Trying to Save the Soul of Canada Author-Activist Maude Barlow Wants Her Nation to Be Distinct from US

Article excerpt

MAUDE BARLOW is momentarily quiet as she ponders the innocuous-sounding question many Canadians seem to dread: "What is it about Canada and its people that makes them different from, say, the United States and Americans?"

It is a question Canadians have been hashing out for decades, but it has become acute as constitutional crisis, Quebec's independence drive, and regional alienation create a need to define Canada's national identity and to understand why 10 provinces - spread across 5,000-mile-wide Canada - should bother to remain united.

"We're going through a very deep, soul-searching period about who we are and what makes us distinct from the United States," says Ms. Barlow, a best-selling author, self-avowed "economic nationalist," and social activist. "People are asking: `Who are we?' "

It may be just one aspect of a bigger identity problem. For many Canadians, social "safety net" cutbacks in such national icons as universal health care and unemployment insurance - as well as moves to reduce cost-sharing among provinces - are hard to swallow. The erosion of these national institutions make it difficult to explain how Canada will continue to distinguish itself as the "kinder, gentler" cousin to the US.

"We're such a young country, we are so diverse, I worry deeply that if we lose our commitment to each other through the loss of these shared {social and cultural} institutions that, in fact, the identity crisis will be very real," Barlow says.

To make Canada's human values stand in bold relief against a backdrop of increasing privatization and laissez-faire economics, articulate defenders of Canada's traditions have come forward in recent years. Barlow is one, offering a uniquely Canadian response to one facet of what sets Canadians apart:

"We pride ourselves as peacekeepers," she says. "We pride ourselves that our soldiers go off and fight ferociously, but when they come back, they put their guns down. We don't play at war. We don't make war movies. We don't make war toys. It's a very different society in that sense, much less violent - although heaven knows we seem to be getting our share recently."

Well-known in Canada mainly as an outspoken opponent of the conservative government's free-trade policy, Barlow unsuccessfully fought the 1988 Canada-US Free Trade Agreement (FTA) and is fighting tooth and nail against the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

What has the free-trade debate to do with preserving Canada's identity? "Everything," says Barlow, who leads the Ottawa-based Council of Canadians, a 25,000-member group dedicated to "saving" Canadian democracy by getting the free-trade agreements revoked. In the past six years she has helped organize the council and the affiliated Action Canada Network, which boasts a membership of about 50 mostly labor groups representing around 10 million members.

Despite losing the FTA fight in the first round, Barlow says both that deal and NAFTA are at risk as the Canadian public mood sours over recession and the perception that free trade is partly to blame for 11 percent unemployment. …