September 1, 2006, Books in Canada
The Polite Revolution
Perfecting the Canadian Dream
by John Ibbitson
McClelland & Stewart
John Ibbitson is the Ottawa columnist for The Globe and Mail.
It is he writes "the best job in Canadian journalism". He has
published or had produced several works of fiction and history and
plays. He is bright, thoughtful, industrious and imaginative. And now
he has written a silly book.
The Polite Revolution
covers a lot. It is not an inside story of contemporary politics
scooped from off the record sources such as Peter Newman used to write.
There is little in it that an obsessive newspaper reader might not
have picked up. It is rather an extended column, an excited and rather
rambling argument about where Canada stood in 2005 and where it is and
should be heading.
theme is stated in the opening sentence: "Sometime, not long ago,
while no one was watching, Canada became the world's most successful
country." Ibbitson argues that Canada's exceptionally diverse
population, with a high number of immigrants from a wide range of
countries, living peacefully and prosperously together, makes us a
model to which the whole world will aspire but that only Canada can
fully realise. He advocates greatly increased levels of immigration
because "the more the better" as he sees it and, it must seem, to
assure that the Old Canada is finished off and the Polite Revolution
has changed enormously in the last 40 years. It could fairly be said
that there has been a revolution, or revolutions. But much change,
social, technological, cultural and economic, has been in common with
the developed world, if not the whole world. And the immigration of
recent decades is nothing new to Canada. Proportionally and in absolute
terms the immigration of early in the last century that settled the
prairies was much greater: 1913, when over 400,000 immigrants arrived,
is still the peak year.
stresses that recent immigration has created visible minorities while
past immigration was practically all white. Past immigration, in his
optic, did not, after a generation or two of assimilation, produce
diversity, the pride and joy of the New Canada. But the trip from
Ukraine to Saskatchewan in 1900 was arguably greater than the one from
Somalia to Toronto in 2000. Why is the colour of people's skin so very
important in the 21st century?
has changed is that in 1900 Canada was something, the Old Canada whose
passing Ibbitson celebrates, and immigrants had a sense of something
to which, after struggle, they could belong. Between the adoption of
the Maple Leaf flag and the end of the Centennial of Confederation it
was decided that the Old Canada must go and a New Canada be made up.
This was the phoney revolution. It was phoney because those who
intended it and advanced it regularly denied what they were doing. But
mostly it was phoney because it rested on ideas that were false
representations of Canada's history, reality and possibilities and
those who promoted them often did not believe in them.
phoney revolution has been so successful that even a bright fellow
with a sense of history like John Ibbitson has been taken in by it. But
finally it is a failure because, however successfully it destroys Old
Canada, it cannot replace it with anything real.
we are diverse. But there is no WE. The population of the Canadian
territory is diverse, but each element in that population making up our
official diversity is as homogeneous as it pleases. The whole is less
than the sum of its parts.
has produced a small cottage industry in the political philosophy of
multiculturalism but understanding of the multicultural problematic has
been little advanced. Where are we headed between preserving scores of
closed ethnic chauvinisms observing a casual truce on Canada's neutral
territory and freeing individuals under a cultureless civic nationalism
to live as postmoderns adopting cultural elements as they choose
cuisines or music? Ibbitson does not know. He loves diversity but
observes that people like to live with their own kind and does not seem
to mind. He cheers the prospect of mongrelisation through
intermarriage, even foreseeing the disappearance of distinct First
Nations through intermarriage. But this suggests a melting pot and a
fading of diversity. He fears assimilation and praises integration not
explaining how they can be distinguished.
was over the moon on the appointment of Michaëlle Jean as Governor
General. He hailed her as "our postnationalist future" dismissing
concerns about her loyalty to Canada. She and her French husband were
"the cosmopolitan, polyglot and outward-looking Canada of today".
Shortly before his panegyric he wrote in this book that Haitians in
Montreal knew nothing of Papineau. They know of Toussaint. But "the
price of a truly cosmopolitan society" he writes "is ahistoricism - an
absence of collective cultural memory". He accepts this with "a
regretful sigh". What will be left then for the youth of 2050 with
Haitian, Cree, Chinese and Irish grandparents? Four memories or none?
