Thursday, October 08, 2015

Lament for a Nation

Fifty years ago, Canada, under the leadership of Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson, adopted the Maple Leaf as its official flag, publicly reaffirmed its position as staying out of the Vietnam War, prepared to celebrate the country's Centennial in two years, and reelected Pearson's Liberals in a minority government in a fall election with 74.8% voter turnout.  The Liberals missed a majority by two seats on a campaign that featured promises for job creation, the implementation of a national medicare system, the founding of the Canadian Pension Plan, lower income taxes, higher wages, and better student loans. The Social Credit party had begun to split, the NDP's rise stalled, incumbent staunch conservative leader Diefenbaker refused to budge despite losing his second consecutive election, and many of the issues that would shape the next two decades of Canadian politics had begun to emerge.

In that same year, a Canadian political philosopher from McGill named George Grant published a short essay entitled Lament for a Nation that discussed his beliefs that the Liberals' acceptance of nuclear warheads on Canadian soil - a marked differentiation from the previous Diefenbaker's government's staunch refusal to do so - indicated the end of Canadian nationalism and was emblematic of a move toward continentalism and pro-American sentiment that would come to define Canada's identity. Grant's work has become a seminal work in Canadian political philosophy, and it has inarguably been one of the most influential works in commentary on Canadian politics and Canadian-American relations.

I was first exposed to Grant's thoughts in a university class that covered Canadian history from 1945 to the present, and I have occasionally used excerpts in my teaching of Canadian history. While I don't agree with his entire thesis, I do appreciate the process he undergoes in closely examining the Canadian political process - in particular the 1963 election in which Pearson upended Diefenbaker - and he makes many salient points as he makes his arguments. It is also worth noting that 1965 has turned out to be an interesting point from which to observe Canadian history, and I believe that 2015 provides a similarly unique position from which to make observations on the general state of Canada. I believe that this election is arguably our most significant in 22 years, and that its significance has been severely understated in the general media coverage. And so it is with great sadness that I evoke Grant's intent as I describe my own (far less comprehensive and exhaustive) Lament for a Nation in the wake of this ongoing election that I would describe using various non-complementary terms: embarrassment; farce; joke; disappointment; and travesty.

Or, you could just watch this Rick Mercer video and hear mostly the same point in 90 seconds:

Still with me? Okay, here we go - back to my start in Canadian politics.

The 1993 election

The first federal election I remember following was the 1993 election, which was arguably the last "very important and significant" federal election in Canadian history. (An argument could be made for the 2004/2006 elections with the then-recent uniting of the right and the Sponsorship scandal, but I am going to stick with my claim.) I have very little memory of Canadian politics before that election, which I suppose makes sense, since I was ten years old at that time. I do remember asking my mom at some point if we were related to John Turner, the leader of the Liberals (to which I distinctly remember her scoffing quite vehemently), and I have a vague memory of the 1992 referendum on the Charlottetown Accord, just as I have a vague memory of the Blue Jays beating the Braves to win the World Series that year. I actually have a surprisingly strong memory of Canadian politics through the remainder of the 1990s thanks to watching a lot of the Royal Canadian Air Farce ("REFOOOOOOOOOOOOOOORM!"), but my history of starting to follow Canadian politics started with that 1993 election.

