You may remember that a couple of the earliest posts on this site referred to an article I was asked to write by the Irish Times. Well, that article is in today’s Irish Times and also online here. It’s the first time I have been published in what I would consider to be a mass-selling newspaper or a paper “of record”. Given that it is now two-and-a-half months since submission, I am pleasantly surprised that this article saw light of day. They even used a snazzy photo of downtown Montreal taken from what I think is the south-facing slope of the mountain. Enjoy!
A CTV news segment this evening focused on ‘The Royal Wedding’. “How to get those extra style points on the perfect hat,” said the newsreader before the report. The previous item on the news was an exclusive interview with Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff, two weeks before a federal election. The wedding segment was longer than the interview.
Wake up Canada. You have been doing this for over 150 years now. You are more important and more intelligent than this.
Let’s go back to mid-1800s. If you ask Canadians today how Ottawa became the national capital, they would likely say that Queen Victoria chose it. The fact that she did not seems to be irrelevant. There is a part of Canadians — an otherwise largely bright and creative bunch — that is happily wrapped up in these falsehoods. In reality, Ottawa had been chosen as capital as much as a decade before Confederation. Montreal, Quebec, Kingston and Toronto were either too Protestant, too Catholic, too geographically peripheral or too fractious, respectively. Ottawa, on the cusp of anglo- and francophone Canada, seemed a good compromise. Macdonald and Cartier had settled on it and, after some domestic political dancing in the early 1860s, advised Queen Victoria to pick Ottawa in what was essentially a rigged competition. For advised, read instructed.
But Canadian history prefers the benign, servile version. Artificial nations — and by that I mean nations that are not formed out of a long-standing resident ethnicity in the area but rather by people (or rather peoples) from all over the place — seem to need a creation myth in order to justify their own existence. Rome had Aeneas. Much of the population of Israel believes itself to be God’s chosen people. The Tea Party, among other groups, in the United States is trying to accentuate the creation myth that that country was founded as a Judeo-Christian refuge or utopia. Canada’s creation myth, with the emphasis on mythical here, is a Royal one. But it needn’t be. As is often the case, the truth — the story of a democracy defining itself upon a series of compromises — is far more interesting.
And of course the wedding of William and Kate Middleton is being pre-packaged as a “fairy tale”. They really do love each other, we are constantly being told. This is stated over and over in order to banish the monarchists’ great fear: another Royal wedding where the words ‘love’ and ‘respect’ for the bride seem to be an afterthought on the part of the Prince. Actually no, Charles didn’t seem to give any thought at all to those supposed prerequisities for marriage.
I hope that the upcoming wedding is indeed based on love and respect, but that would make it the exception rather than the rule. The Royal/Windsor family detests marriage in any loving sense of the word. Remember that it was the reigning monarch, Elizabeth II — a woman to whom even convinced republicans seem determined to fawn over — who forced her younger sister to give up the man she loved because he happened to be divorced, even though he was a war hero. “Mindful of the Church’s teaching that Christian marriage is indissoluble, and conscious of my duty to the Commonwealth, I have resolved to put these considerations before any others,” she stated. If you believe the following statement that she “reached this decision entirely alone,” you will believe anything. In fact, it’s a contradiction of the preceeding statement because, as she says, she reached the decision via religious edict.
And so Canada, beautiful Canada, you can do better than this. You can start by amending the story of the birth of your nation and its capital as a story of democracy, intelligence, leadership and compromise, or you can stick with servitude and the colonial mindset. Then you can arrange your newscasts in a way that gives more airtime to exclusive interviews with potential prime ministers and not to segments about hats. Aptly, the subject of Ignatieff’s interview was the potential of him and his party to compromise with others. It could have been fifteen decades ago and a discussion about potential capital cities. Alas, the story of the next couple of weeks will probably be the wedding, much like the myth-history of a Royal choice of capital.
For some reason, Canada is embarrassed by its democratic process. Canada can do better.
“No, you’re it!”
I’m certain you remember playing tag or chasing back in the day, though these days I’m sure they have tag on Xbox. Adults can play too; you only have to see the accusations between Harper and Ignatieff that one and the other are “un-Canadian”. Conservative blogger ‘BC Blue’ gives the standard party line that Ignatieff ”lived the previous 34 years out of Canada before coming back just to be Prime Minister,” with the Liberal leader seen by many as some sort of Anglo-American rather than a pure Canadian. (And these slurs are often made by the same people who berate pure laine québécois for being ethnocentric and small-minded . . . pot, meet kettle).