These are deep waters and Ibbitson barely skims the surface. That is
the Canadian way, the phoney way: enthusiasm for the superficial.
is an economic value to immigration. But Ibbitson never makes clear
whether maximising the economic product of the Canadian territory or
the wealth of the average Canadian is his goal. These distinct goals
would indicate different immigration policies.
however, is after something beyond mere prosperity. He thinks Canada
is simply wonderful and going to be wonderfuller still. There is a
strain of callow boosterism in his book that makes way too much of Yann
Martel, Margaret MacMillan and Arcade Fire. GET REAL! For a country of
the population, prosperity and security of Canada our achievements are
disappointing. Consider only the achievements of the Australian, and
even New Zealand, film industries compared to English Canada's.
for "Canada's gift to the world" our wonderful cities (Ibbitson is
perfervidly urban), it is hard to believe Ibbitson has ever been abroad
he is so wide eyed at them. His one foreign positing was Washington,
which may make Ottawa seem cosy, but Ibbitson does not seem to have
overcome being born in Gravenhurst. In his bleak picture of rural
Canada he alleges "casual racism, sexism, and homophobia [go] without
saying in the Central Ontario counties and districts between the Ottawa
River and Georgian Bay". Gravenhurst is at the west end of this rural
claims that Canada is unique not only in the scope of its immigration
but in its success in avoiding racial conflict and other social
problems. He implies that multiculturalism achieved this without
sparing a thought for the Old Canada that peacefully took in millions
of immigrants before it was officially extinguished for recidivist
bigotry, racism, homogeneity and dullness. He points to recent tensions
in France, the Netherlands and elsewhere in Europe and implies it can't
happen here. What these events show is that diversity is not special
to Canada but widespread in the developed world and not without its
problems. It is simply too soon to tell whether Canada can avoid
serious trouble or European countries can not. It would be foolish, but
very Canadian, to be smug.
emphasis is on why we should want millions to immigrate to Canada. But
why should they want to come here? For the bars on Toronto's College
Street? For the Montreal music scene?
will always be a billion or so destitute people in the world who would
like to come to Canada for the welfare. They are not likely to come
because they have not heard of Canada or are too poor to be able to get
here. Third world immigration has been largely from what in those
countries constitute the middle classes. Ibbitson does not touch on the
morality of our stripping such countries of their skilled workers and
professionals. But immigration is always from poor or stagnant
countries to rich or booming countries. Immigration from Western Europe
dried up as those countries reached North American levels of
prosperity. New immigration from Central and Eastern Europe has not
amounted to much and will probably dry up. China and India are now
booming. In the medium term a young Chinese or Indian would probably do
best to stay put.
the 21st century that Ibbitson claims for it is over Canada may be way
down the list of the world's most prosperous countries. It is
foreseeable that the kind of immigration Ibbitson wants is coming to an
end. Some people of any degree of prosperity and skill will want to go
to the United States as long as it is top nation. But the only way for
Canada to find the millions that Ibbitson wants may be to take people
without skills, illiterate in their own language and far more remote in
culture and understanding than any we have known before.
the wonderful New Canada of massive immigration is Ibbitson's
overarching theme, much of the book deals with problems the country
faces in always excited and often hectoring tones. Successful though it
is, Canada must shape up. So, we need to do something about health
care, basically try everything and see what works.
Ibbitson has fallen for the democratic reform vogue but is too polite
to say what exactly should be done suggesting Cranks' Assemblies on the
model of the British Columbia Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform
should be empowered to work their own revolutions on our political
institutions. His one concrete suggestion is lowering the voting age, a
fatuous idea that will not be made safe by beefing up civics and
history courses. And what history should be taught? He concedes it is a
discussion is at times wonkish, there is frequent talk of "tax
points", and often commonplace. In a discussion of defence and foreign
policy (more spending on defence, more foreign aid) he even suggests a
useful Canadian initiative: a Canadian Institute for Democracy to
advise other countries how to be like us. Though, as he thinks our
democracy needs radical reform but is not sure what, what can he think
we have to offer?
in a chapter headed "Making Canada Matter". A keen decentralist
Ibbitson would leave Ottawa with little to do beyond defence and
foreign policy. The blank New Canada must cut a figure in the world. It
is an extension of the vanity foreign policy of the Liberals with a
dangerous new aspect as the days of Boy Scout peacekeeping recede. It
looks alarmingly like the age old pursuit of relief from domestic
political trouble in foreign adventures. Ibbitson hailed Stephen
Harper's trip to Afghanistan, seduced by the Tories' sinister
patriotism agenda. But how can a postnationalist be patriotic? By being
phoney. It is the New Canadian way.
so wants to think well of Canada, so loves it even, but cannot make
sense of it. Phoniness entraps our best and brightest.