Letters

September 2006

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• 2,264 words

National Renovations

The triptych of articles on nation-building in Canada in your June issue by Roy Romanow, Alan Broadbent, and Mark Kingwell reminded me that cultures are splintering in similar ways in the US and other countries. What’s different is Canada’s unique federalism and national identity, built on tolerance, civility, and community responsibility.

Roy Romanow prescribes more socialism for Canada (“A House Half Built,” June). I don’t say this disparagingly. While reading Romanow I was struck by the issues on which the Left has lost ground in America as government has shed its responsibilities to its citizens. However, I think Romanow places too much faith in government and politics—and in nation-states. Governments are less cohesive partly because countries are less relevant than they used to be. Unlimited access to travel, communications, and money causes individuals to feel less dependent on local communities. Increasing economic efficiency leads to fewer rural and factory jobs. Technology and demography are driving globalization, expanding free markets and the demand for new services. These forces can’t be contained, only managed, and increased government spending probably won’t be able to address tomorrow’s social needs by itself.

As Alan Broadbent points out in “Brighter Lights, Bigger Cities” (June), the role of cities is growing, and it is in cities that the conflict between Canada’s traditional federalism and regional opportunities seems most acute. Power has always flowed toward industrial clusters—Detroit and the auto industry is Broadbent’s example—and this trend is stronger in a globally networked economy.

Several years ago I was in Canada when Ottawa was debating the idea of jump-starting the genomics research industry. The debate turned on whether the money would be shared among all the provinces or invested in one megacentre. If I remember correctly, Parliament decided that there would be five genomics research centres, spread across Canada. While this kind of “fairness” is standard politics, it’s not great investment strategy. Canada’s cities are its economic engines and, as Broadbent writes, the only source of new revenues for rural projects. One may lament what has happened to second-tier cities such as Regina, Saskatoon, and Winnipeg, but Canada is fortunate to have three world-class cities. The effort to create a renaissance in second-tier cities and rural areas should not overshadow addressing the real needs of megacities, for they are the source of future growth and cultural and political influence.

Phil Hood
San Jose, California

Parochialism and individual fulfillment seem to be the guiding themes of our current debates on federalism. Roy Romanow’s piece is a refreshing reminder that there is a different vision of what it means to be Canadian. I believe that this caring national sensibility may be a truer reflection of what most Canadians value than what is suggested by our current political leaders. As Canadians, we believe in strengthening our national health-care and social programs, reasserting our role in the international arena as peace-builders, and creating a workable federalism that recognizes provincial rights and responsibilities within a national framework that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Shauna Sylvester
Vancouver, BC

Roy Romanow is exactly right when he says, “Canada has a legacy that provides it with a compass…a story that should allow it to navigate its future course with confidence and grace. If we become gripped with amnesia and pretend we don’t have that narrative, we will lurch about, creating only the illusion of national progress.” I would contend that conservatism and neo-liberalism converge in their need for amnesia or wilful ignorance when each calls for market forces to prevail for the less well off while seeing government and communities as competitors for goods and services created by the private sector.

Romanow’s suggested narrative recalls that nation-building in Canada need be no more complicated than people realizing that they need to work together for the common good, both in their communities as well as in government. Healthy communities and good government are not necessarily in competition with our individual interests. Ideally, they are expressions of who we are. Romanow asks us to remember that the Canadian narrative is a story about setting high standards and meeting them, not about setting our standards lower when we fail.

John Stapleton
Toronto, Ontario

Roy Romanow responds:

” A House Half Built” was written as encouragement to a public that wants and needs more. The response to date has been inspiring. The notion of difference is certainly not a new phenomenon in Canada—diverse peoples progressively building a nation together is one of Canada’s most recognizable features. The concept of shared destiny describes our historical commitment to digging deeper for meaning in our place and to being something bigger than the sum of our differences.

New challenges over time raise new questions. How can we maintain a commitment to a fair and balanced Canada in the context of growing complexities and a smaller world We grapple with big questions through casual chats with neighbours, by attending a budget meeting at city hall, or by following mass media. Our political leaders and their policies play a central role in fomenting this debate. In many ways, it is how governments orient themselves in the public arena that ultimately shapes the character of our conversations, and too often we are led down the path of “divide and conquer” instead of being engaged in ways that would teach us more about what Canadians have in common.

This truncated discourse is increasingly pervasive. Ministers haggle over fiscal imbalances instead of engaging Canadians about the purpose of federal transfers. Discussions over health reforms begin with the promise of transparency and consultation but wind up being conducted behind closed doors. The promise of a carefully negotiated child-care agreement is abandoned under the guise of increasing individual choices.

It should come as no surprise that as policy-making becomes detached from our history and the very public it is supposed to reflect, Canadians lose faith in the possibility of a shared destiny. But Canadians still dream of public institutions that can reflect our shared values of fairness, opportunity, and respect, and that also strike a balance between the individual and society.

Perhaps a little less dreaming and a bit more demanding is in order. To invoke the words of Alfred Lord Tennyson, “come, my friends, ‘tis not too late to seek a newer world.”

Life in the Big City

Alan Broadbent is correct when he claims, “Our metropolises crave more money, power, and control” (“Brighter Lights, Bigger Cities,” June). But his article fails to persuade on two counts: cities are hardly the generators of the wealth of a nation to the degree he claims, and the money for improvement of the social and physical infrastructure is in fact now available to those cities, especially the metropolises.

