Letters

February 2005

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• 3,658 words

Is Canada Disappearing?
Congratulations to The Walrus for the excellent on-line debate on Canada’s foreign policy (“Is Canada Disappearing From The World Stage?”) Yet, despite the many insights of your four contributors, it seems to me that they missed their target. The overarching change in Canada’s foreign policy is to be found in the federal government’s redefinition of Canada itself. It is a redefinition that aims at downgrading us as a nation-state and recasting us narrowly as an economy.

In the lead-up to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (apec) conference in Vancouver in 1997—the one made famous by the pepper spraying of demonstrators—a meeting was held between federal officials and representatives of civil society groups. As the discussions proceeded, some representatives noticed that the federal officials invariably referred to Canada as an “economy.” One prominent leader intervened and declared that Canada was a nation, not just an economy, and asked the officials to refer to it as such. They steadfastly refused.

While this may seem an esoteric conflict in the larger scheme of things, I think it speaks volumes. It reflects one of the most important imperatives of corporate globalization: the gradual displacement of nation-states (and all their peculiar, “trade-distorting” differences) in favour of a single global economy. The government of Canada is among the most committed of any developed nation to creating a new paradigm in which “barriers to trade” are so broadly defined that they include everything from supporting family farms to ensuring food safety.

How is this reflected in foreign policy? Talk to people who attend the hundreds of yearly international meetings on public-policy issues (poverty, the environment, health, education, human rights, economic development, water, food safety, education) and there is alarm at how the Canadian government delegations are now dominated by officials who, in effect, act as gatekeepers against any policy position that conflicts with Canadian trade and commercial liberalization. There are scores of both anecdotal and documented stories of ngos and even UN officials expressing shock and dismay at Canada’s radically altered stance on a whole range of issues.

One example comes from the report of the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which, in November 1998, heard testimony from Canadian officials about what Canada was doing to address poverty. Our officials simply refused to accept any responsibility for the alarming increase in homelessness, reductions in welfare payments, or living conditions in First Nations communities. The UN committee members used almost unprecedented language in their response, accusing government delegates of “stonewalling,” “waffling,” and “avoiding the glaring facts.”

It is in this critical area that Canada’s foreign policy has changed most fundamentally in the past fifteen years. Though any one of these international forums may amount to little compared to, say, a decision about joining the invasion of Iraq, add up the thousands of such engagements and you find the main source of the admiration we used to attract around the world, especially from Third World delegations. When Canadian delegations met with those of other countries, they presented themselves as representatives of a complex, multi-faceted, multicultural, democratic, and unique community—a nation, not just an economy. The face we now present internationally is one of cold, hard, self-interested economics.

Canada still manages, sometimes, to live up to its past reputation. But those occasions are rare and usually the result of extraordinary efforts (e.g., Lloyd Axworthy on land mines, and Sheila Copps on the international initiative for enhancing cultural diversity). Kyoto and Canada’s refusal to join the invasion of Iraq were similarly aberrant—the result of Jean Chrétien’s desire for a legacy.

Stephen Handelman said in the debate that “there are fewer people looking for honest brokers these days, or for examples of enlightened global citizenship.” He is dead wrong. In fact, there are more and more people looking for—desperate for— enlightened leadership, most of them from the Third World. The pity is that they no longer find it from Canada.
Murray Dobbin
Vancouver, B.C.

In your on-line discussion of foreign policy, author and journalist Linda McQuaig took the position that Canada’s role in the world was not declining and that worrying about revitalizing our foreign policy is “a bit like worrying too much about impressing the neighbours.” McQuaig did acknowledge that there is “always room for improvement.” Her remarks, however, seemed to suggest that our current place in the world was just fine, and a significant revitalization of our foreign policy is unnecessary.

I’m inclined to agree with McQuaig when she says that the notion that Canada is slipping in the world has “been largely fabricated by a small group of neo-conservative[s].” It doesn’t follow, however, that Canada should not be concerned with maintaining and augmenting its voice in international affairs. It is incumbent upon us, as a nation, to share the perspectives and knowledge that emerge from the Canadian experiment with those nations better positioned economically and militarily to take meaningful action.

Leadership requires much more than writing cheques or putting boots on the ground. It’s about genuine advocacy, and a willingness to find innovative solutions to complex problems. Our prime minister has taken strong positions on Haiti, on Darfur, and he has initiated discussions on the idea of a G-20, a structure to augment international co-operation. These are positive examples of strong and vocal leadership that ought to be commended, and expanded upon. True, not every suggestion that Canada makes will be accepted by the international community.

