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Howard Anglin: Nothing of note happens in Canada. And that’s fine

Commentary

To be a Canadian abroad is to chafe at being Canadian. Consciousness of home fades quickly overseas, a feeling encouraged by the general international indifference to our country. You scan the world’s papers in vain for mention of our politics. Soon you stop looking.

But there is a certain type of Canadian exile that can’t seem to let go. Norman Levine was one. Almost a decade after he had settled in England, he sailed back across the Atlantic years and travelled across Canada from Halifax to Ucluelet. His observations, published in England in 1958, were so bitter, so scabrous, that Canada Made Me didn’t find a Canadian publisher until 1979.

Levine’s fellow Canadian exile in England, Mordecai Richler, also made an early name for himself by lobbing poison darts back across the Atlantic at his old home. When he returned to Canada briefly in 1961, he was interviewed by Elaine Grand for the CBC about his scathing critique of his homeland.

You can almost imagine him as a young man in London, scanning the Times for something, anything, about Canada so that he could point to it and announce loudly to anyone who happened to be within earshot that he “can’t believe Canadians still care” about whatever story he finally found reported, before filing it away for his next obsessively dismissive piece about Canada for The Spectator or Commentary.

What is most surprising about the interview is how well it holds up. Much has changed in 60 years, but not the essentials. We are still a comfortable people, blessed by nature and history and physically and psychologically removed from the troubles of the world: a gated community at the edge of the global city.

Richler to Grand: “Living in Canada again, I am immediately struck that there is no indignation here. Our Canadian society lacks excitement or direction” and “in Canada, nobody is ever overthrown because nobody gives a damn.” The obvious and correct retort is that excitements of the kind that leads to coups are products of despair and harbingers of violence. If we hadn’t experienced a serious rebellion in more than a century, perhaps that wasn’t entirely a bad thing.

Richler is churlish to complain about comfort. Only a fool would wish that his life or the life of his country had been harder. In 1961, nothing of world-historical note had happened in Canada in more than two hundred years—nothing at least since the Battle of Quebec—and nothing of note has happened since.

And that is fine. Real history of the kind that inspires national epics and stirring anthems is nasty and difficult; a country that has mostly avoided history may lack memorable poetry, but it is probably a mostly blessed and peaceable country. Better the quiet paralysis of national ambivalence than the violent risk of national ambition.

For generations, people, including Levine’s father and Richler’s grandfather, left behind famine, invasion, and persecution to find peace in Canada. If they were grateful to be here, their spoiled heirs should not in good conscience have been dissatisfied. At least they could have spared us their ungrateful bile. When Richler wrote in Solomon Gursky Was Here that we are “not so much a country as a holding tank filled with the disgruntled progeny of defeated peoples” he was consciously echoing Levine, who three decades earlier asked himself:

“I wondered why I felt so bitter about Canada. After all, it was all part of a dream, an experiment that could not come off. It was foolish to believe that you can take the throwouts, the rejects, the human kickabouts from Europe and tell them: Here you have a second chance. Here you can start a new life.”

Richler had a mixed reaction to Levine’s book. He did not wholly endorse it, but nor could he wholly disagree with it. Reviewing Canada Made Me in the London Sunday Times, Richler wrote “It’s a sour, wilfully sordid book, evoking many scenes brilliantly, and far better than any other book I’ve ever read about Canada.” It still is, though it’s not an honest book. It dwells too much on the world of the lonely, the poor, and the downtrodden, but in its defence, it is no less dishonest than the Can Lit staples of its day that saw only the country’s upside. It was, if nothing else, a bracing corrective.

But even Richler, beneath his worldly pose, knew why the “throwouts, the rejects, the human kickabouts” came. “The best that can be said for Canada,” he wrote from an England recovering from post-war austerity, “(and I’m not underestimating this for a minute) is that a man is better paid for his work, and can live on a higher standard here, than he can almost anywhere else in the world.” They still come. And no longer just from Europe, but most for that same reason. It’s a good reason too. It deserves better than grudging parenthetical acknowledgment.

Most of them still succeed as the Levines and Richlers did before them. They keep coming, but we—their children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren—also keep leaving. Why is there this revolving door of aspirant would-be Canadians coming and aspirant worldly Canadians leaving? That is the more interesting question, and Richler had an answer for it too. “Young people are leaving Canada because they feel there is no opportunity for them at home and because they are bored,” Richler wrote, because “Canada is too bland for their tastes.”

It takes leaving Canada for a few years to fully appreciate the extent of our global irrelevance.

