Why I keep telling Twitter that #CanadaSucks…

When Stephen Harper chose, for the second time in a year, to prorogue the Canadian Parliament to silence critics of the Afghan detainee torture scandal, I decided I needed to write up some of the ideas underpinning my regular use of the #CanadaSucks hashtag on Twitter.

I’m doing this for two reasons. The first is to spread the word amongst other progressive people, the-world-over, who have long held Canada as a hallmark of socialistic principles, that they need to re-evaluate this assumption. The second is to demonstrate to my fellow Canadians that our democracy has been waning for considerably longer than the Harper government has been in power and it’s important that we acknowledge this if we hope to establish something better.

The progressive’s archetypal image of Canada (another blog is needed to examine where this came from) is of an egalitarian, peacekeeping, socialistic and generally-benevolent nation, to the North of the crude, brutish and imperialistic American empire. I’ve found the key to this image lies in the referential nature of the above statement; our frame of understanding, as Canadians (which we have shared with much of the world), is ‘how much better we are than Americans’. Though I wouldn’t disagree with this statement, from a social welfare perspective, I think we, as a nation, can do better than compare ourselves to the lowest rung on the Western democratic ladder and boast about how much better we are than them. When it comes to most European standards around public benefit, social good and general well-being, Canada can no longer hold its own and this is what we need to address.

Rather than dismiss our current democratic deficit as the result of the semi-fascistic peculiarities of the Harper junta, Canadians need to acknowledge the slippery slope of neo-conservatism that has held the the country’s national politic for the past 25 years.

There – I said it! We don’t have Harper to blame (exclusively) for our current mess – we have had governments since the Orwellian hallmark of 1984 which have – party-politics aside – pursued an almost singular agenda of deregulation, slashed public spending and increasing presence of big business in the corridors of power.

Like liberal Americans holding-up a false positive legacy of Bill Clinton’s presidency during the Bush II years, many progressive Canadians have taken a similar line on the Chretien/Martin governments of 1992-2004. But it was during those ‘Liberal’ years, that public spending was slashed more heavily than it had been during the previous Conservative Mulroney administration (the pre-Harper ‘baddies’ on whom we would blame our country’s problems). But don’t forget about the impacts on public healthcare of 12 years of ‘Liberalism’ through the ’90s…

The unintended consequence of denying the crimes of any ‘slightly-less-bad’ bad government, is that it allows people – of any nationality – to hide behind the false notion that current problems are just a matter of ‘a bad government’, rather than acknowledging the much more fundamental ‘bad system’ which has allowed the current government – and its predecessors – to do what they do.

I find it unlikely that if the current opposition parties managed a snap-election and successful coup when Parliament returns in March, a Liberal government would go about returning the country to the Tommy Douglas socialism, or Pierre Trudeau liberalism of yester-year. Nothing fundamental in the Liberal party suggests to me that it is committed to reversing the fiscally-fetishistic neo-liberal policies of Jean Chretien and Paul Martin.

What would likely happen under a Liberal government, is that many of Harper’s more recognisable critics would retreat, with the comfort that some of the starker, more newsworthy attacks on democracy and social equality would be put on hold for at least the next electoral cycle. But it seems unlikely that the continued slashes to healthcare and the arts, and the ongoing investment (of money and life) in an un-winnable Afghan war, would fundamentally shift. And those policies – as can sometimes be ignored from a place of particular privilege – mean lives. When I talk about the impact of Liberal anti-deficit hysteria, I talk about the hours additional waiting times at a hospital Emergency Room; I talk about the closing down of public hospitals; I talk about the clawing-back of social security benefits that have allowed people at the margins to get by, which Liberals made sure steadily disappeared on their watch… For a strong critique of the 1990’s Liberal government, read Murray Dobbin’s book on Paul Martin.

But I want to do more here than bash the Liberal party; I want to look at Canadian identity, challenging some of the assumptions we think make us who we are. Lots of writers have looked at Canada’s strengths; traditionally our healthcare, our Human Rights Act, the decision not to invade Iraq; but I think it’s long overdue that we acknowledge the seedy underbelly of Canadian politics that has gradually taken-us to the place we are in, with Harper and Co. running the country like the post-Soviet oligarchs of Eastern Europe, who view democracy as a ‘optional extra’, to be used (or not) at their convenience.

