Saturday, January 03, 2004

The Anti-State of the Canadian Nations(s) Part One

Following up on John’s remarks about Canadians, I would have to say that his observations about my compatriots are on the mark: Canadians are far more consumers than citizens. Moreover, as John also mentions, in this regard, Canadians are more like western Europeans than Americans. Though many Canadians might object, arguing from a strong patriotic sense of being Canadian, all one has to do is ask a Canadian what it means to be a proud Canuck to see the illusion behind contemporary Canadian patriotism. Canadians will instinctively reply that to be Canadian is to be more caring, more multilateral, more socially aware than Americans, usually invoking our rapidly decaying universal health care. In other words, Canadians define themselves both by a negation – we are not Americans – and by an abstraction – we are not nationalistic, but globally, internationally and socially minded.

But in this piece, I’d like to stick closer to political events on the ground in order to describe the Canadian situation. And I can think of no better way to start off than by referring to a statement made in Paris by Jean Chrétien shortly before he stepped down as Canada’s Prime Minister in early December 2003. During a state dinner hosted by Jacques Chirac, Chrétien gave a speech full of praise for the Franco-Canadian relationship, the clincher being that France-Canada relations have never been stronger than they are today. Now, given my rather intense contempt for the current French government, it isn’t hard to imagine that I find this a rather disconcerting prospect, made all the more so by the unstated premise of this claim: US-Canada relations have rarely been weaker than they are today.

Here’s where John’s point is most evident. Canada has made common cause with Jacques Chirac’s France, settling into the morally obtuse rhetoric of self-satisfied humanitarian do-gooderness. At this point we might want to mention that Canada-Cuba relations have also never been better. We Canadians like dictators. But more importantly, Canada, like France is foregoing citizenship for consumerism, while ungraciously claiming that Canada is a more caring society (not a polity mind you, but a society) than consumerist America. However, John is absolutely correct when he remarks that this trope is hogwash. Americans are far less consumerist, properly speaking, than Canadians or Europeans. Which leads one to wonder why the Canadians and Europeans persist in denying the facts? It appears that we prefer to profit both from the indignity we heap on consumerism (read private enterprise) while feeding at the trough of government sanctioned consumerism dressed up as “solidarity” and “the just society.”

Of course, this wasn’t always the case in Canada, nor in Europe. Europe, as I’ve noted in numerous other posts, has moved steadily from its nationalist past to its apolitical present. The justification for this move being the altogether incorrect assessment of the events of the twentieth century; such that the nation in its entirety is deemed responsible for the horrors of modern war. This is a ludicrous misreading of modern European history, but it is the one generally sold by the political, intellectual and journalistic elite on the continent.

In Canada’s case it is not the ravages of war that have moved us ever-closer to unbridled abasement before the idols of international tom-foolery, but our own particular domestic situation. The rise of Quebecois nationalism and separatism as potent political forces in the 1960’s posed a serious threat to Canadian unity. This threat consisted of a new intellectual class that fed off many of the anti-western ideologies popular at the time, producing a merger of ethnic nationalism and socialist utopianism, all directed against the horrid and unsupportable domination of English Canada. The response on the federal scene – apart from a raft of expensive programs designed to entice Quebec to remain in the Canadian confederation – was a move to abstract democratic sentiment that of necessity brought an end to English Canada’s integral association with the British Commonwealth. Certainly, Canada remains a part of the Commonwealth, but we do all we can to downplay the fact that the English tradition has dominated Canada since France’s defeat on the Plains of Abraham.

My point here isn’t really to criticize Quebec or its nationalist goals, but to point out that in order to meet this challenge Canada launched itself on the path to becoming the foremost anti-nation, a mutli-cultural hodgepodge that panders to the United Nations and ethnic interest groups in order to reaffirm our difference from our American neighbors. The result is that Canadians have no real national associations, only the façade of national unity bolstered by misconceptions and a growing political philistinism that makes us unable to distinguish our friends from our enemies.

