The People We Are
By Andrew Cohen
McClelland & Stewart,
270 pages, $29.99

As the title suggests, journalist turned academic Andrew Cohen sees Canadians as “unfinished,” a species whose insularity and self-satisfaction have prevented us from achieving our full national potential.

So that we can “become a more confident, more accomplished people,” he offers a plan. To become “future Canadians,” we need to rediscover our past by establishing national standards for teaching history and celebrating historic occasions. A more “mature” relationship with the United States, in which we would no longer fear absorption but harness our mutual interests to our mutual benefit is also prescribed. Our sense of civic-mindedness and creed could be strengthened by placing a higher value on citizenship: making it harder to come by, setting more rigorous standards for its attainment and doing more to integrate new Canadians into our host culture.

Some of Cohen’s medicine would be easy for Canadians to swallow and relatively simple for inspired governments to implement: Honour past and present achievement and achievers; create a culture (and presumably a tax regime) that encourages charity; restore historic buildings, monuments and sites.

Others might be greeted with more controversy and cultural resistance: Become more accepting of both the foibles and importance of our politicians; call on all taxpayers to invest in the national capital region; launch a 21st-century project of national enterprise to spark the collective imagination, as did the building of the railway.

If guiding us to be a better people and a more enriched nation was Cohen’s sole purpose – and if he were prepared to take the time and space to catalogue how we might reach this destination – this would be a laudable and worthy journey. For example, instituting a national historical curriculum would be a worthwhile and appealing initiative, though education is squarely in provincial jurisdiction.

In the same way, the evidence of increasing isolation from the mainstream among Canada’s foreign-born is alarming, and any bold, new thoughts on how to reverse this trend would certainly get my attention.

Sadly, though, Cohen has chosen not to turn his keen mind to these challenges; indeed, re-imagining “the future Canadian,” and offering how we might get there, warrants a scant 19 pages. He dedicates the vast majority of his analysis to tilting at the windmills of Canadian myths and lecturing us about “the people we are.”

There is a general consensus that Canada has a productivity gap. Yet the issue refuses to capture the public’s imagination or to take a higher priority on the nation’s political agenda. Claims that the sky is falling run contrary to public confidence that the economy is buoyant and resilient. At the same time, there is a widespread view that while prosperity is abundant, it is shared unequally and that in the face of unprecedented growth, the same advocates of productivity stand idly by and allow our social safety net – our health care, education and quality of life in our cities – to unravel.

For most people, increasing productivity involves little more than working harder or personal sacrifice. The perceived beneficiary to increased productivity is business, and therefore it hardly seems like a fair bargain or worthy of pursuit. Even those in government who might recognize that dealing with productivity is good policy are loath to advance the topic with any vigour.

I have moderated Microsoft Canada’s CAN>WIN conference on this topic four times since 2001 and watched some of Canada’s and the world’s brightest minds work their way through this dilemma. The consensus solutions to Canada’s prosperity problem are at once simple and deceptively complex.

Even Albertans and Quebeckers are showing a profound commitment to the nation, say politicos Peter Donolo and Allan Gregg

From the Manitoba schools question in the 1890s to the 1995 Quebec referendum, Canada’s peaceable history has been punctuated by regional conflicts that threatened to tear the country apart. Such tensions are evident to this day and often dominate the national agenda. Whether it is Newfoundland’s Premier, Danny Williams, banishing the Canadian flag to protest Ottawa’s “betrayal” over offshore resources or Alberta Premier Ralph Klein telling the rest of Canada to “keep your hands off” his province’s oil, regional grievances have come to be accepted as a permanent part of the Canadian condition.

It’s high time Canadians see past the clichés and recognize that when these grievances surface, they are often a function of self-serving sabre-rattling rather than a lack of commitment to the nation; a misconstrued stereotype rather than any deep animosity by citizens in one region toward those in another.

A good example is the most recent survey we conducted for The Globe and Mail and CTV, released last week. It reveals a reality — particularly regarding Alberta and Quebec — that is much more nuanced than the rhetoric we often hear from politicians and political commentators. The results show a level of commitment to Canada by those provinces that belies the long-held view of Quebec and Alberta as the “crybabies” of Confederation.

Out of the otherwise horrific news reports of the Indian Ocean tsunamis disaster, perhaps the most optimistic news was found in the headlines of Wednesday’s Globe and Mail. Above the fold, in XX point type, Canada’s national newspaper declared that “Donors Swamp Charities”. Within the body of the story, readers were told of the “phenomenal response” of Canadians. Rarest of all, a spokesman for Medicins sans frontieres declared the amount of money they had received had exceeded their ability to deploy it.

There is no question that the shear magnitude of the catastrophe – upwards of 150,000 lives lost, untold devastation of once arable land and an escalating risk of disease and water shortages – at least in part, accounts for this outpouring of generosity. But this “phenomenal response” goes beyond the disaster itself and reflects the times — and the place — where we live.

