Apologies we’ve been absent so long, but things have been busy. We’re doing a big presentation at Youth in Motion’s Courage to Soar conference in just over a week. But with all the engaging (and absurd) political theatre unfurling itself south of the border, we thought we’d take a minute to express our pity for the beleaguered and pitifully ignored dudes in Ottawa.

While the New York Times is snubbing John McCain and Paris Hilton is making campaign ads on Funny or Die, the federal Liberals and Conservatives are doing everything short of bombing their own House to get people to pay attention to them. The problem? It ain’t working. No matter what they do, Dion and Harper can’t make the poll numbers change – at least not in any meaningful way.

Dion has his Green Shift – a bold if controversial new policy that sounds like good sense but needs a half-hour to explain. Meanwhile, Harper, in an appeal to Quebec, has come out promising further decentralization.

Harper says “fish or cut bait;” Dion says “You’re on”. The Mexican stand-off begins, and yet, because we’re still in the lazy days of summer, and because the political race down south is a bit sexier (with all kinds of arguments over some amorphous notion of ‘Change”), few people actually notice.

This is one of the problems with today’s Canada and the increased emergence of a global consciousness: though Canadians, in general, know more than they ever have before about the goings on in the United States, Europe and the developing world, they are less and less engaged in their own national politics.

When I ask friends why they have opinions on everything from Obama to Mugabe to China’s right to hold the Olympics, but they don’t have anything to say about the Green Shift, people tend to say it’s because Canadian politics are boring or of little import. So here we sit, glued to elections in which we have no control, often favouring candidates who may not act in what those who care call the Canadian national interest. Meanwhile, our own politicians – uncharismatic, unsexy anti-celebrities – jump up and down for our attention and go largely ignored.

No one wants an election – fair enough. Elections are expensive, silly, and rarely personally rewarding. But it looks like we need one. The status quo can’t continue. The Conservatives don’t want a Sword of Damocles (if only a nerf one) hanging over their heads; the Liberals need to finally give Dion a shot, so they can move forward should he fail; and the NDP, well, they don’t really know what they need, beyond something.

But a fall election? Following a US one? The Liberals can pray for the wave of Obamarama to give him a residual push, but what if the skeptics are right and America gets cold feet? Then where does all that energy go?

It’s a conundrum to be sure. Because this US election, in the midst of the onset of recession, a spike in oil prices (though they’ve temporarily quieted down), and an international food crisis, has tapped into a powerful desire for a new type of politics. People aren’t entirely sure what that “change” is. They just think that it must look and sound something like Barack. So what do you do when you turn from the US electoral circus on CNN to CPAC, where “change” is ill-dressed and insufficiently slick?

The next federal election will offer Canadians a real choice. A great deal will be at stake – for the environment, the character of our international engagement, and indeed the idea of Canada itself.

Let’s hope we don’t all sleep through it.

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“Musings” reprise

July 4, 2008

In contrast to Paul’s rather placid day on July 1, Alex had a different experience. He was in Ottawa, trouncing around Parliament Hill, taking in the celebrations. It was hard to count, but there were thousands, maybe tens of thousands, swarming the streets of By Town, dressed in red and white, waving flags, pushing strollers, singing songs, holding hands, selling ice cream, juggling and playing guitars. It was quite an orgy of patriotism.

Alex felt a little out of place for wearing a t-shirt with a Saskatchewan flag emblazoned on the front and a subtitle that read “Saskatchewan Youth Return Home to Relieve Your Parents and Elders”. At every turn there were maple leafs, either painted on faces or on banners. The joy was directed towards an image – that of a symbolically united Canada – and there was little space for anything else. There was not a provincial insignia in sight, nor were there any emblems of Canada’s distant past and certainly nothing – save one or two musical acts – that represented any of the Native traditions.

The crowd was a diverse set, but nowhere could be seen the multi-national flagfest of the Euro Cup tournament. Even the – surprisingly numerous – French-speaking attendees foresook their Quebec or Franco-Ontarian fleurs-de-lie for more neutral, more reserved colours.

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Some local townsfolk told Alex it was the largest crowd they’d ever seen for Canada Day. Could nationalism be on the rise in English Canada? Well, it seemed like it in Ottawa. But a certain type of nationalism, one that relies on a single unifying symbol, rather than an amalgam of historical markers. And a nationalism that is tied into the culture of a specific locality. July 1 in Toronto, as Paul pointed out, is quite a different experience. Torontonians don’t feel their lives entertwine as intimately with the maple leaf quite so much as Ottawans do. It makes sense: fewer people are reminded of Canada on a daily basis because fewer people work directly for Canada.

In Toronto, the urge is to escape. To escape the routine of a job and to escape the confines of the city. The country is found, for the Toronto urbanite, not in the community of other like-minded celebrationists, but in the great outdoors – in the country.

http://www.openbooktoronto.com/kickstart/blog/bora_laskin_and_obscurity_supreme_court

The above post on Open Book Toronto comes as a reflection on the new book by Irwin Law entitled The Laskin Legacy: Essays in Commemoration of Chief Justice Bora Laskin. The piece asks why Canadians, in general, care so little about the judges on their supreme court. Law students and lawyers, on the other hand, tend to care too much. A median must be sought.

