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Canada - A virtual country

The project / Canada in 2020 is a joint project by the Star, LaPresse, the CBC and the Dominion Institute aimed at highlighting what Canadians think will be the single most important issue facing Canada in the year 2020. From July until November, the Star and LaPresse will publish a series of essays by 20 leading Canadian commentators on the issue or event they believe could transform Canada by 2020. The CBC will broadcast interviews with the authors and documentaries about their ideas. Canadians can add their voices to the debate through thestar.com/2020 or the project's website, twenty-twenty.ca. There, they can also enter an essay contest conducted by the Dominion Institute on what issue or event could have the greatest impact on Canada by the year 2020.

A VIRTUAL COUNTRY

On the 153rd anniversary of Confederation, Canada goes through the motions yet again. On Parliament Hill, the bells toll mournfully and the Maple Leaf hangs listlessly. Soldiers fire a 21-gun salute and Snowbirds fly overhead. Under sweltering skies, the prime minister still insists that Canada is "a young country," as he and his untutored predecessors have done since it really was a young country.

Thousands gather on the grass. They hear breathless politicians declare that Canada is the best country in the world, a boast once thought terribly un-Canadian, but lately as predictable as the national time signal. In the shadow of the Peace Tower, they watch entertainers of every ethnicity, reflecting this extraordinarily diverse society. The show is as inclusive as Canada itself. Everyone must be represented — there was a minor scandal last year when Karen dancers from Burma were overlooked in the festivities — because peoples from around the globe are reserving rooms in Hotel Canada. All want a role in this spectacle, as if to confirm their arrival.

Troupe after troupe of new Canadians in traditional national costume march across the stage. Recalling national birthdays long past, there are some high-stepping Ukrainians, fiddlers from Quebec and throat singers from Nunavut. But these are passé today. Now, the headliners are drummers from Senegal and acrobats from Brunei. After a half-generation of open immigration, Canada is home to millions who have fled the drought and desertification that have turned parts of Africa and Asia into a netherworld and made the environment humanity's ruin. The land that God gave to Cain and Voltaire called "a few acres of snow" now looks like Shangri-La in a beleaguered world. No wonder Canada's birthday party goes on for three days, as if it were a Hindu wedding.

This is the new complexion of Canada: black, tan and yellow. Canadians are proud to call themselves the most moderate of people. Tolerance has become their vocation, a kind of raison d'ętre, and that seems to be the breadth of their ambition. In a fragmenting world spawning new countries as casually as Arctic glaciers crack and calve, they are happy to have survived as a nation for a century and a half — even if they're not sure what that means any more.

No, this isn't your father's Canada. Nor is it the Canada of Sir John A. Macdonald, Mackenzie King, John Diefenbaker, Lester Pearson, Pierre Berton, Margaret Atwood, Michael Bliss, Douglas Coupland or Avril Lavigne. They would not recognize it, and few in this new country would recognize them. The nation roams around under a cloud of amnesia, as if nothing happened before yesterday. This summer holiday — what do they call it? This capital — what does it represent? This Parliament — what does it do? July 1 was once Canada Day (in prehistoric times, it was Dominion Day) and this was a national celebration. Ottawa was a national capital and Parliament was a national legislature.

There is no "national" any more because there is no nation, at least not as we knew it. In 2020, Canada is a country in little more than name. It has taken the 19th-century idea of the nation-state and turned it on its head. Canada is now a collection of many nations (its ethnic minorities) who know only their own past, and many states (its provinces) that know only their own interests. For many who have come here, Canada is a country of convenience. It offers security and anonymity and asks for conformity and equanimity. People take rooms in this grand hotel, as the novelist Yann Martel once put it, with little knowledge of — or attachment to — the place itself. In a rootless world of shifting loyalty and no fixed address, Canada is just another comfort station on the road to somewhere else.

The federal government is an antique notion in the era of sub-governments and supra-governments. Canada's provinces have turned into princely states like those of British India, governed by pashas who have the powers of minor monarchs. Within these kingdoms are city-states. "National," an anachronistic term, now competes with "provincial" and "municipal" at home and "international" abroad.

So, Canada Day is now called People's Day, a celebration of our great mingling of races from the corners of the Earth. The Parliament of Canada is no longer a supreme body of lawmakers but a jumped-up town council of superannuated time-servers taking up space in that grand Gothic pile on the Ottawa River. The House of Commons has had little to do since the federal government transferred its remaining powers to the provinces some 10 years ago. No wonder Ottawa is only a symbol these days. It is overshadowed by the real centres of power in post-confederation Canada — Vancouver, Edmonton, Toronto and Montreal, which drew the country's best minds from Ottawa, as Pierre Elliott Trudeau had warned long ago. In happier times, a travel writer compared Ottawa to Cetinje, the capital of Montenegro up to 1918. Now, with cruel irony, it is Cetinje that has reclaimed its imperial glory as the seat of a renewed Montenegro, while Ottawa has become a backwater in a diminished Canada.

What we have here is a virtual country. In the 500-nation universe, Canada is an area code and an email address. Yes, it is still fantastically rich, awash in petrodollars, endowed with mountains, forests, minerals and unfathomable space between three great oceans. Its biggest export is water and it is more expensive than oil. But today, 153 years after it was created, a visitor from the past might wonder what the country is celebrating. After all, what is Canada, anyway?


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In the 500-nation universe, Canada is an area code and an email address
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Physically, it may be hard to tell the difference between the country in 2006 and 2020. It will surprise many to learn that Canada still includes Quebec, despite all those bond traders and currency speculators who thought otherwise and lost money. With all of Quebec's new powers, the sovereignists shrewdly concluded that independence would be unnecessary, even redundant. After all, with federalism like this, who needs sovereignty?

