|Which Canada are we supposed to commemorate?
(July 1, 2017)
“He who controls the past controls the future; he who controls the present controls the past.”
George Orwell, 1984
A country’s history is the living inheritance of all its citizens; unfortunately, they have little say in how governments “spend” their inheritance. The elected “trustees” determine the direction that a country takes and so become part of history, which means that they have the power to edit and co-opt the past to promote their present political and popular legitimacy.
In nominally democratic states like Canada, such co-optation is especially evident at a milestone, a time when a government stands atop the historical pyramid to bask shamelessly in the achievements and reputations of those who came before. Justin Trudeau, our current prime minister—or is that “photo-op minister”—is the very definition of such shamelessness: a callow, image-obsessed dilettante who brings no qualities to public office and equates schmoozing with governing.
Marking 150 years of nationhood should be a time for national unity, political optimism and satisfied reflections on the past, yet none of these applies. A political, moral, social and economic chasm divides the Canada of 1967 from the Canada of 2017. The only obvious similarity is that Trudeau is the son of the 1968 prime minister. To imply any sort of cultural or political continuity over these last 50 years amounts to spreading disinformation.
Unlike most Canadians, I can remember a Canada before “terrorism,” before neo-conservatism, before NAFTA, before MTV, before the Internet—when politics determined economic policy, not the other way around. I grew up self-consciously Canadian because I knew that my country was the sort of rational, humane democracy that Americans could only dream of.
Unlike the U.S., Canada does not worship the three toxins of God, guns and greed. This is a generally tolerant, peaceable, secular country where government was expected to participate in the economy, not be an impotent bystander. Our mixed public/private economy mitigated the inhuman cost of unenlightened self-interest, especially regarding medical care. In other words, the Canada where I grew up was a place where political debate was possible, regulation of foreign investment was defensible, and public spending was ethical. It may sound odd, but I grew up accepting the permanence of the idea of Canada. This was true even during the 1970s and early ’80s, when Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s pandering to Quebec and his grand obsession with national unity alienated much of Western Canada. We were a querulous nation, but a nation, nevertheless.
In foreign/military policy, Canada may have clung too much to the security blanket of UN peacekeeping, but its reputation as a humanitarian nation and an upholder of international law was never in doubt except where Israel was concerned. This Canada would never deliberately attack another country or engage in provocative action.
Now, jump to Canada 2017: a politician, professor or citizen who challenges the canonical dogma of privatization, free trade, lower corporate taxes or industry deregulation can expect to be marginalized or denigrated as a “socialist” or “communist.” To seek alternatives to U.S./Israeli provocations in the Middle East is to be denounced as a terrorism supporter or an apologist for Vladimir Putin. Every sphere of public life is now so controlled by an anti-intellectual clergy of economic and militaristic high priests that informed dissent on fundamental issues is treated as heresy and the “malefactors” in question can expect to be punished. Rational political discourse, the essence of democratic society, has given way to cognitive dissonance. Democratic 1968 Canada has mutated into quasi-fascist 2017 Canada.
Lest readers recoil at the last statement, thinking I have overstated my disaffection for the ruling classes, I invite them to consider the record of the previous régime, including Stephen Harper’s unconcealed zeal to destroy Canada as a functioning political state and sell off its assets piece by piece. Because of Harper, Canada now supports torture, military aggression, corporate welfare (moreso), active impoverishment of the citizenry and repression of civil liberties.
It’s a sure bet that Trudeau will invoke the images and feelings of Canada’s past and gloss over inconvenient details of his current régime, such as the Trans Pacific Partnership, arms sales to the butchers of Yemen (Saudi Arabia), participating in U.S./Israeli/NATO anti-Russian provocations, and selling out the people of B.C. for the Kinder Morgan Pipeline. The last decade and a half doesn’t offer much to celebrate, does it Harper Jr.?
It’s difficult to convey historical attitudes, feelings or national spirit in words, so let’s use an empirical example. The following three graphs will give some indication of how much worse off economically Canadians are today than they were at the dawn of the neo-fascist era.
The graph in the top left shows that Canada’s Gross National Product increased more than six times from 1981 to the first quarter of 2017. Over that same period the core consumer price index (top right) doubled. These are both positive economic indicators, and one might glean from them that Canadians enjoyed increasing prosperity. This would be a mistake and in the lower graph we see why. The corporate tax rate was nearly halved during this time, the implication of which should be obvious. As citizens were forced to pay a greater percentage of the tax burden, their disposable income fell as well as their ability to save. Essentially, people are subsidizing overpaid CEOs and foreign corporations, which now coerce governments into betraying the public good in the name of “free trade.”
Canadians are worse off today than they were 50 years ago. I cannot “celebrate” the 150th birthday of Canada because I cannot pretend that appearance is reality. The legacy of optimism, and gaiety that attended the 1967 centennial celebrations (Expo’67) has been squandered. Canada might still exist on a map, but the idea of Canada is gone and must be rediscovered. We must look backwards, not forwards.