2017: 150 years of national discussion
The time has come to re-open the constitutional debate. We have one party who advocates for a small and unimportant central government (The Walrus) while the progressive votes are split amongst four parties, one of which wants to break up the country. This cannot continue.
Canada is a large, diverse and sparsely populated country with unique challenges. Our lack of national unity paralyses us in the face of challenges ranging from the tar sands to asbestos (The Star and Globe and Mail) to healthcare costs. We have failed to formulate and execute a coherent foreign policy and we cannot step away from the shadow of our southern neighbours.
When Trudeau held the constitutional discussions in 1982, he would have expected the country to have grown up by now. Amongst other factors, the influx of oil and mineral wealth has slowed our transition from a resource based economy to one based on innovation, high value products and services. The new money has also slowed the evolution of our social values and development of our national narrative. Like a rich kid who inherits money, Canada avoides facing the music.
Since oil prices started rising eight years ago, we have stalled on social progress. Income equality is good (Gini), but slipping. Gender equality is not great – only 20% of MPs are women. Decriminalization of soft drugs has come to a standstill and few MPs have the courage to discuss the right to end your own life (except the voters). We are dodging the hard stuff.
Canada is a highly de-centralized country where most decisions that affect citizens’ lives, such as education, health, and infrastructure are controlled by the provincial governments. This is both our weakness and strength. The federal government has a role to play in enforcing education standards, healthcare access, and formulating foreign policy, but it is ultimately the provincial and municipal governments who execute. The Federal government is there to set a vision for the country and since Trudeau they have failed to do that.
Unsurprisingly, Canada still faces the same hazardous situation we did in 1867: national unity. As Twain mused, “History doesn’t repeat itself, it rhymes”. 1949 brought the Newfies in, 1984 allowed Quebec to table demands and 1995 nearly broke the country in two. This time around, cultural and social values are driving a wedge between oil rich Alberta and the rest of the country.
No matter what happens on May 2nd, the risks are high. A weakened conservative minority government will likely lead to a Liberal, NDP, Bloc party alliance to take power – Alberta will kick up a shit storm. Alberta is already demographically under represented in Parliament and if they see a power grab by central Canada, west coast hippies, and urban hipsters, they might just say ‘enough’. On the other hand, if the Conservatives were to win a majority, we could very well see Quebec sovereignty rise to the surface again as Quebecers proclaim their values too different from Canadians. There are no easy options.
Canada is a country of compromise that was built on French, English, and Native American heritage. Clearly, there are growing economic and social rivalries between the oil rich Alberta (and now Newfoundland), urban socially progressive people, a shrinking working class and more traditional rural communities. We are a country in constant discussion, our constitution is unfinished, numerous treaties are unsigned, and power is not equally distributed throughout. Yet we have never fought an internal war and have always solved our differences through dialogue. Now, more than ever, Canada must breed closer ties between its people.
Let’s start talking. A national exchange program for high school students to send them all over our large country would help. In fact, it should be mandatory for every single Canadian high school student to spend at least 1 year at another school in another province. This will lay a strong and durable foundation for the exchange of ideas and customs between our different cultures.
To cement this exchange, we should institute continuous travelling town halls and discussion groups to better understand the different challenges facing the country. The groups would be held in person and online, with ideas, comments and feedback being used to generate a popular basis for a reformed constitution that can be signed by all provinces.
2017 will mark the 150th anniversary of confederation and this would be the ideal time to take what have learned about each other and formalize a stronger and united Canada.
Published on April 30, 2011