True also that our credibility on the international stage would be augmented by an increased ability to join in the programs we advocate. None of this, however, justifies the argument that simply because we have done worse in the past, we should not strive to do better in future.
J. Alexis Levine
Toronto, Ontario

Marriage Vows
A note of appreciation for Wendy Dennis’s essentially optimistic, but genuinely realistic assessment of marriage (“The Mystery of Marriage,” December/January). Despite the respective dissembling of each of the Clintons at different times in their public history, they are more a “worthy” than “unlikely” answer to the question of what marriage is.

As an officiant at marriages in Baptist churches for over forty years, I have seen some float, some sink, some resurface, and some, like our Canadian submarines, under constant scrutiny. In my attempts to prepare couples for the difficulties of marriage that Ms. Dennis has so clearly outlined in her article, only one prospective spouse had the strength of heart to tell me that our premarital conversations were indeed the “downer” that I had promised. My grapevine tells me his marriage is still puttering along. So, sail on, ye hearties, and deal with threats of mutiny as best ye can.
R.G. Doll
Burnaby, B.C.

I heartily agree with Wendy Dennis that the current expectations of marriage are part and parcel of the trend toward divorce. Marriage takes more work than the wedding planning. It takes time, patience, ample amounts of communication, arguing, and a healthy sex life. Couples who are not having sex are doing a disservice to their marriage. In my husband’s therapy practice, he has found sex to be a barometer of relationships. If you’re not having sex with each other, the marriage is usually in trouble.

A spouse is supposed to be the person you trust the most, the person who knows you best, and a source of strength. A marriage can work only if both parties are committed to each other above everyone else, including children. Yes, there will be moments that are not filled with awe, wonder, and passion, but there is also joy and comfort to be found in mundane routines. That’s what a life together is about, sharing all of it.
Shirley Forsyth, Michael Adkins
Hamilton, Ontario

I worry that my kids, relatively recently married, will read Wendy Dennis’s piece on marriage with alarm: Ms. Dennis paints a bleak picture. According to her, relationships inevitably emerge from a brief spring of infatuation only to leap inexplicably into a long, cold, and miserable winter, animated only by storms of bitter conflict. Yes, about 50 percent of marriages fail. But we have learned some important things about those failures and how to prevent them. There has been good research conducted on what makes relationships work and what hinders them. For example, we know that maintaining a strong and satisfying relationship depends upon spending time together, talking and listening to each other, nurturing the relationship rather than taking it for granted, ensuring that we have fun together (Dennis got this one right), and acting with mutual respect. If you treat your partner with respect, you are likely to do all of those other things almost instinctively.

If you treat your partner disrespectfully, you cultivate in yourself and your partner a reciprocally negative feeling, which becomes self-reinforcing.
Myles Genest
Halifax, Nova Scotia

Arctic Meltdown
Andrea Mandel-Campbell (“Who Controls Canada’s Arctic?” December/January) takes note of the Inuit contribution to Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic, but the article would have benefited from a considerably more imaginative approach to what (if anything) Canada actually “controls” North of 60. What is missing from her argument is any deep sense that Canada’s Arctic sovereignty depends on Inuit cooperation.

The Canadian government cannot get sovereignty on the cheap. This goes well beyond strengthening our military presence in the North, as Ms. Mandel-Campbell seems to imply. It must include a major increase in Inuit control over land and marine resources, and over environmental protection and sustainable development. It must also include significant resources for training the Inuit in an appropriate way. Canada is fortunate that most Inuit wish to remain part of Canada and are willing to serve as rangers, rcmp officers, and public servants for the benefit of keeping “our land” as part of Canada.

The strongest claim Canada could make to sovereignty over the Arctic under international law would be through an effective political economy in all three territories, run by local aboriginal people, especially Nunavut. Giving the territories full status as provinces would be a good long-term goal. Simply moving military personnel around and conducting exercise expeditions will not resolve long-term problems of environmental, cultural, economic, and political control.

Canadian sovereignty in Nunavut is not just about drawing lines on a map or waving the flag around from time to time. It is about effective governance by Inuit, supported and enhanced by Canada as a whole. We are very far from achieving that.
Professor Shelley Wright
Northern Director, Akitsiraq Law School
Iqaluit, Nunavut

Words like “sovereignty,” “protection,” and “control” have no meaning in the Arctic. In 1959, I “protected” Canada’s sovereignty in northern Ellesmere Island while serving as glacial meteorologist on the Canada-US Ice Shelf Expedition. Our purpose was to determine whether American bombers could land on the ice shelf. The expedition was a shambles—badly organized and led with too much technology, all of it useless at the end of the season. It produced no results of practical or scientific value.

