Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Paying Attention to the Facts on the Ground

Richard Gwyn begins his column in The Toronto Star this week by proclaiming that "Canada has done something remarkable -- it has figured out how to contain within it another country." Gwyn's observation has, at least in part, been triggered by the obvious disarray in the ranks of the Parti Quebecois, perhaps best illustrated by Gilles Duceppe's decision to run for the leadership of the party -- a decision which he reversed some twenty nine hours latter. Gwyn warns his readers that separatism is not dead: "The new creed in Quebec politics will be 'autonomy,' or making the province as separate as possible within Canada."

And it is that trend which worries The National Post's Andrew Coyne. Heading his latest column "scenes from a dying country," Coyne observes that Premier Danny Williams is sounding a lot like Jean Lesage these days, insisting that when it comes to the province's resources, Newfoundlanders should be "masters in their own house." Add to that the present Quebec premier's insistence that Quebec be considered a nation within Canada and be given a seat at UNESCO and the future begins to look darker. Alberta, too, "cannot decide whether it is or is not in favour of the concept of a single national securities regulator."

Could these men be talking about the same country? The answer is yes -- and it has always been thus. The fact that it has always been this way is no reason to be sanguine about the future. However, it is instructive to consider how we got from there to here.

Fundamentally, Canada is a country of ideas; but, for most of its history, it has rejected ideology. The country entered upon the world stage just as the free trade movement of the nineteenth century was at its apex. Yet John A. MacDonald immediately established the National Policy as a way to set Canadian manufacturers on their feet. By 1935, William Paley had developed a template for broadcasting in North America, which held that broadcasters were private entities who paid their bills through advertising. But the CBC was established as a public corporation. In 1956, after two world wars had confirmed the conventional wisdom that nation states projected their power by the use of military force, Lester Pearson insisted that Canadian forces would be used for peacekeeping, not self defense or military conquest.

In fact, throughout its history, Canada -- like its native son, the economist John Kenneth Galbraith -- has had a great distrust of what Galbraith called "the conventional wisdom." Instead, public policy decisions have had more to do with the facts on the ground than with any theory of the way things should be.

During all this time the country struggled with its identity, weathered the Conscription Crisis of World War I, The Great Depression, World War II, and the October Crisis of 1970. We relied on the tools at hand; and, if those tools proved inadequate, we -- after careful reflection -- changed them. Like the first Prime Minister, whose nickname was "Old Tomorrow," we tried not to make decisions impulsively.

Why this walk down memory lane? Well, it seems to me that the present government, for all its political calculation, does not think things through. When Gilles Duceppe threatened a motion to recognize Quebec's de facto sovereignty, Mr. Harper -- within a week -- came up with his "nation within a nation" resolution, something which is already coming back to haunt him. Just as rashly, he decided to extend Canada's mission to Afghanistan until 2009, not giving much thought to whether or not we possessed the resources or the expertise to meet the longer term commitment -- as the scandal over the treatment of Afghan prisoners illustrates. And then there was Harper's reversal on income trusts -- a fundamentally wise decision -- but a reversal of a promise made in an election campaign. Framing his decision in the ideology of a party which holds that taxes are a scourge, Harper committed himself to a bad idea. When a government ignores the way things are, as opposed to the way it thinks they should be, it generates alot of bad ideas.

As Gwyn points out, Canada has thus far arrived at a different place than Montenegro, Kosovo, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. Perhaps Scottish voters will consider Canada before they seek a "velvet divorce." As millions of unhappy couples will testify, there is no such thing. The challenge is to remain committed to the union, by considering the partners' needs, aspirations and dreams. All of these things are manifested in what exists here and now, in what we have learned in the past -- and, most importantly, in not acting impulsively or in the heat of anger.

Gilles Duceppe concluded this week that seeking the leadership of the Parti Quebecois was a bad idea -- a decision bolstered by the fact that only two members of the party's caucus were prepared to support him. It would have been wiser to have taken note of that fact before he stepped in front of a microphone.

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