But there is indeed a new Canada, and it is the product of twin forces that had been at work for some time. Contemporary historians have come to call them "the great migration" and "the quiet devolution."

The "great migration" was a byword for the greatest influx of immigrants Canada had ever known. By 2010, the country's political parties were treating immigration as an auction, bidding against each other for ethnic voters in urban Canada to raise the quotas of immigrants from 250,000 to 500,000 a year. There was a sound economic reason (a shortage of unskilled labour) and a moral reason (boatloads of refugees washing up on our shores, just as they were in Spain, Malta and Sicily). As global warming began to wreak havoc around 2012, a suddenly popular Green party formed the government in Ottawa. The United Nations began to pressure empty, enormous Canada to ease the refugee crisis. By opening the country's borders, politicians could feel that they'd helped the world, as well as themselves.

Of course, immigration has benefited Canada. Even with a low birth rate, the population grew from 33 million in 2007 to 38 million in 2012 and to 45 million in 2018. Within two years, Statistics Canada predicts there will be 50 million Canadians. Fifty million! Finally, in size, Canada is the nation that Sir Wilfrid Laurier imagined a century ago.

While the influx has made the country's big cities even bigger (Toronto's population is now 11 million, served by high-speed rail service and three airports), it has developed regions like Northern Ontario, where Sudbury, Sault Ste. Marie, Thunder Bay and North Bay are flourishing. Down East, immigrants have remade Saint John, Moncton and Halifax. They have also made things interesting. Oh, how things have changed in old, Anglo-Saxon Canada. You can now eat pad Thai in Red Deer and chapatis in Estevan.

For the most part, Canada has taken a laissez-faire view of its new arrivals. Multiculturalism is a kind of narcissism for Canadians. We are in love with it and the image it gives us around the world. We look down at old Europe for its difficulty in integrating immigrants of different cultures, spawning ghettos in lily-white Stockholm, Amsterdam and Oslo.

Still, as immigration has brought Canada prosperity, it has also brought it ambiguity. No one has taught these new Canadians much about their new country, its past, its triumphs, its myths. In Canada, where the provinces are responsible for education, no one teaches Canadian history any more. Captured by the canons of political correctness, schools celebrate multiculturalism as an end in itself, failing to teach the superiority of civic nationalism over ethnic nationalism. In the voiceless country, no one speaks for Canada any more. East Indians, Pakistanis and Chinese come here and live their lives happily in Hindi, Urdu and Mandarin. Sadly, they import their prejudices and struggles, too, which often find violent expression in grim urban corridors.

But as the country changed, you couldn't talk about this. The public campaign to persuade immigrants to adopt our mores and accept our rules was attacked as chauvinistic, even racist. Over time, we diminished our citizenship, offering it freely and asking little in return. We became more interested in rights than responsibilities. The truth was that few Canadians of the last generation shared very much with each other, and even fewer have known what it means to be Canadian. No one has told them. It begged a variation of the biblical question: What hath a country if it gaineth the world but loseth its soul? If Canada was becoming more cosmopolitan, it was also becoming less cohesive.

While the wave of immigrants was flooding across our borders, the provinces were reasserting themselves. They demanded more powers — and they got them. This is the other part of the remaking of Canada. There was a time Confederation represented a division of powers between governments. Once, the province of the province was the province; now, the province of the province is the nation, for that is how they see themselves. The quiet devolution has created swaggering potentates presiding over wealthy fiefdoms, especially Alberta, which continually threatened to leave. This happened subtly, through administrative agreements, when no one was looking. It was the natural outcome of decades of whining and petitioning. True, it had been going on since the 1960s, but the system always assumed an intergovernmental negotiation, not unilateral disarmament.


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In the name of unity, we abandoned the symbols of our nationhood
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In 2014, the centre collapsed. The provinces already had spending power, taxing power, and their own pensions and social programs. They were choosing their immigrants and even running their own foreign policies. Indeed, for more than a decade they had embassies — no one bothered with the fiction of calling them "tourist offices" or "cultural legations" any more — in international capitals. When the government allowed Quebec to send a representative to UNESCO, the province soon asked the same for the World Health Organization, the Human Rights Council and the International Labour Organization. As usual, what Quebec got, all provinces got. Now, a once-influential country speaks to the world not with a single, eloquent voice, but in a contradictory and confusing cacophony.

When the provinces started raising their own armies — the last great federal preserve — the game was over. Ottawa handed the provinces monetary policy and divided up its military assets. The centre had nothing but the post office and the Parliament Buildings, now a Victorian architectural curiosity for Chinese tourists.

All along, of course, the accommodationists said this was the price of unity. Quebec was still in, wasn't it? Alberta and Newfoundland, with their oil wealth, had not left us, had they? We had chanted the hymn of unity for so long that it had become a mantra, blinding us from seeing our purpose as a nation. In the name of unity, we abandoned the symbols of our nationhood, allowed the provinces a free hand in the world, stopped teaching history, shared no collective ideas and promoted no great project beyond diversity itself. Oh, we were a good country, but not a great one.

Now, in 2020, we look around in despair. In the voiceless country, there is no one left to recall its past, no one left to celebrate its principles, and no one left to speak its name.


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Andrew Cohen,
a writer and professor of journalism and international affairs at Carleton University,

is the author of While Canada Slept: How We Lost Our Place in the World.






by Andrew Cohen    7/2/2006


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