College Quarterly
Fall 2008 - Volume 11 Number 4
Reviews The Truth about Canada: Some important, some astonishing, and some truly appalling things all Canadians should know about our country
Mel Hurtig
Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 2008

Reviewed by Howard A. Doughty

Mel Hurtig’s new compendium is what I call “bathroom reading” in the noblest sense of the word. It is more serious than “beach reading,” which seldom rises above the level of potboiler detective fiction and moist romance. At the same time, it requires less than full intellectual concentration. Encyclopedias of amusing subjects, books of lists or records and anthologies of very short stories are iconic in this genre.

In The Truth about Canada, Mel Hurtig has assembled forty chapters of about eight pages each (plus a preface, a conclusion, a glossary, two appendices and twenty-two pages of endnotes). The results are largely derivative and somewhat disorganized. There is little in terms of any coherent narrative or explanatory principles. History and theory are absent. Perhaps, however, the book’s apparent weaknesses are its strengths, for it is are great fun—especially for those with an unwholesomely gloomy sense of humour—and a great challenge to anyone who continues to wish that Canada might one day be “about” something, rather than a ragtag appendage to a declining American Empire with the singular oddity of having more French-speakers than Louisiana.

Mel Hurtig’s great forte is his distinction as one of the last of the liberal, bourgeois Canadian nationalists. He follows neatly in the splendidly idealistic tradition of Walter Gordon, who saw nationalism as an essentially positive and progressive force, but refrained from associating it with domestic issues of social class and international issues of imperialism. He is certainly no political radical; yet, at a time when all realistic and selfish impulses dismiss national loyalty (except in the language familiar from the likes of General Rick Hillier, pursuing patriotism in lock-step with US foreign policy), he plainly loves his country. Moreover, his emerging concerns with poverty and other matters of social justice reveal some development in his understanding of the limits of liberalism in terms of the pursuit of economic, as well as formal democratic, rights.

To many, “bourgeois nationalism” has long been a discredited ideology—most explicitly because it has been disowned by the bourgeoisie.” Most Canadian nationalists in living memory have been either “tories” (mainly of the distinctively “red” hue) or profoundly “democratic” socialists. This is as it should be. Canadian business interests have aggressively pursued American markets. Canadian consumers have been eager to acquire American goods and services cheaply. Accordingly, free market economics have dominated continentalist opinion for the whole of Canadian history, and have been held at bay mainly because of what George Grant famously called the “ridiculous project” of seeking to build a genuinely conservative society on the same continent as the greatest technological empire that the world has seen to date.

The United States, no matter how it abuses and seeks to distance itself from “liberal values” such as are attacked by the Christian fundamentalists within its borders, is a decisively liberal society, based on notions of the primacy of personal freedom, the inherent logic of the marketplace and the pursuit of happiness (Thomas Jefferson’s code for personal wealth and the liberty of capital). Thus, the new Canadian “conservatives” modeled on the likes of former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney who grew up singing mock Irish tunes for American coins and notoriously declared Canada “open for business,” former Ontario Premier and “common sense revolutionary” Mike Harris and current Prime Minister Stephen Harper have nothing in common with the conservatives who were instrumental in founding Canada, and who governed the dominion for much of the first three decades of our evolving independence. They are aspirant Americans through and through.

At the outset of the dominion, Sir John A. Macdonald erected tariff barriers and the slogan “no truck nor trade with the Yankees!” rang out across the land. In contrast, Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s otherwise successful Liberal regime of 1896-1911, was rejected largely because it sought trade reciprocity with the United States. It brought forth cries of traitorous behaviour from the Conservatives, and effectively swept free trade from national elections for three quarters of a century.

Throughout most of the twentieth century, the Conservatives remained the bastion of British loyalty; the Liberals were uniformly understood to be the party of the continentalist business class, but it could never be openly raised as major principle. We seem to forget, if we ever knew, that Conservative Prime Minister John Diefenbaker was apoplectic at the adoption of the Maple Leaf flag, not because he was unpatriotic but because he saw Canadian patriotism as seamlessly linked to the British Commonwealth and considered the decision to jettison the Union Jack as betokening the collapse of authentic national identity.

That sentiment “went south,” so to speak, when Brian Mulroney swept to power in 1984. As a kind of lasting irony, it was the Liberal Party (along, of course, with the New Democrats) which opposed the Free Trade Agreement when it finally came, and it was Mulroney’s Conservatives who negotiated and endorsed it. In the end, the Americans’ new best friends, won only 43.02% of the vote, while the combined anti-free trade parties captured 52.3%. The peculiarities of a multi-party parliamentary democracy, which much prefers artificial “majorities” to coalition governments, turned the expressed will of the people against them and enabled the FTA. Of course, when the Liberals regained government status, all talk of renegotiating, much less abandoning, the FTA and the North American Free Trade Agreement that followed it, was abandoned.

