What is a Canadian Revolution? It sounds like an oxymoron, like jumbo shrimp or Ottawa nightlife, but it's not. Because when you really study revolutions, the stereotype of revolutions - which is tanks in the city square or a guillotine, or whichever revolution you're talking about (French revolution, Russian revolution, American revolution, Hungarian revolution) - they're always acts of violence. But they don't authenticate a revolution. They're just events in a revolution. What authenticates a revolution - what gives it meaning, what gives it permanence - is a shift in values of the society that has undergone a revolution, or at the end of a revolution. And it is my contention in my book that there has been a shift in values among Canadians, and that shift is from deference to authority to defiance of authority. And that's what I'd like to talk about. Most of that has been due the loss of faith in institutions, and the chief of these institutions, of course, has been the political system.
I know it's hard to remember, but it's not that long ago that we actually believed in politicians. I have a phrase in my book about the Mulroney cabinet that when cabinet ministers admitted they'd lied, still nobody would believe them. I quote Bob - who lives in Gabriola - saying that it was the first time in history that a government overthrew a country. I think Brian Mulroney's main problem was that he so badly wanted to be loved. He didn't want to make enemies, he always tried to ingratiate himself with the electors and didn't understand the nature of his office, because Prime Ministers don't have to be loved, they do have to be respected. It was that respect that he never earned. Trudeau, who was certainly hated, did have that kind of respect, so it's a big difference. This business of wanting to be loved and never making enemies reminds me of Voltaire, the French essayist. When he was dying, people surrounded his deathbed and one of them said, "Monsieur Voltaire, would you like to renounce the devil?" And Voltaire looked very surprised and said, "No, no. This is no time to make new enemies."
I should explain that I don't really have very high expectations of politicians, I think a good government is when things get worse a little more slowly. Malcolm Muggeridge, the British essayist, was once asked, "What is the ideal form of government?" He thought a minute and said, "Well, the ideal form of government is an oligarchy tempered by assassination" - which I don't advocate.
I was in the House of Commons for 12 years, not as a member of the House, but as a member of the press gallery, and that meant that everyday I had to sit through Question Period - a task that tries the soul and numbs the brain. So to keep myself alive and awake, I started to make some notes on what Canadian politicians say, and I'm just going to share some of them with you - and they're all in Hansard.
One example - this was a Tory from New Brunswick - I don't know what he meant, but this is what he said, "To shoot off your face is one thing, but to put your shoulder to the wheel, that's a horse of a different colour." And another - this was a Liberal - he got himself all wound up in own rhetoric and he said, "I see before me the footsteps of the hand of destiny." And attacking cabinet ministers, another opposition member said, "These cabinet ministers, if they were on a deserted island, would not be there more than 10 minutes, before they had their hands in the pockets of the naked savages." "Let's get our heads together to see if we can come up with something concrete." "My conscience is clear - I never use it." But my favourite is - an NDPer who was urging the government to action - and he actually said, "It's time to grab the bull by the tail and look the situation straight in the face." I sometimes think that even crime wouldn't pay if the government ran it. We keep voting for change and change is all we have left in our jeans.
Now, I don't want to leave the impression that only Canadian politicians talk like this and think like this. Unfortunately, my favourite American politician is not running for election next year in the American presidential sweepstakes. I refer of course to Dan Quayle. Some of the secret papers are coming out now about the Iraqi war and what happened in the White House. In one conversation, President George Bush said to Dan Quayle, his Vice President, "You know, Dan, Saddam Hussein is getting more dangerous. We're going to have to impose an air embargo." And, looking very worried, Quayle replies, "George, you can't do that. How will the people breathe?" He also said that "people are not homeless if they're sleeping on the streets of their own home towns."
But my favourite is Ronald Reagan, who got it into his head somehow that trees cause pollution, and nobody could talk him out of it. Whenever the issue of pollution came up, he immediately started attacking trees. A bunch of college students in Northern California found out about this and the Presidential cavalcade was driving by their college and there was a huge oak tree in front of this university, so they hung a sign on the tree which read, "Cut me down, before I kill again."
Now, in my book, I deal with some of the main characters during the decade 1985-1995. Pierre Trudeau - I call him the Phantom of the Great Canadian Opera because he always seemed to appear at strategic moments during that decade wearing, figuratively, a cloak and making dark announcements and pronouncements that would change everYthing. Then he would disappear again for a couple of years, and yet he wasn't in power, but he controlled the situation verY much, not only because of his decisive help in killing Meech Lake and Charlottetown, but also the fact that he left behind a $200 billion debt which governed everything that happened in the next ten years. Joe Clark never set the world on fire, except by accident. Kim Campbell had an unerring instinct for her own jugular. And, of course, Lucien Bouchard, who is not for sale, but is certainly for rent.
