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From the archives

The Trust Spiral

Restoring faith in the media

Dear Prudence

A life of exuberance and eccentricity

Who’s Afraid of Alice Munro?

A long-awaited biography gives the facts, but not the mystery, behind this writer’s genius

Surviving Survivalism

Canada has moved into a new kind of sovereignty; less fretful, more laid-back

Richard Gwyn

Some time in the last half dozen years, Canadians decided that we had made it as a country. No audible click of consciousness-raising occurred, but by one of the mysterious processes of collective decision making that takes place from time to time in democracies, we simply decided that as a country, a nation-state, a political entity, we had outdistanced both of our existential risks—that we might be split into two by Quebec’s separation or that we might be swallowed up by the United States. This moment of truth (or of fervent wish fathering a transformational thought) released us from the psychological straitjacket of “survivalism” that has been our defining creed since our very national beginnings, an angst that encompasses no differently English Canadian anxiety vis-à-vis Americans and French Canadian anxiety vis-à-vis English Canadians, plus the worries of both of these groups and all others here about sheer physical survival amid our forbidding climate and landscape.

Being Canadians, even as we set off in a new direction we continued glancing back over our shoulder every now and then. A sizeable school of declinism formed around this time. The note sounded most consistently—Andrew Cohen’s While Canada Slept is the best-known example, but there were many others with despairing titles such as Canada Among Nations: A Fading Power, edited by Norman Hillmer and Maureen Appel Molot—was that we had lost our way internationally. Pearsonian glories were gone forever, with Lloyd Axworthy’s “human security” agenda as the last faded echo of them. The Americans would either bully us into doing what they wanted, or, worse, would ignore us. “In Washington, we are not taken seriously,” Michael Ignatieff wrote in the February 2003 issue of Montreal-based Policy Options. Other commentators, mostly conservative ones, declared that Canada had lost its stuffing, with nothing much left to hold us together other than an obsession with single-tier medicare. Historian Michael Bliss told a reporter from the New York Times, “I am almost in total despair.”

Most Canadians did not think this way at all. They thought we had made it. The first observers to spot the new mood were Darrell Bricker, president of the polling company Ipsos-Reid, and Edward Greenspon, then the Globe and Mail’s Ottawa columnist, in their 2001 book, Searching for Certainty: Inside the New Canadian Mindset. Their key proposition was that “in an odd way, the 1990s left us richer as a people. It was a lost decade, to be sure, a decade of reckoning that compressed our pocketbooks as well as our spirits … But happily, we discovered a new inner strength.” From then on, commentators and pollsters kept on proclaiming, reinforced from time to time by actual evidence from attitudinal surveys, that Canadians were radiating confidence about their country and themselves, even, as was as un-Canadian as it is possible to be, exhibiting a certain braggart cockiness.

The root source of this new inner strength was that Canadians had undergone the worst of all possible worlds and had survived them all. Among these: an almost-lost Quebec referendum, the degeneration of our national financial accounts to the point that we were being compared in the international media to a Banana Republic North, the implosion of our political system so that we regressed into a one-party state with no credible national alternative at all and, most intimidating of all, the transformation of our next-door neighbour from overweening superpower into global hegemon and latter-day Rome. And we are still standing.

Andrew Stevenson

“Canadians had undergone the worst of all possible worlds and had survived them all.”

Three events catalyzed the public’s assertive new mood, aside from economic growth, which always generates contentment. Our experience with Canada-U.S. free trade confirmed that we were up to the ultimate dare of Canadian history—that of surviving, without vanishing politically, in toe-to-toe economic competition with the most competitive economy in the world. The second item was Paul Martin’s sorting out of our national accounts, which demonstrated that despite our internal fractiousness we were capable of making painful, collective decisions. Last, and by far the least, there was our decision to say no to our two closest and oldest allies, the U.S. and Britain, and not to join the coalition of the willing (or sort of willing) marching into Iraq. It helped that this unprecedented act of diplomatic autonomy cost us no political or economic consequences.

Within the span of a few years, we had gone economically right into the den of Godzilla and had survived, and had turned our backs on it in full public view and again had survived. As well, national unity showed every sign of surviving, for another generation at least.

