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Brian Bird: Canada is not just a good country—It is one of the best

Commentary

Every now and then, we hear something insightful or powerful that stops us in our tracks. Those moments are striking, especially when what was said should be considered an obvious truth instead of a groundbreaking discovery.

I had this experience recently when, during a lecture at the university where I work, a distinguished speaker said that Canada is a good country. The statement caused a visceral reaction in me. I found myself at the same time in total agreement with the speaker, but also acutely aware that it has become controversial in certain circles to describe Canada in this way. I wondered, with some trepidation, how this statement landed with the rest of the audience.

There was a time, not long ago, when it seemed like most Canadians openly expressed their affection for Canada, even if they usually did so in understated ways. We stitched the Canadian flag to our backpacks when setting off on a trip abroad. We enjoyed talking about Canada to people we would meet during those trips. We beamed with pride when fellow Canadians punched above their weight in the arts, sciences, and countless other fields and disciplines.

But in recent years we have witnessed a palpable increase in the sentiment opposite to the one conveyed by that speaker I heard. We have been invited not simply to reflect upon and acknowledge various historical wrongs that have taken place in Canada, but to endorse the notion that Canada is inherently flawed and unjust. We have been told, in essence, that Canada is not a good country and never was.

There is no question that profound wrongs have been committed in Canada. The disgraceful treatment of Indigenous persons, detailed in the reports by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, sits at the top of the list. Many other minority groups have been marginalized and subjected to discrimination over the decades. There is no shortage of moments in which we have, either as a country or as individuals who live within it, severely harmed others in our midst.

We should not skate past these failures. They must be confronted and transformed into avenues for healing and growth. In many ways, we are showing maturity in this regard and taking meaningful steps to bind our societal wounds and chart a path toward a more harmonious future together. But we should not write off Canada in the process. In doing so, we risk opening new wounds and falling off this path.

In fairness, negative attitudes toward Canada are not the monopoly of any side of our political spectrum. While some progressives focus on our original sins as a country, certain voices—often situated on the Right—suggest that Canada has more recently lost its way. These voices, in making this claim, often point to matters like social cohesion, moral concerns, and civil liberties. I have, for my part, spoken from this vantage point on the matter of euthanasia and the threat I believe it poses to Canada.

I worry that some of these voices, regardless of where they sit on the political spectrum, go well beyond constructive criticism of Canada. They seem to have wandered into the realm of condemning Canada and, as a result, expressions of “true patriot love” for this country.

This rhetoric is distressing not only because of its toxic effects on our social fabric and civic ecosystem, but because that speaker I heard was fundamentally correct: Canada is indeed a good country. 

Canada’s levels of economic prosperity, life expectancy, and peaceful coexistence are among the highest in the world. Canada ranks “very high” in the Human Development Index—15th out of 191 countries. Freedom House gives Canada a 98 percent mark on political rights and civil liberties. The U.S. News and World Report on quality-of-life ranks Canada as number three in the world.

These results do not happen by accident, and they do not disappear overnight. They are the fruits of a society that is intimately concerned with cultivating human flourishing and protecting human dignity. Chief Justice Brian Dickson of the Supreme Court of Canada put it well when he articulated some of the principles that animate Canada as a free and democratic society:

[R]espect for the inherent dignity of the human person, commitment to social justice and equality, accommodation of a wide variety of beliefs, respect for cultural and group identity, and faith in social and political institutions which enhance the participation of individuals and groups in society.

For these principles to come to life, individuals must breathe into them. By and large, Canadians have consistently done so. When tragedy strikes, we come together. When injustice occurs, we pursue reconciliation. We cherish fraternal solidarity over rugged individualism. We foster and promote diversity and pluralism. Owing often to our human weakness, we have not always lived up to these commitments. But the mark of a good country, perhaps, resembles the mark of a good person: not the possession of a perfect track record so much as a willingness to learn from one’s failures and a sincere commitment to doing better.

Canada is overwhelmingly filled with people of this sort. They are, first and foremost, what makes Canada a good country. Standing behind those international rankings that make us proud to be Canadian are millions of people who tirelessly strive, in the circumstances of their daily lives, to make the society all of us hope for the society in which we live. These “ordinary Canadians” are indeed extraordinary. They are the heartbeat of a country so often admired around the world.

Canada faces many challenges and is far from perfect. Much work remains to heal deep wounds and for Canada to reach its full potential. But Canada is also, objectively speaking, exceptional. Scholar and historian Margaret Conrad captures this tension with these words: “There are injustices in the nation’s past so mean-spirited that they are difficult to believe. At the same time, it must be conceded that Canada is one of the most successful nations on Earth, a country where people from all over the world have found opportunities for community and individual fulfilment.”

A good country humbly admits and grapples with these realities. Imbued with a spirit of optimism, it affords its citizens the right to criticize and remedy its shortcomings and the freedom to celebrate and cherish its accomplishments. Pierre Trudeau once put it this way: “Our hopes are high. Our faith in the people is great. Our courage is strong. And our dreams for this beautiful country will never die.”

