As ever, Canada’s birthday celebration has inspired a bunch of articles and blogs on what it means to be Canadian, what we should be celebrating, and what we should be worried about. Having been brought to Canada by parents who chose her as their home, I do have the immigrant’s visceral love of Canada for giving my family extraordinary opportunity and the deep freedom to attach to the country without surrendering other, older attachments.
While we know that there are, inevitably, pockets of fear and hate, Canada’s profound pluralism protects us pretty well from the kind of fundamentalist certainty that has created such harm throughout history. In Canada, the endless quest for identity reflects at its best a mid-point between a relativism where anything goes and an absolutism that excludes and that inhibits development. To enjoy the freedom to pursue our own projects, our own versions of Canada, we have learned that there are certain prerequisites – democracy, human rights, the rule of law, responsibility for ourselves and for one another, peaceful resolution of our conflicts, collective management of the commons. What holds this diverse country together may be thin but it is powerful. It has always allowed us to transcend our doubts and differences to pursue common purpose. We have always been able to rise to the times – to build the social safety net, to join the equality revolution, to regain fiscal sovereignty. What about now?
This year, I read articles of incredible complacency, articles that wanted us to devolve powers to the provinces because we have now supposedly reached the “end of Canadian history”. We have “arrived”, the argument goes, and it is now our time, a time for private and local solutions. Just look, they exclaim, at our fiscal performance, our banks, our energy resources. Why, heck, even business productivity grew over the last two quarters as did its rate of growth. What more is there?
And, I read articles that wanted us to be more like the Swiss or this country or that. So instead of misplaced pride we have excessive humility.
I also read articles of crisis and doom, articles that worried that our openness to the world has brought moral decay, articles that longed nostalgically for the more certain and homogeneous past, a pastoral age that never was, and certainly never was for the majority. From both left and right, we see a new pessimism – or cynicism – about human agency and the possibility of progress.
But the Canadian path won’t be found in cynicism about the future or complacency about the present or nostalgia for the past – or even in emulating other countries, however admirable. It will be found right here, at home, in our political community, focused on the future, building on our strengths and with an honest accounting of our vulnerabilities.
Theodore Roosevelt once said that when a democracy stops being progressive it stops being a democracy – or something to that effect. Canada Day week is not a bad time to explore the starting principles for a Canadian progressive agenda:
1) Progress is neither assured nor impossible. It is not determined by biology or technology though neither can be ignored. It will not occur solely by virtue of the “natural” workings of the market. The progress that we have enjoyed has always depended on more than just good luck, though that’s awfully useful. It also depended in good measure on human agency and optimism about the future. We have benefited from the collective sacrifices of earlier generations and surely have an obligation to future generations. We have seen progress, inevitably imperfect, so we know it’s possible. We have seen the courage and sacrifices it required, so we know it’s hard. And we have seen failure and backsliding, so we know it’s not assured. We are not blind to nor are we overwhelmed by the constraints to human freedom and the frailties of human nature.
2) Progress requires that, to the extent possible, we free ourselves from the certainties of fundamentalist belief systems, open ourselves to evidence, and recognize that our choices are ultimately a combination of moral discourse and knowledge, neither of which is ever perfect or final. This is the mid-point between empty relativism and stultifying absolutism – a relentless focus on the future, an openness to the world, a commitment to knowledge and democratic discourse.
3) Diversity is not the problem; it is a large part of the solution, if we are wise. But, as recent events have shown, the prerequisites for deriving greatest advantage from our pluralism – rule of law, democracy, human rights – cannot be taken for granted and require a vigilant citizenry. Diversity is an extraordinary asset, more today than ever, so long as we continue to focus on what we all hold in common and not what divides us and so long as we recognize that its benefits are not automatic.. Similarly, we ought, in Canada, to recognize the renewal that each generation of immigrants brings with their aspirations for the future and profound sense of possibility but only if the Canadian promise is truly made accessible to them.
4) Each of us individually has a responsibility to make a difference, to waste less, to take care of our health, to respect the environment, to treat one another respectfully. The criminal justice system can only work if the majority of citizens are law-abiding the majority of the time. Well, it’s true of all of our systems – health, culture, the environment – that they will come apart at the seams unless those who can are acting responsibly. Whatever expectations we have of Canada, we might start with ourselves.
5) We have new and potentially powerful tools for acting cooperatively, for achieving together what we cannot achieve alone, and we need not wait for the leaders to show up or show us the way. Much can be achieved outside of government. Again there is nothing automatic about, say, the power of the internet. We read more and more about its negative effects and some worry that it is transforming us and not in entirely attractive ways. These worries are not without foundation though similar worries somehow reappear with every new technology. But we are seeing too its enormous potential to enhance our access to the world and broaden our collective engagement. Here government policies on copyright, intellectual property and broadband access matter.
6) Governments, our public and political institutions do matter and can play a powerful and positive role with an engaged and responsible citizenry. We will need government to rise to the occasion: to level the playing field, to reduce inequality and mitigate its impacts, to make sure that all citizens have access to opportunity but also to the essentials of human dignity and political engagement, and to manage on our behalf the social and environmental commons at home and globally. An important place to start will be the revitalization of our democratic institutions to include those voices not now heard and to turn Parliament, if not campaigns, into the forum for the great debates – at least from time to time. More on this soon.