The great flash point of the Canadian Revolution was the Charlottetown Accord. Now this is the first time in Canadian history that all of the elite in the country agreed on something and the people went against them - union leaders, business leaders, political leaders, media, all said "You've got to support Charlottetown." And the people read it, studied it, and said "No way." This was a defining moment - this was the Vietnam of the Canadian establishment. Before that they'd always been listened and did what people in authority commanded; now they no longer did. Public policy no longer represented public will. Private power had, for once, failed to impose its political agenda and that was the trigger of the Canadian Revolution. Canada underwent a sea change. If the Renaissance was the green conclusion to civilization's harshest winter, the revolution that rocked Canada was the greening of our discontent. There occurred a sudden bursting, like buds in springtime, of those barriers between thought and feeling that had kept Canadians from asserting their individual sovereignties, leaving them indentured to authority far beyond its worth.
What the revolution was really about is doing away with this terrible thought that we get the politicians we deserve. And it wasn't just politics. That's what occurred to me as I did my research. Politics was a small part of it really, because all of the institutions that we believed in came under fire in that decade. I call them "touchstone institutions" - these are institutions that are national in their scope, or national in their feeling. You have a person who believes in his family and his community, but there's something beyond that, that he or she believed in before, and now they lost that belief, or at least it was severely diluted. We still go to church and, of course, we believe in God but, as we speak now, there are 115 Catholic priests in jail for assaulting little boys, and this is bound to dilute faith.
The Red Cross - we all know what happened there. The RCMP is incapable of guarding the prime minister's house. The Grey Cup is sitting in Baltimore - a great Canadian institution every Fall, East against West, and now it's become a joke. We're supposed to get excited about the Memphis Mad Dogs. The Monarchy, once a great role model for Canada, turned out to be an inbred family of promiscuous mediocrities. (I'm being very mild tonight.) Passenger trains, the great Canadian symbol of joining the country together from East to West - the Prairie boys used to put their ear to the rail to hear the train puffing across the country - don't run any more. Even diplomats, once the great paragons of Canadian virtue, have cheated. The 1992 Auditor General's report in Ottawa reported that three hundred Canadian diplomats - 12% of the Canadian diplomatic core - falsified their expense accounts. I went to the External Affairs cafeteria in Ottawa and discovered that, in one year, our best and brightest stole 2,998 spoons, 2,218 forks, and 1,438 knives. Now, why they stole 780 more forks than knives, I don't know.
The military - with its great tradition in two world wars. Even in peace time when the armed services had virtually no new equipment, they still had a good record. I once wrote about the Canadian army that its loyalty was beyond question and its equipment was beyond salvage. A great example of a manoeuvre was in New Brunswick where the officer cadets were being trained and they didn't have enough rifles, so they gave them broomsticks for this manoeuvre. At one point, one of the guys pointed a broomstick at another one and said, "Bang, bang you're dead." And the other one said, "No, no I'm not, I'm a tank!" But we now have documentary evidence that our vaunted peacekeepers killed at least one person in cold blood and maybe others.
I want to be clear on this; I'm not saying these traditions are gone. I'm not saying these institutions are gone. I'm simply saying that we've lost a lot of faith in the institutions because of what happened.
Business. We are a capitalist society and business was once our great "touchstone" of free enterprise. Well, what happened? Many of the great business empires collapsed in the last 10 years, but the most startling or most dramatic change was in our banks. We have believed in our bankers, we have treated them as our father fiscal confessors - that great Presbyterian conscience that they exercised. We entrusted our money, and we trusted them almost as priests. We would go to them and say what our problems are and ask "Can we be helped?" and that kind of thing. Well, it turned out that they had no brains. Between 1985 and 1995, they lost $33 billion. Those were write-offs by the six large Canadian banks, and again this is all from their annual reports. They don't have any money of their own - this is our money. They lost $33 billion and are now charging us more for loans and service charges so they can make that up. The great example of course was the Reichman Brothers, who borrowed $9 billion and the banks never even looked at their balance sheets - and that's been documented in my book and in other places. The chapter I have on the banks is titled: "When the Bankers Went Bonkers in Their Bunkers." That sort of sums it up. I was talking to one banker and asked him how he felt about all of this, whether he can be at peace with himself, and he said, "Oh, I sleep like a baby. I wake up screaming every two hours."
