My friend, John Boyko, says Canada is a conversation. In his blog he was referring to how we tend to hash things out with words here, not guns, whether in Parliament, in a political leadership race, or at Tim Horton’s. He’s right of course – and we are a decidedly fortunate nation because of this. Not all nations can claim this civility.
If Canada is a conversation, then I’d like to start a new-old one. It’s one that began for me back in high school, in Lindsay, Ontario where I grew up.
Lindsay is a town of 20,000 (about 13,000 when I was younger), made up of emerald green parks and a steel blue river that crosses through the town, but yet never divides. It’s a more or less egalitarian town, with a vibrant main street, filled with good food and good people.
Like Neil Young sings, I thought all my changes were there.
As it turns out, maybe just the seeds of my changes were planted back then – because for a while I’m not sure I was the Canadian nationalist that I thought I was. Now, I’ve seen enough, studied enough, and lived enough to reject some of my initial thinking about how this country should work.
Those seeds of change were planted by one of my pivotal high school teachers, Dan Miller. He taught me Geography for four consecutive years and within the Human Geography courses that were my favourite he also taught me three things to be skeptical about:
  • unbridled capitalism
  • provincial power in Canada becoming too strong
  • the United States’ intrusive foreign policies.
As often happens, young people’s political perceptions can be coloured by the political voting patterns of their parents, and by whomever is leader of the country during these seminal years. For me, it was the late 1980s and Brian Mulroney led two incredibly ambitious terms of government. He sparked important conversations that we needed to have as Canadians. All those words galvanized Parliament and disrupted coffee shops.
I was swept up in all the grand initiatives of this time, from the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement, privatization and deregulation, to the Meech Lake Accord that endeavoured to gain Quebec’s signature on the constitution, to the Charlottetown Accord that tried to salvage Meech Lake.
At the time, I thought we needed to seize the day and embrace free trade and let the chips fall where they may.
Now I question all that unbridled capitalism.
I thought it was imperative that Quebec sign the constitution. To make that happen, surely Canada could divest itself of a few more powers for the provinces.
Now I wonder what good can come of further decentralization. Canada always needs a national vision.
You see, I mistook the government’s enthusiasm and honest efforts to make something right (Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accord) as good policy.
As for free trade, deregulation, and the drive to more and more privatization, I now believe too many major sectors of our economy are dominated by foreign multinationals. For instance, as I write this, the federal Liberal government appears to be ready to greenlight the Chinese takeover of a Canadian satellite-communication systems firm, without a thorough security review. Can they not understand how short-sighted this is? Can they not see how this impacts our sovereignty?
I believe the commodification of nearly everything – water included – is a great injustice. I think the rise of precarious work – work that is part-time, contract, or temporary in nature – has devastated the underbelly of the Canadian working class and middle class.
As for the third thing my high school teacher told me to be skeptical about – U.S. foreign policy – there was definitely naiveté on my part in high school. Who wouldn’t want to think that our friend and neighbour always meant the best for their global neighbours? Now, the world is riddled with examples of how that just isn’t always the case, from the Congo and the lust for minerals, Iraq/Kuwait and the lust for oil, and an ongoing desire to actively destabilize other nations to maintain influence and control.
In referring to his sombre 1960s offering, Lament for a Nation, George Grant writes that Canada’s hope “…lay in the belief that on the northern half of this continent we could build a community which had a stronger sense of the common good and of public order than was possible under the individualism of the American capitalist dream.”
I think we did, for the most part. In fact, the differences between Canada and the U.S., the values that we share, continue to diverge as if to underscore this truth.
As Michael Adams wrote in Fire and Ice, “Canadians are moving toward cosmopolitan values associated with idealism…Americans are moving away en masse from the trends associated with civic engagement and social and ecological concern. Instead, Americans are retrenching, becoming paranoid and isolated…”
I think Dan Miller was right about those three key points he told us to question. Many would say he was too political – that teachers have no business promoting such discourse in the classroom.
I say ‘good for him.’ You see, he wasn’t just an educator – he was an advocate. He taught his students to question what they hear or read. I wish there were more like him in our schools.
In the meantime, this Canadian nationalist will do his part to keep the conversation going.
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Roderick Benns

Roderick Benns