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Brian Lee Crowley: We need more than mere happiness to fix what’s wrong with Canada

Commentary

Happiness, as vital and irreplaceable as it is, offers only the shakiest of foundations for public policy. Because it is an inward state, it cannot be commanded by the State. Governments can say let there be schools and roads and laboratories and armies and welfare payments and hospitals and these things will generally appear. No government has yet been successful, however, in decreeing that there shall be happiness. That is doubtless because, as Benjamin Franklin so aptly put it in the American context, “The Constitution only guarantees you the right to pursue happiness. You have to catch it yourself.”

The State, then, can at best create some of the conditions in which happiness may be pursued; actually catching the beast is a private pursuit and no two of us imagines the object of the hunt in quite the same way. That makes it imperative to understand who is doing the pursuing and that brings us to consider what to make of The Hub’s recent revelations about young Canadians’ rapidly deteriorating levels of reported happiness, both relative to their peers in other countries and relative to older generations within Canada.

One member of this rising generation, Eric Lombardi, writes for The Hub that he knows the root cause of his generation’s unhappiness: the boomers have waged and won an intergenerational war, stealing from this country’s youth any hope of happiness. 

On the surface the indictment is a powerful one. Unaffordable housing and university education, overwhelming debt burden, poisoned relations between the sexes, few and declining numbers of children, out-of-control immigration, and cities increasingly unfit for the comfort and affection of their residents.

At the same time, the young critics who want to lay the blame for their predicament at the door of the boomers have a highly selective memory. They know boomers bought their houses when prices were lower than they are today, forgetting that people like my boomer brother lost his house (and all his equity) when interest rates headed up to the 20 percent level, what we used to call buying your house on Chargex. Moreover that occurred at a time when both inflation and unemployment were regularly and for long periods in double digits. We also paid the steep transition costs from a protectionist national policy to a regime of free trade with the U.S.

We are accused of hanging on to our houses long after we “should” have given them up, ignoring that in this we are only behaving as all the generations before us did, wanting to live in the homes that we built and in which we raised our children until our failing powers close that door. 

We were the generation that put its shoulder to the wheel and fought to balance the budget under Paul Martin’s leadership, precisely because we came to see that it was irresponsible to pass on to the younger generation the costs of services we had ourselves used.

It was after boomers largely passed from the leadership of the political world that many of the things about which millennials and others complain came to pass. It was under the current prime minister, for example, that immigration spun out of control, contributing to the hike in housing prices that has so damaged the prospects of the young. He also campaigned successfully in 2015 to abandon the cross-party consensus in favour of responsible public finances that was Jean Chretien’s greatest legacy.

My point, however, is not to engage in a competition to see which generation faced the greater hardships. Every generation has to face the challenges of its time.

Rather I want to make the case that while declining happiness among Canada’s young may indeed be laid at the door of those who came before them, the economic ills of which they so rightly complain are more symptom than cause. For happiness is first and foremost a spiritual condition. Spiritual pain can be made worse by material want, but a full wallet can never compensate for an impoverished spirit. In fact as long as we diagnose young Canadians’ unhappiness as a material condition, all of our efforts to fix it will come to naught. 

The importance of this was driven home for me by an exchange I had with a Canadian veteran of the Afghanistan campaign. He pointed out one of the things that strikes vets returning home after living in some of the harshest places on earth is how little appreciation Canadians have for the incredible society we have created. He said that in Afghanistan it was common to see children kicking a soccer ball take shelter when they heard rocket fire. Once the barrage ended, they generally returned to the field and carried happily on. He contrasted that with what happens when the Sky-train jams for a half hour and people miss the first 10 minutes of the Canucks game at Rogers Place. Who, my acquaintance asked, do you think has a bigger smile on their face when they get to carry on with their day? “It’s the opportunity to just live that satisfies those with next to nothing. But a speck of tarnish on the family silver can set the privileged to thinking his world has ended.” 

