tier health-care system.
Leaders who set out to undermine their poorer citizens in order to save the rest of society small amounts of taxes are dysfunctional, but it does not seem to be an atmosphere in which fear of public debt justifies child poverty. The constant harping on each problem in Medicare to force the country toward two-tier health care, rather than setting about solving the problems is another example of encouraging fear. Fixating on the problems of public education, as if to encourage or justify any move toward private education, rather than to fixing those problems, again, is all about government by fear. What more effective way to frighten citizens than to suggest their children may fail to learn or even be unsafe in public schools?
These are examples that combine encouraging fear with constantly insisting we are in a crisis - a crisis of crime, of health care, of education.
Another example of leadership by constant crisis is the more insecure side of the nationalist movement in Quebec. Of course there are constant difficulties attached to the existence of a linguistic minority. But that isn't the same thing as a constant crisis. And whenever the movement begins to lose traction, it searches for any trigger to cause an explosive sense of crisis. The historian Jocelyn Letourneau puts it this way: "In order for Quebec society to get on with life, we must first stop conceiving of it as being in crisis, on the edge of collapse, in the process of being absorbed, slipping down a slippery slope, on the verge of disappearing .... "
The disturbing element is that this strategy of fear and crisis is often attached to a class system. Quebec's elite is wonderfully bilingual, often trilingual and lives at the expected national and international level. The deep unilingualism of a large part of the population is presented in a patriotic context, but in Canada and North America this locks them in to some of the lowest incomes in the country. The equivalent elsewhere in Canada is the argument for two-tier health care. Those who have been made afraid that they will receive bad medical treatment gradually make possible elite treatment for those who can afford it.
Perhaps this intellectual vacuum in public policy is also an echo of the colonial undercurrent I keep coming back to. Leaders in colonies can rarely absorb local culture - their own culture - into the way they think. At some profound, unconscious level they think and act as if they find themselves accidentally in the colony. Accidentally or temporarily. Their citizenship is an inexplicable emotional accident. Their real culture is that of the empire. Or, in the words of economist and philosopher Amartya Sen, "the colonized mind is parasitically obsessed with the extraneous relation with the colonial powers." It is their responsibility to echo the empire's culture in order to keep standards up in provincial place. How do you keep up standards? By ensuring that your models for thought come from there not here. By educating yourself and your children in their manner, if at all possible in their schools and universities, and failing that, by reforming your universities to reflect their idea of standards, by imitating their policies, invoking their heroes, holidaying where they holiday, following their fashions, drinking their wine. Does this sound silly? Of course. Almost nothing is sillier than a colonial mind at work.
But how else can we explain the fortunes being made by consultants peddling tired old imported ideas slightly reformatted for the local market or the growing number of speaking series delivering pre-digested clichés from people who used to be famous in the United States or the abrupt arrival in Quebec of century-old Parisian arguments insisting on pure secular education. Quebecers are rightly proud of such things as the high television viewership of locally produced programs and films. But turn to the way society is actually run – the concepts, whether social, political or economic – and you will find it is as imported, insecure, unoriginal and passive as in Ontario or Ottawa. All three proceed as if in fear of originality.
One of the things that constantly strikes me in Ottawa is how few people with any kind of power read anything beyond a briefing note. Only a scattering of ministers, ministerial advisors or senior civil servants actually seem to read real information – books, major independent analyses, even important magazines. The rest live off briefings. Most briefings I’ve read or heard wouldn’t stand the test of a standard editor in a mainstream newspaper. Indeed, there is usually more information and more accurate information in these newspapers than in the secret briefings our leaders are addicted to. What’s more, the sloppy use of information hiding behind confidentiality sand secrecy is usually deflated when subjected to the minimum use of public critical standards.
In most other Western countries, there is not such functional illiteracy at senior levels. In most key countries, a good percentage of the leadership read, educate themselves, attempt not to slip into dependency on mere briefings, which shift power to those who wrote them. What then is the explanation for the Canadian situation except that those in power do not have the self-confidence to attempt to think, to think independently and to do the reading and discussing that would prepare them to think independently. They act like colonial politicians, afraid to shape events by acting as if they could be at the centre of new ideas.