There is more opportunity at home now, but the blandness remains, even it is nothing like the impenetrable grey of Toronto the Good as Levine described it, with its boarding houses filled with bachelor emigres from Central Europe (the one Levine described was, by serendipitous stroke of fate, run by Mrs Richler, Sr.) and the subterranean bars where you had to buy a membership and sit at a table to drink.

Comparatively, though, Toronto remains uninspiring as a second-tier world city. It is still what people from small town Canada, and no one else, think of as a city. (There is a droll plaque in the crypt of St Paul’s Cathedral in London memorializing “Lord Thomson of Fleet,” which records that he was “A strange and adventurous man from nowhere.” The ennobled Roy Thomson was born in Toronto. The plaque is accurate.) But it is not fair to single out Toronto: almost no Canadian city makes an effort to be beautiful or liveable. They mostly rely on an unearned natural beauty, despite the best municipal efforts to obscure it.

Back to Richler: “There is so much assurance there. … Everyone I spoke to was so sure this was the right way to live and this is the way things should be done. … There seemed to be this parochial self-satisfaction.” One can hear in this mordant verdict an echo of William Weintraub writing to Richler about Canada Made Me that it “will certainly cause some panics around this smiling, beautiful country.”

A lot has changed, at least superficially, since then. We have a new flag, a new(ish) anthem, a new population, and a new multicultural identity. But the essential national character Richler fingered remains. Our national media’s house style is still priggish earnestness leavened with whiggish meliorism, and a reflexive suspicion of originality still stifles anything that smacks of élan or éclat.

As for politics, I suppose it’s impressive that we can still manage to be simultaneously so smug and so dyspeptic. Given the relentless triviality of our national squabbles, it is not surprising that the most popular choice in the last federal election was “did not vote.” Fortunately, our solipsism doesn’t affect our reputation, as the world quite understandably takes no notice of our domestic affairs and our foreign policy is conducted mostly by unread press releases.

It takes leaving Canada for a few years to fully appreciate the extent of our global irrelevance. That uncomfortable realisation may explain why a precocious young Richler couldn’t resist pricking our Canadian complacency: it was a writer’s desire to share his newfound sense of insecurity with those who stayed securely at home. Satire always thinks of itself as a public service, but it is mostly the ventilation of personal frustration.

As a people, we may not be a lot of things: sophisticated, profound, interesting. It is, however, ungracious for exiles to keep pointing this out. If you want to stay away, then stay away in mind as well as body. But eventually most of them return to Canada—some briefly like Levine, some permanently like Richler—a self-refuting act that puts the lie to their erstwhile criticisms. It shows that eventually an adolescent can grow out of his ingratitude, even a writer.

Or perhaps it just shows that, as one ages, bland comfort doesn’t look so bad. What Marcel’s Aunt Léonie called “mon petit traintrain,” the predictable routine of domestic chores that most of us eventually settle into, isn’t more satisfying in Paris or London than in Combray or Calgary. The youthful ambition that drives away a young writer like Richler with dreams of being Hemingway, or at least Morley Callaghan, is quietly overtaken by the domestic appeal of “le petit traintrain” Montreal style: a vodka grapefruit at Winnie’s followed by lunch at Le Mas des Oliviers.

Ambivalence, unlike ambition, can happen anywhere. Especially, perhaps, in Canada.

Dan Delmar: The CAQ turns 10 — can the nationalist party withstand a federalist future?

Commentary

Looking back one decade to the founding of Quebec’s most transformational political party in a generation, it is safe to conclude the Coalition Avenir was not, as many fellow anglophone critics feared, meant to be a crypto-sovereignist movement.

We did however expect its leaders to behave similarly to the Parti Québécois with its quarrelsome ethnocentric nationalism. In that sense, the politically-ambiguous centre-right CAQ has already in its short lifespan usurped the PQ, becoming the vehicle for the province’s anti-federalist forces and pushing Canada toward a series of constitutional crises.

Launched in Montreal at a chic Lachine Canal loft in November 2011 as a diverse, reform-oriented coalition, the CAQ was vague on national unity since differing views within the party comprised of federalists and sovereignists were, and continue to be, irreconcilable.

Even before the party unveiled a policy it was already obvious which of the forces—federalist or nationalist—would be more influential. The somewhat amusing pronunciation of the party’s acronym in English was an early sign, media observers mused, that the CAQ’s more federalist-leaning English-speakers would be politically impotent.