The future of Canada’s Arctic does not lie in policies that foster paranoid nationalism. It rests with opening the region to anyone and everyone interested in learning the limits of what can be done in a harsh, demanding and difficult land. The North fosters both a sense of individualism and one of cooperation and sharing with others. That’s what Canada is all about—personal and collective development. The Inuit learned that long ago and it’s about time all Canadians did.
Jim Lotz
Halifax, Nova Scotia

Afghan Portraits
I want to commend you on your inclusion of the photo essay by Ahmet Sel (“Inside a Different Kabul,” December/January). I’m so used to seeing photographs of a desperate and ravaged Afghan people. Sel’s images offer an approaching optimism. It’s revealing to peer into a world so broken by the East and the West. The Walrus should incorporate more full-page art and photography in the future. Words aren’t a prerequisite for greater perception.
Rachelle Wilson
Oakville, Ontario

Note: The Walrus neglected to credit sipa Press for Ahmet Sel’s Afghanistan portraits. Thank you, sipa Press.

Burmese Days
The parting words of my guide during three weeks in Burma last November were, “Tell them things are bad, but not that bad.” David Kendall’s article (“Burma on the Brink,” December/January) struck me as the epitome of the “half empty” view of that country. Perhaps, had he read Charles Foran’s review of books on Buddhism (“Burning Man,” December/January), he might have had a less cynical view.

I cannot in any way support an imposed military rule that places a democratically elected leader under house arrest “for her own protection,” but I also cannot accept the belief that this same junta has made the people welcoming, obedient, meditative, and devout. I suspect rather that these Buddhist characteristics have enabled the generals to maintain their hold.

My visit put me in close contact with a sweet, charming, generous, and serene people. Isolated from most of the rest of the world, they are proudly self-sufficient and their poverty is a dignified one. There was no evidence of extreme economic disparity; indeed, the only signs of wealth were the lavish gilding and bejewelled ornamentation in the shrines. There was also little awareness of government, apart from joking references to “livestock” upon encountering the military or the obverse “military” when farm animals delayed our progress.

“Burma on the Brink” could not have been a better title for the piece. These people have so little of what we have, but they possess a huge measure of something that, if we ever had it, has been long lost. Burma will change, but will it be a happier place should it become choked with traffic, jammed beneath skyscrapers and billboards for fast food, cars, and financial services, signifying the outpouring of wealth to foreign capitalists? I wonder if there are worse things for a country than to be cut off from the rest of the world.
Ken Browne
Mount Brydges, Ontario

A Civil Sighting
How long have I waited (“A Very Civil War,” December/January) for someone to defend, in print, the civic excellence of a strong federal entity in this mostly sensible and well-ordered country. It takes a particular kind of comprador mentality, or a marvellous capacity for dissociation, to see a benign way of decentralizing the country.

Those who have little interest in national commitments like Kyoto, health care, and human rights, or the regulation of pharmaceuticals, industrial compounds, and offshore pollution, have little interest in a robust and capable national government. The rest of us who still value the history, achievements, quality of life, and, the future of this remarkable nation must congratulate Mr. Ken Alexander on having the courage to stand up for us and for this visionary place called Canada.
Gerry Hopson
Galiano Island, BC

It is in the nature of all federations to display tensions between the central government and provincial or state entities. Ideally, that tension should be limited by a clear constitutional text that spells out the jurisdictions of each level of government. In Canada, the Constitution Act of 1867 has that function. Unfortunately, many actors refuse to play their assigned role.

The federal government is one of these undisciplined actors. The 1867 act clearly states that the maintenance and management of the health-care system is a provincial responsibility. Why should one be surprised, then, that premiers Ralph Klein and Jean Charest defend their provinces’ right, and indeed their duty, to uphold a recognized provincial jurisdiction?

Mr. Alexander suggests that the Liberal government of Paul Martin will be unable to fulfill other promises, since the prime minister “caved in” to the premiers with regard to the health-care deal. This is regrettably dishonest. As I write, Minister of Finance Ralph Goodale has just announced a federal surplus for 2004–2005 of between six and nine billion dollars. Paul Martin will have, if he wants, the necessary money for the cities initiative and foreign engagements. What we have here is not “a very civil war,” but very alert provincial governments committed to defending the rights of their residents.
Francis Bédros
Gatineau, Quebec

The Cost of Health Care
Congratulations to Ivor Shapiro for his article (“Life, At What Price?” November). I am a sixty-nine-year-old woman, who two-and-a-half years ago had a radical cystectomy for a malignant tumour in my bladder. After a urologist recommended removing my bladder, I requested two further examinations and prognoses. Each doctor told me that if I did not go through with the surgery, I would survive no longer than six months. All three assured me of the benefits of this treatment. Not one, even when I asked, suggested that there would be a burden.