I think what happened really - not only to the banks, but to most of the people in the financial institutions, especially in the 1980s when greed was the dominant theology - was that they equated their self worth with their net worth. And that's a deadly equation. Once you do that, the social contract collapses. The recession was certainly part of the scene and it's still with us. Officially, statistically, it's over, but it's not really. I have a story in my book about how the recession even got to the rich, and the story is about a fellow living in a Palm Beach mansion. He comes down one morning for breakfast and says to his wife, "You know, Erica, we've got to start economizing. The recession's even getting to us. I would like you to learn to cook and then we could fire the cook." And she says, "Yeah, Harry. That's a really good idea. But why don't you learn to make love, so we can fire the chauffeur."
So the nation's defining institutions first lost their credibility, then their authority, and finally their followers - not all of them, I know that, but many of them. Faced with this betrayal of trust, the people began to look inward. If you can't trust people out there, we must trust ourselves. That was the real revolution because, once you trust yourself and empower yourself, then you look at the world quite differently and you will not defer to authority because you've lost your faith in it. Our betters are not better. And so you defy authority. People attack me because they say there wasn't a revolution, and I say, "I know there wasn't a revolution. This is a Canadian Revolution." Nobody's getting hurt, but things are shifting and things are changing just the same. The defiance to authority is very mild. We cheat on the GST and we don't allow politicians to get away with their double-talk and we challenge what they say and what they do - and not just politicians, but our bosses and whoever is in charge - they now have to justify themselves. We were once the only country in the world where everybody dreams of being Clark Kent, and now we dream of being Superman or Superwoman. And that's a very, very important change. Out of that fundamental revolution have come other revolutions. But before I leave the fundamental one - what I mean by fundamental is the shift from deference to defiance - I want to explain where deference comes from.
Some of you may know that I spent the last 10 years doing the history of the Hudson's Bay Company. That was our frontier. That was the corporate infrastructure of the Canadian frontier. And it was designed to turn people deferential, because those were fur trading posts - they were called forts, but they weren't really, they were company towns - and when you live in a company town, you defer to the authority of the company. That deference marked the Canadian frontier. It was very different from the American Frontier where there was no corporate infrastructure and people challenged authority instead of deferring to it. They had 69 Indian wars, we didn't have any. In Canada, even though both sides exploited each other, it was still a commercial relationship with the natives. They brought in the furs, they got blankets, shotguns, copper kettles, whatever. In fact, the Hudson Bay Company had a slogan at that time, "Never Shoot Your Customers." I don't know if they still do.
So that deference out of which evolved Canadian society and the defiance in the American side out of which evolved American society, really made the difference between our two societies. And it's still true. Compare what happened at Waco when the FBI stormed those people and killed just about all of them. Compare that to what happened at Oka. There was a very tense situation, but there was some civility there and nothing too much happened. Compare the O.J. Simpson trial to the Bernardo trial - both hideous crimes, but we handled the situation with civility and put the couple who did it in jail.
So, there's something worth preserving here. It isn't just that Canadians aren't as interesting as Americans, that's true - but I would prefer to be a Canadian. Out of the Canadian revolution - out of that shift from deference to defiance - grew many, many other revolutions. One of the chief revolutions is the work revolution. Work? Yes. There'll be lots of work, there is lots of work, there will be lots of work. Jobs? No. Jobs and work are not the same thing any more. The notion of leaving university or high school and going to a job from 9 to 5 for the next 20-30 years and then getting a gold watch - that's not going to happen. But yes, there will be work, and work will be organized in task forces. There are already 4 million people working out of their homes and contributing their talents and their brains and their skills to various task forces. They work together or alone and they do a job and they move out and do another job. They're sequential jobs. In other words, they're work; they're not real jobs as we know them. There's nothing wrong with that. I think you become very self-reliant, more interesting, more adventuresome and you're willing to take some risks. At any rate, we have no choice, because to compete in the global economy, companies can't afford the added burden of maintaining large payrolls. So this is what's going to happen and we're going right back to the old traditions of the cathedral builders - there were people who built cathedrals, but there was no such person as a cathedral builder. There was a glazier who did the glass, there was a stone mason who did the walls, and there was a carpenter who built the pews. They would do that and move on. There wasn't one cathedral builder and that's the kind of thing that's going to happen, even in big companies. You're going to have task forces within large corporations and they're going to elect their own leaders but its members will report to each other. That's part of the revolution.