But first I want to know if there’s interest out there – I’m a firm believer in ‘asking the internet’ if something has value, so these are my questions to you, the people who inhabit the internet:

Canadians! Do we need a fundamental deconstruction of our national identity if we are going to create a country that really does deliver the values we so happily espouse to the world?

Everyone else! Are you interested in a counter-narrative to the one you heard from the bubbly backpacker from Toronto (well, just outside Toronto…) with a maple leaf badge at the youth hostel in Frankfurt?

Is it worth my getting into the details of Afghanistan, homelessness, the environment, treatment of aboriginal peoples, racist policing and any of the other systematic stains on the progressive Canadian’s conscience?

…Or are we still not ready to look at these stains?

Just give me the word! I will trust your judgement…


20 responses to “Why I keep telling Twitter that #CanadaSucks…

  1. Liam – I weary of brain as I read you — but keen to bash heads on this stuff. The idea that that which we have inherited as ‘nations’ are governable entities bears examination. The system that has evolved wherein a sub-clan of self-appointed visionaries can coalesce into a force that can steer something as massive as a state bureacracy — seems fundamentally flawed.
    I wouldn’t recognise Harper if I shared a bath with him, so I can only surmise that his capacity to break the bound of responsive government/ comes from a breakdown in the internal regulation at the club. I have heard no reports of Canadianos taking to the streets – it was Xmas, now it’s winter. Perhaps it is not a major concern that the people paid to sit on the committees are not showing up for work.
    But you are more precise than this — I suspect the call is for a re-write of the governemntal structure that really does decentralise decision making — But this craves an awfull of ideology, and that is one thing that has been crumbled by the absence of commitment to viable groups.

    More upon another occasion.

    • Hi Bem –
      I guess I’m focusing mainly on probing the ideas that we think ‘make us Canadian’ – unpicking the values and ideals we espouse, and how they are actually reflected/enacted (or not) by our ‘democratic’ representatives…

      I agree that the current form of government needs some pretty fundamental tinkering, but perhaps Canadians need to think about how we have allowed things to get to their current low, before we can start to propose alternatives….?

  2. Liam – that’s your clue from Rosemary’s note. You are ideally based to change everything — get your self arrested parading back and forth outside one of the palaces, drapped in maple leafs and petitioning Her Maj. to bash heads and get them govermentors back to work – (or she’ll ask have her head removed from off the dollar bill.)
    That’s the photo-op, but the argument is serious. Governemnts must govern – they can’t do a runner when things get unpalatable. i suspect you’ll find that Harper is to be found on a golfing holiday in Aruba. Out bushing the Bush.

    • Bembo – I think the idea is great – perhaps we can skype a game plan to get me arrested in front of Windsor or Buckingham Palaces???

      I think it is an angle that should be more heavily exploited and I’d very much like to be one of the people involved! Any other Canadian ex-pats in London who’d like to take this one on with me?

  3. Great post Liam! I have to agree that we have a tendancy to romance the past. Unfortunately the past Chretien/Martin government was really the only one I ever knew. It is very depressing to think that Canada peaked before we were born. The only question I really have is that this really that new? I mean we have already seen how people remember past governments so fondly and forgive or forget the mistakes. What makes the history books any more accurate than our already fading memories? I look forward to your take on all of these issues and I know it will be an interesting read!

    • Thanks Alex – you make a good point – who’s to say Pierre Trudeau (the archetypal Canadian PM) was as good as people remember him being? I’ve definitely heard arguments to the contrary – looking at his economic policy and notably his ‘handling’ of the FLQ crisis… but still gather he upheld a range of the ideas that have been sold up the river by the Mulroney-and-since governments.

      And the legacies of some of the ideals that were enshrined previously (before 1984) are still kicking-around; as Michael Moore and others so exageratingly like to point out, we still have the remnants of a welfare state that provides for a certain number of basic needs… and this was, by most accounts, much better before the 1980s triumphs of the free market and slash-and-burn economics… though maybe that’s that rose-tinted viewing of history coming through again…?

