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“Towards National Reconciliation,” Tom McQuiston, Toronto, ON

Towards National Reconciliation

As Canadians look forward in this new millennium, the complex challenge remains of achieving some degree of national harmony by reconciling the regional differences that threaten to keep us apart.To respond to this challenge we are called upon to demonstrate that sense of compromise that has stood us well in the past, and with the generosity of spirit that Canadians are capable of showing in times of crisis. This is the spirit that sends Canadian troops overseas to engage in peace-keeping missions, or to aid those who suffer in natural disasters. At home, this is the spirit that was demonstrated during the devastating floods in Winnipeg and in the Saguenay regions, and during the ice storm that in 1998 caused such prolonged hardship for people in Quebec. Regional and political differences were forgotten as money, clothing, furniture and offers of personal help poured into these stricken areas.

These demonstrations of concern nevertheless present something of a paradox. While some Canadians show great generosity of spirit there are others who harbour feelings of indifference, and even hostility, towards Quebec. Anti-Quebec attitudes are reflected in the notion that “Quebec gets everything”, and that there is no end to its constant demands for more powers. Such attitudes are not uncommon, and are particularly evident in the western provinces where bilingualism is seen as irrelevant, and where German, Ukrainian and Asian influences are more evident.

Regional differences that feed on anti-Quebec and anti-French attitudes deflect much of the creative energies required to move the country forward. What is called for in response to the malaise of regional conflict that colours our national discourse is a change of attitude and a renewed quality of citizenship; a citizenship informed of its responsibilities, with a clear understanding of its purposes and motivated to act in pursuit of its best goals. What this amounts to is social transformation on a challenging scale: and our responses to it will determine the very future of this country.

One of the obstacles standing in the way of this renewal is the strength of the individualistic outlook characteristic of our time. While some prosper, and many face unemployment in changing economic times, people are preoccupied with their own individual welfare. In such an atmosphere the common good has a low priority. Provinces seek to reduce deficits and debts, while the central government’s influence weakens over national programmes designed to further the welfare of all. Large international corporations wield such great economic influence that ordinary citizens feel powerless in determining their own social and economic destinies. In this environment individual survival takes on obsessive qualities.

Since the Second World War Canada has undergone two profound changes. The first involved massive immigration into the country, first from the United Kingdom and Europe and then from many regions of the non-Caucasian world. This resulted in a significant change in the country’s demographic composition, particularly of its major urban centres – Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. The second change came with the globalization of the Canadian economy, the effects of free trade, corporate downsizing and persistently high levels of unemployment.

It is nevertheless in this constantly changing context that we must face the necessity of introducing major changes in the way our democracy works, and to seek ways to improve the structures we use to govern ourselves. Governments at all levels are sensitive to the constitutional fatigue that followed the failure of Meech Lake and the Charlottetown Agreement and are reluctant to face up to the real challenges of constitutional reform. Only an aroused citizenship, informed of the nature of our political problems, can provide the pressure and create the will for governments to act. This is truly a time of testing for our democracy. We must bring all our imaginative and creative powers to the fore, and find ways to enable governments and people to act together.

The country we hope to keep together shares many qualities in common with other Western democracies. It also has qualities that set it apart as a unique society. Its government incorporates a federal system within a parliamentary democracy. It continues to be one of the most welcoming immigrant countries in the world and shows itself to be open to change. A pioneer country, its ancestors were responsible for exploring and opening up the North American continent, first under the French and then under the British. Its Aboriginal peoples, having suffered centuries of humiliation under paternalistic governments, have begun the process of seeking a just settlement of their land claims as a step towards their greater independence and dignity.

Canada is unique in combining its official bilingualism policy along with a policy of multiculturalism. Historically Canadians have accepted an active role of government in society which has resulted in the creation of a high standard of living that is enjoyed by most. Located geographically in touch with three oceans – the Atlantic to the east, the Pacific to the west and the Arctic to the North – Canada has traditionally been challenged to be outward looking. Its southern border is shared with its closest neighbour and ally, the United States of America. Canadians are proud of the positive role they have played in world affairs in the past and with their contribution to peacekeeping in many of the world’s trouble spots today.

Canada’s history has been marked by the constant need to reconcile two different European peoples, separated sometimes by religion, Roman Catholic and Protestant – and always by language, French and English. The fact that the two have somehow managed to remain together and prosper for over two centuries without serious dislocation speaks to a level of civility and tolerance not uncommon in Canadian public life.

In the years following the Second World War, a period marked by increasing prosperity and optimism, Canadians moved away from much of the bigotry and narrowness that had marked their earlier experiences. In spite of the Cold War, Canada experienced a long period of peace which allowed it to absorb a wider representation of immigrants from non-Causcasian areas of the world. Religious hostilities were set aside and an attitude of broader tolerance of differences emerged. As they developed one of the most generous welfare systems in the world Canadians came to think of themselves as a caring people with a genuine sense of the common good. Government was accepted as the rightful agent to further and protect the welfare of its citizens.

Following the prosperity of the sixties and seventies, however, the Canadian mood changed when the Middle East oil crisis initiated a time of retrenchment and economic hardship. Adjusting to the changed mood was not easy. Canada had undergone profound changes in the post-war years. Government debt increased enormously as a result of overextending government spending to sustain a generous welfare system. The predominantly British and European character of Canada changed as the focus of immigration policy moved to the Caribbean, the sub-continent of India and to Africa. Integration of these new immigrants took place with remarkable ease. In the meantime, the globalization of the economy brought with it massive downsizing, unemployment and economic depression. Canadians became more inward looking, and attitudes changed from liberalism to neo-conservatism.

New government and constitutional approaches are needed, particularly relating to the relationship between the federal and provincial levels of government. “Devolution of power” works to the advantage of those provinces that are rich. It also works to the advantage of the trans-national corporations who find smaller provincial or state governments more easily influenced than strong national governments. In Canada, the provinces that would suffer most by weakening the powers of the central government are the less prosperous ones in the Maritimes and the prairie provinces of Manitoba and Saskatchewan. If Canada wishes to continue its tradition of being a sharing nation, where the wealthy provinces contribute to the welfare of the poorer provinces, the central government must have the power and the financial resources needed to play that role.

We have to be clear about the meaning we attach to the expression “national unity” and have no illusions about it. To anticipate that thirty million Canadians will walk hand in hand in harmonious conformity is an unrealistic expectation. National unity has never been a characteristic of our country. Canadian history has been marked from the beginning by tension and conflict between national, religious, language, ethnic or racial groups. The best we can hope for is to rediscover and foster that faculty of compromise which has made it possible for us in the past to reconcile our conflicting interests sufficiently to allow us to continue living productively and in relative peace.

To create the “new democracy” will require engaging both the heart and the head. The emotion demonstrated at the Montreal rally in October, 1995, must find continued expression and be nourished by a clear understanding of the structures and processes that stand in the way of creating a harmonious Canada. A sound knowledge base is essential to the dialogue between government and citizens which is needed to fashion a new direction for the country.

In the process of reconciling its past differences, Canada has created what is internationally recognized as one of the most successful democracies in the world. In order to move forward and maintain this reputation, the specific nature of our present differences need to be identified and clearly articulated so that they can be widely understood. This is a prerequisite to the reasonable dialogue needed to produce a Canadian federation within which all Canadians, anglophone, francophone and Aboriginal, can continue to live in harmony. It presents a challenge that will call for all the imagination and commitment we can muster.

Tom McQuiston
Toronto, ON