Happiness is not an end state but a process, born of struggle, perseverance, and achievement. Housing and incomes and family and access to education and the other material things we enjoy are the fruit of that struggle. We become happy by mastering ourselves, by learning to subordinate our pleasures of the moment to our long-term aspirations, and then through our own efforts proving ourselves equal to the honour of succeeding the generations from whom we have inherited so much. We learn to become adults, putting away childish things, at great cost in terms of forgone fun.

My generation had to learn to stop drinking and toking and get serious about education and work. We had to stop looking at the opposite sex as occasions of momentary pleasure and start to see them as potential mates and partners in forming a family and having children. We stopped spending on flash cars and clothes and started saving for a house and a responsible retirement. All of this was a painful sacrifice but was the condition of our realising those good things for which our human nature yearns. 

The younger generation now has different challenges. The sexes have drifted away from each other, for example, perhaps driven by a widespread belief that we should be loved for who we are without compromise rather than the traditional view that maturity consists in part in modifying your behaviour to win the approval of the opposite sex. Computer games and online pornography have surely not helped, any more than the confusion about sexual identity which is the legacy of gender ideology.

Because happiness is only won through sacrifice and trial, each of us is the hero in the story of our own life. And each hero in every story is trying to prove him or herself worthy. My father, for example, for the first time in his life had to defy his mother who did not want him to enlist in the Canadian forces in the Second World War. But he also knew he could not hold up his head among his peers if he did not show that he was equal to the sacrifice being demanded of his generation, just as his father had enlisted a quarter century before.

Part of happiness then lies in learning from those who went before what a good and honourable life looks like in the society in which you live; how the universal human experience is translated into life in modern Canada, for example.

And it is here that I fear the older generations have let down the young. For we have allowed, and even participated in, the denigration and destruction of both this country’s understanding of the good life and of the reputation of the heroes who should serve as models for our young people to emulate. 

A child waves the Maple Leaf flag during Canada Day celebrations at LeBreton Flats in Ottawa, on Friday, July 1, 2022. Justin Tang/The Canadian Press.

Who in Canada today stands up unapologetically and says that we have created here an admirable society, worthy of emulation, one that the rising generation should be proud to carry into the future? For me even to suggest such a thing will bring down upon my head charges of being indifferent to the suffering of Indigenous people, for example, or racial minorities, or the destruction of the planet through climate change. 

Not only should we hang our heads in shame apparently, but those heroes on whom we might normally have wanted to model our lives, those exemplars of courage and self-sacrifice such as Winston Churchill or Sir John A. Macdonald or even just our own parents, are now just dead and white and racist and genocidal. 

Those institutions that formed the backbone of Canada—the RCMP, the Canadian Armed Forces, the courts, our political leadership, the universities and hospitals—have themselves lost confidence in our values and our traditions and have largely become abject targets of grievance-mongers, having lost the moral courage to defend themselves and the Canada that gave them birth and looked to them for leadership. We endow with a factitious dignity morally and physically degrading activities such as prostitution and drug abuse but treat with contempt the bourgeois values of family, responsibility for self, striving for success, discipline, and marriage that have always been the only real means of access to the middle class which the government claims to champion.

Furthermore, if you succeed by the traditional route, if you, say, get ahead in business, build a home and a family, buy a cottage, and have a nice car through your own self-discipline, energy, sacrifice, and effort, your thanks is that the prime minister opines that you are likely a tax cheat and certainly need every year to pay “just a little bit more” because you are, after all, one of the “wealthy.” By contrast we inch every year closer to a “universal basic income,” the ultimate evolution of an out-of-control welfare state that thinks that a just society is one where those who are unwilling to engage in productive work should have their way paid by those who do. There could be no better illustration of the materialist fallacy that happiness is just a matter of having enough money to buy things; those of us who do not share that fallacy think how you earn your money leaves an indelible stamp on your character and therefore prospects for happiness. 

