The country may be collapsing.
Canadian citizenship is under attack. Over the past 20 years, public engagement with Canada seems to be waning. With billions of dollars in pandemic emergency aid and promises of nearly free child care, a targeted dental program, new investments in housing and health care, and a stream of nearly “ free,” you would think citizens would line up to declare their allegiance to a state of compassion and support.
However, the opposite seems to have happened. Countless commentators have identified dissatisfaction with national progress. Fault lines – regional, linguistic, ideological, historical and political – continue to appear across the country. A recent survey revealed that many immigrants are considering leaving. How can the honor of being allowed into a country repeatedly described as one of the best in the world produce so little loyalty or contentment? It can’t all be a matter of weather.
Small groups of highly motivated radicals regularly attack the symbols of history while historically inaccurate memes are used to attack national pride – and the vast majority of Canadians remain silent. Tiny groups of protesters seem to have more political clout than the national parliament and provincial legislatures as a trembling nation fails to come to terms with its past and understand the meaning of 21st century Canadian citizenship.
A new book by Peter MacKinnon, Canada in Question: Exploring Our Citizenship in the Twenty-First Century, tackles this sensitive and emotional subject head-on. MacKinnon is a distinguished Canadian – a lawyer, a university president and a thoughtful analyst of Canadian realities. His book is built around the belief that “there are growing centrifugal pressures that alter, even diminish, our perception of what it means to be Canadian.” It’s a sweet way of saying that the country may be falling apart.
Current realities underlie MacKinnon’s questions. The freedom convoy has shaken Canadians, both in the boldness of their demands and in the response of governments. The Prime Minister’s hyperbolic slurs against protesters were accompanied by Justin Trudeau’s outrageous labeling of a “traitor.” Canadians of non-European ancestry experience more overt racism in their communities. These add to longstanding schisms of language, region, class, race and ethnicity.
The Canada Question is a courageous examination of Canadian citizenship, written at a time when people have become reluctant to talk about topics that easily turn into condemnations of the author or speaker. Such occasions are, of course, precisely when the country needs people who are passionate and committed to Canada, like Peter MacKinnon, to speak out.
MacKinnon undertakes a respectful exploration of the impact of identity politics, acknowledging the need to make muffled voices heard, but worrying about the ability of Canadian institutions to resist the “us versus them” mentality that is now rampant. Enlightenment reasoning has long informed citizen contemplation – including a commitment to evidence and reason, freedom and tolerance. But the hold of reason on Canadian public debate seems to be weakening.
We are moving to a tougher, some would say nastier culture where populism and identity politics replace the brokerage and compromise governments of the past. The inevitable conflicts – over the role of the state, individual freedoms and the management of our environmental challenges – undermine the belief in shared values and aspirations and turn the rounded corners of Canadian politics into sharp and painful angles.
Cruising the country, MacKinnon looks tough for reasons to be optimistic. While finding considerable hope in the changing relationships between Indigenous peoples and new Canadians, he acknowledges the challenge that increased cultural diversity can have on the notion of shared citizenship. Moreover, rampant economic inequality – experienced by most Indigenous peoples, many new Canadians, and those in declining rural communities – adds to tensions and weakens claims to common national circumstances.
Can politics and politicians save the day? Again, Peter MacKinnon is not optimistic. The already weakened machinery of government, strained by the protracted pandemic, is no longer a pillar of Canadian strength. He finds, in a totally non-partisan way, the current lack of Canadian leadership and worries about how the country can be brought together in a way that would strengthen and solidify Canadian citizenship. When we urgently need unity, our political classes seem engaged in conflict and separation.
The Canada in Question explores the most fundamental of all questions: what does it mean to be Canadian? At a time when criticism is far more common than leadership, when the politics of public corruption have overtaken voters and therefore all political parties, and when the country does not even have a vision for the future, it is extremely Difficult to answer this question.
By asking tough and uncomfortable questions about citizenship in Canada, and doing so with quintessentially Canadian decency and respect for diversity and social justice, Peter MacKinnon reminds us that it is both possible and essential to dream of a greater nation. It makes it clear that a country only thrives with the commitment of its citizens to the country as a whole and with a national plan to create a better and stronger Canada.
Ken Coates is a Fellow Emeritus of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute and Canada Research Chair at the Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy at the University of Regina.
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