Since then, the common wisdom has been that continental integration—military, economic, political, and cultural has become inevitable. Under the ribald banner of unfettered free markets and misguided pressure for government downsizing, both the Liberals and the Conservatives have embraced Canada’s place in a an integrated North America that was only accelerated and not initiated by a decade of “crisis” from the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 to the fiscal meltdown of late 2008. Sometimes, it seems that a crisis must be manufactured in order to facilitate measures that would otherwise be intolerable.

True, internecine debates continue among the principal political parties. They may almost whimsically differ on how much money to give starving Canadian artists and the CBC, or whether to attempt to mend frayed social safety nets; but, although neither of them yet openly endorse flying the stars and stripes and replacing the “loonie” with US dollars, the pattern is plain. Besides, it really doesn’t matter much whose flag is flying in the village square when the major resources and industries have long since fallen into foreign hands, and the plutocrats of Toronto are falling all over themselves hoping to “share” the Buffalo Bills football team in the effort to round off the Raptors and the Blue Jays in the hope of being recognized as a “world class” (or at least a passably competitive American) city.

All of this gives Mel Hurtig fits. As any concept of Canada worthy of the name is being condescendingly turned into a marketing slogan for the purpose of “re-branding” Canadian business; meanwhile, the country that Sir John A. Macdonald and even Sir Wilfrid Laurier sought in his way to build has been transformed by the current crop of political, economic and even cultural “leaders” into a repudiation of the project of maintaining at least a semi-autonomous and reasonably “distinct” Canadian society.

Accordingly, Hurtig offers us a readable and distressing account of some of the ways in which Canada has failed, whether by lack of understanding or outright betrayal, to manifest any national strategy “more ennobling than a pre-emptive cringe.”

Hurtig’s inventory is divided into nine relatively discrete sections. The savage beating endured by our once-promising health care system is examined. Income distribution and the growing gap between rich and poor are analyzed. The ramshackle corporate system, now in disarray, is revealed from Hurtig’s own business background. Ideology—in the form of education, the mass media and culture generally—are shown in all their limitations. The road from foreign investment to foreign ownership to foreign control is mapped. The shift away from the noble path of peacekeeping to increasing bellicosity in service to US strategic priorities is eulogized in the haunting words of Canadian Major-General (ret.) Lewis MacKenzie: “Somebody put a marker up and said ‘Rest in peace, peacekeeping,’ because it is no more.”

And so it goes: the “democratic deficit, the surrender of clean water, the abandonment of any kind of sensible energy policy and the ill-treatment of people from the poor, to aboriginal Canadians and to women are described (some individuals, of course, fit almost irretrievably into the all three and other categories of suppression). It is all a bit hopeless; so, why does Mel Hurtig, now aged 76, keep it up? The co-founder of “The Committee for an Independent Canada” in 1973, the “Council of Canadians” in 1985, the creator of The Canadian Encyclopedia, first published in 1985, and the leader of the unsuccessful “National Party” in 1992, persists in what most consider the futile quest for a distinctive, sovereign nation. Perhaps he is just too old to know better. Perhaps he saw the signs, but simply refused to stop.

And the signs? It is difficult to identify any single moment when the tide irreversibly turned. Attentive readers of Kari Levitt’s 1970 book, Silent Surrender, might put the date at about 1914, when the importation of capital to Canada shifted from British portfolio to American direct investment, paradoxically at the very time that, according to such popular historians as Pierre Berton, Canada came of age as a nation with the military victory at Vimy Ridge. George Grant saw the pivotal moment in the demise of Prime Minister John George Diefenbaker and took the event as the occasion to write his “lament for a nation.” Others could pick and choose among various policies and practices up to and including the more-or-less secret meetings in 2006, sponsored by the US Council on Foreign Relations. It was as part of the “Independent Task Force for North America” that Liberal deputy prime minister John Manley and Canadian Council of Chief Executives president Tom D’Aquino put forward the concept of “deep integration” that has been the most obvious goal of the Conservative regime of Stephen Harper.

