Jonathan Kay, writing in the National Post, has penned an angry rebuttal to what he sees as “intellectual Canada’s” failure to understand the country it claims to want to explain to Canadians and the world. He says that “This isn’t a cranky white-dude essay about Indigenous ingrates who refuse to raise the flag on cue. Canada 150 celebrates the creation of a European-style nation-state on territory that, for millennia, was settled and roamed by First Nations and Inuit peoples. Their societies were systematically gutted through policies of dispossession, residential schools and, in some cases, murderous violence. Indigenous leaders had every reason to sit out the festivities,” and I take him at his word, and I agree with him about how some (many?) First Nations leaders reacted. What bothers Mr Kay is that “In the months following the election of Donald Trump, Canadian writers published a steady stream of opinion columns in foreign outlets pushing back against the conception of Canada as a beacon of enlightened, democratic egalitarianism. In The Guardian, Charles Foran complained that Canada was being “over-praised.” In Slate, Jesse Brown denounced the “fantasy” that Canada had transcended “petty nationalism and xenophobia.” In The Washington Post, J.J. McCullough wrote an article headlined “The world needs to stop mindlessly fawning over Justin Trudeau.” On social media, I can attest, these articles were widely shared among academics, activists and writers … [thus, he says] … In other words, the toxic anti-patriotism of the past year wasn’t just about a bunch of Rosedale junketeers coming to terms with their settler guilt, and forcing everyone else to march in lockstep. At some point between Canada 149 and Canada 150, a large bulk of our intelligentsia lurched suddenly from fretting that the world wasn’t sufficiently appreciative of our kinder, gentler multi-culti middle-power awesomeness, to fretting that the world — and, more importantly, Canadians themselves — were getting excessively hammered on Trudeaupian Kool-Aid. The question,” he opines “is why.“
“Because,” Jonathan Kay answers his own question, “a single word — “Canada” — has described our country for the past 150 years, we sometimes imagine this nation to possess some timeless soul that can be discovered through study or collective self-reflection. But countries aren’t people. They’re artifacts, like corporations. They have no souls. Sometimes, their identities change radically from generation to generation, as with, say, Germany, South Korea and Iran in the late 20th century … [he explains that] … At law school in the United States, a professor taught me that his country effectively had had three constitutional identities, not one. There was the explicitly racist union of states that existed between 1776 and the Civil War. Then there was the more politically consolidated, robber-baron iteration of the U.S. that existed from the 1860s until the New Deal. And then there was the modern welfare state that FDR created, and which Americans still inhabit. It was a powerful model for explaining national transformation and identity. In adapted form, it applies equally to Canada … [and thus] … For the first five decades of its existence, Anglo Canada existed as a sort of cultural and political sidekick to Great Britain — nominally independent, but substantively subservient. This changed during the First World War (though not as abruptly as modern Vimy mythology would suggest), and we started to adopt the outlook of a fully independent country — albeit one with a white monoculture outside of Quebec. Pierre Trudeau helped usher in a third era — in which Canada increasingly self-conceived as a sort of left-wing alt-America, whose identity in many critical areas of public life and policy — heath care, military doctrine, multiculturalism, bilingualism, government spending — was defined by an all-smothering neurosis in regard to the United States.” I think he’s on to something … we don’t think of modern Greece or Italy as the direct descendants of Thucydide’s Athens or Vespasian’s Rome; we don’t thunk there are many direct parallels between 16th century Elizabethan England and 21st century Elizabethan Britain, do we? Why should we “blame” modern, polyglot, multicultural Canada for the “sins” of the people who did things 150 years ago?
Mr Kay explains why he thinks Canadian intellectuals are so confused … and I will not bore you with all that, and then he concludes that “It is tempting to imagine that this whole melodrama will end when the clock strikes midnight on Dec. 31. But I don’t think it will. The battle for the soul of Canada 150 was essentially a proxy battle for the soul of Canada’s fourth national identity … [but, he asks] … Will Canada come to regard itself as a sunny, forward-looking, pluralistic democracy that champions a generous social contract on a colour-blind basis … or a guilty, grievance-infected patchwork of racial communities perpetually publishing angry manifestos and living in the shadow of bygone horrors?“
I think he’s on to something
I suspect that Mr Kay sees the issue: Canada’s third “national identity,” the one Pierre Trudeau shaped which caused us to self identify “as a sort of left-wing alt-America, whose identity in many critical areas of public life and policy — heath care, military doctrine, multiculturalism, bilingualism, government spending — was defined by an all-smothering neurosis in regard to the United States” is dying and we need a new national illusion. Jonathan Kay sees two extremes:
- “A sunny, forward-looking, pluralistic democracy that champions a generous social contract on a colour-blind basis;” or
- A guilty, grievance-infected patchwork of racial communities perpetually publishing angry manifestos and living in the shadow of bygone horrors.”
