Tuesday, June 26, 2007

After 140 Years

Jacques Cartier was not impressed when he sailed down the St. Lawrence in 1534. "The land God gave to Cain" he concluded as he looked at the landscape. John A. MacDonald also acknowledged the difficulties inherent in the place he called home. But, after cobbling together the British North America Act with the other founding fathers, he turned to Isaiah for inspiration: "The wolf and the lamb will graze together and the lion shall eat straw like the bullock . . . . They will do no evil or harm in all My holy mountain."

One hundred and forty years has not changed the physical geography of the place. Anyone who has stood on the open prairie and watched a winter blizzard blow in, or who has tried to navigate the Bay of Fundy when the fog is a blanket thrown over the bow of the vessel, knows the feeling of insignificance -- and terror -- Nature can unleash on this, North America's attic. And the lion and the lamb have never coexisted as idyllically as MacDonald hoped they would. Just ask David Suzuki, who spent part of his youth in an internment camp during World War II. Or ask native Canadians to retell the sad history of life on a reserve or in a residential school.

And yet -- and yet -- as we celebrate Canada's birth for the one hundredth and fortieth time, there is much to be proud of -- in the usual unobtrusive Canadian way. Many claim that Canada should have disintegrated decades ago -- and, during what is almost a century and a half, it frequently appeared to be ready to do so. Yet the country has weathered the First World War, The Depression, World War II and two referendums whose purpose was to determine whether or not the citizens wished to tear the house down. From its three founding races -- British, French and Native -- it has evolved into a mosaic of races and cultures which bear little resemblance to the country's original inhabitants.

And what is most remarkable is that in a world which has been torn asunder by ethnic rivalries -- from Rwanda, to Bosnia to Iraq -- Canadians, despite their occasional lapses into ethnic insanity, have continued to strive for for that vision of tolerance which MacDonald found in Isaiah. As John Ibbitson writes in his book, The Polite Revolution, "We are a nation of strangers, bringing in more strangers by the hundreds of thousands each year, from every region of the globe, who then learn to live together as friends."

There is always something a little messy about this mix. To those who have not taken the time to understand how the country works, it appears to leave us without a clear sense of identity or history, where region counts more than country and where urban neighbourhoods function, at times, like city states. But it is that autonomy to act as free agents, while agreeing that somethings -- like the longest railway in the world, Medicare, the CBC, public higher education and the Canada (or Quebec) Pension Plan -- are national institutions and the product of the national will which make the country unique.

And make no mistake: Canada is unique. If its environment can make one feel insignificant, that same environment -- in different circumstances -- can soothe the soul. The same prairie landscape looks different under a summer sky, stretching out to infinity. And the Fundy mudflats are a source of wonder when the tides roll in on a clear day. Then there are Niagara, the Rockies, Payto Lake and the Fraser Canyon. There are no other places like them on earth.

But, most of all, it is the dream of the peaceable kingdom which drives the vision of Canada as a nation. The American humorist, Josh Billings, said: "There may come a time when the lion and the lamb will lie down together but I'm still betting on the lion." For the last one hundred and forty years Canadians have placed bets on both beasts, convinced that they will be able to work something out. They haven't always succeeded -- at least immediately. But Canada was never a done deal. Canadians know that each generation has to renegotiate the bargain. It is that commitment to renegotiate the terms of nationhood that we celebrate this Sunday. We are all the better for it.

On an entirely different subject, I want to thank Ron Hart for his advice. His comment on last week's post is actually attached to my post of June 5th. I have followed his recommendation. I recommend that readers of this blog visit his website at www.safewatergroup.org.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

The Shop Up the Road

I ended last week singing The Call Centre Blues. After downloading a number of updates from Microsoft, my security system informed me that its "parameters were incorrect." I called up the help desk of my internet service provider -- a company in which we own a small number of shares. After doing what the person on the other end of the line suggested, I rebooted my computer (we only have dial-up service here) and I got the same message -- the parameters were still incorrect.

I called a second time, talked to a new person and -- after doing what I was told -- discovered that I could not surf the web. I called a third time, reached yet a third advisor, and I was told I should remove Explorer 7. "But," I said, "I have no other browser. "

"That's all right," I was told, "an earlier version is underneath it." After removing Explorer 7, I discovered that there was no earlier version on my hard drive.