Me? I’d select a day in June, 1973, when the Ontario New Democratic Party purged the left-nationalist “Waffle” movement from the party. I vividly recall drinking (Canadian) draft beer in a saloon with Bruce Kidd (now Dean of Physical Education at the University of Toronto), Frank Eastham (1944-1998, and future Vice-President, Human Resources at the University of British Columbia) and Pauline Jewett (1922-1992, and future President of Simon Fraser University). I shamelessly drop these names to indicate that the people who were disappointed and, in some cases, devastated by the expulsion of the nationalist left were not the crazed, dogmatic, communist-inspired extremists that the NDP “establishment” claimed, but relatively sane, pragmatic and progressive people who understood the necessity of winning back some of the control silently surrendered to the emerging corporatist interests that were are shaping the “new world disorder.”

I do not know if it would have helped if Mel Hurtig had abandoned his quixotic faith in the possibility of patriotic commercial, financial and industrial enterprises. Perhaps doing so would have done no more than push him into despair and the idiocy of private life. If that would have been his fate, perhaps we should be grateful that he did not “see the light” and continued his righteous cause.

And, then, there is also the unlikely “what if …?” What if his dogged determinism is not misplaced. What if the is some sort of hope?

Unlike most successful politicians, Hurtig actually believes in democracy. He notes that the majority of Canadians consistently support our indigenous culture(s), our generally communitarian social values and our economic commitment redistribute tolerable levels of wealth to poor people, poor regions and (sometimes) poor countries. Some of us continue to care about the environment even when we are urged to abandon ecological sanity in exchange for the false promise of temporary economic relief. None of this influences such covert continental plans as those negotiated in secret by the advocates of the “Security and Prosperity Partnership” or discussed in detail by the North American Competitiveness Council—an organization so problematic that Canadian cabinet minister Stockwell Day had the temerity to deny participating in its three-day meeting at Banff in September, 2006.

In their small defence, many of the informal group which author Silver Donald Cameron has called the “Council of Canadian Collaborators” have not advertised, but at least have admitted their continuing involvement in extra-parliamentary negotiations of complex “military-industrial” integration. This list includes, but far from exhaustively, former Liberal deputy prime minister Anne McLellan, Alberta energy minister Greg Melchin, former Conservative cabinet minister and president of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce Perrin Beatty, senior military officers including former chief of defence staff Hillier and many other corporate, political and legal experts in collusion with their counterparts from the USA and Mexico.

Such shenanigans are well and truly in play—though dutifully ignored by the mainstream media and, therefore, unknown to the bulk of the Canadian people. Hurtig believes that, when and if the story is told, Canadians will have the wisdom and the courage to choose another path. He hopes that the Canadian people will not be bullied by executive fear-mongers into doing precisely what is contrary to their own best interests.

If he and his supporters are clever, they may discover an ace up their collective sleeve. There may be a small opportunity for another kind of limited Canadian-American cooperation that runs counter to corporate control. For a start, as the perpetual squabbles over softwood lumber amply demonstrate, not all US industries and politicians embrace the reality of free trade. As well, there are many progressive American individuals and groups with whom Canadians share interests, expertise and organizational skills.

So far, it seems that only the corporate right and the interests it supports have claimed the stage and fought for continental integration; perhaps, however, it is not unthinkable to entertain discussion among human rights, consumer, labour and environmental groups to promote cooperation in the quest for an improved quality of life on both sides of a no longer undefended and increasingly impermeable border. Perhaps some alliances could be struck to mutually beneficial effect. Stranger things have happened – but not often. Then, there is the matter of chronically willful American ignorance. Most Americans are, for example, cheerfully unaware that Canada is the United States’ largest trading partner, its largest supplier of energy resources and the largest source of fresh water in the immediate world. Canada is therefore of enormously more strategic and economic importance than most countries which engage the attention of American soldiers, politicians and corporate executives.

So, before they wise up and stop thinking of Canada (when they think of it at all) as, in Voltaire’s cranky assessment, “a few acres of snow and not worth one Frenchman’s bones,” it just might be possible to link up with those Americans who share at least some of our values, would mightily support some version of universal health care in their own country, support our generally more robust labour laws and (especially now) look to us as a model for banking and finance regulation.

In the alternative, if democracy has been so eviscerated, both in Canada and the United States, that genuinely progressive measures will inevitably fail, then like George Grant before him, Mel Hurtig will at least have provided this and future generations with the knowledge that the obituary for Canada was written by selfish, smug, shallow and occasionally sociopathic minds, but that there were some people around who offered more than token dissent and whose defeat should be remembered so that it will not be assumed that they, in Richard Hooker’s much quoted words, “let things slip loosely away, as in a dream.”


Howard A. Doughty teaches in the Faculty of Applied Arts and Health Sciences at Seneca College in King City, Ontario. He can be reached at howard.doughty@senecac.on.ca

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