What an election with which to start! There were many story lines that started with that election that have shaped the subsequent two-plus decades of Canadian politics: the end of the Mulroney years and collapse of the PC party (from majority to just 2 seats!); the rise of the Bloc and the Reform as viable political parties; the marginalization of the NDP; and the GST as a key issue. I was in Grade 6, and I remember that the Grade 7 and 8 classes at my elementary school ran a mock election of which I have some surprisingly vivid memories; in particular I remember being dismissed at a candidates' forum asking a question about what the candidates would do about funding for AIDS because the question was too esoteric. I remember thinking it was a very interesting question, particularly at that time; I was very aware of issues as a ten year old. I also distinctly remember that our school's mock election paralleled the results of the federal election, as our PC candidate received only one vote and lost to two write-in votes to Joe Carter, who only two nights before had hit a home run to win the World Series for the Toronto Blue Jays for the second consecutive year. (As an aside, my hometown of Saskatoon had a minor riot after the victory, and there were more people arrested there than in Toronto amidst the celebrations.) At any rate, my journey into Canadian politics began just as my interest in professional baseball waned - not that there's anything more than a coincidental connection in the Jays' playoff run being timed with another election this year. (Unless that's why Harper called the election when it looked like the Jays would make the playoffs as a way to distract people from the actual issues; actually, that's a very plausible theory, come to think of it, and why has there not been more people with more followers making this connection?! But I digress.)

2015 - a singular election

Since that 1993 election, I have closely followed Canadian politics through the many ups and downs of the past two-plus decades: the decade-long dominance of the Chrétien Liberals; the 1995 Québec referendum and slow demise of the Bloc Québecois since; the transition of the Reform to the Canadian Alliance in the 2000 election; the uniting of the Alliance and Progressive Conservatives; the duplicitous Paul Martin years; the Harper minority governments and the hapless Liberal leaders Dion and Ignatieff; and the NDP Orange Crush and Conservative majority in 2011. But despite all of the ups and downs throughout the years (if you're interested, you can read some of my thoughts on past elections in 20112008, and 2006, in the process observing a bit of my own maturing in my understanding and subsequent expression of thoughts on the political process), I do not remember any election like this one. With all due respect to the elections of 2000 (the Stockwell Day character assassination), 2006 (Sponsorship Scandal), and 2008 and 2011 (the Conservatives defeating the Dion/Ignatieff Liberals), this is by far the most anti-intellectual and downright offensive election in which I have had the displeasure of participating.

I should mention that I have always been, and continue to remain (at least for now), politically unaffiliated, and that I have cast votes for each of the three major parties (Conservative, Liberal, and NDP) in federal elections, so I am not coming from an entrenched point of view. With that said,  I am definitely not inclined to identify with or to be charitable to the Conservative party in their current state, and my current (and likely future) political leanings are much more to the left than to the right (as confirmed by my results at, so I will be making some negative observations about our current government and the way that the Conservatives have conducted themselves over the past two-plus months. With that admission out of the way, let's take some time to look at this current election.

The niqab election?!

Although I was initially dubious about the prospects of a campaign that would last twice as long as a normal election campaign, I was willing to allow for the fact that an extended campaign might elevate the level of dialogue. Of course, that charity was also offset by the fact that the OCSE would be sending a team to monitor Canada's election for fairness for the first time since 2006. I watched the first leader's debate in August and I was pleasantly surprised at the level of discourse. The Conservatives, of course, had already started their "just not ready" campaign against Justin Trudeau, but the debate itself was impressive and indicated the possibility of a better election. But almost instantly, the mood seemed to shift, and the election nosedived, thanks largely to the parties' seeming inability to vet candidates' past actions on social media (a fact that is making me extra-carefully evaluate my writing and tweeting to ensure that I am not publishing anything inflammatory or incendiary). Over the course of the ensuing two months, there have been 23 candidate controversies (at least according to Wikipedia) spanning all three major parties; there have been more Conservative and Liberal candidates under scrutiny, but the profile of the NDP scandal (Thomas Mulcair's Director of Communications making anti-Catholic statements) seems to have made all three parties almost equal in terms of offending people on that front. But one development has put the Conservatives far ahead of the other two parties in regard to their blatant disregard for basic decency: the niqab issue.