My service provider has recently moved its support services to India. In theory I have no objection to that decision; and in truth, while I had to ask a couple of times to have the instructions repeated, I did not mind the Indian dialect. What bothered me was that my help was coming from half a world away. These folks were -- at least to begin with -- reading from a script. More importantly, they had no real hands-on knowledge of my computer.

I am aware that, in his book The World is Flat, Tom Friedman maintains that, because of startling telecommunications wizardry, service can be delivered from anywhere on the planet. However, my gut tells me that service is best performed by those closest to the problem or the client -- sort of a truncated version of Peter Drucker's management theory.

I probably screwed up my computer through my own ham handed ignorance. But to fix it, I took it to a little shop about half an hour up the road, in the small metropolis which breathes economic life into this rural community.

I talked to a person, not a disembodied voice. He brought me into the shop and showed me what he was doing. He checked the system out with me before I brought it home. And, the next morning, when I received a message which proclaimed that my modem had gone missing, I brought the computer back. He opened the machine up and showed me how the modem was slightly out of its slot -- and didn't charge me a cent for the quick fix.

When I bought the machine three years ago, I purposely went to a shop which was owned by someone I knew and trusted. His business has since been bought by the people who got my computer up and running this week. But they have continued to deal with people as they did -- and do -- deal with me.

The shares of my internet service provider are doing well these days. They provide a good income -- which is why, I suppose, several suitors want to harvest a controlling interest in the company. We hope that those shares and the income they produce will help us send our third and last son to university.

But as a client of the company, as opposed to a shareholder, I feel less well served. We have worshipped at the altar of efficiency for far too long. In the end, what makes a company great is quality -- not efficiency. And while it is undeniable that companies which do not make a profit disappear, it is equally true that companies which fail to provide quality service likewise disappear.

The folks who run Livewire Networks in Belleville, Ontario know that. In an era when big boxes and transnationals obliterate the competition, small quality operations deserve our support for one reason: they are good at what they do.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

The Rising Revolt

Nova Scotia premier Rodney MacDonald is in Ottawa today trying to shore up support for Nova Scotia in its battle with the Harper government over his province's claim to off shore oil and gas resources. Thus, he joins Newfoundland premier Danny Williams in calling Harper a promise breaker. It is worth remembering that, some years ago, Harper expressed contempt for Atlantic Canadians and their "culture of dependency." Now that they have the opportunity to join Alberta in petro-prosperity, Harper says he wants a piece of the action. And his response to Messers. MacDonald and Williams has been, "So, sue me."

This is a strange response from the nation's politician-in-chief. But then it is not unusual, either. When Conservative MP Bill Casey complained about the Harper government's treatment of his province, he was drummed out of the caucus. The same thing happened to MP Garth Turner when he complained about the first Clean Air Act. Turner, after sitting awhile as an independent, joined the Liberals. Harper has a clear vision of what he wants to accomplish. Unfortunately, he lacks the people skills to do it. And that apparently does not concern him. In fact, Harper displays what the American author F. Scott Fitzgerald called "a vast carelessness" in his dealings with people.

He appears to care even less for the will of the people. A case in point is his recent support for George W. Bush's proposed missile shield in Eastern Europe. As Linda McQuaig points out in the Toronto Star, Harper "promised in the last federal election campaign that he wouldn't reverse Canada's opposition to [the proposed missile defense system] without a vote in the House of Commons, which he knows he could not win." Harper has "in effect [done] an end run around Parliament and the Canadian public, and helped advance a position that is at odds with Canada's own official policy."

On domestic policy Harper and his brethren cancelled the Kelowna Accord when they came to office. They say that they will introduce legislation which will expedite native land claims; but, as the recent federal budget makes clear, they have abandoned the promises made in that agreement. The rising tide of native frustration appears to be the last thing on Harper's agenda. And his refusal to heed premier Dalton McGunity's request for a ban on handguns continues to alienate Canada's urban dwellers, who only have representation because Harper co-opted Liberal MP David Emerson and appointed Montrealer Michael Fortier to his cabinet.