While it never put a third sovereignty referendum on the table, the party eventually made a hard turn away from federalism and toward a brazen, décomplexé nationalism; the strategic compromise at the root of today’s brewing crises.

It took seven years and two third-place election losses for CAQ founder and now-Premier François Legault to drop all ambiguity about a third referendum. Ahead of the 2018 vote, the former PQ minister made the clear promise, even directly to me on Twitter after years of my persistent trolling on the issue since the party’s inception:

“A CAQ government would never hold a referendum on Quebec sovereignty,” he promised.

The crypto-sovereignist charge had mostly been made in jest but, in the end, the joke would be on me as the premier doesn’t appear to need a referendum in order to separate Quebec from Canada, at least in a few key areas of interest for nationalists. All he needs are disengaged federalist opponents.

This Petit Compromis between Quebec and Canada became apparent in late 2018 following Legault’s win over former Liberal Premier Philippe Couillard, weighed down by years of vague corruption smears and nationalist panic over “austerity” even as government spending continued to rise. An imploding PQ was even less popular than the besieged Couillard government, and Legault quite aptly chose the path of least resistance to becoming premier.

Legault can’t have his Canada and eat it, too, I wrote in my final weekly column for The Montreal Gazette then. While I applaud those who take a genuine interest in Quebec politics and the future of French in Canada, this Petit Compromis epoch means basic policy issues of interest to cosmopolitan democrats will barely advance until principled federalists return to government, or at least opposition in Quebec City and Ottawa.

Refusing to engage Legault on federalism and human rights—specifically on bills that attempt to rewrite Canada’s constitution to erase minority language rights in Quebec and ban civil servants in positions of authority from wearing religious symbols—is morally wrong and legally dubious but also a cultural timebomb for establishment parties when pollsters who bother to measure the phenomenon point to overwhelming support for federalism among young Quebecers (70 percent according to international polling firm IPSOS).

A clear majority of Quebecers are permanently closed to the idea of sovereignism.

A generation of Canadian political leaders, including the prime minister, federal opposition leaders, and even the provincial Liberal opposition leader Dominque Anglade, have effectively given up on the Charter and principled federalism in Quebec when a clear majority of Quebecers are permanently closed to the idea of sovereignism.

Federalism is not the hard sell much of Quebec’s nationalist-leaning commentariat makes it out to be, and that this point needs emphasizing is an indication of the level of strategic incompetence that is currently plaguing Canada’s political establishment.

Despite the miscalculations, a growing federalist constituency exists—the much-maligned pro-bilingualism, pro-Canada Couillard proved that with his decisive 2014 win—and it will be served one way or another.

In Montreal’s municipal elections last week, a hastily-organized diversity-focused party emerged as a third option amid debate of special status for Montreal to shield it from the CAQ’s ethnocentric policies. If the unpopular Anglade Liberals do not dramatically change course, they risk eroding their federalist base and perhaps even losing Montreal strongholds next year for the first time in a generation.

The chaos that Legault has fomented isn’t even limited to Quebec, with premiers in Saskatchewan, Alberta, and Ontario mimicking the sort of constitutional subversion that had previously been contained to sovereignist movements—just without the moral legitimacy of actual, committed sovereignists.

Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe even flaunted his nationalism last week, proclaiming the province “needs to be a nation within a nation.”

The short-term outlook for federalists is bleak as sincere efforts are required to restore interest in the Canadian project.

Looking further ahead, even if the CAQ finishes off the sovereignist PQ next year and becomes Quebec’s clearinghouse for ethnocentric politics, the good news for federalists is that Legault’s victory will be short-lived as a demographic tidal wave of cosmopolitan Québécois millennials (including the “wokes” the premier fears) will come crashing down on nationalists of all stripes.

Despite being morally flexible on human rights issues related to freedoms of expression, Legault will be remembered as a transitional figure in Quebec politics, not unlike René Lévesque. And like Lévesque, some of his core values are incompatible with Canada’s in the long run. At an impasse, the non-sovereignist nationalist with a one-decade plan to change Quebec has settled into the role of caretaker for Lévesque’s movement, one its own leading philosophers describe as dying.

Many will view the CAQ’s Petit Compromis as a necessary transitory period following the Quiet Revolution, an uncomfortable middle ground en route toward a more multicultural francophone society. Time will tell how unfavourably the constitutional compromises will be seen.

By choosing to perpetuate the ethnocentric strain of Quebec nationalism past its natural shelf life, however, we know Legault and his ostensibly federalist enablers have placed themselves on the wrong side of a generational divide, and in the process made us all a little less Canadian, for a time.