Another factor, not an event as such but rather an analysis of events, played a significant part in firming up this new attitude. We had, so it was proclaimed, not merely made it in the sense of overcoming all our existential challenges but, in the process, we had remade ourselves. We were, that is to say, distinct. No longer merely “not-American,” but palpably and unmistakably Canadian. The guru of this school of thought was pollster Michael Adams, author of the immensely popular 2003 book, Fire and Ice: The United States, Canada and the Myth of Converging Values. Not only were we not converging, argued Adams, but we and the Americans were increasingly diverging in our values and attitudes. Essentially, we were a lot more liberal, a lot more tolerant, a lot more inclusionary, a lot less religious and generally a whole lot nicer.

Interestingly, a tome expressing the exact opposite viewpoint has recently been published. Because it is written in near-impenetrable academese, and (probably more relevant) because it does not tell us what we want to hear, it has made absolutely no impression. Indeed, I know of no review of it by anyone. This book is Regions Apart: The Four Societies of Canada and the United States, by Edward Grabb and James Curtis, who are sociologists at the universities of Western Ontario and Waterloo respectively. After correcting general U.S. values and attitudes by considering separately the very distinctive ones of the Southern states, and by considering separately the strongly collectivist and social democrat views of Quebecers, the authors conclude that cross-border differences between most Canadians and most Americans are minor. They dismiss any claim that “we are now seeing a new Canadian value system that is becoming substantially divergent from its American counterpart.”

They criticize the now conventional wisdom about cross-border divergence as having been propagated by opinion makers (nationalist ones, no doubt led by those at the Toronto Star—the newspaper I write for) until they had made it “a familiar, even a comforting element in the popular folklore.” Among the authors’ specific points are that, outside of violent crime, the crime rate in Canada is often higher than in the U.S., and that except for the special case of attitudes toward black-white marriages, there is little difference in attitudes on the score of ethnic, racial or cultural tolerance. Grabb and Curtis find that trust in government is actually lower here than there. So much for our addiction to peace, order and good government.

But so what if cross-border differences are more in our minds than in objective fact? In the famous phrase of British anthropologist Benedict Anderson, most nations are “imagined communities.” We have imagined ourselves into distinctiveness. Anyway, it is a radical change that Canadians now feel, genuinely and confidently, that our way of doing things is not merely distinctive but is valid, whole, integrated in itself.

The consequence—for many Canadians—has been a major re-think of how we should and can view our relationship with Canada itself. If the country is in fact going to exist forever, and on the whole is in pretty good shape, then we no longer need to expend time and energy on worrying about it and on thinking up ways and devices to ensure that it continues to exist. This is to say, we have not merely survived. We have survived survivalism.

The biggest difference between the survivalist nation that we were for so long (and have known we were at least since 1972 and Margaret Atwood’s Survival) and the post-survivalist nation that we are becoming—essentially a normal nation like most others—is that we can now afford to be a lot less fixated about and obsessed about our sovereignty, our autonomy, our independence. We can never take these for granted. But we can be a lot more laid-back about them because the nation itself is still going to be around tomorrow.

You can see the shift in attitude in the way more and more Canadians now think of themselves as at one and the same time Canadian citizens and, as one of Trudeau’s legacies, citizens of the world, without for an instant thinking they are somehow failing in their duty to stand perpetually on guard for Canada. One new book, Virtual Sovereignty: Nationalism, Culture and the Canadian Question by Robert Wright, a historian at Trent University, focuses on this phenomenon by the device of looking at it through the wrong end of the telescope. Canadian young people, Wright laments, are into a “post-nationalism” phase, unconcerned and unmoved by the great Canadian nationalist battles of their parents. The reason they “lack a sense of belonging” is that they have been “marginalized, demonized, down-sized, tough-end up” by the “return to the dark ages”—dark fiscal ages that is—implemented by the Chrétien government. Huh? Yes, there were some cuts to bring the federal budget into balance, as a result of which we are now in surplus and are again throwing the stuff around. But the notion that young people today are repressed, suppressed, bullied and ignored and, as a consequence, have given up on Canada, is quite bizarre.

The reality is the exact opposite. It is because young Canadians feel so confident about being Canadian that they now feel able to reach out beyond Canada. It is the world, rather than Canada, that excites them these days, although they are turned on also by and fully at ease with the dazzling variety of our multiculturalism, itself a miniature of the wide world. Those in international organizations, both nongovernmental as well as governmental ones, report that the competition for positions in them, even the most humble, and the qualifications being presented by candidates (advanced degrees, multiple languages), are without precedent. The one political cause in recent years that really mobilized young Canadians was the anti-globalization movement, which itself was a wholly globalized phenomenon.