Canada is, without a doubt, a good country. Truth be told, it is one of the best.

Malcolm Jolley: You cannot taste wine through a screen

Commentary

In the run-up years before COVID, I went on a frenzy of wine-related press trips, mostly to Europe. This era, the late two thousand teens, coincided with the ascent of social media and its most skillful set of actors, the Internet Influencers. Invariably in their twenties and good-looking, this new brigade of pretty young things caused much crankiness among the more wrinkled and word-bound members of the wine media community.

I remember spending a half hour waiting in the bus outside a winery in the South of Italy while an attractive young woman had photos taken of herself with every bottle of wine they made close to her chest. I don’t know if she sold any more wine than they would have without the shoot, but even in my annoyance, I couldn’t blame them for trying.

Fantasy wine shots are hardly the exclusive dominion of the young and attractive. Old people’s social media wine porn is all labels and no bodies, but it’s no less gauche. I follow a couple of European winos on Instagram who (I think) are in their seventies. Their sybaritic drinking habits, which seem to only feature old vintages of Grand Cru bottles, regularly make me blush.

Needless to say, I am envious, and, as the young say, experiencing FOMO: fear of missing out. Still, I have learned a few things from this louche group. For instance, if you come across a Château Yquem from the 1860s, make sure it has its original cork (so that the air on top of the wine is also old) for a truly authentic experience.

The greatest critique of pornography ever made was by the Anglo-Australian critic, poet, and broadcaster Clive James. In an essay in his book, Cultural Amnesia (2007), he pointed out that no amount of acrobatics or weird stuff would ever make up the fundamental deficiency of the visual depiction of the sex act and its variants. He wrote that, after all, sex is a feeling.

Well, wine is a feeling too. And if they said in the last century that the best things in life are free, then we might say in this one that the best things are in real life. There are no pictures of pretty winos, or pretty wine labels, or, for that matter, pretty words, that can make up for a swallow of a good gulp of wine or a clink of glasses with an old friend.

Wine is also a thought. A complex wine will demand study from its drinker; a momentary pause to determine what’s being tasted. Winemakers will sometimes market their big, powerful reds as “wines of contemplation”, as though they were meant to be sipped slowly in front of a fire while pondering Cartesian dilemmas.

Wines of contemplation are sold as alternatives to, or perhaps as complementary to, “food-friendly wines”. That term is mostly used for lighter wines, bright with acid, that are thought to pair well with this or that dish. The entire profession of the sommelier was devised (by the French, of course) to meet the intellectual challenge of matching the right wine from the cellar with what one decides to have for dinner. In any event, given the sheer number of distinct wines available for sale in the world, some thought must be given to which one to serve when.

Writing last summer in the World of Fine Wine, British wine and culture critic Stuart Walton points out that we owe the ancient Greeks and their fondness for symposia for the association of wine with intellectual pursuit: “As the Dionysian cult was absorbed into the Greek pantheon around the turn of the sixth and fifth centuries B.C., the intoxicant with which the god was associated was exclusively the wine that distinguished southern climates from the gelid brutishness of northern peoples.”

Snobby Greeks aside, it’s not a stretch to imagine that a connection to wine is some kind of connection to the foundations of Western civilization. Whether that’s a good or bad thing is a political question, and one thing wine ought not to be is political. One of my favourite pieces to appear at The Hub in 2023 was Sean Speer’s take on the great Bud Light Backlash, arguing that there ought to be parts of our lives that aren’t political. He writes:

One of the great benefits of liberal democracy is to minimize the role of politics in our lives. It establishes democratic processes for selecting representatives and then delegates day-to-day governance to them. The rest of the constitutional model is about preserving space for people to live out their lives mostly free from political interference and even politics itself.

Notwithstanding the occasional contemplative fireplace, wine’s place is on the table, which should be a refuge from contention. If divisions appear around touchy subjects, like politics, then a toast can be offered to restore unity. Social cohesion around the table in the Republic of Georgia is maintained by the formal role of the Tamada. He (or maybe she these days) is the toastmaster who makes sure things are held together and everyone is literally toasted and hopefully not too figuratively.

The wine trade is mercifully non-political. Not because the people in it, or writing or influencing about it, don’t hold political opinions or even partisan identities. It’s not political because the market for fine wine is still relatively small and every new customer, or reader, is too valuable to alienate. And, like math or science that operate on their own plane, there is more than enough to know about wine in and of itself without complicating things.

Enrolment in wine knowledge courses, like the qualifications taught by the Wine and Spirit Education Trust, are increasingly popular, often by people who don’t plan to work in the wine trade. I suspect the pull of wine knowledge has much to do with its paradoxical quality of both being away from the regular world and being very much about real life. You cannot taste wine through a screen.