The First Nations Revolution. I once read a very good book by a University of Chicago sociologist called Sol Tax who studied North American Indians all his life. In the last sentence of his main book on the subject he finally realizes what it's all about. He's sitting on a knoll overlooking an Indian village and he says to himself, "They're waiting for us to go away." But we're not going to go away, and therefore the confrontations will be there, and most of the things that they're claiming are justified in the sense of their own history and the sense that they were taken away. But we can't afford to give them the kind of money and land they want. So there will be a lot of confrontations. This is not a temporary thing, this is going to go on. They've become a great power. Whether you believe the Clyde Wells or Elija Harper argument, it certainly took both of them to stop Meech Lake, so here was a native Indian stopping a country's constitution from being changed. Consider the Great Whale River Project at $31 billion. It was the Cree of North-western Quebec who stopped that dead in its tracks. So there's a lot of power there, and we will feel that power in the next decade.
The Western Canadian revolution. I've lived in Western Canada now for fourteen years, and I don't pretend to know everything, but I certainly know a bit. It seems to me that Western Canadian aspirations and feelings are just as valid and just as intense as those in Quebec. And yet they've been ignored. We don't really live in B.C. on the West Coast of Canada. We live on the East Coast of the Pacific Ocean. We must look westward for our future, not behind us. The people in Central Canada have to realize that this is a serious thing. If Quebec were to separate - and I hope it doesn't - what would B.C. do? B.C. went into confederation in 1871 with the promise of a railway to Montreal. Well the railways don't run any more and, if Montreal is in a foreign country, it doesn't leave us with too much reason to stay. You get this feeling all across the West. The Wheat Board is another great Canadian institution under intense pressure. Farmers are burning their Wheat Board record books; it is an institution that is either going to fall apart or is going to be much weaker in the future. When you look at the causes of alienation - certainly in the prairie provinces, particularly in Manitoba - you go back to the CF-18. That was another defining moment in the past decade. The CF-18 was a Canadian air force fighter, and there was a $2 billion contract let in 1986 for maintaining these aircraft. The Bristol Aerospace Company in Winnipeg was one of the contenders, and Canadair in Montreal was the other. The government's own experts - not somebody prejudiced, but objective government experts - decided that the Winnipeg bid was $76 million cheaper, and the Mulroney government still gave it to Montreal. This was a huge issue at the time and in fact it was the issue that kicked off formation of the Reform Party. Preston Manning in 1986 was looking around for a way to change his movement into a political party and this was the issue he used, and he has been very successful as we all know. Gun control is the CF-18 of the 1990s.
One of the other revolutions is high taxes. We will not pay more taxes. We cheat on our GST - very unCanadian. I'm still waiting for the raging grannies to dump tea into Victoria harbour. On the other side, one of the great empowering events of the last decade have been computers and the joining of computers into networks, particularly the Internet. Television is a very autocratic communicator; somebody somewhere decides what you can see. But computers are very democratic, very anti-hierarchical. You decide what you want, where you go and what you see. They are very powerful too because you have all of the world's information at your fingertips and you bring it into your living room, you change it and you send it out again. So the Internet is one of the great new institutions and it will make a lot of changes in the way we think and we work.
Those are some of the revolutions. But I guess the main one that concerns us is the Quebec revolution. Because the ultimate Canadian institution of course is Canada itself, and we have the sad situation of nearly half the people in the second largest province having lost faith in the institution of Canada itself. Now Mark Twain once said that Wagner's operas are not as bad as they sound. But the 1995 referendum was as bad as it sounds. The difference between the "yes" and the "no" side was 55,000 votes. Now that's the number of people who saw the Grey Cup that year, so you have a football stadium of people keeping the country together, and that's not very good news. The first thing I want to say about that is that we tend in English Canada - or in the rest of Canada, or whatever we want to call ourselves - to look at the Quebec situation in much too black and white a fashion. We say either you stay or go. It's not that simple; it shouldn't be that simple. A movie was recently made called "Six Degrees of Separation." That's how Quebecers view it: separation, independence, sovereignty, sovereignty association, autonomy, special status. Those are all valid concepts to them. It isn't just a simplistic yes or no. I am very optimistic about Quebec. The fact that Lucien Bouchard will become premier means that he will now be closing hospitals and doing all the things that Mike Harris is doing in Ontario and it's bound to make him less popular when the next referendum rolls around. I am optimistic because all of the polls show that between a quarter and a third of the people who voted yes, really voted to stay in Canada. They just wanted to give Quebec a stronger negotiating position, and I guess they did. But I'm very hopeful that between now and the next referendum we can persuade those people that the only way to stay in Canada - to have Canadian passports, to have Canadian citizenship, and to use Canadian dollars - is to vote no. These things are unpredictable, but I'm simply saying that we must not lose hope. The next referendum can be won. If everybody in this room believed that the referendum was lost and Canada was disappear, it would. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy if enough people believe it. So please, stay optimistic. I hope you notice that I said Canada would disappear, not Quebec. I really believe that. I believe that if Quebec were to go, then B.C. would go and probably Alberta. And the country would go, and I don't want to see that happen. Nobody can prove these things, but that's certainly the trend, and it would be a tragedy.
