Saturday, March 26, 2005

Man for all seasons

Canada is admirable on different levels. Indeed, Canadians are very proud of the country. Proud for what it is, and proud of what it isn't. But sitting on the edge of capitalism, uneasy with Canada's dependency on the American benefactor, many Canadians are content to stand pat on a pattern of self-righteousness. Culturally incomplete, the nation is an amalgam of historical political economy - the curious result of man conquering nature in commercial enterprise and social compromise - and the determined counterpoint to American Manifest Destiny. Indeed, for all the different forms of Canadian cultural expression, a common thread is a sense of non-Americanism. Often this expression is delivered in the most fervent anti-Americanism we could allow in a free society. It all seems very curious.

I , too, was raised in such an environment of tepid acceptance of the American cultural sway. Indeed, there was a time when Pierre Trudeau inspired the most from my Canadianism. There was a time when Canadian social democracy stood as a supreme ideal in my young political mind. To be a member of the Liberal Party on the prairies, was, as I remember, a statement of commitment to confederation amid a society perhaps not so committal to the federalist agenda. Alas, that fantasy started to unravel in the most unlikely way.

In my early years of studies at the University of Alberta, I spent many an evening in my study den listening to political reporting on the state of the nation. It was 1982, and we had been suffering through a recession. For a young student, the r-word is a gloomy but remote expression. Unemployment beckoned, and the world seemed far less promising. There was a lot to be fearful of, perhaps no more than at any time, but enough to jar my faith in the system I was raised in. The unleashed potential of my youth seemed paralyzed by an economic world in crisis. Interest rates were phenomenally high and what came easy before - money, jobs - now was indeterminably impossible. It is no wonder I found solace in only Dostoevsky. Another existentialist born.

Alas, there came a prophet. Some people would have called him a puppet, and at the time, I too, would have accepted this preconception. But the arrival of Ronald Reagan in Ottawa was a revelation to me. It was a cold evening in my basement apartment, but the TV signal brought a strange moment that shifted my sensibilities of self. Addressing a joint session of the House of Commons and the Senate, before what surely would have been a hostile audience were it not for parliamentarian decorum (if that is possible), President Reagan delivered words of grand vision and hope. Unlike any politician I had heard speak before, the President challenged us all to achieve something much better. His delivery, his masterful oration was an epiphany. He spoke of freedom and liberty like I had never heard before.

In fact, as a Canadian I was certain that these terms were never mentioned to me before, nothing beyond archaic sermons of remebrance for lost veterens. No, the very idea that freedom was something I should cherish was foreign to me. In fact, the political constellations of Canada seemed to be rooted in something entirely different. Canada seemed to be a compromise of political expediency, a confederation of disparate regions bound by a constitutional formulation of family law. There were no guiding principles at work here. Exploitation, yes. The fur trade, the timber trade, the fisheries, the prairie bread basket. And the National Energy Policy! Yes, there was an agenda at work for the Dominion of Canada - not to mention the dangerous bargain with French Canada. These forces were becoming increasingly clear to me.

But Reagen, yes the Hollywood actor, the man so many Canadians had contempt for, stood as a beacon even in our most sacred Canadian chamber. Whether he spoke of the "City on the Hill" that day, I do not remember, but he spoke in such grand terms, in such forceful and hopeful terms that I was dumbfounded. In a moment I knew that the human spirit was indomitable. I knew that the future would be full of prosperity...if only we held true to the ideals of liberty. And I knew at that time that Canada would some day face up to this challenge because of the courage of the society to our south. There is no escaping this spirit because it is in us all. It only need be unleashed.

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