A few days ago, Ignatieff himself accused the Harper/Conservative team of being “un-Canadian” following the removal of a woman from a Conservative rally in London, Ontario because she was found to have ‘liked’ the Liberal Party on Facebook.
All of this has triggered some thoughts and questions for me. Firstly, if I am an Irishman living in Canada, am I less Irish than if I spent these months and years in Ireland? This had never occured to me before. I don’t believe so, but perhaps in the eyes of others I have become less Irish. I find that kind of spooky. In case the insinuation here was not obvious enough, I don’t believe that Mr Ignatieff is any less or any more Canadian for having lived about half his life abroad.
Secondly, and slightly off topic, the whole issue has made me a realise a certain paradox going on south of the border. More conspicuous than charges of un-Canadianness (or maybe it’s because they say it louder), slurs of so-and-so being “un-American” are made so often it hurts, usually, but not always, spoken or written by those on the right against big government-progressive-liberal-commie-nazis, or whatever label they wish to throw up. The United States, land of the first amendment and Tom Paine. If someone says something “un-American”, this is by definition a contradiction in terms. In fact — and here’s your paradox — the only un-American thing that one can do is to accuse another of being un-American! It’s millions of Oedipuses all running amok with loudspeakers.
Moving back up North now, and Ignatieff would do well not to engage in charges of Harper, the Conservatives or anyone else being un-Canadian. It cheapens debate and brings him down to their level. It’s not un-Canadian, it’s just uncool.
May Day came a month or so early this year. Or maybe that should be May Week. After last week’s inter-party tweet wars between Harper and Ignatieff simmered down with the release of the Liberal platform and a welcome return to focusing on policy, the question of Green Party leader Elizabeth May’s participation in the leaders’ debates remains open. As it stands, she will not be invited to the debates on April 12 and 14 after television networks told her to do one as her party has no representation in Parliament.
On Friday’s CBC news, Peter Mansbridge asked Chantal Hébert and Maclean’s columnist Andrew Coyne what they think of all this (the issue is raised 8 minutes into that clip). With a degree of trepidation in her voice, Hébert said she agreed that May should not be invited, mainly because of her performances in 2008 which “did not highlight the Green Party and turned it into more of a gang of four against one,” but also because the party has “become a machine to elect Elizabeth May” and the criteria for invitation must include Parliamentary representation. Coyne was more sympathetic, noting that the Greens consistently poll somewhere in the 7-10% range and May should be present on that basis.
Perhaps he did not mean to do it, but for this non-Canadian observer Coyne and Hébert had just summoned a rather giant elephant about the size of Canada itself into the room. The House of Commons of Canada has 308 members and the Green Party attracts about one vote out of every 12 cast in recent federal elections, yet the party does not have a single seat. Hébert is probably right in saying that representation in the legislature should come before participation on the debate and Coyne was probably justified in floating the commonly-held belief among voters that the Greens are not just another fringe party. They were both right, yet they disagreed.
And so the elephant sat there in silence, present but never spoken of. Any electoral system in which a party with 7-10% of votes cannot get a single seat in a 308-seat legislature must be seen as deeply flawed. It is only natural that with support spread a mile wide and an inch deep — the exact opposite of the Bloc, as I discussed before — the Green Party is focusing on a small number of ridings where it feels it can achieve success. With May herself going up against Defence Minister and former PC leader Peter MacKay in Nova Scotia, however, it looks like the Greens will draw another blank in terms of electoral success. They will then point to their popular vote of around one million and see it as a moral victory, but there is a limit to how many times moral victories can be seen as an adequete substitute for real success.
But what is “success” for the Greens? The long-term goal must be for the party to draw up or influence policy. In the medium-term, it must be to have a number of MPs in Ottawa, beginning with at least one in this election if possible, so as they can hold government to account and use its weight of seats to influence budgets. In the short-term, the goal must be to push for a change in the electoral system away from First-past-the-post. Without a change in how elections are done, the medium- and long-term goals are just dreams.