Broadbent is misleading when he writes, “traditional resource-based industries” contribute only 13 percent of economic output and that “wealth once derived from the land…derives from information and design.” Broadbent actually contradicts this assertion when he says that “with the development of the oil industry” Alberta has tapped into its resource wealth. Does he really think that Calgary’s wealth results primarily from “information and design” In addition, the Toronto Stock Exchange is doing very nicely on Alberta wealth, just as it did earlier in the last century on the minerals of northern Ontario and Quebec.

Broadbent also asserts, “It is popular not to tax,” but unless wealthy persons in finance, mostly resident in the metropolises, are advocating that they should be taxed much more than they are, such statements are little more than crocodile tears. Broadbent, the head of a capital investment corporation, is certainly not part of the solution concerning the New Deal for Cities. I realize that income taxes are somewhat progressive, but they could be much more so, considering all the tax writeoffs that the affluent claim. Look to social democratic Sweden, where the conservative political platform would hardly alter the heavy and much fairer tax load that pays for superior public services. Broadbent and his friends should be encouraging our governments to act courageously, to raise taxes to fill potholes, strive for income equity, and push for full employment.

Jim Lemon, Professor Emeritus
University of Toronto
Toronto, Ontario

American Dreaming

Mark Kingwell (“The American Gigantic,” June) traces a history of the “American dream” through the twentieth century, and his conclusion, based on a comparison of income trends of the rich and the poor, is that its egalitarian tendencies have eroded. About halfway through the article Kingwell addresses the role of Ivy League universities in the “American dream” and concludes that, while it was always assumed that attendance at these schools promised subsequent wealth and status, it is only in recent decades that success has been attributed to intellect and not class.

Kingwell finds this assumption of reward based on intellect open to question. He refers to an unidentified analyst, perhaps expanding on the “ticket to success” metaphor, explaining the choice of Ivy League schools as a “luxury-brand loyal-customer reward: if you spend so much with the same carrier, you expect an air-miles payout at some point.” Kingwell accuses the analyst of “begging the question” (the philosophical term for circular reasoning)—a rhetorical technique that diverts attention from the issue at hand. For Kingwell the issue is not whether class or intellect determines success in the Ivy League—it is clearly class. The analyst, in focusing on the financial reward, is effectively confirming that opinion, without questioning how the university could claim otherwise. But then Kingwell writes, “These and similar “honest’ justifications for selection merely beg the obvious question—in fact, two of them.” When Kingwell articulates these two questions it is obvious that he is using “question-begging” in the sense of “raising an issue,” a usage that purist philosophers would regard as incorrect, if not downright outrageous.

Has Kingwell committed a Freudian slip or is he engaging in wordplay Perhaps Kingwell is calling attention to the possible social implications of this subtle philosophical distinction. Is Kingwell here connecting the insincere reasoning of the analyst to its multiple consequences for the entire university system Does the act of question-begging find its significance more in the possible termination of inquiry than in its content Call it epistemic elision, an act of suppression of questioning. The response of the other party would be to formulate questions particular to the situation that cry out (beg) for a response, in order not to foreclose inquiry. In this way, each sense of “begging the question” would take its meaning from the interactions of the adversaries.

Kingwell appears to be suggesting that Ivy League universities are guilty of question-begging in these matters. If so, where is the smoking gun In an act of question-begging In a proliferation of questions begging to be asked Certainly if the university, as the institutionalization of inquiry, could be demonstrated to be suppressing inquiry through question-begging, there would be no end to questions begging for answers.

H. Neal Collins
Calgary, Alberta

ndp Woes

James Laxer’s piece on the ndp (“Fake Left, Go Right,” May) is woefully Ontario-centric, leading inevitably to distortions. Laxer writes that in the 1988 election, the ndp recycled its 1984 election strategy of attacking the Liberals rather than engaging in a full-frontal assault against what would become the Canada-US Free Trade Agreement (fta). He then expresses amazement that the strategy actually worked, with the ndp winning forty-three seats, the most it has ever won.

Many of those seats, however, were gained by an altogether different strategy than the one Laxer suggests. In Saskatchewan and in British Columbia, the ndp campaign centred on fighting the proposed fta, while in Ontario it did not. This wasn’t necessarily because campaign organizers in Saskatchewan and British Columbia were more idealistic than their Ontario counterparts. The anti-fta “default party” in both of those provinces was the ndp, not the Liberals—if you lived in BC and really wanted to stop the fta, you would vote ndp—so it made political sense to orient the campaign that way. The BC campaign organizers in effect told the central office to butt out—they would do it their own way.

Fast-forward to election night, when results from as far west as Manitoba showed the ndp with only twelve seats—not at all promising. Then Saskatchewan contributed ten more seats and BC nineteen. It was the ndp’s anti-fta campaign in those two provinces that made the difference. Single seats in Alberta and the Yukon filled in the total.

Herschel Hardin
West Vancouver, BC

Blackfly Blues

Over my poached eggs this morning I revelled in Marni Jackson’s Imaginings (“Bloodfest ‘06: The May 24th Blackfly Rally,” June). What long-lost memories returned, what maddening nights rehaunted! Trying to sleep, to eat, to paddle, even to breathe—ah yes, blackflies! As I chortled away, recalling bloody ears or fear that the damn things were going to carry off my little child in the night, I marvelled at the research Jackson must have conducted. Either that or she is the most experienced camper/canoeist/outdoorsy person in the country. Much hipper than I—only once did I recognize the well-chosen and clever references: “All we are saying….” No matter! It was a hilarious bit, Ms. Jackson, just the berries for the May 24 weekend! Incidentally, I cannot remember which of the B vitamins, when taken in large doses before and during Ontario outdoor May/June adventures, keeps our little friends at bay. Is it B6 Niacin B12 Maybe Professor Currie knows

Allan Ralph
London, Ontario

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