If we had set out as a conscious aim to destroy the ways in which each generation of Canadians inspires its successor to sacrifice willingly in order to reach maturity, we could not have come up with a more effective and diabolical scheme. Somehow we managed to take a country that, seen objectively, balancing its flaws and its strengths, is worthy of respect, admiration, and emulation, and turned it into something which too many young people believe that they must treat with shame and revulsion. And then we wonder when that generation flounders. We deprecate and belittle the time-tested values and behaviours that have conferred success on the Canadians who came before while celebrating the self-indulgence of vapid celebrities and tiny minorities of the socially disaffected.

I accept my share of the blame for allowing this to happen. My generation did not stand up successfully for Canada. But our sin was not greed. It was being too deferential, trusting, and complacent. Things can yet be turned around. Yes, the hour is late and the volunteers few, but so be it. What matters now is that if we persist in mistaking our spiritual hunger for material want we will bankrupt the country, destroy our culture, and forget our history. The one thing we will not have done is to make ourselves happy.

Michael Kempa: The foreign interference inquiry report shows commissioner Hogue is succeeding where rapporteur Johnston failed

Commentary

Justice Marie-Josee Hogue’s just-released foreign interference report provides more transparency and details beyond the opaque conclusions offered by “independent” special rapporteur David Johnston almost precisely a year ago.

Earlier this afternoon, the first report of the Public Inquiry into Foreign Interference in Federal Electoral Processes and Democratic Institutions (PIFI) was released, landing on the desks of journalists and analysts with a quieter thud than many would have expected.

I had the advantage of being in the tense Ottawa media lockup, at the National Archives building, to review the report in the morning hours prior to its lunchtime release. There were few signs of shock or surprise in the room of journalists, as the pages containing the commission’s first round of findings were anxiously turned. 

Both the Johnston and PIFI reports confirm many of the generalities that Canadians have long suspected. 

There is in fact “ample evidence” that foreign interference occurred in the 2019 and 2021 elections, potentially impacting some votes and even possibly results in a handful of ridings, but without impacting the overall election outcome. China is seen as the main actor seeking to affect our electoral outcomes by helping preferred candidates obtain office. It is, as Commissioner Justice Hogue puts it, the “most persistent and sophisticated foreign interference threat to Canada”. The People’s Republic of China’s interference tools of choice are illegal campaign donations, bribery, blackmail, threats, cyber-attacks, and mis- and disinformation campaigns. 

Some of these tools, describes the report, were used against Conservative MP Kenny Chiu during the 2021 election, when Chinese Canadians were encouraged by state proxies not to vote for the Vancouver politician. Chiu would ultimately lose his seat. The report says “false narratives”  possibly contributed to his loss.

India and Iran are considered secondary but increasingly threatening players but seem more concerned with monitoring and stifling criticism and dissent among their diasporas in Canada than seeing the election of sympathetic candidates to Canada’s Parliament. Meanwhile, overt Russian election meddling could not be found. 

CSIS is told to sharpen up its delivery of intelligence to government—getting into the details that catch governments’ attention—and should likely be empowered to share more broadly with other players, such as opposition parties. Government and the civil service is told to learn, digest and share intelligence between its branches. And on Hogue went, reviewing the often repeated messages of the failings of the Canadian national security apparatus. She’ll leave the majority and details of her recommendations for later this year when she issues her second report.

The difference between the work of Johnston and Hogue comes down to the latter having a far more transparent process, one that yielded more details for the public to consider on the pathway back to rebuilding trust in our democratic institutions. And Hogue will tell you she is worried about that trust, writing that hostile states succeeded in their interference because some Canadians now have “reduced trust in Canada’s democratic process.” She calls this the “greatest harm” this country has suffered from foreign interference.

While Johnston spoke vaguely about threats to Canadian democracy and the need to confront the growing danger of foreign interference, Hogue is more forceful, concluding that interference “likely impacted some votes” and that the covert actions of foreign states “undermined the right of voters to have an electoral ecosystem free from coercion or covert influence.” She calls this a “stain on our electoral process.” 

