2005 was hard on Canada’s institutional foundations
by Margret Kopala

Published in the Ottawa Citizen, December 31, 2005

It’s one thing for politicians to bribe voters with their own money but it’s another thing for them to play fast and loose with the country’s social and political institutions. As 2005 closes, what lingers is not Belinda Stronach’s defection, though this was a substantial blow to the body politic. Rather it is the continued erosion of the body’s institutional foundations.

First it was same-sex marriage legislation which deconstructed an institution already crippled by variations on the theme of family, sexual permissiveness and massively high rates of divorce. Promoted by a prime-time celebrity-culture, this deconstruction is further supported by courts blind to its harms. The result? Children handicapped by an absence of mother/father, husband/wife role models who are unable to sustain their own adult relationships, and youths who kill.

The socially destabilizing effects of marriage and family breakdown have been under way for some time as has political destabilization from the threat of Quebec separation. But the penultimate act of political destabilization may have finally been enacted this year. Quebec’s provincial election and any ensuing constitutional crisis will reveal the true effects of the sponsorship scandal and whether the prime minister was prudent in his choice of Governor General.

Now, according to recent campaign promises, Conservatives want to try their hand at institutional change.

Compared with same sex marriage and controversial governors general, Conservative policies on the Senate, the Canadian Wheat Board and child care arrangements seem pedestrian. But however admirable the intent of some to address western Canadian issues, these too are woefully inadequate.

The election of senators could undermine Canada’s whole system of responsible government and undercut the provinces’ ability to choose their own selection methods. And that’s before any consideration of whether senatorial candidates run under federal or provincial party banners (if they run as party members at all) and whether the winners would be subject to party discipline. If they are, elected senators would be little more than the partisan players that currently populate the Senate but without the experience that made the current appointments useful in the first place.

Similarly, the Canadian Wheat Board. A prairie icon of over half a century, the Wheat Board has in the last decade or so adapted its price pooling methods and democratized its governance structures. Most importantly, says the University of Toronto’s Grace Skogstad in her paper “The Dynamics of Institutional Transformation: the Case of the Canadian Wheat Board” (Canadian Journal of Political Science, September 2005), it determined single-desk selling was vital to its survival and provided the fairest treatment of grain growers vis-a-vis grain buyers.

Conservative proposals to make membership in the Wheat Board voluntary sound reasonable but these divide and conquer tactics will only hobble the world’s most successful grain marketing organization while flouting its internal democratic mechanisms. Over time, the Wheat Board could disappear, something even the World Trade Organization has failed to achieve.

If Liberal-socialists have failed the family, the sins of Conservatives in this department are greater because they should know better. At a time when more Canadians are delaying or opting out of having children, we have to wonder whether anyone sees children as a priority any more, and whether these choices comprise society’s newest faultlines. Moreover, the tragedy that dares not speak its name has yet to register fully: namely the health of our young and the toll on fertility rates that is caused by poor eating habits and other risky behaviours.

We look to immigration and child care plans to compensate but the fact remains that a healthy society reproduces itself, something Canada no longer does. In the meantime, immigrants succumb to Canadian behaviours within one generation and parents, already distanced from their children by having to work outside the home, are unable to meet the attachment needs so crucial to a child’s sense of self, capacity for empathy and development of character. The Conservatives’ few child care dollars will help but what’s needed is an attitudinal sea change.

The harms done by deinstitutionalization will not be addressed easily or quickly. Social or political, institutions are the nation’s psychic touchstones and provide the arena in which citizens can practise their individual freedom while enjoying a sense of belonging. Healthy institutions are indispensable to a healthy society.

As the New Year arrives and the federal election campaign re-engages, no politician will readily embrace this problem or its remedies.

Perhaps the concerned voter will.

MARGRET KOPALA’s column on western perspectives appears every other week.

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