It seems to me that Justin Trudeau’s championing of modern feminism and redressing every First Nation’s grievance points to the second option.
To get to the first option we need to recognize the truth in Mr Kay’s American professor’s ideas and, therefore, “forgive” ourselves for the “trespasses” of long dead French and British and Canadian settlers and of officials in far away capitals. The Canada that did grievous harm to First Nations and to Chinese and Japanese and to Jews, too, is long gone. That doesn’t mean that both apologies and recompense are not warranted … it just means that making things right is a programme, the bad acts of the past are not the defining characteristics of 21st century Canada.
My fear is that petty, partisan politics will drive the “national identity” agenda. In an article in the Toronto Sun, Tom Parkin says that “The problem,” facing the government as se enter 2018, “isn’t just Trudeau’s and Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s scandals. It’s that the Liberals have no story of success to tell … [and] … During the Morneau scandal, the Liberals’ counter-narrative was that economic times are great and things have never been better … [but] … all our experience says that’s just not true. For many Canadians, these are difficult times … [and] … There’s a crisis of crummy jobs. Census data from 2015 shows less than half of Canadians between 25 and 54 years of age are employed in full-time, year-round jobs. That’s stunning. Statistics Canada has never before found a lower rate … [plus, to make matters worse] … Wage growth is slow. The current median wage sits at $23 an hour—about $46,000 a year—up from $22 when the Liberals were elected two years ago. The change is above inflation, but not much.” It’s too hard to sustain the fiction that we are some sort of very successful “left-wing alt-America,” when even Trump’s America is doing better, person-by-person, home-by-home and community-by-community. “For two years,” Mr Parkin, a NDP stalwart says, “Justin Trudeau has been focused on himself — not what matters to Canadians. At the end of 2017, his story is disappointment. Amid scandal now, it’s a dangerous way to enter 2018.” I suspect that the plan to Make Trudeau Cool Again is to focus to identity politics: to pit First Nations against their neighbours, to pit women against the “establishment,” and to pit ethnic Canadians against the old, WASP mainstream. My suspicion is that will work; and that’s also my fear. I suspect that Justin Trudeau may try to tear apart the social consensus that exists, worn and tattered though it may be, in order to win the 2019 election.
2017 was not a good year for Canada. We stumbled, often quite badly, on the world stage on everything from peacekeeping pledges to free(er) trade with friendly nations. Andrew Scheer has, very correctly, described Canada’s prime minister’s behaviour on the international stage as “erratic.” Although it is, generally, though to be bad form to criticize one’s own national leader in front of foreigners, in the case of Justin Trudeau it may be the right thing to do … to reassure them that while he might swell speak for the Laurentian Elites he does not speak for all of Canada. The current government, from the top down, stinks of greed, corruption and incompetence. The sesquicentennial celebrations that were meant to unite us proved to be divisive, at best, mainly because they were designed to celebrate Team Trudeau’s vision ~ one which is not shared by most Canadians. Even though the economy ~ working Canadians and the companies, large and small for which they work ~ is booming, the nation seems to stagnate. We have lost the confidence that Louis St Laurent, John Diefenbaker and Mike Pearson gave us; we have lost the hope that Pierre Trudeau offered, we have even lost the fiscal and social prudence of Jean Chrétien, Paul Martin and Stephen Harper. All we have, at the end of 2017, are green, feminist pipe-dreams and sunny ways.
I repeat: 2017 was not a good year for Canada; 2018 might be worse, because, as John Ibbitson points out in an insightful article in the Globe and Mail, President Donald Trump has had a wildly successful year as a “conviction politician” and he has reshaped the socio-political environment within which Canada must search for peace and prosperity. For better or worse, it may be the year and the socio-political environment in when we start to define a “new,” 21st century Canada.
Canada enters, tiptoes into 2018 timidly, led by a shallow man-child of dubious ethical and intellectual standing … and 2018 might be a fearful place.