In Left Hook, his new book of essays, poet George Bowering talks approvinglyabout how Canadians, when asked what it means to be Canadian, are likelyto respond: “I’ll get back to you on that.”
When your country means so much to you, it cannot be summed up neatly witha pat answer, and so much the better. Though seeing flag-waving,chauvinistic, “my country is the greatest” rhetoric about Canada shouldmake us uneasy, more public debate around Bowering’s question is stillneeded.
Liberals have a standard answer to what it means to be Canadian. Canada isa country where every individual should be able to develop his or hercapabilities to the fullest without facing discrimination on the basis ofreligion, race, or creed. Canadians should be free to pursue their dreamsfor a better life, and be equally capable of taking advantage ofopportunities to enjoy the material advantages life has to offer.
So far so good, but there is something missing. Us. We. The public.Canadians as a whole. Canada; but not just the country: the way we live aswell. Our civilization.
Newspaper reports about the publication by Peter C. Newman of The Secret Mulroney Tapes: Unguarded Confessions of a Prime Minister, and its astonishing revelations, remind us about theshifts undertaken in that era that are still with us: free trade, the GSTand limited government. Mulroney was unpopular and his policies werehated, rejected and unloved by the majority of us, yet two Liberal primeministers have done little of substance to change the policy direction.
Arguably the most damaging thing Mulroney did was limit debate about whatcould be done in Canada. By moving Canada further towards the modeloffered by a very troubled American civilization, his government waslimiting our capacity to determine our own future.
For example, whenprivatization replaced public ownership there was less scope for publicinfluence. With foreign-owned corporations in charge of anything from foodproduction to drug testing, the public agenda shrank. Mulroney and hispolicies took options away from consideration, and successive Liberalgovernments have been content to continue in his tracks.
One important test of civilization is how people see public property. Ifthey treat it as if it were their own, a civic spirit of publicresponsibility can be said to exist, where citizens understand that publicgoods are as important, and often more important, than privatepossessions.
When Mayor David Miller of Toronto welcomed the NDP caucus to Toronto thisweek, he was full of praise for their leadership in amending the Liberalbudget. Through its concern for cities, social housing, and theenvironment, Jack Layton and the NDP are helping create a new Toronto, hesaid.
In other words the NDP was concerned about the progress of civilization.
What does it means to be Canadian? This is a question about how we live.How do we feed ourselves, school our children, and transport ourselves?What arts and cultural activities do we support? What access do we give tosport and recreation? How do we care for the sick, the aged, the young,and the less fortunate? What do we want to work at, and how should we sharethe fruits of our labour?
The right-wing story about our world has been successful in discreditingcollective solutions by turning discussions of common questions and publicgoods into questions of individual choices. The answer to how should welive becomes, any way you want.
In the aftermath of Katrina, the limits to the American model of whatcivilization is about are more obvious to more people. Instead of justsaying how lucky we are to be Canadian, it’s worth it to get back to eachother about what it means to be Canadian, three prime ministers afterMulroney set us on our present course.