Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Greyhound bound

It has been almost 20 years since I first arrived "off the bus" in downtown Toronto. Having made the 48 hour bus ride from Saskatoon I remember well plodding up Bay Street with my backpack, happy to be rid of the tanker that brought me there. Prior to this grueling trip I had never been east of Winnipeg. Growing up in the west my family always traveled westward to the Pacific or south to the United States on our annual vacations. After the monumental bus ride across northern Ontario I then understood why. I challenge every Canadian to make that trip. The vast distances that separate east from west become ever so real when days of your life are lost in the confines of a motor vehicle. God knows how cyclists and ambitious walkers feel.

Two decades later I still yearn to travel back to Saskatchewan. And yet it it so far. It is, for all purpose, in another country. In fact, I can fly to Europe for cheaper fares than I can to Saskatoon. That has been my unfortunate situation for too long. I feel like an immigrant unable to visit my family for lack of resources. No doubt I have many Jamaican friends who have traveled back to their homeland more often than I have returned to Saskatoon over the years. And I know that they are able to fly there for much cheaper fares than I could ever hope on a milk run to Saskatoon. Am I sounding bitter? Perhaps. But it is a constant reminder that the bonds of this country are tenuous on many very real levels.

We can ask: how many Torontonians have been to the Badlands of the prairie? How many British Columbians have seen the shoreline of Cape Breton? How many Quebecers have seen the majestry of the Rockies? No, the tally would be shy, and who could blame the population? Indeed, my first year studying Canadian economic history at the University of Toronto taught me one thing I never once before considered: that eastern Canadians know very little about their nation. I learned that the "educated" elites of Toronto yearned not for knowledge of the provincial bretheren, but instead craved attention and a place on the world stage. Almost all of the students I went to school with at the U of T had traveled to Europe, to New York, to Florida. But to Vancouver? Winnipeg? Calgary? Not unless it was a consolation prize. Maybe a chance to earn some summer dough. Nope, these people - the ones that would aspire to be great "Canadians" - cared little about the Dominion. I learned that many years ago.

Saturday, April 16, 2005

Canada Stong and Free

The Fraser Institute and the Economic Institute of Montreal released a policy paper this past week, authored by well-known conservative politicians Michael Harris and Preston Manning. Adding to the growing number of voices demanding a more proactive policy toward shaping Canada'’ future in the global economy, the paper entitled "A Canada Strong and Free", emphasizes wealth creation, democratic accountability and the creation of a Canada-U.S Customs Union. Hurrah for all!

The crisis of corruption that has the Liberal government on its heals – perhaps forced to go to the polls again – has brought upon a renewed questioning about the foundations of confederation. Political commentators are starting to to express more fervently the untenable situation our federal system faces. Regional interests are being promoted at the expense of the great federalist compromises of the past. The Adscam embarrassment, beyond bringing to light corrupt individuals, has shown that the federal bargain with Quebec is flawed. It has showed that Canada as nationalists envision is a charade, a frail marriage on the verge of dissolution. Indeed, if there is an election this June the end result will be a fragmented Canada with separatists in Quebec asserting newfound strength, and a growing power base out of western Canada. The regional interests will be heard, and the powers in Ottawa will be compromised.

From my point of view this is long overdue. It is time the regions started looking out for their own interests. Time for Quebecers to make their own fateful decision once and for all. Time for westerners to exorcise themselves from their colonial position in Canada. And it is time for Canadians to take a proper accounting of the costs of nationhood. A head on grappling of the healthcare system, of our state-centered economy, and our special relationship with the United States. It is clear the Liberal government is interested only in maintaining the status quo. Will Canadians demand broad and courageous new governance? They may be in for it regardless, as the fallout from an election this spring will surely bring the mirror to our face. Be brave, Canada.