I know we shouldn’t bend over in reflexive reverence for the opinions of those who have left Canada for grander stages, but how can you help wanting to know what such gymnastic minds as Malcolm Gladwell and Adam Gopnik have to say about our national identity?

This morning on CBC Radio’s The Current, the New Yorker stalwarts (who will square off on March 30 at the University of Toronto as part of a discussion called Canada: Nation or Notion?) chatted (rather intelligently, if perhaps from a greater remove than they’d like to admit) about what Canada means in the 21st century.

Gopnik rightly points out that the two writers approach the question from wholly different perspectives: he from a sentimental and symbolic perspective and Gladwell from a more empirical, policy-related one. But what it boils down to for both writers is that Canada means far more in the international community than we give ourselves credit for.

Gopnik’s issue is identity and our lack thereof. To him, that’s a strength, not a weakness, because we show the world that a country can function (and well) without a set of shared beliefs and icons. We show the world that the Romantic model of nationalism under which so many other countries were born is unnecessary, if not often damaging.

Gladwell is far less interested in issues of identity and culture. He’s interested in potential policy power. In Gladwell’s mind, our smallness (in terms of population and military power) is gradually making us more important. He contends that problem solving today is less about consensus building and more about looking to successful models. As a result, the decline of Canada’s image as an “honest broker” is inconsequential. What matters far more is that our size allows us to do what larger states, with heftier populations and more entrenched fueding animosities can never do.

Example? If Canada took it upon itself to initiate the most effective and progressive energy policy in the world, we could. Not many states can say that. And if we did, our huge (and much in-demand) energy resources would give us power.

To Gladwell, small may not be beautiful, but it is powerful – because our scale (and our historical ability to move beyond divisions and differences) gives us the opportunity to take bold chances.

This is a powerful thought, but not one that many in the corridors of power seem likely to take onboard. Though they may listen to the CBC and Joni Mitchell in their New York offices, Gladwell and Gopnik still inhabit a separate sphere than most of those who still live and work in Canada. That distance allows them a certain lattitude that is inspiring on first listen, but may not stand-up to the realities we experience watching our government day-to-day. ‘Yes, that would work,’ we say to ourselves as Gladwell speaks (he’s not, by the way, the first to say such things). And it should. But for some reason it seems unlikely.

Perhaps that’s because we value our role on the international stage so little. Perhaps it’s because it’s easier to simply throw up our hands up and say ‘the problem is bigger than us.’ It is, after all. So why not grab at the money while it’s there, sell off our companies to foreigners who see Canada as a bargain outlet for resources?

Because, as Gopnik points out, we’ve managed to do some pretty remarkable things in the past. We’ve managed to present the world with a model for how to get along, for how to be a nation with dueling (or at least separate) nationalities. We’ve also managed to produce innovators and problem solvers that have left a significant mark on the world.

We’re bigger than we think. It’s time to start taking ourselves and our role more seriously.

Give ‘er a listen.

Oh, and the punchline to that joke? You ask them politely.

Though David Eaves makes some interesting assertions on the subject of voter apathy these days, it’s unclear whether it is entirely because of a lack of availability of polling booths. It’s true: church basements, community centres and school gyms aren’t usually on the radars of 18-34 year-olds. If, as Mr. Eaves proposes, we had stations in the lobbies of office towers, at subway entrances and at coffeeshops, perhaps busy people would take three minutes between meetings to cast a ballot.

Perhaps not. The lack of engagement among young people is not necessarily connected to voting access. At universities, they make it easy to vote: you can vote in the caf, you can vote outside lectures, you can vote online. But student council turnouts are rarely over the 15% threshold.

The problem has more to do with the way politicians deal with issues. As Chantal Hébert has said, apathy can’t be solved by simply telling young people to go out and vote. We’ll vote when we feel it matters; when we feel that we’re part of the system and that we have an interest in changing it. Why vote when, no matter the outcome, we’ll still hear the same processed speeches and plastic ideas?

The Obama phenomenon catching on in the US is a hint for any politician north of the border who feels concerned about voter apathy. Not only are his speeches natural-sounding (he doesn’t use a teleprompter: there’s an idea!) and emotionally charged with biblical resonance, but every bloody one of them is available on youtube. They even made a song out of one of them (which has been viewed over six million times).

“Yes We Can” as performed by Barack Obama and rich Hollywood people

When young people everywhere are engaged from so many directions – paying off student loans, downloading music, starting businesses, etc. – why should going out to vote, which will have almost no impact on any of these concerns, cross their minds? Yes, we need to excercise our democratic rights. Yes, we need to be more civic minded. But the reason older people vote more is because it costs them: they’re the ones paying taxes, so it’s no wonder they’re concerned about where their tax dollars end up being spent.

For the younger generation yet to discover the pleasure of taxes, politics needs to be about ideas – but ideas that can engage us. We need to feel like we’re participating in something, that we’re engaged. We can’t continue to vote because it’s a duty. We must vote because we want to.