I cannot stand how much airtime the niqab issue has been given in this election, and I do largely blame the Conservatives for flogging the issue and making this election largely xenophobic. I was willing to give them some credit for a short period of time, however, as the media and other parties were also liable for the publicity given to this issue. But in the week since I have started writing this piece, the discourse has descended further, and now reports of the niqab are accompanied with stories of violence perpetrated against women, the new tip line for barbaric practices, and the revelations that Harper hired an Aussie politico named Lynton Crosby to steer the election toward the niqab and away from the fact that the PM himself is directly responsible for stopping the influx of Syrian refugees. Just let those last two thoughts sink in for a second.

What is perhaps even worse than the presence of this strategy in a Canadian election at all is that Harper's strategy is working and he seems posed to form a minority or possibly even another majority government. Granted, there is still a week and a half left in the campaign, and it is entirely possible that there could be a last-second swing toward one of the other two contending parties, but it still seems as though Harper might pull this election out at the expense of basic human decency. With these new revelations, it is no longer possible to be charitable or to discuss this election with any kind of detached political philosophy. It has now definitively become a moral question, and I don't see any way that it is possible to justify voting for Harper's Conservatives on any kind of moral grounds. With this election, it seems that Canada has finally made the last slide beyond partisanship and that we are doomed to reap the ignominy of this decision in years to come. Say what you want about the political advantages of a particular point of view on policy, but this election has gone beyond those conversations to much more real ones.

Losing our identity

Canada has long been known as a country with a moral centre, at least for the better part of latter half of the twentieth century. It is overly simplistic to ignore Canada's abuses up until 1960, nor am I suggesting we should; I do, after all, spend a not-insignificant amount of time as a Canadian history teacher discussing our many failings, such as the policy of assimilation toward First Nations, the internment of Japanese Canadians during WWII, the abuse of Chinese immigrants in building the railroad, and the refusal of Jewish refugees from Nazi Europe, as well as the fact that the final residential school was open until 1996. So let's acknowledge those atrocities with their full weight while also considering our more recent and current history.

The fact remains that for most of the last fifty years, Canada has had an internal and international reputation as a country that is open and that has been led and led the world by example through abstaining from partisan conflict and pursing peacekeeping, accepting new people and ideas into our "cultural mosaic", maintaining public funding for social programs, environmental awareness, and technological innovation - at least until the last few years. Whether it has been the cuts to the CBC, the silencing of scientists (and how great is it that a Canadian physicist just won the Nobel Prize?), pulling out of the Kyoto Protocol, the changes to Elections Canada, or the changes to our foreign policy, Canada is in the midst of a decade-long loss of identity, a point that has been observed by innumerable writers and commentators, but one that I nonetheless feel the need to explore.

Lessons from Canadian leaders through history

In spite of all of the multitudinous and vociferous opposition to his policies and actions over the past decade, Harper is set to win his fourth consecutive election, a result that would place him in select company within Canadian history and make him one of Canada's five or six historically most influential leaders. So it is with an eye on the happenings in the present that I want to look briefly at the past to see what, if anything, makes Harper any different. For comparative purposes, I will look at four leaders who had similarly impressive electoral success: John A. MacDonald won six of seven elections between 1867 and 1896, including four consecutive majorities between 1878 and 1896; Wilfrid Laurier won four consecutive majorities from 1896 to 1911; W. L. Mackenzie King won six elections between 1921 and 1948, including four minority governments and two three-peats; and Pierre Trudeau won four non-consecutive majorities between 1968 and 1984 with a short six-month absence from power in 1979.

A keen observer of Canadian history would point out that each of those four - MacDonald, Laurier, Mackenzie King, and Trudeau - are often numbered as Canada's greatest leaders along with Lester B. Pearson and perhaps Robert Borden (PM during WWI), and that each of them oversaw at least one, if not more, of the atrocities listed above or other similarly egregious controversies (Trudeau's alienation of the West and use of the War Measures Act are often listed among his primary political sins, to say nothing of his moral failings), which is entirely true. Each of those leaders weathered political storms in one way or another and inarguably manipulated situations politically to stay in power (perhaps none more blatantly than Borden's Unionist win in 1917 on the question of Conscription during WWI), and each of them could be considered responsible for at least one reprehensible act that warrants some form of "moral asterisk" to be assigned to their rule (Mackenzie King most egregiously by far, in my opinion, by allowing the policy of "None is too many" to be used toward Jews in the 1930s), but there is something that seems different about Harper (and not just because he's the most recent and the only leader of those listed during whose government I have lived).

