Perfecting the Union Versus Packing It In

Obama wants to perfect his nation, Harper would rather his didn’t exist

If a country’s present circumstance is dire and the future bleak, it makes sense for the campaigning politician to pluck from the historical archive moments of transcendence upon which something new and special may be grafted. The Bush administration, amnesiac, innumerate, and having allowed dreamers and ideologues to direct matters of actual importance (adventures overseas, home mortgages, the value ascribed to a human life) has left the US mired in war, debt, and domestic alienation. Its idea well is dry, and with sub-prime mortgage lenders amorphous or in Albania, and the pool of available soldiers dwindling, soon enough the accounts receivable ledger will be empty, too, and the dike will burst.

Into this anxious moment steps a curious presence, Barack Obama. Given that the standing philosopher of hope, George W. Bush, attempted to sell an abstract noun, democracy, across the Middle East, and failed miserably, then watched as home ownership (the American dream) was offered to those without equity or liquidity; and given that his long tenure amounts to “Let’s try this and pray for the best,” one would imagine Americans having little time for “the audacity of hope.” And yet, with his promise of change and the potential for transcendence, Obama was initially embraced: no other fresh option presented itself. But then, aided and abetted by YouTube if not the mainstream media, doubt set in, and as the dead weight of a Wednesday afternoon hung over the commons, the still-sentient wondered: “Haven’t we heard this hope thing before . . . Does this black and white tyro have the strategic chops to deliver us from doom?”

Buffeted by accusations that he took counsel from a conspiracy theorist — not Donald Rumsfeld or Paul Wolfowitz, but his own pastor, Jeremiah Wright, a man who allegedly hates white America and believes that its purpose is to poison, degrade, and sacrifice blacks — Obama was in danger of coming across as a Democratic menace to match the neo-conservative, blissfully optimistic, and sometimes apocalyptic Bush. He responded by combing the historical archive and settling on a notion: perfecting the union.

The US Constitution, Obama said in a speech that captivated all but the most partisan cranks, was born of contradiction: it speaks eloquently of freedom in the context of slavery. However, he continued — not as a preacher might but as a cool Harvard graduate would — at various moments of historical impasse this foundational contract between citizens and the state has been amended and improved. That is, even on the knottiest issue of the American narrative, race relations, there has been positive change.

Knowing that the condensed feedback loop of Wright’s incendiary comments would unspool right through the Democratic Convention in August — a constant reminder that race relations remained mired in the muck — Obama did not hide, apologize for his associations, or content himself with conjuring up the ghosts of Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy. Instead, he insisted that perfecting the union required the ability to embrace conflicting ideas, and to see good as well as evil in history’s long march.

The speech was many things — nation building, a call to collective responsibility, liberal and conservative — and, in its modesty, it was also strategically brilliant. Here was a man, sometimes ecstatic but now intensely sober, who presented himself as Bush and Hillary Clinton’s opposite. The US represents not the end of history, as Bush would have it, but an experiment and historical challenge, and a commander-in-chief should know this. Vis-à-vis Clinton, Obama’s formative experiences are indeed outside the Beltway, but in this gamble for the presidency he will put them in context and not exaggerate their import. A path forward — one not marred by merchants of fear or the entitled few, but tempered, nuanced, and demanding — has been articulated. It was a grown-up and generous moment, and the country took notice. For a day, at least, history and hope had been restored, and made rational.

And in this election year for the US and perhaps for us, how is Canada faring in perfecting its union? Do we even have one to perfect, and from our history can anything useful be gleaned?

Years ago, on biannual trips, I always enjoyed visiting watering holes in St. John’s. The Ship Inn was a lively spot with elevated chatter and excellent beer. As elsewhere, talk included salty descriptions of local ne’er-do-wells, a possible union of the Atlantic provinces, and expressions of fealty for Newfoundland’s federal representatives. Laughter followed portrayals of John Crosbie’s more bombastic moments, and wry smiles accompanied character sketches of contemporary politicos on the federal scene. Ottawa’s Parliament, not the house that Joey Smallwood built, it struck me, was the important theatre; and when his name came up, as it did before and after the witching hour, there were expressions of remorse over “the biggest giveaway in history” (the hydroelectric agreement with Quebec over Churchill Falls), but little rancour about Smallwood bringing the province into Confederation. A deal had been made, and so be it.

