A Patient Prophet Speaks

We need to confront complex problems with a powerful myth.

In the early years of Stephen Harper’s rule, Ken Dryden’s face—as he sat through question period daily in the House of Commons—revealed more than most of those around him. His expression ranged from distaste to disgust. As the days passed, he seemed less and less attracted to the mob scene that engulfed him. I wondered what was going on behind that living mask and how long he could put up with Ottawa’s demeaning game.

As a prominent member of Parliament and former candidate for his party’s leadership, Dryden has not been a frequent participant in parliamentary debate. In a recent exchange with Susan Delacourt of the Toronto Star, he said that “he decided about eight months ago to pull himself out of the political fray because he hated how he sounded to himself.” Now, in Becoming Canada: Our Story, Our Politics, Our Future, he tells us about his recent political experience, and how he coped with it. While he writhed uncomfortably through question period, he was also thinking—and dreaming too, trying to understand the maelstrom in which he found himself. His new book is a kind of poetic diary of the Harper years, a reflection on the evolution of the world beyond Parliament Hill and an urgent appeal to our better natures.

Ken Dryden is not a typical party politician, and Becoming Canada is not a partisan polemic. It is, he hopes, a contribution to a national conversation in which the country will recognize its mature character and live up to its possibilities. Politics, as he has experienced the game in Ottawa, has failed us, diminished us, reduced our horizons as a national community. He asks for more than that. Rather than a cautionary tale of the worst fates that may await the country (although he knows that the warnings are clear), in Becoming Canada Dryden offers us, more positively, what he calls an aspirational tale. The tale is quietly compelling—but in this book he can also be glib and sometimes confusing.

Before he arrives in Ottawa at Chapter 4, the author takes us on a meandering journey through “America” (not a real place, but the vision that has inspired Americans over generations), the disenchantments of Washington during Barack Obama’s first year in office and the failure of the Copenhagen conference on global warming in 2009. The purpose of this trip is not entirely clear, although it has something to do with hopes and disappointments, the new scale of our problems and our inadequate responses to them. We have been prepared for a hard landing, and in Ottawa we get it.

Ottawa, in Ken Dryden’s view, is a place where great things once happened. But today, one of the two governing parties “has been for many years out of synch with the times,” while the other does not believe in doing anything unless there is “an overwhelming public clamour for action.” Even then, it can “do small and spin big,” so that “no one will know enough with sufficient certainty to have the confidence forcefully to oppose” it.

The four-chapter core of the book is as much about Liberal failure as it is about Stephen Harper’s small-minded Conservative success. Beneath the country’s occasional changes of government in the post-war period, Dryden sees a conventional pattern: periodic rounds of political refreshment followed by “cyclical fatigue.” But by the time Jean Chrétien became prime minister in 1993, the Liberal Party had already exhausted its creative inventory of ideas. That victory was, in a sense, undeserved. The Liberals won because the Progressive Conservatives had splintered into three regional fragments, and they remained in power out of inertia and fiscal discipline through a further 13 years. A party whose generous policies once expressed the spirit of the nation lost touch with its electorate and came to enjoy its entitlements too much.

In 2006, if the Liberals had genuinely believed that Canada would be better off with a Liberal government, and if they had genuinely believed that child care, Kelowna and Kyoto mattered, they would not have fought among themselves and brought themselves down. If they had genuinely believed, they forgot.

When Stephen Harper reunited some of the Conservative fragments, Ken Dryden argues that Harper was acting on a profound grudge, bringing together voters who felt ignored, neglected and insulted by the Liberal Partys use of power. That was Harper’s Big Idea. Dryden appreciates the strength of this negative. There was no grand scheme beyond it. Stephen Harper had no larger vision of the country, and still lacks one; he despises visions. He wanted to throw out the Liberal Party and reduce the national establishment of policy and institutions that it had created. Once in office, he understood that the key to retaining power was, simply, to hold on and gradually convince the public that Conservatives, by being there, deserve the office while Liberals do not. He too could govern by guile and inertia. His object was to destroy the Liberal Party and keep his non-Liberals in power. (And if that happens—because Liberal MPs have chosen to vote with the minority government in the last two parliaments—all the better for him.)

Ken Dryden is patient about Canada’s political cycles. He accepts that popular opinion moves slowly and usually cannot be rushed. The Liberal Party should not expect an easy or quick return to power: it has no entitlement. Instead, it must slowly rebuild its reputation and its program. But under the leadership of both Stéphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff, “that never happened.”

Dryden sees Dion as “a person of purpose and substance” who could never adjust to the role of a critic in opposition. “Having to win over an audience he couldn’t be sure of, he would speak faster, his voice pitching higher, making him look and sound like a little boy who couldn’t get his way. With Dion sounding like someone who anyone would want to tune out, people tuned him out.” When Ignatieff replaced Dion in the confusion after the fiscal update of November 2008, he too failed to adjust quickly to the party’s new role; and in the two years since then, Dryden remains unconvinced that the new leader has given the party any reason to believe in itself. Ignatieff has shown no consistency and has allowed Stephen Harper to define the message for him: the Liberals are the tax and spend party.