At this point, I don’t want to go too much into the provincial and regional forces at work here, only to note that the Canadian confederation is something of a sham. It operates only by sustaining the small-minded illusions foisted on Canadians by its federal government, while avoiding anything like a real sense of national affiliation or citizenship. We are Canadian by our enforced refusal to give substance to being Canadian, coupled with our ridiculous efforts to deny the historical circumstances that provided us with respectable points of difference from the United States. The cruel irony is that as Canadians discard the real and constructive contrasts that once existed between Canada and the United States, we become all the more desperate in our attempts to manufacture destructive differences.

To some extent, this strategy has worked. In 2003, Quebec elected a federalist Liberal government, one set to co-operate more with the other provinces, but one that also has suggested greater provincial powers. It may be that the federalists in Quebec do more to lessen Ottawa’s centralized power than any separatists in Quebec City ever could. Ontario also saw a change of government in 2003, with the Liberals taking over from the Progressive Conservatives. Aside from economic matters, it’s a good bet that the new Liberal government will go further down the road of multi-cultural abandon, leading Ontario ever-further into the black hole of dull apolitical life it seems determined to stake out for itself.

But perhaps the greatest change in 2003 was the ascension of Paul Martin to the throne of the Liberal Party, which in Canada means automatically becoming Prime Minister. Now, the question regarding Paul Martin is, will he present any sort of fundamental change to his predecessor, Monsieur Chrétien? Mr. Martin has forcefully made the case that real change is on the way. With a coterie of advisors in tow, Martin promises that he will meet the new challenges rising in the world today. At this point, I should point out that M. Chirac made the same claims in France in 2002. Those familiar with my recent posts dealing with French critics of the Chirac government, will be aware that I find little merit in the claims of the French government to have properly assessed the forces at work in the world today, let alone to having delivered constructive change for the French nation.

In any case, I’d like to look at three issues that might be considered bellwethers by which to judge Mr. Martin’s commitment to change. The first is relations with the United States. Paul Martin and his supporters generally are less insulting to the US than were the Chrétien gang. Mr. Martin seems to have a better appreciation for the role the US plays in the world, and seems more willing to work with whatever administration occupies the White House. He has even suggested that Canada may act without UN approval in certain situations. This is a significant departure from the rhetoric displayed by many Canadians during the war in Iraq. Of course, Canadians, like most Europeans, conveniently forgot that Canada and Europe acted without UN sanction in Kosovo – better not to mention that lest we burst another one of those hallowed Canadian bubbles.

A second area of importance for Mr. Martin is procedural reform in the House of Commons. It was often claimed, and more or less documented, that during M. Chrétien’s tenure, all power in Canada rested in the Prime Minister’s Office. Here again we might note that even when the Republicans control the House of Representatives and the Senate, George W. Bush does not enjoy the free hand that a Canadian Prime Minister does when his party holds a simply majority of the seats in the singular House of Commons. What matters for our purposes though is that Paul Martin has declared that he will make the House of Commons more democratic, giving more power to Parliamentary Committees and allowing more free votes by members (among developed nations using the Westminster system, Canada has the most restrictive limits on the independence of its voting members). Whether these changes will come about, and whether or not they’ll be mere window-dressing, as the leader of the Official Opposition has claimed, remain to be seen. But, what is likely not on Mr. Martin’s agenda is reform of Canada’s other chamber – the Senate. Canada’s Senate is an appointed body, chosen solely by the Prime Minister without consultation of the province the Senator will represent. This is a particularly odd fact when one considers that the Senate is supposedly the body that represents Canada’s regional interests while the House of Commons is elected according to population (though even here there is some significant imbalance as seven of Canada’s ten provinces are vastly over-represented, while the three richest – Ontario, British Columbia and Alberta – must adhere to a strict formula that tags their representation strictly to their population figures.

And this leads me to the issue that Paul Martin himself has set up as the defining issue of his own term as Prime Minister: western alienation. And for that topic, check out my next post on Monday.

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