      I think this is a subject for a guest post that would be good to have an older generation Canadian chip-in on, as it’s likely the jading experience of us 80s babies would cloud our interpretations;)

      I think there are more inherently conservative traits in the collective Canadian psyche than we would often care to admit – notably going right back to the decision to ally with the monarchy during the American war of independence… but this, as well, is a post for another day! Thanks for the thoughts and for contributing to the discussion – will def. follow-up on these ideas in a later post!

  4. the problem, i find, isn’t necessarily in the politics at all. The issue is in canadian interest in politics as a whole. Canadians do not see the impact of their decisions like the Americans, or other superpowers, do. Canadians have long played the role of the passive observer, living life with one hand in the fresh waters of our nation (Sic*), and another cradling the worlds needy. any opposition to this image has been swept under the table or ignored (part of our proper british roots, i imagine.)

    We have replaced virulent goals of an equal and fair governance, for a passive politeness.
    Stephen Harper, as you claimed, is not the issue. In fact, one could argue that Harper is doing the wholly logical thing. By proroguing parliament, and playing his pass the buck card over and over, he is acting on the premise that canadians are so passive and have such low attention spans, these issues will dilute over time. And he is right.

    Can you think of one issue in Canadian politics that has lasted in the forefront of the general populace’s collective consciousness for more than four months?
    Canadians have to grow a spine, grow some balls, and we have to stop falling for grade school political manipulation and avoidance tactics. There really does need to be a shift in how we view ourselves within our own nation, and less of a focus on keeping the polite airs that we strive for internationally.

    • Thanks David – I think you make some good points, but I think they’re too ‘anti-people’… for all my complaints about Canada, I can only chalk-it up to ‘the people’ to a certain degree.

      Talking with a friend on the weekend, he pointed out that the greatest victory (problem) of Mulroney-Reagan-Thatcherism in the 80s, was not in any specific policies, but in convincing people that the means of achieving a ‘good society’ was exclusively through conservative means. The idea that paying tax is like being robbed; the idea that any one can pick themselves up and ‘make it’, regardless of their situation; the idea that society is primarily a collection of individuals, and not something of greater collective value…

      In Canada, these ideas seems to have merged with – you’re right – remnants of British reserve and politeness (though the British don’t sit by half-as-quietly when something major is being threatened, as Canadian tend to…), but also with a certain blind patriotism much more reflective of an archetypal American identity…

      Within all this, I still believe that most Canadians believe in a more just and equitable world, but that we have been convinced (like many others, the world over), that the means of achieving that world are through very different means that history would generally suggest.

      Optimistically, I don’t think this is a permanent state of affairs – when I described the ‘bubbly backpacker’ in the youth hostel, singing unquestioning praise of the country, I think that praise is being sung for mostly the right reasons, but without a connection to actions of the country for 2-and-a-half decades… but the myth lives on, and the myth is a positive one, so it shouldn’t be completely discredited, but instead seen as something we can once again aspire to and achieve…

      Maybe that got a bit too patriotic at the end… we just need to find a way to line-up our reality, with the national conception of who we are again…

      • I think however your thought on the “good society” goes back way later than the 80’s. Look at Robin Hood. He is what all of those “lower taxes” policies try to emulate. At least they try to make it seem that way to the public, while in the meantime doing the exact opposite. This is just a comment from someone reading WAY too many fairy tales though.

      • Not sure I follow… Robin Hood was vigilante wealth redistribution… not sure how this relates to the conservatism of the 80s… please explain:)

  5. The main villian in Robin Hood was a tax collector, Sheriff Nottingham. Robin Hodd continously said “To take from the rich and give to the poor.” All of the polititians in the 80’s manipulated this slogan. They played on the working man’s distrust of taxes and authority to get them to vote for them. Little did the working man know that those taxes (when properly distributed) go to things like national health care, social assistance, child care ect). In demonizing the taxes, and playing on that inherent “fairy tale” morality, the politicians were able to slowly start eliminating the things that cost them money. Simply by saying “we will need to raise taxes.” Unfortunately people bought it. I think this only makes sense in my own head however so feel free to ignore it.