The acid test of Canadians’ new, post-sovereignty confidence will of course come with any new scheme to integrate ourselves more closely economically with the U.S. For some time, various proposals have been lofted for a cross-border “Grand Bargain”—the phrase was minted by Canada’s former ambassador to Washington Allan Gotlieb—and they surfaced again in October by a group headed by former deputy prime minister John Manley. To get anywhere at all—Congress jealously guards its power and Washington owes Ottawa no favours, as it does, say, to Canberra—the bargain will have to be truly grand, encompassing not just security and economics but also harmonized immigration rules and free cross-border movement of people (the great omission in the original Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement). The devil will be in the details of the actual proposed pact. But a post-survival, and so a post-sovereignty, Canada may well turn out to be more daring than anyone has yet suspected.

One very good measure of the scale of ordinary Canadians’ new confidence does exist. This is the constant demand—by the general public every bit as much as the elite—that our foreign policy reflect and project “Canadian values.” This means we now take it for granted that distinctive Canadian values do exist. More intriguingly, it means that we want our foreign policy to be principally about making the world more like Canada. This interpretation always causes an initial shock whenever I have uttered it in public forums—understandably so because it is an assertive, American-style attitude. My proposition nevertheless is that, somewhat like the Americans, we have come to adopt the missionary position in foreign affairs. We are not imperialists, of course: we lack the power to be. But we are interventionists. We sally out in the world, preaching, cajoling, seducing, manipulating, bribing (with dollops of foreign aid) other societies into adopting our values and practices on issues such as human rights, civil rights, civil society, democracy, economic equality, tolerance, gender equality. This policy, and the public’s attitude, dates back to Lloyd Axworthy’s human security agenda of the late 1990s. It was continued, if in a lower key, by Jean Chrétien and by our sponsorship of the international commission that developed the concept of the “right to protect” in other countries to champion people against their own government (Sudan and its Darfur region as the current test case). It is being revived and expanded, as will be addressed in a moment, by Paul Martin. The point about this policy is that it is radically different from the Pearsonian policy of Canada performing as a “helpful fixer.” Its objective was the neutral one of helping others settle their problems between each other, sort of like a global marriage counsellor.

“We are not imperialists, of course: we lack the power to be. But we are interventionists.”

Spreading Canadian values around the world is most certainly highly interventionist. Promoting gender equality in some society that entirely lacks it is a far more radical act than bombarding it with cruise missiles. Either act is the expression of a country that is exceedingly confident in itself, not least because intervening in the sovereignty of others opens up the way for them to intervene in our sovereignty. It is starting to happen: Amnesty International has just criticized Canada for failing to protect Native women from the grossly disproportionate amount of violence, rape and sexual abuse that they suffer in this peaceable kingdom.

Cometh the hour, cometh the person. Paul Martin may or may not turn out to be an effective prime minister. So far, the omens are decidedly mixed. He almost lost an election he ought to have won easily. His “asymmetric federalism” sounds suspiciously like Joe Clark’s “community of communities,” with no one left to speak for Canada amid the cacophony of provinces all with their special deals. He has so many “priorities” he effectively has none: regulation of international fisheries popped up from nowhere as a priority Canadian goal in the Throne Speech and then, even more mysteriously, during a trip Martin made to, of all places, Moscow.

But Martin is brimmingly, exuberantly, contagiously, confident about Canada, certain we can make a difference outside our borders. Bono gave him his theme song: “The world needs more Canada” (although the phrase’s actual inventor was the Indigo book chain). And as one consequence of this attitude, Martin is laidback about sovereignty, or at least laidback by the usual Canadian standards.

The tome to turn to here is the just-published The Return of the State by Adam Harnes, a political scientist at the University of Western Ontario and author of an earlier muckraking book on the mutual fund industry. Harnes takes as his starting point a speech given by Martin in February 2001 at St. Mary’s University in Halifax, which Harnes happened to be present at and which he remembers indelibly, down to the way “every seat was wired to the Internet and every chair was a splendour of ergonomic design.” After a routine speech, Martin suddenly took rhetorical flight over the international scene. The world had to create “an international board of directors” to deal with everything from labour standards to the environment to disease prevention and social programs. “If we miss out in the course of the next ten to fifteen years in putting this structure in place, we will have global anarchy,” he said. Canada had to lead this process, declared Martin, because Europe was turned inward and the U.S. believed it was immune to the problems of economic globalization.

