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Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Death of a Nation

A friend in Korea asked his secretary if she could contact any Canadians for him.

Her response:

“Does that place exist anymore?”

O wad pow’r, the gift he gie us, to see oursel’s as others see us.

I think the Korean’s view is weirdly accurate. Canada has been suicidal for some time, and the tendency is accelerating. I think this is because Canada’s self-identity is so thouroughly tied in to being a colony that the idea of an independent Canadian nation is basically unpatriotic. It has always been “Empire First!”


I wrote this about a year ago:


I have watched events in Canada with astonishment for some years now, from both within and without the country. It is hard to miss that something exceptional has been going on in Canada. Others have noticed too. The Economist has recently declared Canada “cool,” and shown a moose wearing shades on their cover.

I think the truth is sadder. Slowly this impression has been growing on me: Canada is committing suicide.

Canadian nationhood was, in the broad span of history, a rather brief and querulous thing to begin with. Canada achieved independence, by most standards, only in 1933 with the Statute of Westminster. Until then, its entire raison d’etre was to be “British North America,” the part that refused independence and stayed loyal in 1776. On this view, Canadian independence was a contradiction in terms, and suddenly faced the nation with the need to justify itself from scratch. It also set up the obvious alternative: why now bother to be separate from the United States, with whom English Canada has always shared an almost identical culture?

One obvious response was to cobble up something in the way of a uniquely Canadian culture. And it seems to me there was a brief and beautiful blossoming, for a generation or two: The Group of Seven, the Montreal poets, Mordecai Richler, George Grant, Robertson Davies, Margaret Atwood, and so on. George Diefenbaker offered his “Northern Vision,” and Lester Pearson his new Canadian flag. There was an attempt to create a distinct “Canadian” view and voice.

And then, that light failed. More recent writing in Canada, while very good, perhaps better, has lacked any notion of or interest in a distinct Canadian voice. The common wisdom has gone from Canadian cultural distinctiveness to general denial that there is a Canadian culture at all; instead there is now “multiculturalism.” Atwood, too optimistically, saw the distinctive Canadian theme as survival. Yann Martel sees it as transience: Canada, he has famously commented, is a “hotel.”

Transience. Mon pays, c’est l’hiver, and what is winter but a general death? Not survival, but death.

The greatest Canadian heroes are often admired for having died before success: Louis Riel, Terry Fox. Isaac Brock, James Wolfe.

Apron strings with Britain cut, the new emphasis on multiculturalism looks like an attempt to recolonize. The smiling faces in traditional Asian costume that Sheila Copps’ Heritage Ministry produced for last year’s Asian Heritage Month are only too reminiscent of the old Boy’s Own Annual view of the British Empire: all the smiling happy natives dancing around the margins of the page.

Multiculturalism gives us the solace of believing that, if the source of all culture, of all received wisdom, is no longer London, it is at least not Canada. No; literally, it must be anywhere else but Canada. Whatever happens in Canada is peripheral, transient.

A nation built upon sand, however, cannot long endure.

Indeed, with a deep confidence that nothing here matters, Canada’s elite has been encouraged to be irresponsible, like adolescents running the house in the absence of parents: let’s hold a big party and invite everyone! Let’s say there are no more rules; everything is permissible!

I date this tendency from Trudeau; although himself always a federalist, against the backdrop of Quebec separatism, Canada was not something he was committed to at a visceral level. Not his motherland—that was always Quebec--but an intellectual toy. He was free to tinker, and he did. His Canadian Constitution, in the end, is the source of much of the present national electoral dysfunction: for the sake of getting the deal, all sorts of odd interest groups of the moment were appeased with constitutional guarantees. As a constitution, it is now extremely difficult to alter. This has mortgaged Canada’s posterity, as a constitutional entity, to the forces that had political influence at one moment in our history, 1982.

The recklessness has gotten worse since. Mulroney’s Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords thankfully did not pass; if they had, amending the constitution would have become almost impossible. But the failure of Meech and Charelottetown also chillingly displayed how close to impossible it is to amend the Canadian constitution already. And it was all, in Mulroney’s own famous words, a “roll of the dice.”

That’s quite a phrase to characterize a nation’s polity. But so it has become since. The recent judicial activism is perhaps merely the inevitable spread of the same attitude through the system: everyone feels free now to tinker and reinvent all systems to suit their opinions of the moment. Preston Manning’s ultimately pointless destruction of the Progressive Conservative Party, the party that founded Canada, can be seen as another example of the trend: no Canadian tradition is sacred. Indeed, if it is a Canadian tradition, it is profane.

We now have, to my mind, a rapidly deteriorating situation where fashionable ideas, like multiculturalism, gay marriage, raising children without spanking, intrinsic aboriginal land rights, rule by the judiciary, and so forth, are being too readily enshrined in law, in legal precedent and even, by court dictat, “read into” an almost unamendable constitution.

At least one of these rather experimental ideas is bound, by the law of averages, to turn out to be a national train wreck. No need to guess which one; I suspect more than one. It may look “cool,” if you are not in Canada to face the consequences when this hits, but this surely is a case where that Chinese curse rings true: “may you live in interesting times.” The horrible likelihood is that Canadians will be faced with a situation in which, after much suffering, there will be no legal, constitutional way to escape a very bad situation.

Yes, in theory there is that “notwithstanding clause.” Bless Alan Blakeney for it. But it applies only to parts of the constitution, not to all. And it will not help if what is needed is a constitutional amendment, not the limited suspension of some article. To, for example, curb the powers of a rogue judiciary. Or to satisfy the desires of Quebec.

In such a situation, because of the constitutional gridlock, it will become practically necessary to dissolve Canada to fix the problem. That is what we are now headed for, sooner or later. There will be no legal alternative.

If we are unlucky, this means a bloody revolution. But, thankfully, I cannot see that happening. Perhaps we are too sensible; perhaps it is just that nobody cares enough about Canada.

It might mean separation. Indeed, the strains of Canada have made separation a common thought for generations: separation of Quebec, separation of the West; the notion is so endemic to the Canadian suicide fantasy that Douglas Coupland, in City of Glass, basically a travel guide, predicts that even the Lower Mainland of BC will become an independent country quite naturally in the course of time.

This too is not a pleasant thought. Separations rarely happen without personal tragedy: families destroyed, careers destroyed, businesses destroyed, economies destroyed, and most often civil war.

But there is another obvious possibility. Indeed, it seems the most obvious and likely as well as obviously preferable. Annexation to the US.

Canada existed only as “British North America.” Having had time enough, it has managed to invent no plausible new identity; it has now retreated from the entire enterprise. Therefore, the captains and the kings having departed, its destiny as part of a united North America is, in a word, manifest.

Mulroney’s other grand scheme, Free Trade, happily makes this mechanically and legally easier to accomplish. The demand for it may gradually grow, and it may happen gradually, if we are lucky, as the constitutional problems of Canada become more obvious and—perhaps more important in practical terms, for most people-- grow to affect the economy. But even if Canada busts up suddenly and violently, the urge will be overwhelming on both sides of the border to have the Americans move in and prevent disaster.

There remains one great danger: the Americans may not want us.

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