Vive Le Canada

Time to Tune Out the Buzz Saws in Our Society
Date: Thursday, October 06 2005
Topic:


Embassy, October 5th, 2005
COLUMN
By Richard Gwyn

Time to Tune Out the Buzz Saws in Our Society

Newspaper accounts of the speech given last week to the Empire Club by Frank McKenna, our ambassador to Washington, had a distinctly false note about them. The stories reported that McKenna had been repeatedly interrupted by applause while giving an account of current Canada-U.S. difficulties, from softwood lumber to mad cow disease.

These issues are important all right. But other than to those directly affected, they are pretty prosaic.

So why would an Empire Club audience get all stirred up about them?

A friend who attended the occasion explained that McKenna did, indeed, attract much applause. Not for what he said as an ambassador, though, but what he said as a Canadian.

Apparently (my friend took no notes), McKenna talked passionately about Canada itself, about how we're in pretty good shape as nation-states go, and, most forcefully, about how it was time for all our interest groups, regional and ethnic, to stop carping about this or that Canadian shortcoming and, instead, dare to celebrate the nation.

That's what the applause was for; not for softwood lumber. It's the applause, rather than McKenna's oratory, that matters.

Because this was the second time in a week that this had happened.

The first was earlier last week, when MichaŽlle Jean was installed as governor general. She gave a very fine speech, making effective use of her own personality and of her own experiences. The intriguing aspect of the event, though, was the response to it. Columnists competed with each other to heap praise upon Jean. Letters newspapers and radio show comments were overwhelmingly euphoric.

In both instances, audiences were responding to the experience of hearing said about Canada what they themselves know to be true about the country, but far too seldom heard being said.

There is one obvious and simple and indisputable fact about Canada today: We are one of the most successful societies in the world.

Two persuasive tests exist of the success of any nation-state in today's global circumstances. One is whether it is paying its bills, so that it's not loading its debts onto coming generations and so can make tough choices among the virtually unlimited demands for spending.

On that score, Canada stands near the top of the class. Countries that we once thought were far better organized and tougher-minded, like Germany, Japan, the U.S. and France, are all in a fiscal mess.

The other measure is the ability, in a world that's now global, to attract, absorb, integrate, learn from and teach its own values to newcomers who mirror the globe in all its different languages and cultures and colours. Like Jean.

In the scale of our immigration, and in the effectiveness of our integration of the great majority of these newcomers, we are unquestionably at the top of the class.

All this is, to repeat, obvious and indisputable. Except in Canada. Except, that is to say, to a lot of Canadians.

As a society, we seem to be functioning like an orchestra that is performing exceptionally well except that it has, in the middle of it, a buzz saw. A large number of buzz saws. There are all the provincial buzz saws making noises like, "me, me, me", and "unfair," and "more money," and "it's all Ottawa's fault." And there are all the protest noises of our ethnic and cultural groups, often, indeed, protesting alleged wrongs done decades, if not centuries, ago.

It's time overdue to listen to the music that we now are making, a good deal of the time, as a society, a collectivity, a nation-state.

That's what those who were so excited by what Jean said, and so delighted by what McKenna said -- and who showed this by their applause -- were trying to say.

It's time, in other words, to change channels, and listen to ourselves.

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