Johnston’s poring over classified documents at his desk enabled him to muster such insightful observations as that there were “irregularities” surrounding the nomination of then soon-to-be Liberal MP Han Dong in the Toronto riding of Don Valley North. The former governor general then coupled this with statements absolving Dong, Prime Minister Trudeau, and other Liberal party heavy-hitters from wilful wrong-doing. Beyond the fact that he never even sat down to speak with Dong, the trouble of course is that we have no clue what documents were on his desk, or what other information he had on hand that enabled him to make such reassuring statements. Such a “just trust me” story—whether it’s told by a respected objective figure or a former ski companion of the prime minister in power—is simply not a pathway to the restoration of public trust and political engagement in a modern world where an infuriated public increasingly distrusts the words leaving the lips of the elite governing classes. The public is hungry for the unedited truth they deserve.

As Tom Korski, managing editor of Blacklock’s Reporter, commented at the time of Johnston’s report, “The day has passed when the archbishop or the bank president or the royal family gets to stand there and say, ‘There’s nothing to see here, I’m not taking any more questions.” “We are in an age that is so far past that. People don’t buy it anymore. It’s not because they’re cynical. It’s because they’re informed,” he said.

Commissioner Hogue, on the other hand, insisted Dong and other players give official public and private testimony to lawyers. The benefit to Canadians was that they could hear what went on at his nomination for themselves. Testimony described several busloads of teenage Chinese national students armed with false credentials, who didn’t even live in Dong’s riding, arriving at his nomination. CSIS said they believed they had been pressured by the PRC’s Toronto consulate to vote for Dong. Hogue describes a “well-grounded suspicion” that these international students were “tied to the PRC.” “Given that DVN [Don Valley North] was considered a ‘safe’ Liberal seat, this would likely not have impacted which party won the seat. It could, however, have impacted who was elected to Parliament,” she writes. She stresses that “this is significant”.

Kenny Chiu appears as a witness at the Public Inquiry Into Foreign Interference in Federal Electoral Processes and Democratic Institutions in Ottawa on Wednesday, April 3, 2024. Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press.

Like Johnston, Hogue found no evidence to conclude Dong was a witting benefactor of this PRC boosting. Nor does Hogue suggest that the prime minister and his team were negligent or deceitful in how they managed information coming to them about these nomination concerns—though she does challenge whether the prime minister did enough to circle back to the issue after the election. 

However, testimony from Prime Minister Trudeau and his key party election organizers revealed to Canadians that the arrival of busloads of unidentified groups is par for the course of our nominations processes. 

As such, beyond Johnston’s “trust me” story of irregularities, Hogue has now exposed to the public the weaknesses in party nominations. She concludes nomination contests can amount to “gateways for foreign states who wish to interfere in our democratic process.” She promises recommendations to come to tighten things up. 

The pattern of additional detail and more forceful statements beyond rapporteur Johnston is repeated throughout Hogue’s work. She rightly points out that “foreign interference is like crime.” Both are “always present,” “evolve,” and are “impossible to eradicate.” However, she insists, it must be  “managed” and “discouraged.” Like runaway crime, foreign interference shakes citizens’ faith in their state. It requires frank public discussion and swift policy action. 

“The cat is now out of the proverbial bag,” says Hogue about Canadians now being made aware of the foreign interference their country is currently facing. The result, she says, has meant hostile ideological states have been successful when it comes to one of their primary goals. Our confidence in our electoral process has been shaken. It will take time to rebuild.   

It is an absolute shame that so much time was wasted at Johnston’s desk of secret documents before getting to Hogue’s public hearings. The second report on foreign interference will focus on how we respond to this foreign interference in our elections. But it leaves Canadians a scant few months to do much with the recommendations, before we head back to the polls in 2025.