I had hoped that one of the physicians might be more sophisticated about biomedical ethics. As I told the urologists that I had not yet made up my mind about the surgery, I was met with frustration and impatience. By the time I saw the oncologist, I had done my own research, and so was both braver and better informed about my condition. As he examined me, I asked his views about physician-assisted suicide for older people like myself: those who might choose, rather than surgery, to live with the cancer for as long as could be managed in relative comfort. The oncologist was horrified, and said he could not possibly consider supporting me in such a decision. Asked why, he said that all life is sacrosanct. I replied that I should make the decision of my living or dying, and that I had hoped to find a doctor who would support me, or, at the very least, discuss it with me.

It is not unusual that Ivor Shapiro did not think to tell his father that he could choose either to fight his cancer or accept it. All of us—patients, their families, doctors, and also bio-ethicists, and certainly Canada’s “ethical canary,” Margaret Somerville—need to be educated about choosing or rejecting treatment, and choosing to die. Then, one hopes, as Canadians embrace a new knowledge of death, we may be able to afford universal heath care. In the meantime, we need to thank people like Ivor Shapiro for his courage and good sense and careful research.
Audrey Andrews
Calgary, Alberta

Studies Show
I work at home and decided to stop for lunch and browse through my latest issue of The Walrus. I commenced reading Ellen Vanstone’s article (“Studies Show…,” November) and couldn’t stop laughing! Here I was, sitting alone at my kitchen table in my cabin by the shore of Lake Laberge, laughing louder and harder the further I read. Thanks for brightening this cloudy, cold afternoon. Studies show that laughter is good for you.
Bonnie Burns
Whitehorse, Yukon

Calgary School
Hugh Segal’s attempt (“Letters,” November) to discredit Marci McDonald’s article on Tom Flanagan (“The Man Behind Stephen Harper,” October) contains a few “conceits” of its own. To say that Stephen Harper and Peter MacKay looked beyond “the narcissism of small differences” (my emphasis) is a gross distortion of the fundamentally opposite philosophies of the Progressive Conservative party and the Reform/Alliance party.

The PCs are rooted in Macdonald/Disraeli conservatism, which holds that the purpose of government is to elevate the condition of the people and that those who do well owe something back to the society that contributed to their success. The PCs uphold the notion of the public good.

The Reform/Alliance party is the polar opposite. Rooted in Goldwater Republicanism, which we now call neo-conservatism, this group holds the belief that individual freedom (especially from taxation) trumps the common good. Despite Harper’s rhetoric about moderation, his actions speak louder: no policy convention for almost a year and half, placement of neo-conservatives in his inner circle, and allegedly withholding money still owed to former PC leadership candidate David Orchard. Rather than giving us “a real choice,” as Mr. Segal claims, the Alliance party takeover of the PCs robbed Canadians of an electable, centrist, national alternative, and propelled us further along the path of integration with the United States.

Hats off to The Walrus and Marci McDonald for going beneath the surface. We need more journalism of this kind before it’s too late.
Linda West
Ottawa, Ontario

In With Chávez
Don Mackay (“Letters,” November) says that the number of Venezuelans living in poverty has doubled during Hugo Chávez’s presidency. Well, here are the facts. In 1997, the poverty rate was 48.1 percent and the extreme poverty rate was 25.5 percent. Chávez was elected in 1998. By 2001, the poverty rate fell to 39 percent and the extreme poverty rate fell to 14 percent. This data came from the UN and Venezuela’s National Institute of Statistics, the most reliable and independent sources available. MacKay relies on the elitist Catholic University in Caracas, a hotbed of anti-democratic activity, which to my sorrow is my alma mater.

The real story, though, lies in the improved living and working conditions of the previously marginalized through successful anti-poverty programs. Millions of people receive medical attention, many for the first time. Infant mortality has fallen due to increased access to immunizations, maternal milk banks, nutrition programs for pregnant women, hot school meals, low-cost drugs, and clean water. One million more Venezuelans can now read while more than one and a half million children, previously excluded, attend school.

The Chávez government is battling poverty as no other government has, despite relentless attacks by elites that still think they own Venezuela’s oil. Oil is now invested in public health, education, housing, and food security. This should be applauded, not disparaged. And Chávez did not just simply “survive” a transparent referendum; he got a landslide victory, his eighth electoral win.
Maria Páez Victor, Ph.D.
Toronto, Ontario

“The time has come,” The Walrus said, “to talk of many things.” Send us a letter, an email ([email protected]), or a tweet, or post on this website. Comments may be published in any medium and edited for length, clarity, and accuracy. Mail correspondence to: 411 Richmond St. E., Suite B15, Toronto, Ontario, Canada  M5A 3S5