Friday, April 15, 2005

North American Youth Exchange

Every generation of youth passes through a rite of passage. In one form or another this "coming of age" experience is often anticipated by young adults as they prepare for life upon completion of secondary school. Like many other parents of graduating teenagers, I have been witnessing the wonderful excitement of my child’s plans for travel abroad. Taking a year off before entering university studies has been a time honoured tradition of many generations of young Canadians who take on the world with their backpacks. They travel abroad to Europe mostly, but many take to Oceana. My daughter is heading to Australia and New Zealand. Intent to take to the other side of the planet, she eagerly awaits the chance to commence with her adventure. But I am wondering…why do not young Canadians take to traveling across North America. Does not the adventures of Kerouac and previous generations of youthful travelers who crisscrossed the great expanse of America captivate the imagination of today’s youth?

I think it would be wonderful if young North Americans were encouraged to travel and work freely across the continent. The people of every region would be that much more enriched by the exchange of youth. Canadians traveling to Louisiana and Mexico City. Americans discovering the old fortress of Quebec, and the lost cities of the Maya. Young Mexicans camping in Banff, and visiting the Art Institute of Chicago. Yes, there should be a universal program for young adults from all three member countries of NAFTA that facilitates an active mingling of our cultures, that encourages North American youth to see the vast community of culture here that is so sadly underestimated.

One of the chief objectives of leaders in North America should be to encourage cultural ties among the nations. Such ties are developed through travel. But more importantly, the youth
who are able to take their precious time and energy to risk on adventure should have the ability to live and work in the lands they travel to. Student Work Abroad Programs (SWAP) are popular for youth traveling abroad, but there should be a more institutionalized swapping of youth across the continent. Canadians would learn more about their neighbours, and like any exchange program the benefits would be reciprocal.

I find it sad that my daughter feels she must travel to Australia to live out her adventure. North America is full of much natural beauty, many cultural interests. And there is much fun to be had. It is unfortunate that we do not promote this kind of homegrown adventure. There would be such a wonderful expression of community if our youth discovered the world at their feet, the cultures at their doorstep. Alas, maybe it is just me in my advancing middle age. Perhaps it is I who simply wants to drive around the continent in a RV. Perhaps the grown adult in me has simply learned that there is much to see across this continent. But wouldn’t it be wonderful if there was great annual migration of young Canadians, Americans, and Mexicans across our continent. To see them traveling about with their backpacks, to see them all open-eyed and excited. I for one will always remember the Pope’s visit to Toronto for World Youth Day a couple of summers ago. There were thousands of young people from all over the world moving about the city - on sidewalks, and subways, in parks and restaurants, in museums and libraries. It was almost magical. It certainly was inspirational, too. I think we could use a lot more of that. And I think we would be much better off for it.

Saturday, April 02, 2005

Dodging the issue - the failure of Canada's monetary regime

David Dodge, governor of the Canada’s central bank, spoke this week about issues pertaining to productivity levels and the importance of developing policies that improve education. Although Mr. Dodge has every duty to speak of productivity levels in relation to economic growth, he stepped too far into fiscal policy agenda with his direct suggestions pertaining to childcare. It is not the job of the central bank head to give such policy prescriptions – his domain should be strictly monetary policy. In fact, it is symptomatic that the root cause of our country’s chronic failures to keep up to the United States in labour productivity is the very monetary edifice Mr. Dodge heads. A country that depends on trade with America is ill served by the current floating exchange rate regime. Canadian productivity ailments are directly attributable to the effects of exchange rate depreciation.

Our export sector has been sweeping its failure to modernize under the carpet of a cheap Canadian dollar for a generation. Further, we have developed new export industries under the framework of a cheap dollar. This is the industrial strategy of a developing nation. It has served the economy with short-term gains at the cost – far greater cost – of poor capital allocation, research and development, education, and labour productivity. Exchange rate depreciation has also opened our export industries up to trade conflicts with our major market to the south. If the head of Canada’s monetary policy wants to improve productivity levels he need speak less of solutions beyond his purview and more of monetary policies that make exchange rate appreciation and par value a Bank of Canada objective. An even more progressive stance would be an open discussion of currency union with the United States. Of course, that may be too much to expect for a regime head to speak openly of its own demise.