I considered that it might be a matter of integrity, but that seems to be a dangerous door to open considering the men in question and the fact that Harper, whether you agree with him or not, does have some level of integrity in that he does not compromise what he believes, reprehensible as those beliefs may be to most of the country. It seems to me that the difference is the fact that Harper seems to be in it for himself more than any of those other leaders - that every decision he makes is for personal or party advancement, and that those come at the expense of the good of the country. Say what you want about the others, but they had external motivation and justification for most of their actions (again remembering that I am in no way attempting to justify racist or xenophobic policies of the past) that transcended themselves and their parties. Trudeau's final term was spent primarily attempting to finally (and successfully) patriate the Constitution (not that his successors have been able to do anything to build on that achievement), using his political capital to push it through. Harper's actions, on the other hand, seem only to be justified by his ambition to maintain power, and that is what is truly the most unCanadian thing about these Harper Conservatives.

Concluding my lament

Consideration of others before ourselves, whether within or without our borders, has been Canada's guiding principle through the stated values of "peace, order, and good government", and the loss of that core centering value seems to have become firmly entrenched in the Canadian ethos as evidenced by this election. It is that loss, that shift in perspective, that I lament more than anything else and that I believe is the biggest contributor to those feelings of loss of Canadian identity. It is a loss which I believe has made us less Canadian, and for which I truly grieve not only in spite of Harper but for him and those who support this extreme way of thinking. I have felt the absence of a moderate right voice like the Progressive Conservatives, and I lament that Harper will likely win because there are three parties that are very similar that will split the vote against the Conservatives. I also lament the fact that there are many people voting for Harper on certain moral grounds because none of the other parties have taken up the challenge to make more moral decisions, so they will each bear some culpability if the Conservatives win.

I lament the fact that I can no longer count on the fact that the government, regardless of personal or party political philosophy about the economy or education or health care, has the best interests of its citizens in mind. I lament that I am increasingly embarrassed about being Canadian and publicly identifying myself even by nationality with not only the political but the moral choices of my government. I lament that our electoral system has been maligned and besmirched and ignored, that low voter turnout will only cause more issues, and that I have friends and family who, despite being citizens, are not being allowed to vote because they happen to live overseas. And I lament that the fact that there are enough people who don't understand or agree with this lament means that it will likely carry on for several more years.

1 comment:

  1. Okay, I've finally read this, and it's excellent. I feel so disappointed in my fellow citizens, for falling for such xenophobic wedge politics. (Not to mention such a blatant ploy: we certainly saw this coming, when Harper replaced his campaign manager. I naively thought that the Canadian public would reject these attempts, in the midst of this swell of compassion toward Syrian refugees, but I overestimated the attention span of the Canadian public, and underestimated the depth of racism. I hoped that it would be a replay of 22 years ago, when disgust with a vulgar attack ad regarding Chrétien's Bell's Palsy helped to swing public opinion against the PCs.)

    But we shall see what happens. Perhaps the CBC Poll Tracker is right, and we are headed to a Liberal minority government. Perhaps Harper's recent campaigns with the Fords will somehow resonate in Ontario. But I hope they do not.

    (A side note: it makes me wistful to see such offhand remarks about Stéphan Dion, the only Liberal leader I've liked since Pearson. I weep thinking of the coalition government we could have had, led by Jack Layton and a soft-spoken man who named his dog Kyoto.)



Life of Turner is licensed under a Creative Commons Canada License. Subscribe to posts [Atom] [RSS].