At bottom, the public’s engagement with this event and their empathy with the victims can be explained by the nature of media today. In 1976, even more lives were lost in an earth quake in China. But this was before 24 hours news television, digital cameras or the Internet. Accordingly, the ramifications of this calamity were largely out-of-sight and unknown. Today, we are inundated with real time accounts of virtually every grisly detail that occurs, as they unfold.

When Sheila Fraser, the Auditor General, speaks, the media pays attention.

Her reports and quotable press conferences feed the maw of newspaper headlines and form the top items of our national news.

And the electorate listens, often responding with outrage at her tales of excess, misspending and hints of malfeasance in the highest reaches of the Federal Government.

Her moral authority flows from the independence of her office and the inherent credibility of her profession; the foundation of which is based on accuracy and objectivity. What she investigates, what she reports and what she says has a major and direct impact on the public interest and the way we view our relationship to government, the civil service and elected leaders.

Recently, on the weekly “At Issue” panel on CBC News, I voiced a (highly unpopular and politically incorrect) concern that the audit process was running amok and Sheila Fraser was behaving more like the Leader of the Official Opposition than the accountant that she is. In short – and in my defense, I made this statement this not be inflammatory or to be pilloried by my fellow panelists but out of a life long and abiding concern about the public interest and the citizen’s deteriorating relationship with government – I felt that the matters she chose to investigate, and the moral tone of her reports and remarks, were undermining the important role her office is supposed to perform and ultimately, the public interest for which she is entrusted.

It’s been said that nothing focuses the mind more than the sight of the gallows.

Peter MacKay and Stephen Harper had seen the same polls as Paul Martin. And while the projected results produced Liberal visions of an unprecedented landslide, the PC and Alliance Leaders looked into an abyss – and the abyss looked back.

The prospect of annihilation – of the PCs being reduced to an Atlantic, rural rump and the Alliance a Western, rural rump – more than anything else pushed aside all the past concerns that stood in the way of a unification of the right. At bottom, the merger of the PC and the Canadian was a triumph of survival over the divisions that caused the parties to separate and that kept them apart for the last 16 years.

But let us not be over cynical about what has been accomplished – and at what cost.

By their own account, the life of a Canadian University Undergraduate is a pretty satisfying one.

Regardless of educational institution attended, students from across the country report that they are at least “somewhat” satisfied with their overall educational experience; they are giving passing grades to their professors and are reasonably confident that their lessons will eventually prepare them for the workforce.

That however is the view of University life from 35,000 feet.

When analyzing the full breadth of the over 24,000 responses we received to the Second installment of the University Report Card, you cannot but be struck at how dramatically different the student experience is from one school to the next.

When the Strategic Counsel joined forces with UThink to use the Studentawards database to undertake the most comprehensive review ever conducted of Canadian University student’s attitudes to their educational experience, we assumed that we would find some significant differences (why, after all, set out to rank Universities, if this was not the starting premise?). Our assumption was that we would uncover great Universities, middling ones and some that failed to meet their constituent’s needs. In other words, we expected that the top-tiered Universities would be appreciated as such because they were beacons of excellence while the lower ranked Universities would do everything less well.

In some measure, this proved true. Students across the country rate their Universities in very different ways and are able to articulate their University experience in very precise ways.

But what was even more telling was that each of the 29 student body’s we interviewed had highly divergent and distinctive assessments of the school experience and as a result, every University in Canada appears to have their own divergent and distinctive personality.

For many who knew Dalton Camp only in passing, he was something of an enigma. As the slayer of “the Old Man”, John Diefenback, he was a backroom boy, who developed a public profile in the 1960s that was more defined that most of the politicians he worked for. He was a columnists and commentator for three decades whose byline was invariably accompanied by his past affiliation with the Progressive Conservatives, yet he railed against the interests of Corporate Canada, greed and injustice with an uncompromising passion and consistency that created “secret fans” out of the likes of Jean Chretien and former NDP Leader, Stephen Lewis.

His personal personae was every bit as confounding.

Based on my own first encounter of him, he struck me as a bitter, negative, self-possessed man who had been trapped in time. The next time I saw him he was speaking at a private dinner celebrating his 60th Birthday. There, I experienced what to this day was, for me, the most erudite, well-reasoned and inspirational exhibition of public intellectualism I had ever witnessed. His command of language, cadence and pacing and boldness of thought, literally took my breath away.

Bewildered, and in need of some reconciliation between the myth and the man I had just met, I sought the counsel of a much more seasoned and Camp-familiar colleague. He explained my conundrum with (what at the time were), two incomprehensible words …”maiestas desidero”. He went on to point out that while Dalton was a true giant of considerable accomplishment and talent, he was also extremely bitter and harboured deep personal resentments over his failures, the most lasting of which was never becoming Prime Minister of Canada. I learned afterwards that his description of Camp (loosely translated) was “greatness missed”.