After quoting Martin’s comments, Harmes then sets out his own position. Economic globalization, he writes, is a fact of contemporary life. The next “big thing,” therefore, has to be “political globalization.” This is because “political globalization, while international in its focus, is really about reining in an excessive corporate power and facilitating a return of the state at the domestic level.” About this thesis there are two particularly interesting aspects. Harmes is proposing that nation-state governments cede—“delegate”—some of their authority to international organizations in order to gain effective authority to govern their own citizens. (The case example is the delegating of sovereignty to Brussels by member states of the European Union, by which they gain a greater say in international affairs than they would have individually.) Hence Harmes’s title of “The Return of the State.” Just as intriguing, Harmes is also continuing from where Naomi Klein left off in No Logo. In her introduction, Klein declared as her purpose “to lay out the particular set of cultural and economic conditions that make the emergence of that opposition (to globalization) inevitable.” Harmes’s prescription is simple and bold: Political globalization can cure the ills, or a decent share of them, of economic globalization, many of them taking the form of the corporate corruption that has taken hold as a consequence of the neoconservative-driven withdrawal of the state. Shrewdly, Harmes points out that political globalization would correspond to the demands of the anti-globalization movement, by giving nation-state governments greater authority, even if indirectly so through the new international organizations, over their own national affairs.

Martin, who keeps on touting the virtues of the G20 financial group that he once chaired, unquestionably believes in this formula. It corresponds to Canadians’ passionate commitment to multilateralism. We are adept at protecting sovereignty by ceding it, which is what multilateralism is all about. But of course the U.S. will not buy into this formula. (The U.S.’s opposition to multilateralism is not only about imperial power; it is also about democracy, the national government being the only one voters can influence, as Jeremy Rabkin argues in The Case for Sovereignty.) Here, an intriguing paradox raises its head. Canadians want to exercise as much sovereignty as we can. But we adamantly oppose the U.S. exercising as much sovereignty as it can, which, clearly, is a whole lot more. It is an obvious question of scale. Almost any U.S. exercise in sovereignty, by unilateralism or by “preventive defence” or just by doing as it judges its national interests dictate, threatens our Canadian autonomy. By contrast, we, by ceding sovereignty to international organizations, increase our effective sovereignty vis-à-vis the U.S., because these entities give us a place to hide, sort of, from the United States.

There are no certainties in any of this. The United States’s behaviour is by no means only shaped by the personality—and faith—of George W. Bush. Perhaps the shrewdest comment on the U.S.’s contemporary condition was that made recently by a British diplomat who remarked that the U.S. today possesses a scale of power that would “tempt an archangel.” And unless the United Nations can face up to the challenge of preventing a genocide, at the very least a mass slaughter, in the Sudan’s Darfur region, the credibility of political globalization will be emasculated before it even begins.

But a true New World Order is at least foreseeable, if as yet only intellectually so. It is one Canadians would be comfortable in, because it means multilateralism and a reactivated state. In Martin, we have a leader who seems to understand the possibilities and the stakes, as none before him has done since Pierre Trudeau. It is happening, or may be happening, at a time when we possess the precondition for taking an active part in the development of this new international architecture—we are confident about ourselves as perhaps never before; more simply, we are now confident that we are.

As useful as anything else, this kind of project would give us something else to talk about other than sovereignty, autonomy, independence. We will be able, that is, to talk about what we ourselves actually want to do rather than, as so often in the past, talk mostly (in international terms) about what we do not want to have done to us. Not that we will change our national vocabulary quickly. Just as I was finishing this essay, the Star filled up most of its op-ed page with a long article: “Great Lakes Water: Our Sovereignty at Risk.”

Books Consulted

Searching for Certainty: Inside the New Canadian Mindset
Darrel Brickner and Edward Greenspon
Doubleday, 2002
Regions Apart: The Four Societies of Canada and the United States
Edward Grabb and James Curtis
Oxford University Press, 2004
The Return of the State: Protestors, Power-Brokers and the New Global Compromise
Adam Harmes
Douglas & MacIntyre, 2004
No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies
Naomi Klein
Knopf, 2000
The Case for Sovereignty: Why the World Should Welcome American Independence
Jeremy Rabkin
AEI Press, 2004
Virtual Sovereignty: Nationalism, Culture and the Canadian Question
Robert Wright
Canadian Scholars’ Press, 2004

Richard Gwyn wrote a column on national and international affairs for the Toronto Star. He was the author of numerous books, including Nationalism without Walls: The Unbearable Lightness of Being CanadianJohn A: The Man Who Made Us; and Nation Maker: Sir John A. Macdonald: His Life, Our Times.