So, however Mr. Harper may deny it, he has earned his reputation as a promise breaker. He appears to believe that whatever policy promises the Liberals made were hogwash. The fact that they were Liberal policies, by definition, gives him the right to nullify them. What is interesting is the public revolt against his actions. One would expect an outcry from the Liberals. But, more significantly, he has managed to alienate two of the country's last three Conservative premiers. The other premiers are all from rival parties. And his support for Jean Charest in that province's recent election proved far from helpful. It takes a special talent to create this kind of mess.

How does one account for such an outcome? As a technocrat, Harper appears to suffer from a genetic weakness. It is the belief that he knows better than anyone else because, when push comes to shove, he really is the smartest guy in the room. He is not the only leader, public or private, who suffers from the affliction. The movers and shakers at Enron caught the virus. Paul Wolfowitz, another carrier, has been cashiered from his job at the World Bank. And Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney are in the last stages of what has become -- for them -- a terminal disease.

The most recent polls indicate that Canadians are not impressed with any of their elected leaders. But, as the tide of opposition grows, I suspect that they are particularly happy that they didn't hand Mr. Harper the keys to the car in the last election. Recent history has proven that the smartest guys in the room can be remarkably stupid.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Syntax or Substance?

As the Conservatives roll out their latest attack ads against Stephane Dion, the nation's media are beginning to shine a spotlight on the Leader of the Opposition. Linda Diebel, of The Toronto Star, has just published Against the Current, the first full length study of Mr. Dion in English. And, last week, Lawrence Martin devoted a column to Dion in The Globe and Mail. Mr. Martin clearly admires Mr. Dion's integrity; but he laments Dion's fractured fluency in English. However, as those of us who grew up as Quebec Anglophones can attest, getting your tongue around any word which is more than two syllables in the other language takes some practice. Martin concludes, somewhat sadly, that "Mr. Dion is a gentleman and a scholar. In politics, that combination, as honourable as it is, has rarely been a winning one."

Susan Riley, of The Ottawa Citizen, has a much more upbeat assessment of Dion. While admitting that Dion appears to have a somewhat shrill superiority complex -- she quotes a Quebec satirist who claims that Dion has the "indignant air of a granny who's found a dirty hair in her tisane" -- he also has the courage to speak truth to power: He "has fearlessly marched into battle against Quebec's sovereigntist elite, stood up to an intimidating Prime Minister Jean Chretien ('This is not a time for joking,' he once famously admonished his boss, before startled cabinet colleagues) and has never hesitated to challenge illogical arguments or historic distortions."

That is why the latest ads smack of ignorance and arrogance. They hearken back to ads which the Conservative Party ran five elections ago -- the ones with the unflattering picture of Jean Chretien's lopsided mouth -- which were withdrawn within three days (after Chretien quipped that, of course, he only spoke out of one side of his mouth, unlike the Conservatives who spoke out of both sides of theirs.) Canada's "new" government seems to be stuck with some pretty old and ineffective communication strategies.

Perhaps that explains why the Conservatives, after riding a wave with their new budget, have seen their numbers sink back into the thirty percent range. The Liberals are also stuck in the same neighbourhood. And Mr. Dion is not without critics in his own party. Sometime ago, Raymond Heard -- a former news director at CanWest Global and now a Liberal Party operative -- bitterly criticized Dion for his election compact with Elizabeth May (the leader of the Green Party) claiming with Andrew Coyne, of The National Post, that Dion has moved the party too far to the left.

And Mr. Martin's concern about Mr. Dion's flawed English certainly has something to do with the general anxiety that Dion won't be able to sell his vision in places like Saskatoon. On top of that, Mr.Dion -- by his own admission -- is not a natural politician. Readers of this blog will remember that I did not foresee Mr. Dion' s victory at the Liberal leadership convention (see my post for October 4, 2006).

I too was worried about Mr. Dion's ability to communicate with English Canada. But I should have remembered that, when Jean Chretien arrived in Ottawa back in 1963, he didn't speak a word of English. Some would say that he never did quite get the hang of the language. But, despite his tortured syntax (which, by the way, was as tortured in French as it was in English) Canadians instinctively felt that Chretien, like him or not, only spoke out of one side of his mouth. They eventually came to see what Mitchell Sharp, that wise old man of the Liberal Party, saw in the young Chretien when Sharp took him under his wing. And, with time, Chretien developed into a very effective leader.

The question is, how much time has Mr. Dion got? For the moment, any election plans are on hold. I suspect that time will work in Mr. Dion's favour.