And yet this entire pattern I am describing does seem improbable. The insecurity, the self-loathing, the incapacity to act, the fear of owning, the resurgent colonialism. What is all this doing in the oldest continuous democratic federation in the world, a G8 country, rich, peaceful, comfortable? How could its elite slip so effortlessly back into old colonial habits? Perhaps the examples I have been giving are random, not representative.
If that were so, certain things would not happen. There have been two break points over the last few years that simply would not have been possible in a normally led society. 1. Dec. 2005, RCMP telling the NDP that the Minister of Finance was under investigation for the possibility of leaks around his decision on income trusts. 2. 2003, Brian Mulroney and Karlheinz Schreiber.
Their reactions have been typical of an elite that sees itself as cut off from the citizenry, as if it has entitlements that free it from national responsibility, as if those entitlements are drawn from some source of legitimacy that lies elsewhere. This is a classic characteristic of the colonial mindset.
When historians explain the Family Compact or the Chateau Clique, the central concept is one of entitlement based on off-shore legitimacy. That original Compact believed, and its contemporary manifestation believes, itself entitled to run matters as best suits its narrow interests.
The selling-off of public companies by their managers for their own short-term profit and for that of short-term shareholders hasnothing to do with the marketplace or with capitalism. After all, capitalism rates short-term profit well below the creation of wealth. Such actions have to do with a managerial sense of entitlement. In this, market place managers resemble many groups of professionals and their professional organizations. They use their administration of themselves through their professional bodies as a way to limit membership in their group. They do this in a way designed to keep their incomes up. And all of that has to do with a sense of entitlement. That they leave immigrant engineers driving taxis is not their affair. That the public is under-served in sickness and that the lives of excluded professionals are wasted are not their affairs. Their entitlement gives them ownership of a space.
You can see this in their attitudes toward the financing of the public space. We have had tough controls on private donations to political parties for several years now. Yet politicians and government continue to act as if they are beholden to the Compacts. Tom Kent calls it “the old friendship club." And in many ways it is nothing more than that – the old entitled groups continuing to function as they have for two centuries.
But this has been accentuated by the attempt of government over the last quarter-century to remodel itself in the image of the private-sector compacts…
In Canada, we have financial and other enforcement agencies so weak as to be an embarrassment at the international level. We have bureaucratized the structures of every profession, the theory being that we won't need to enforce anything if the industries and professions manage themselves. In this way, we have discouraged real leaders by blunting their place on entrepreneurial boards. These places instead fall into the hands of independent board members who are not independent by any real meaning of the word. They are more or less chosen by three or four consulting firms who are needed to provide independent advice on board membership and managerial salaries. The consultants are an intimate part of this self-indulgent, self-management system. Their firms are an integrated part of a process that overpays managers and sets them up to profit from the selling-off and breaking-up of the companies they have theoretically been hired to run. Instead of rewarding them for creating wealth, this system encourages managers to become personally rich by destroying their companies. This is legalized fraud. And to facilitate this, the consultants work toward recommending independent board members who are retired corporate managers and retired deputy ministers - all people who are useless when it comes to wealth creation, risk and crisis leadership. These people have been central to our loss of entire industrial sectors. In other words, corporate modernization in Canada has been all about reinforcing the internal management of what might just as well be called the contemporary Family Compact, except that it is less about families and more about interest groups. We should have been exploding these systems, not reinforcing them. And this is not merely a private-sector phenomenon. We have fallen into judging cabinet ministers as if they should be managers, not leaders. Our now enormous collection of NGOs has begun to organize itself – faster than any other country I know – into a sector, a compact of its own, carefully bureaucratized.
The colonial mindset always prefers public silence as an expression of loyalty to the compact. And so, the RCMP brings a self-serving form of unnecessary secrecy to every subject. There is no admiration for the discussion of ideas in Ottawa among civil servants. There hasn't been for a quarter-century. Not being heard to think outside of the office is an expression of managerial professionalism, of loyalty. They are expected to help their ministers become as uncommunicative as they are. In spite of the importance of understanding the economic road we have taken over the last three decades, no useful public debate on economics is permitted by the economics community. Speaking up, debating issues: Both of these are signs of disloyalty.