Today, as offshore oil becomes a reality, this is changing. Now it is Premier Danny Williams who is considered the Rock’s true blood, and his message to the rest of Canada (roc) is clear: we’re grateful for our past association, but hands off Newfoundland oil. No one can begrudge sudden good fortune to a province long desperate for it, and the collapse of the cod fishery is still largely blamed on Ottawa, but such triumphalist local rhetoric remains troubling.

This March, by day alighting on the ski slopes of Mount Sutton in Quebec’s Eastern Townships, by night attempting to make sense of my home province’s current socio-political discourse — that the St. Patrick’s Day parade in Montreal is “too English”; that schoolchildren learn Quebec, not French, French; that the need for a referendum has been eclipsed — I sensed a level of bankruptcy of another order. Decades ago, there was a high-minded battle for secession or sovereignty-association, and a response from the roc: if anything makes this nation unique, it is the French fact, and in the context of English North America a federal shelter will protect a provincial asset and build upon it. Schoolchildren in Toronto, Calgary, and Vancouver were enrolled in French immersion, laws and cereal boxes from coast to coast appeared in both official languages, and if a sweetheart deal from Ottawa went to La Belle Province most of us turned a blind eye, the odd quid pro quo deemed necessary to keep a lid on things in the streets of Montreal, if not Quebec City.

Taking off from Prime Minister Harper’s craven 2006 motion — the Québécois form a nation within a united Canada — the Parti and Bloc Québécois have accepted Ottawa’s deal: Quebec will achieve independence incrementally, one piece of legislation at a time. No more federal “scandals,” whether Liberal (Adscam) or Conservative (Mulroney-Schreiber) to plague the province-cum-country. Harper, hardly a federalist, is fine with this, and as the split will occur not by the wielding of a blunt axe or the asking of a straightforward question, no one in particular will be to blame or be able to claim victory. And to this quiet but inexorable dismantling, the roc says, “Who cares? We’re tired of Quebec anyway. Give it whatever constitutional recognition it wants and be done with it.”

During the Auto Pact years, Ontario, building cars and car parts and being rather uninteresting, carved out a niche for itself as Confederation’s broker, enabler of federal programs, and provincial champion of national unity. Today, by virtue of having a Liberal premier, provincial Conservatives morphing into federal government attack dogs, and a once-thriving manufacturing sector no longer of interest, Ontario has become Ottawa’s whipping boy. The outside response to this cleavage and reversal of history — “It’s every crumb for himself!” — is striking.

Moving west, when wheat was a beggar’s food and there was little future on the farm, Manitoba and Saskatchewan romanticized the past: Winnipeg as the gateway to the Prairies, Saskatchewan as the birthplace of universal health care. To dull the malaise across a vast panorama that delivered noteworthy sunsets but little cash, Ottawa would build a museum or buy a ploughshare. But today, as the planet warms and ethanol is king, as fields of barley and oats are turned into corn in the US (and India and China move to bread and pasta), the price of wheat marches in lockstep with that other plentiful Canadian commodity, oil, and on the Prairies the central government disappears with the setting sun. Especially in Saskatchewan, the go-it-alone mentality is bubbling to the surface: “We’ve got a net migration back home, uranium to burn, tar sands, and wheat for export. And it’s all ours, baby!”

Alberta has its man in Ottawa and, like Quebec, is delighted by Harper’s downloading of all responsibilities beyond defence and, perhaps, foreign affairs. On global warming, newly elected Premier Ed Stelmach has heeded the prime minister’s prescription — the provinces are free to do what they want — and he’s doing as little as possible. “Alberta First” has become the province’s unofficial motto and mantra. This leading edge of disunion has produced its opposite in clear-thinking reformers like former premier Peter Lougheed, but while galloping development might have been slowed, the results of the February election tell the story of provincial drift: Conservatives, 72; Liberals, 9; ndp, 2. As the monster trucks leave the bitumen pits, Albertans wedded to Canada can only watch and despair.

The outlier in this era of provincial solipsism is British Columbia, but Premier Gordon Campbell’s carbon tax and hard schedules on reducing greenhouse gas emissions will be negated by Alberta. And so, as the skies grey and national institutions — health care, the cbc, equalization, etc. — are shredded, privatized, or not considered, the verdict is in: the disunion of our union trumps the occasional positive provincial move. As Canadians watch the US drama unfold, it is less the absence of an Obama-like figure that forestalls our own appetite for an election, and more that we’ve become voyeurs rather than voyageurs, grabbing what we can while we can, and looking on as the idea of national purpose is chucked into the ashcan of history. In this era of provincial sovereignty and greed, images of Canada are hard to conjure, and you cannot vote for that which exists in name only.

Ken Alexander