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Canada's lost decade

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Canadians headed confidently into the new millennium, but they are limping out of its first decade uncertain about the future and what their country stands for.

Living on the northern edge of Manifesto Destiny felt comfortable enough for most Canadians with Bill Clinton in the White House, notwithstanding his philandering ways. The 1990s was the age of the Dot.com bubble, a decade when American economic pre-eminence was reasserted against Japan and Europe, and China had not yet staked out its role as a rising superpower.

But America lost its way in the succeeding decade, as did Canada.

In March 2000, with Clinton still in office, the Dot.com bubble burst, succeeded by the housing bubble, to be swollen to the bursting point by the encouragement of the sub prime mortgage market by the administration of George W. Bush. Bush compounded his foolishness with a giant tax cut aimed principally at the rich and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

The United States was en route to the crash of 2008, which engendered the widespread recognition around the world that the U.S. was no longer the power it had once been. Despite the inspired choice of Barack Obama to succeed Bush at the end of the decade, the U.S. was condemned to years of economic crisis, layers of indebtedness, military overstretch, and a permanently diminished role in the world.

North of the border, Canadians floundered into protracted and enervating political deadlock.

It was not supposed to be that way. Paul Martin, Jean Chretien's long-serving finance minister and deadly rival, had been waiting restlessly in the wings to move into 24 Sussex Drive. It seemed all but inevitable that Martin's succession would lead to one or two fresh majority mandates for the Liberal Party. But the Sponsorship Scandal, one of those self-consuming orgies in which Liberals indulge from time to time, gravely wounded the newly crowned leader. In the 2004 federal election, Martin clung to office at the head of a minority government that was under fire from day one. The following year, with a push from Jack Layton's New Democrats, the Martin Liberals were flung into another election.

The door was open for the arrival of the former head of the National Citizens Coalition, a man who had journeyed through the Reform Party and the Canadian Alliance to lead the newly founded Conservative Party of Canada.

Stephen Harper is as strikingly different from all of the former prime ministers of Canada as is Barack Obama from the U.S. presidents who preceded him. An ideologue who is as fiercely committed to his brand of neo-conservatism as Pierre Trudeau was to his rationalist-federalist liberalism, Harper is the most dictatorial prime minister in our history, even surpassing the tight-fisted R.B. Bennett who ruled during the Great Depression.

It is not difficult to imagine, with a different roll of the dice, Stephen Harper having ended up leading the forces of Alberta separatism. In Copenhagen, where dined and kept his mouth shut, he was not merely playing the role of the leader of the party that is the natural home of climate-change skeptics, he was being true to his conviction that Canada's vocation is as an energy superpower catering to the needs of a petroleum thirsty America. Not even his personal philosophy that privileges the entrepreneur at the expense of the wage and salary earner is more important to Harper than his fealty to the petroleum industry. Doubling, trebling or even quadrupling the annual output of petroleum from the Alberta oil sands is the future to which he is devoted. Hundreds of billions of dollars are on the line. Harper and the petroleum companies are determined not to let environmentalists who worry about polar bears and melting glaciers stand in their way. No wonder the Conservative leader favours intensity targets -- reducing the CO2 output per barrel of oil produced -- to a hard cap on greenhouse gas emissions.

He has a two-winged approach to the economic crisis: cut government spending, bringing stimulus outlays to a speedy end, and letting nothing impede the rapid expansion of oil sands projects so that as U.S. demand for oil resumes and rises there will be plenty of product to export. Manufacturing, cities, green energy and technology, education, culture and the arts -- all elements in the economic agendas of other people -- are marginal concerns to this prime minister, matters best left to market forces to sort out. Stephen Harper prefers to limit direct government spending to the expansion of the military and the construction of prisons.

Harper once famously urged Albertans to construct a "firewall" around their territory to shut out the baleful influences of Canada, which he once wrote "appears content to become a second-tier socialistic country...led by a second-world strongman [Jean Chretien] appropriately suited for the task." Now he proposes to enfold the whole country within the embrace of his firewall.

Not only will oil sands exports solidify the link with the U.S. -- Harper's spiritual homeland -- the revenues from the oil sands will drive the reshaping of the Canadian economy and even its political system.

Harper's Canada, as was the case with so many of the Canadas of the past, will centre on the latest staple product. Before the oil sands came the cod fishery, the fur trade, lumber, wheat, nickel, pulp and paper, and conventional oil and natural gas. This time though we are face to face with the staple that is generating North America's funeral pyre -- no more water, the fire next time -- the energy source that uses natural gas and clean water in the pollution spewing industrial process that separates the bitumen from the sand. The dirty oil will keep SUVs on the road and will aid in pushing the global climate toward the tipping point.

Meanwhile, the opposition parties, still wounded by Michael Ignatieff's decision to shaft the coalition, generate few ideas and less hope. Despite holding the majority of seats in the House, these parties have let Stephen Harper rule the roost as though he has a majority. The Liberals and their leader deserve the lion's share of the blame for this unhappy state of affairs. It was, after all, Ignatieff who chose to support the Harper government in preference to the coalition.

A word about the NDP, the party I support. In past decades, when Tommy Douglas or David Lewis spoke, Canadians listened with respect. Even if they didn't always agree, people felt that these were the progressive voices of the nation, pointing the way toward the future as it ought to be. If I tried to suggest to my students, most of whom are progressive, that Jack Layton and the NDP, remain that kind political force today, they'd smile indulgently, thinking their aging professor was living in the past, or worse still, had lost it completely. The NDP is now seen as a party like the others, more devoted to playing games in the House of Commons, than espousing a vision for the future.

Canadians entered the new century confident that theirs was a cool, progressive country, widely admired abroad. As the decade ends, Canada has become infamous as a polluter, more interested in oil industry profits than in the future of the planet. A year ago, I spoke with a young woman at a market in Edinburgh who was seeking signatures on a petition in support of a bill on the environment then before the Scottish Parliament. I explained to her that I couldn't sign because I was from Canada. Without a pause, she mentioned Alberta, the oil sands and Stephen Harper, and looked at me with a hard, flinty gaze that said: "We don't admire your country." Make no mistake, they know about us. Gone are the days when people in other countries thought of Canada as the great land of lakes and forests that was inhabited by genial, generous-hearted people.

On the crucial global question of our age, we are the bad guys.

At the beginning of the last century, Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier proclaimed that "the 20th century belongs to Canada." He exaggerated, of course, but Canada did rise over the century from a semi-colony of five million people to a nation of thirty million, the country's population and the size of its economy growing twice as quickly over the hundred years as the U.S. population and economy.

Now, however, we are unclear about whether we retain the capacity to do great things together as Canadians, the ability to conceive a new economy that is sustainable and meets the needs of the many, not the few. It's up to us to shake off this pall. We can and will do better.

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