Canada can rise above failure of Meech

by Margret Kopala

Published by The Financial Post, Tuesday, May 22, 1990

If the Meech Lake constitutional accord fails, Quebec’s Premier Robert Bourassa will pursue options for a new Canadian political structure.

He is right to do so, particularly if such a structure were one in which Quebec no longer felt the need to assert its distinctiveness. This would be possible in a well-defined Canada, one with a specific sense of its destiny and purpose, where there is some understanding of how cultures evolve.

A culture is a socially organic phenomenon that is subject, like all living things, to mortality. Great cultures have existed throughout history. Their artifacts remain in museums while their legacies inform civilized thought and action. One example is democracy, the legacy of ancient Greek culture, while another example, Christian mythology, is rooted in the many Mediterranean cultures that existed before Christ became its personification.

At their best, "language" and "culture" facilitated democratic and Christian ideals by explanation and by example. They were not ends in and of themselves.

Moreover, it is through participation in and contributions toward solving the trade, agricultural, religious, artistic and scientific problems facing any given society that its cultural base is established.

In historical terms, Canada remains a young country. A unifying culture seems to elude it. The problem is exacerbated by competing cultural and regional interests, the cutting edge of which is usually Quebec. As the first among several distinct Canadian societies to gain regular attention for its interests and concerns, Quebec has an important role to play in the reconciliation of all of Canada’s cultural groups.

It can, for instance, bring empathy and clout to the problems confronting Canada’s native population. Victims of French and British imperialism, these "conquered" people face extinction from tuberculosis, acoholism and teenage suicide. Their faces provide the moral imperative and the mirror into which all people who settled Canada must look.

Canadians need to reflect on those descended from the Scots who are themselves a "conquered" people. Also, on those Canadians of Ukrainian extraction who came from Galicia which - having been variously absorbed by Poland, Russia and Lithuania and Austria - has not existed as an independent county since the 19th century.

Then there is Canada’s Jewish community, part of a worldwide community who historical efforts for survival and whose contributions in their chosen countries are similarly legion. And Canada’s rapidly growing Oriental and Asiatic communities have pursued Canadian citizenship with amazing courage, enthusiasm and selflessness. Canadians might then see that their differences are merely palpable while their profound commonalities provide the ground from which true nationhood can spring.

Instead of asserting their "distinctiveness," Canada’s cultural groups have the opportunity to set the exampled needed by those Third World and communist countries experiencing democratization, globalization and all that implies for their tribes, their countries and their cultures.

Even as many communist countries reach for their self-determined moments in history, questions are inevitable. Should they join larger economic units? How do little tribes, little countries and little cultures survive in a global economy? And if they do join larger units, how do they set aside their differences to achieve the harmony that represents the greater good while maintaining the most relevant aspects of their individual cultures - cultures which define their values, their domestic, workplace an spiritual lives?

These are all threatened not by other cultures but by the thundering machine of Bureaucracy, Technology and the Pursuit of Material Goods which characterizes globalization.

This machine respects no border, no environment, no language or culture, and is run by faceless technocrats in the strongest of the world’s multinational and financial institutions. Its arsenal consists not of bombs and guns but of international employment and debt manipulation. Its ambition is the creation of a world where the ultimate individual freedom is the right to shop and all human endeavour is reduced to a consumer choice.

Here, in this not distant world, human values are disposable. And as history has repeatedly shown, human values are the nub of any culture worthy of the name.

Canada is uniquely positioned to take its place in history to advancing civilization at least one important step. It can achieve this by reconciling culture and globalization within its boundaries.

The key, not surprisingly in these environmentalist times, is in our relationship with the land, with each other, and in how we cultivate those relationships.

Canada has the ability to mobilize any manner of social or other objectives. It is a practical democracy; it makes things work if it believes in them. So Canada, like no other nation now, is able to take the best elements of the many cultural roots that nourish it to create an exemplary society - a horticultural wonder, if you will, whose individual roots exist to serve the plant.

A plant called Canada. Not a multicultural mosaic; not a franco-anglo dynasty; not a northern melting pot. But an organism that flourishes through the contributions of its root system; a symbiosis wherein the roots deliver but never demand, wherein the roots could not survive without the plant.

Such a country would achieve true tolerance by acquainting its people with the great languages, religions, races and creeds of the world so that they might take pride in their own and in each other’s origins. This tolerance would be the bedrock of the thoughtful immigration policies needed by a country not fully reproducing itself. This tolerance would prevent the discrimination so many Canadians have themselves experienced.

Such a country would have inexpensive communications and travel networks and cultural exchange programs to ensure that is people shake hands with - rather than shake their fists at - each other. Such a country would have an upper chamber - a Senate - consisting of "tribal" elders ... to help defuse the confrontational nature of federal and regional politics ... and to gridlock Canada into unity. These senators would guard the Canadian heritage while understanding the Darwinian reality that all living things must evolve or perish.

A great new Canadian culture will have commenced its evolutionary path. This country would know what it stood for: an organisation of the world’s great cultures offsetting the negative effects of the world’s greatest economic movement. And the result, this repository of Canada’s finest human values and virtues, would stand as a testament, like democracy and Christianity, for all humankind throughout history. Materialism, bureaucracy, technology, investment, globalization, and employment would serve - and not be served by - this end.

So if Meech Lake fails, let it. From the residue something finer can grow. Something based on ideals and elevated human purpose; that fulfills the individual potential of all Canada’s cultural groups - a potential that will otherwise expire under the weight of today’s global realities.

And if Premier Bourassa can start the process, so much the better. ....

The sun has, after all, set on the British Empire. Its legacy to the world is parliamentary democracy and the facility of the English language (whose finest exponents, to date, are those other "conquered peoples" the Celts of Wales and Ireland). Margaret Thatcher nevertheless fusses about Britain’s future in the European Common Market while Napoleon from his Paris tomb enjoys the last, perhaps uneasy, laugh.

The United Europe that is unfolding contains many elements of his vision. But while the names Gorbachev, Havel, de Klerk and Mandela capture the world’s headlines and hopes for the future, it is abundantly clear that matters of empire have lived their time, as all things do.

Now it is Canada’s turn to take its place in the sun.

Margret Kopala

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