Sunday, April 25, 2010

Identity and Politics

Over the radio this morning Michael Enright was reflecting on “The Champions,” an old NFB film about the era of Pierre Trudeau and René Lévesque (now, like other NFB films, available free online)—and lamenting that no one today measures up to the level of intelligence and passion they brought to the debating of the great issues of the day. Surely they were both great figures. But how much did the great issue that preoccupied them really matter? It is fifteen years since Quebec’s 1995 referendum, thirty since the 1980 one—and fifty years since the July 1960 election that brought the Lesage Liberals to power and ushered in the Quiet Revolution. The social and economic changes that have occurred in Quebec have been more dramatic than in the rest of Canada, simply because 1950s Quebec was so much more of a closed society. But the paths have been parallel (the degree to which 1950s English Canada was a closed and intolerant society is often forgotten). On those parallel paths Quebec and English Canada have grown modern economies and open societies. Gender equality and racial and religious tolerance (in the context of a secularized public sphere) have become accepted by virtually all; sexual orientation is to the large majority regarded as being in the same category. Providing a social safety net—Medicare, help for the poor, help for the unemployed, and so on—is considered by most to be a core principle. The value of the non-human environment—and the principle that its protection must sometimes trump narrow economic concerns—is accepted near universally. So too is the importance of reaching out to the world—and acting generously to those in need. Compared to the importance of such things as these, how much value inheres in the fact of our having remained one nation state rather than two?

Certainly I would say now that it is a lot less important than I once believed. And far, far less important than following through on the core principles that we* feel define us, but that a very great deal of the time we fail to live up to. In Quebec as in English Canada we like to believe that we are more compassionate towards the rest of the world than are the Americans, that we are more tolerant than Americans are, that we behave more responsibly towards the environment. But America is in fact considerably better in all these areas than Canadians like to believe, and Canada considerably worse. In all these areas our goodwill tends to come to the fore only in response to the visible. When the headlines are filled with images of the devastation in Haiti or in Banda Aceh, we are among the world’s most generous—yet on an ongoing basis we are among the least generous of developed nations in the assistance we give to the world’s poor. When the effects of pollution or global warming are plainly before us, our track record of doing something about such problems is a decent one—but we remain unperturbed if our electricity comes from heavily polluting coal-fired generators that remain out of view. We are rightly outraged if we are shown pictures of ducks suffering the effects of tailings from the tar sands—but we would prefer not to know that millions and millions of non-human animals confined in closed sheds are treated with horrific cruelty in order to provide human animals in Canada with meat and dairy products at rock bottom prices. If we can open our eyes to some of these great issues—and act to bring about change for the better—I for one will care little if we are one nation state or two. Or, indeed, new states in an America led by the likes of Barack Obama.

* I should own to being an unusual and in some ways a reluctant participant in this sort of national "we." I have lived most of my life in Canada, hold a Canadian passport, and very much feel myself to be Canadian. But I do not feel myself in any way to be exclusively Canadian. That is not merely (or mainly) a matter of my having been born in the United States, and being as a result an American as well as a Canadian. Or even, more broadly, of having lived in Britain and Zimbabwe as well as in the United States and in Canada; it's more a matter of having come increasingly to distrust nationalisms of all sorts.

1 comment:

  1. I too distrust nationalism, but having lived for the past 4 months in a US run by Barack Obama and having as a result paid more attention to details such as tea party racism 0r the kinds of compromises he has made on issues such as immigration (read the New York Times, for instance, on the increased immigration quotas and the consequences of the intersection between than and the war on drugs) I cannot say I would be happy to live in a new states run by the likes of Obama. The US is not worse in every way than Canada, its true, but as industrialized countries go, I believe it is about the worst overall. And by this I even mean worse that Alberta! Would that we were near enough to the likes of Australia, NZ or Scandinavia to form a new state with them.