Sunday, October 4, 2015

Canada's Loving Embrace of Broad Horizons

It is more than a mere acknowledgement of our geography to suggest that Canada is a land of vast horizons.  The diversity of weather than we could boast to one another about or bemoan at any one time can be mind-blowing for people from smaller nations whether they are Luxembourg or Mali, but the more significant horizons are those of social possibility and potential that have urged us on in our ambitions of creating a more equitable and fair place to call not just our own, but our neighbours' as well.

It has been that way from the start as the English and French each took their turn to eke out a boreal survival of some sort in the face of the unfamiliar frigid winters and the inhospitable soils they may have relied on.  Alliances formed among neighbours and there was a sense of looking out for one another more often than not.  When the battle at the Plains of Abraham ended the way it did, there was little desire to put a foot on the throat of the vanquished and eliminate them.  Instead they were accommodated and out of that emerged a country that formed in peace, by negotiation and out of a recognition of common interests. We have ended up with a nation that has at its heart a dichotomy, or more realistically an embedded and enshrined robust diversity that has allowed it to ponder questions of identity, freedom and responsibility more carefully and thoroughly than a nation of people who go through life with uninformed certainty about similar questions.

We have not been without blemish and we have by no means been a perfect nation, but it has been a place where people have been able to call it home.  There are children who reach a moment in their lives where they grasp the concept of what a nation is and are thankful that by the accident of their birth, they have been able to call Canada of all places on earth, home. Others have had the less accidental opportunity to arrive here with their families and little more than the ambition to distance themselves from the troubles of the lands they have come from and contribute to Canadian society in a way that pays this nation back for everything that they have gained in it.

Despite the centuries that have passed since the baptism in fire of those winters which shamed European ones for their bitterness, there is a still a sense of cooperation and understanding of others and the recognition of the precedents that have been set by the neighbours or ethnic groups who have founded Canada and ensured that respect and careful consideration are central to the decisions we make and the place we take in the global society.

The robust dialogue about who we are and what we ought to be has long stood in the way of forming a definition of the Canadian identity because we aspired for it to be a deeply embedded and defined aspect of our life rather than something superficially defined by Mounties, hockey and maple syrup. We have shot for the moon in that definition and attached it to looking out for one another whether at home (medicare, official bilingualism and multiculturalism) or abroad (peacekeeping). We had long made a point of fighting the good fight because, for Canadians, the horizons of our potential were always a little broader and our ambitions directed us to pursue justice and imparted to us a strong sense of right versus wrong.  Outright victories have been rare, at least outside the hockey rink, but peacekeeping, for instance, was never about "the win." There was a commitment to those causes and a quiet confidence that came with the satisfaction in having those little eurekas that assured us that we were on the right track.  Along with it was an increased capacity and willingness to take the big picture into account, whether we were looking at where we were as a nation, or as a part of the global community.

There is a chance that you may read this and suggest that I have a remarkably naive or idealistic perception of what Canada is. There is even greater chance that I could be accused of holding onto a romantic image of this country that never existed. I am not suggesting that I am oblivious to the errors that our nation has made and I would be willing to discuss whether or not I am presenting an oversimplified account of what Canada was.

The problem that we are presented with is that whatever Canada means, whatever branding we may associate with those 6 letters, is that it is moving deeper and deeper into the past and becoming an increasingly remote vision of our future.

For the last ten years, our nation has been lead by a government that has sought to avoid the complex discussions that the notion of Canada would present to any other government who had an interest in the careful and protective stewardship of this country, the people who formed it and the commitments that those people had made over the centuries that have passed since the first explorers came here. Throughout the time that the Stephen Harper and his version of the Conservative Party of Canada - not the Tories, not the Progressive Conservatives, but a regressive group committed to the most narrow depiction of what these nearly 10,000,000 square kilometres north of the United States is or ought to be - has continually oversimplified the discussions of this nation and the principles that once stood for.

That oversimplification could be attributed to malice on the part of Stephen Harper and his right wing ideologues, but there is every chance that a country of this complexity, ambiguity and elegance is something that he has been truly overmatched and unprepared for.  The disposal of the long-form census that Statistics Canada had used for years is just one example of too many facts getting in Harper's way and diverting him from the certitude that he preferred to guide his rule with. Throughout the ten years of Conservative rule, the policies have been simplistic and the failure to recognize all of the aspects of the big picture has squandered the government's financial resources, its reputation at home and abroad.  All too often it has overlooked the partners who have contributed to the successful experiment that Canada had long been.

In consideration of the government's approval of Bill C-24 this past spring and the legislation allowing the government to strip citizenship from people who have been convicted of treason or terrorism is another example of the flaccid grasp the Conservatives have of either a big picture Canada or one of the ambitions and aspirations that have made this the pluralistic beacon that it has been. By building legislation on such evanescent, jello-to-the-wall terms as treason and terrorism there is the threat of consuming significant resources depending on how broadly or loosely the courts would define these terms.  On the other hand, the legislation seems to ignore the consequences of the public dissent that had been expressed by the Parti Quebecois or the Mohawks of Kanesatake during the Oka crisis. The reality is that C-24 would not likely have been introduced or used in such instances because those figures would have been too public and the divisiveness of trying to strip Quebec premiers or indigenous people of their Canadian citizenship would have seemed repressive. Further to that it would have been deemed political suicide for a prime minister or government who resorted to using it. We have tolerated dissent and discussion throughout our history and we have even let our fate be held in the hands of a small number amongst us via referendum. We have risked the consequences of free speech and protest because of a long-standing respect for due process, democracy and the value of what this nation has been built into and the safety, certainty and opportunity that it provides

Legislation such as C-24, as is often the case with the Conservatives, is aimed at the weak and seemingly powerless in the name activating support among those with a narrower vision of what Canada's achievements and potential. Cobbling together a pluralistic society such as ours is not an achievement to be sniffed at and it is not a project to be abandoned merely because of its complexity. Canada, as the world knows it, has been a flexible nation of ingenuity and great capability that has only recently shrunk away from the ambitions and ideals that it has long stood for and poured its energies into.

As the Conservatives create parallel campaigns to appeal to the various subgroups - rural, male, ethnic, non-ethnic, theological, libertarian - that they hope to cobble together, the incoherence of what they claim to stand for disintegrates in much the same way that they would like the nation to disintegrate. Governance by prosecution and tax-break will fall short of what Canada requires in the future and the Conservatives lack the principles, the intelligence and the ambition to do anything more than that.

If my characterization of Canada is inaccurate or one held by an insignificant minority with too much poetry or idealism in their souls, please feel free to opt for the small-minded vision the Conservatives offer.  If you feel that you are not informed enough to vote for someone else, at least vote against this mean-spirited approach. The Canada that I believe I was raised in was never as caught up in cynicism as it is now. More often than not, past governments have strived to build consensuses that put individual rights ahead of collective rights, but the Harper government - in either its ignorance or its blatant disregard of our heritage and the fabric of our society - has done the opposite. The Harper Conservatives' preference for collective rights - whether the rights of men over women, rich over poor, whites over indigenous, Conservative over non-Conservative, or other limited binary approach in their practice of favoritism - over individual rights has undermined their ability to fulfill their responsibilities to the entire nation.