As far as Quebec is concerned I think there are some things we could do. One of the suggestions I made in my column in Maclean's, is that Canada become a republic. I don't think anybody has any particular faith left in the British royal family after what they've done to themselves, so I don't think that would hurt very many people. But most important, it would wipe the slate clean. We would start with a fresh, blank page. We could reconstitute our institutions instead of tinkering with them. I am genuinely convinced that you can't tinker any more. You can't tinker with the Senate, you can't tinker with federal/provincial power sharing because we've done that for thirty years actively and sixty years inactively and it hasn't worked, and it's not going to work. So what we have to do is think up new solutions and new ways of doing things, and maybe becoming a republic would be one way to start the process, to give it a catalyst. Another way would be to have a constituent assembly, and I'm certainly not the first to suggest that. This would entail citizens being elected to a new body which would gather to consider the Constitution and how Canada should work, and all of the people who were elected would vow that they wouldn't run for office in the next Parliament. Then there would be a national referendum to ratify what they decide. That's the kind of thing we need to do.
I want to end my formal remarks by talking about Canada itself. Charles de Montesquieu, the eighteenth century essayist, once said that Frenchman never discussed their wives in case the listener knows more about the subject than they do. But we Canadians aren't like that - we keep talking about the Canadian identity, trying to fathom who are we, why are we here. My favourite definition of Canadian identity incidentally is from Dave Broadfoot, who once said that the world needs Canada because if Canada didn't exist, the Chinese would sail right across and invade Denmark. Stu Keate once said that Canada is the vichyssoise of nations. It's cold, half French and difficult to stir. Even though most Canadians think that the Precambrian Shield is a birth control device, territorial integrity, holding onto our northern turf, really is the root and base of our identity. All men and woman are sons and daughters of their landscapes, but nowhere is this more true than in Canada, where the dominant theme of nationhood is possession of the land itself. We lay claim to this large land by planting settlements in the shoulders of shores, the elbows of our rivers, and the laps of our mountains. I just spent six weeks going across the country and talking to a lot of people. And there is, I believe, what I call a "quiver of common intent" in this country to keep it together. It isn't like the Americans where you have firecrackers and waving flags and marching bands, that's why I call it a quiver of common intent - that people deep down want to keep Canada together. Canada was built on dreams as well as appetites: This country was put together not by blood lines, kin or tradition, but by waves of newcomers who arrive dreaming big dreams. When I came here as an immigrant, I didn't know anybody, I didn't know the language. Now I'm important enough to be attacked by the Globe and Mail. Isn't that fantastic?
Being Canadian is not a nationality, being Canadian is a condition. If somebody says they're Japanese or Swedish, that defines them. But being Canadian is an act of faith. It will take many generations to reach its full potential. I believe it's time that we began to sing some songs in praise of ourselves. Despite the fruitless and sometimes tedious quest to define our national identity, Canada is no mere accident of history or some valedictorian's hazy dream. What we've got here is a daily miracle of a country. Ever since 1867 we have lived out successfully the dictum that a nation is a body of people who have done great things together. We have and we will again. What it consists of, this Canadianism of ours is a kind of pride that we are here, that we have survived. We have survived a very harsh climate, very harsh environment, and a dominant giant to our south. Anyone who doubts what a great country this is should go out of the country and look back at Canada from another country. Whatever our problems are, their problems are greater. Why is it that everyone on earth is trying to come to Canada? What do they know that we don't know? Why do we take it for granted when they see this as a utopia? That's something to think about. To the rest of the world, Canada appears blessed with a mandate of heaven. Too often as a nation, as individuals, we decry what we lack, instead of celebrating what we possess.
I end most of my speeches with a little story that has to do with being in New Brunswick one time, and trying to make sense of a by-election there. When you're a journalist in foreign territory, you always look for somebody who has been around for a while. I saw this fisherman looking as if he belonged there. Just to start a conversation, I said, "Have you lived here all your life?" And his reply prompted the quiet optimism I feel about Canada, because when I said, "Have you lived here all your life?" He said, "No, not yet."
Biographical Note: One of Canada's most prolific and acclaimed authors and political journalists, Mr. Peter C. Newman has dominated the Canadian best sellers lists for decades with such titles as: Flame of Power, Renegade in Power, The Distemper of Our Times, The Canadian Establishment, Company of Adventurers, and Sometimes a Great Nation. He is former editor-in-chief of Macleans magazine, and contributor to The Times of London and the New York Times.…