• A Festival of Ideas
  • May 2 - 5, 2024
  • Guelph

To Be Canadian

Lately, I’ve been thinking about what it means to be Canadian.

I know that many others, some highly knowledgeable and fully engaged, ponder this topic too. But for most of us, absorbing what is going on in the world and determining how we should react to it can’t compete with daily concerns that seem much more urgent. Most of us leave it to our government to address national and international issues and our country’s response to them. We make our views known at election time—or at least 60.5% of us do; the lowest percentage since Confederation in 1867—and then we turn our attention to our jobs, our families, and other concerns that have an immediate effect on our lifestyles.

There are good reasons to think that Canada’s role in the world is an important and urgent issue that should get more of our attention. The globalization of disease, the continuing proliferation of nuclear weapons, and the internationalization of terrorist violence are increasingly apparent. But so are the globalization of communication, ideas—the spreading concept of human rights, for example—and economics. I believe we each have a personal responsibility, as citizens, to decide what Canada and Canadians can do in the world, and in what sort of global society we want to live. Our peaceful, prosperous corner of the world is not representative of how most of the world’s population lives.

As all societies become more global, we may not like the result unless we are able to do something to bring others closer to our own level of existence and opportunity in the meantime. My own quest, over the last few years, has involved reading—for example, Jennifer Welsh, of Lumsden Beach, Saskatchewan, and now Oxford University, has recently written an excellent book, At Home in the World: Canada’s Global Vision for the 21st Century—attending lectures and talking with people who have informed opinions. The more time I spend thinking of these things, the more urgent it seems that we deal effectively with some critical issues in the coming few years.

In the long term, our fate is interdependent with that of other parts of the planet. There are major problems that need to be addressed: environmental degradation, human poverty, defenceless people dying in wars that could be stopped, while thousands of young Arabs are inflamed against the West, to mention just some.

And yet, in my opinion, the big story of the last fifteen years is one of lost opportunity. Let me mention just two examples. The first occurred in 1989 but is easier to understand with some ancient history to provide context. In 120 AD the Roman emperor, Hadrian, launched what can only be called the largest public building program in human history. He had brought the empire to relative peace, and spent a “peace dividend”—money diverted from military spending—on structures, some of which still stand and still have never been surpassed in their aesthetic quality. In 1989 the West, (primarily the U.S.) had a similar peace dividend when the Cold War ended. But what do we have to show for it today? The answer, in the face of all the world’s and even the United States’ own crying needs, is U.S. military spending, spending that now exceeds the next dozen largest military spenders combined. The rest of the peace dividend in the U.S. has gone to a program of tax cuts, somewhere in the order of $200 billion per year, directed primarily to corporations and higher income individuals.

A second lost opportunity occurred after the attacks of September 11. An enormous outpouring of global support for the U.S. has been squandered. Instead of turning this support into a global effort to address world problems, the U.S. has adopted a unilateralist approach, undoing the previous order of international law, built up slowly and painfully over 60 or 70 years.

Nobel prize winning German author Gunter Grass has said, “the greatness of the United States is lost.” I think it is too soon to say this, but when will it be too late? Certainly if the U.S. stays on its present course—something we will know more about by the time you read this—then Grass is right. I think it’s sad that one administration can squander the legacy of the Marshall Plan, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower and Lyndon Johnson. This lack of the right kind of leadership by the US. makes it even more critical that the rest of the world, particularly, perhaps, the European Union, takes up the slack. There is an important role for Canada here too, if we are prepared to speak out, to encourage our elected representatives to do what is right, what is necessary, and what can be done—not what we are pressured to do.

Obviously, I have several ideas and a few strong opinions on what Canada should be doing in the world today. I am constantly meeting stimulating people who influence those views, and I do my best to keep flexible, inquiring and learning. I, and the other organizers of The Guelph Lecture—On Being Canadian, want to hear other views and ideas, and we invite our community to join in that experience and process. Guelph is fertile ground for ideas. The strong demand for tickets to The Guelph Lecture—On Being Canadian indicates that people are willing to take time, to join in this process. I hope we will have some small impact on Canada and the world.