    • Ahhh…. makes sense… I see what you mean – there’s def. a long history of people not liking taxes – for good and bad reasons… there fairly similar trends in most countries, but I’m interested in how Canada and why Canada has ended up so much more conservative in many ways, than, say, the UK…

      Interested in taking-on a guest post at some point in this new blog’s nearish future?

  6. sorry not sure if my sudo-rant went through. If not e mail/fb me and I’ll post it again.

  7. Hey Liam,

    I think you know where I stand on these issues: all the failings you mention are real, and in some cases seem to be getting worse. But I sincerely believe that the trend is upward, towards a better quality of life, greater equality and opportunity for all, and more stable, open and compassionate institutions.

    There are, of course, hiccups along the way. We’re in one of them right now. But if I can speak blandly:

    Canada is pretty okay.

    • I guess the point I’m trying to make is that, in a country that hasn’t yet notched-up 2 centuries of birthdays, a steady 25-year decline is pretty significant, and more than a hiccup… according to most Canadians I know who have experienced more of the country’s history that you or I, many recently distinguishing characteristics – homelessness, slipping healthcare, inadequate public housing – have all become steadily worse since the Mulroney years.

      I think the danger of the ‘this is not a long-term problem’ approach, is that it allows us to think we will solve the problem through switching from one party to the other… as mentioned, and as future posts will detail, a lot of the current problems have been most directly linked to the last Liberal government…

      For all of my cynicism, I honestly believed that Canada was pretty good, in the scheme of things, until I moved across the ocean, and saw European standards in practice. It has been a very much life-changing experience.

      I hope that by acknowledging a) the extent of the decline, and b) how we have let this decline sit with our country’s progressive values, we will be in a better position to turn things around…

      Thanks for your thoughts though! I’m sure we’ll have much more to debate as I’m able to produce some more detailed posts on specific subjects… also having guest bloggers join in, to bring other perspectives to the debate… perhaps you’d like to do a more in-depth blog at some point to frame your view on the country?

      • I don’t disagree with anything you just said. I think I’m really just picking on your diction. Sucks is the wrong word.

        What surprises me is that, given that you’re trying to bring an international mindset to your jeremiad against Canada, you’re failing to recognize all the countries that Canada is, arguably, way better than.

        In your pitch, you rail against we Canadians who “compare ourselves to the lowest rung on the Western democratic ladder”; but aren’t you making the same mistake by setting the bar bizarrely high?

        Normalizing the European situation and ignoring the slightly-more-dire experiences of the other 90% of humanity distorts your sample size. So yes, your conclusion is going to be a bit wonky too.

      • I don’t see what’s wrong with setting a high bar for ourselves; we are a country with tremendous wealth, natural resource, space, a low population… ‘Why Canada isn’t better than it is?’, seems like a very fair question to me. What is keeping us from being as fair and equitable as much of Europe, with the vast amounts we’ve got?

        I would agree that yes, fundamentally there are a lot of things in Canada that are far better than they are in most of the rest of the world. My major concern is how we have slipped so considerably for 25 years and (on the whole) not really seemed too concerned by it… There are obviously many countries in awful states of totalitarianism, violence and disarray, but why would a country that has a democratic tradition as long as ours, feel these were appropriate benchmarks to measure ourselves against? There are a reasonable number of other established democracies with which we can compare our positioning, yet we rarely look beyond the American model and thus tend not to feel the need to aspire to something more…

        ‘#CanadaSucks’ captured my frustration with a long list of problems that many of us have been reluctant to address in any holistic way. If it can get us talking about some of the fundamental questions I’ve raised, than I feel it’s worth using. Would you have replied like this to a blog called ‘Canada is pretty okay’? … that would be an archetypal Canadian title though;)

      • Haha, fair enough. Somehow I can’t see #CanadaIsOkay going viral on the twitternets.

        There’s definitely nothing wrong with setting the bar high, in fact I’d encourage it. That’s why I’m looking forward to your next round of blog updates 🙂

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