The vapid game of politics, now exhausted of all content, continues in a House of Commons that has lost touch with the country. But beyond his party’s routine ambition to ride the electoral cycle back into power, Ken Dryden is moved by deeper currents. While the parties play their tired games, he sees that the contest must change. The whole world is shaking.

Islands disappearing under rising waters, the shorelines of great coastal cities pushed inland permanently, people pushed out—Hurricane Katrina was our cautionary tale. Imagine a hundred Katrinas. Imagine thousands and thousands of people unable to stay where they are and with nowhere to go. Imagine millions of people affecting hundreds of millions more, affecting billions more. It is not possible that we are powerless, that we cannot make a deal on climate change. It is not possible that we cannot overcome our politics, both international and national, and that we are unable to stop ourselves from heading down a path that can end only in one place. We are human beings. We evolved a capacity to think—to analyze, to understand, to act. By working together, we can survive. We can stop. And we refuse to let anyone make us believe it is impossible.

For half a century, Canada has lived “a safe, secure, prosperous life with our eyes closed, no matter what the state of our politics” because the country has been rich in resources and close to
the United States. If our eyes remain closed, Canadians can go on enjoying our comforts for a while because “any foreseeable world of the future will need our resources, our peace, our stability, and our security.”

But our expectations for ourselves have been too modest. Dryden sees more and more Canadians beyond the tight circle of the political class who now demand more from our politics. They no longer see Canada as the complacent suburb of the post-war years, pursuing its modest aims in the comforting shadow of America. Young and old, immigrant and home grown, they see America in decline, humankind
in distress, and this large nation without a compelling common story to inspire its action in the world.

The story, he is convinced, is already here to be proclaimed. It is not the old stories of French-English and East-West; these no longer reflect or excite us. It is no longer a story about emulating the American dream. We come from every country, we speak all languages, we have learned to live together in peace. We believe in both individual and collective rights. We have passed through an era of multiculturalism “to something else, to something new in the world.”

Newcomers to Canada are not only changed by Canada, they are changing Canada. They are making Canada into something it has never been. The dynamic of Canada is not one of groups existing and functioning separate and distinct from one another. It is not one group disappearing into another with little effect. The Canadian dynamic is far more interesting, far more challenging, and far more important. It is a blend, a mix, neither English, nor French, nor Italian, Chinese, or Indian, but something new. In an increasingly global world, Canada has become the world’s first global culture. Canada has become a “multiculture.”

Ken Dryden’s last chapter is titled “Canada” just as his first was titled “America.” Like the first, the last speaks of a land of the imagination, a country that exists only in the mind, where it can shape the future. He has chosen to make the audacious claim (or perhaps, more modestly, just to hint at it) that “Canada” offers a myth to itself and the world—and even to America—as powerful as “America” was in its time. He does not suggest that this Canada already exists in the country’s neighbourhoods and classrooms (and certainly not in our politics), although the mixed population out of which it is being created clearly does. There are tensions and conflicts among us, but he insists that “although this multiculture existence can seem always to be on the edge of breaking down, it doesn’t break down. We are not France; we are not Britain … The difference can seem subtle; it is profound.”

Dryden argues that the country should discard its modesty and accept that it can do great things. He knows that the problems of the world are complex, but insists that this complexity can be confronted with the simplicity of a powerful myth. It is time for his Canada of the imagination to become the Canada in which we live and act. He challenges us “to believe this, to see this, to be what we are.”

His uplifting prose can leave us with good feelings. But where does it get us in our politics? Has he offered us a program? He would argue, of course, that the purpose of Becoming Canada is not to provide a program: first of all, there must be some unifying belief in ourselves out of which a program may grow. The need is to begin the conversation—and he has done that.

Once we’ve learned to be what we are, what follows? There are enough hints in the book that Ken Dryden’s program would be confident, generous, progressive, reformist, activist, both at home and abroad. But would his program somehow—as he seems to imply—be everyone’s program? Would there be no rude and divisive debate about it in the House of Commons? Would it require no transformation of our parliamentary parties, no reform of our institutions, no revolution in our assumptions about oil sands policy, immigration and refugee policy, environmental policy, Afghanistan policy, the dilemmas of foreign investment, the deficit and the debt? There is nothing of any of these specifics in this book.

It is one thing to share Ken Dryden’s anxiety about the failure of Canada’s political institutions, and to see encouraging signs in the kind of mixed community that the country has become. But it is not so clear that a freshly shared dream about the country can both invigorate and unite its citizens. Conrad Black, writing recently in his column in the National Post, also sees what he calls “Canada’s immense potential as one of the world’s very important countries.” Black, though, would certainly produce a political program at fundamental odds with one produced by Dryden. Our shared beliefs about the nature of the country, in 2011, are unlikely to solve our complex problems. We will still have to go on, day by day, confronting (or postponing) one hard issue after another, provoking opponents, making compromises, doing the best we can in an unforgiving world.

In his book A Fair Country: Telling Truths about Canada, John Ralston Saul recently invited Canadians to see the nation’s past in a new and creative way. Now Becoming Canada offers a companion guide for living together in future. These works both disturb our complacency and anticipate a radical reshaping of the Canadian imagination.

In the meantime, who will rid us of this dysfunctional parliament?