An excellent post from Canadian blogger David Eaves, suggesting some reasons why young people don’t (or can’t) make it out to vote. He’s just thinking out loud, but there are some very interesting points here re: the importance of convenience and the need to bring the voting process to the people.

There’s a problem. CBC has just announced its fall line-up and – to the horror of fans of good TV – there is one notable omission. Little Mosque on the Prairie is there. So is Sophie. The Border made it too. But the one show that gave us all faith in original Canadian programming is now gone.

Intelligence, an hour-long crime thriller set on the hard-knox streets of Vancouver, has been dropped after two seasons. Why? Well – surprise, surprise – ratings were too low. The Chris Haddock-created show could not bring in the audience of his previous hit, Da Vinci’s Inquest. Even that show’s spin-off (yes, Canadian television can have spin-offs), Da Vinci’s City Hall was yanked after a single – I would say – spectacular season.

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Intelligence creator Chris Haddock with actor Matt Frewer (photo: TV, Eh?)

Inquest, which ran for nearly a decade, was actually based on one of the personalities we interviewed for Kickstart. Larry Campbell, now a Senator in Ottawa (you know, the real kind of senator), was a Coronor in Vancouver for most of his career, investigating that city’s unsolved and unusual deaths. A strange job, perhaps. But not as far-fetched as what he would do next: run for mayor of Vancouver.

He won. In 2002, he mastered a landslide victory and, for three solid years, took care of the two major issues facing the city: creating a safe injection site to counteract a serious needle problem and holding a plebiscite on the 2010 Olympics. And after that… he quit. Someone who can join the political scene to reach clear objectives, uninterested in mere power and glad-handing, deserves our utmost respect.

So, back to Intelligence. Even though a petition of nearly two thousand devoted fans was sent to the CBC offices in Toronto, it didn’t seem to shake the fortress.

Not to worry. Though the show will not be airing, its first season will soon be available on DVD. Order it now! Seriously. It was a good show because the writing was sharp and clever, the pace was fast and non-gratuitous, the acting was compelling and the backdrop was intriguing.

You never know, the CBC may develop some cajones and bring it back. Cult support helped bring Family Guy back. It failed, tragically, for Arrested Development. Whoever’s bright idea it was to cut Intelligence will hopefully learn this lesson: that the mandate of promoting Canadian culture means, first and foremost, to promote good quality Canadian culture. If you have a strong product, the viewers will do the rest. Only sometimes, it unfortunately takes a while.

Green with Election Envy

February 7, 2008

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Regardless of who you were rooting for in yesterday’s “Super Tuesday” showdown, it’s hard to deny that American politics haven’t been this exciting for a very long time. In a primary season all about promises of “change,” Democrats know that, whatever they do, they’ll be making history, and Republicans know they desperately need to re-brand their party without alienating its base. There is a new race for the middle, a new recognition that a large chunk of the US population has been voiceless in the political arena for too long.

Yes, it’s unfortunate that, on the Democratic side especially, allegiances tend to be based more on what people represent than what we think they will actually do, but you can’t deny that the rhetoric has been commensurate to the times. It’s been darn good. Obama often feels like the oratorical love child of Martin Luther King and JFK. Just look at him last night in Chicago. He’s talking about “hymns that will heal this nation,” remaking “the world as it should be,” and making “this time different from all the rest.” “Yes we Can!” “Yes we Can!”

His speech invokes everything from Lincoln to the Old Testament, then ends with a self-help mantra. Brilliant.

The Clintonites are right. It’s just oratory. There isn’t enough of a record to judge Obama on. When he gets into office, is he going to save the economy by getting the whole nation to hold hands and chant “Yes we Can”? Is he going to solve Iraq, Afghanistan, health care, and poverty with a mantra? He’ll need more, and all we really know is he’s a well-intentioned man with a silver tongue and a record of being against Iraq. He’s the image that the US needs – internationally, at least. But what else is he?

Up in Canada, we’re very wary of flash and oratory. A few years ago, Paul wrote an article for Maisonneuve magazine about the history and practice Canadian speechwriting. He found that we typically distrust politicians who use grand phrases, epic flourishes, and crib lines from the Old Testament.

Political speechwriting in the US is a literary genre all its own – there are established conventions and tropes. In the mouth s of some, these conventions feel leaden and absurd. In the voice of a young Black senator and former community organizer they take wing. Hilary doesn’t do a bad job with them either. Neither does Huckabee (McCain doesn’t really need to pull off the flash – he’s got gravitas).

In Canada, passion is distrusted, especially outside of Quebec. Though Tommy Douglas was famous for his humorous political allegories and Trudeau defended the country with a sharp mix of ice cold reason and simmering passion, political discourse in this country is usually either bloodless or petty – especially since the end of the Mulroney years.

Perhaps this is a good thing. Doesn’t it mean we judge politicians based on the quality of their policy ideas and the strength of their records? Yes, perhaps.

But unless politicians give us something to believe in – something that appeals to our hearts and our heads and doesn’t sound like it was written by a corporate communications expert with one eye on their thesaurus and the other on the polls – young Canadians aren’t likely to come to the table.