Toronto, 27 June 2004
I write this on the eve of a Canadian federal election. Incessant polls tell us the Liberals are up one day, the Conservatives are up the next, the New Democratic Party is flying in Ontario, irrelevant in Québec and the Greens are alternately poaching from either the Tories or the NDPs. Not so much keen on the Tories, Canadians are mad at the Liberals who have been taking us for granted and doing dumb arrogant things. Who knows.
It may take until the middle of the week before we know who is to be our Prime Minister – Liberal Paul Martin or Tory Stephen Harper – or who will hold the balance of power – NDP or Bloc Québecois or, more likely, a combination – and not because of hanging chads or the status of ex-cons (federal inmates – never mind ex-anything – have already voted in their own national advance poll; in this country, imprisonment means the loss of many things, but not the franchise).
Not since the King-Byng Wing Ding (1925/26, look it up) have Canadians contemplated the spectre of the Governor General, the representative of the Queen in Canada, offering the opportunity to form a government to the leader of the party with fewer than the greatest number of seats. Stephen Harper may win a few more seats than the Liberals, but in such an event, there is a very real possibility that GG Adrienne Clarkson will turn to Martin as the current PM. The reason? Confidence. Stability.
Of the other two parties in Parliament, neither the Bloc nor the NDP, both left of centre, is likely to support a Tory government. The early result would be a return to the polls within months. The Liberals are more likely to secure agreement from the leaders of the other two parties to undertake a coalition, forcing them to actually perform on the leftish promises they have been making this time around. (While their last-ditch campaign literature claims that a vote for the NDP would ‘split the vote on the left’, the reality is that in the course of eleven years of Chrétien / Martin government, the Mulroney Tories saw all of their policies nicely implemented, thank you very much, and then some.) While some are terrified of minority government (shortest: two months, longest: three years, eight months), Canadians of my age or older recall that the best things that happened to this country (health and unemployment insurance, guaranteed annual income, a national pension plan, etc.) happened in situations of minority governments, the NDP the insistent conscience to the left.
All the parties’ (except the Bloc, which only runs candidates in the province of Québec) campaign literature have featured a question: What kind of Canada do we want? The answer in the fine print always says something about the United States. Since the earliest years of Confederation (1867, secured around a table of francophone and anglophone negotiators, no auchtotones invited, no blood shed), one can find the same question cropping up. A hundred years ago and more the question was called reciprocity. It has always been about sovereignty, autonomy. And, ah yes, making money.
It’s hard for us to imagine a U.S. election with anyone caring a whit about whether the policies under debate would take the country closer or farther away from Canadian ways or ideas or interests. Funny, actually. What kind of America [sic] do you want?! One that takes us out of Iraq, guts the Pentagon budget, dismantles BMD, forces everyone to have universal health care, bans most weapons and insists on registering the rest?! Horrors! Not even close.
In fact, it is reported here in the There they go again column that Peter Coors, of brewing family fame and fortune and Republican Senate candidate in ranching-territory Colorado, when asked this week about Paul Martin’s position on the issue of Canadian beef imports, confessed to not knowing who the guy was. (And he ought to know better since Coors owns 50% of Molson USA, which sends us the deliteful Coors Lite.) Sort of like Bush, in the 2000 campaign thinking that the Canadian PM’s name was Jean Poutine (poutine being not a Canadian prime minister, but a cholesterol-off-the-map patates frites dish popular in Québec).
The point is, one key way of configuring political debate here is: How much do we want to be like the United States? Sure, we have lots of états-unis-philes, Stephen Harper and his crowd primary among them – funny how they are quintessentially Albertan, oil-and-Bible types, sort of like Texas-North hmmmm . . ., he the product of the Calgary School of political philosophy, all of them born and / or educated in the United States.
Nationally, however, we are moving in the opposite direction (witness Michael Adams’ recent book Fire and Ice: The Myth of Converging Values). We think differently; we make different choices. We care more about the common good than maintaining the military (particularly when the only nation to invade us or ever likely to, is the one under whose umbrella we presumptively find free shelter); we want to be able to nurture our culture in all its forms by all means, including NAFTA-defying legislative ones, against a tidal wave of mostly mind-numbing and degraded public discourse. (What’s-‘is-name on Fox’s latest epithet is Canadian because the Canadian Radio and Television Commission denied Fox a licence to operate in Canada. Oh darn.)
Even as we here in La Nord are moving towards a Supreme Court question that will remove ‘between a man and a woman . . .’ as unconstitutional, the United States is enrapt in a national exercise of short-term memory loss, ensuring the apotheosis of the recently-departed, Ronald Reagan. Like watching a different war in Iraq, we here are wondering if we are remembering the same bit of history.
From here, I remember the devastating impacts of trickle-down economics (didn’t work, still doesn’t); the implementation of the doctrine of Low Intensity Conflict in El Salvador, Guatemala and elsewhere; the unleashing of greed domestically and of ‘freedom fighters’ in places like Afghanistan (known as Taliban) and Nicaragua. The brutal social policies of Thatcherism that Reagan slavishly followed – picked up by Mulroney in Canada – de-institutionalised the mentally ill, de-housed the vulnerable and de-unionised the worker. Those living with HIV-AIDS were sinners, those fleeing U.S.-sponsored dictatorships were mistaken and those carrying out treason and subterfuge in the basement of the White House were invisible. While Jimmy Carter tried to speak a little sense to the American-Dream-types, Ronald Reagan ‘made us feel good about ourselves’. And at what a cost.
I, for one, will not credit him with the fall of the Wall. I prefer Walter Brueggemann’s explanation: ‘poets in cafés’.
So who knows. Michael Moore told us last week, here for the unexpected Canadian début of Fahrenheit 911, that if we elect the made-in-the-U.S.A. harperites, it would make him look bad. And it would remove that ‘great sucking sound to the north’ that, for some, constitutes a positive polarity to reach for come 2 November.
P.S.: The Martinites won, but a minority government, with the Liberals winning 135 seats, the re-combinant Conservatives (no longer Progressive Conservatives) 99, the Bloc Québecois 54 and the New Democratic Party 19, one short of the 20 it would need to hold the balance of power. One Independent member in BC could have some fun in the new Parliament. Campaign finance legislation would trump any non-confidence motion prior to 1 January 2005; after that, best guess is that this government will last 18 months. Since Coors and Molson are now set to merge, someone at Molson has probably filled Mr Coors in.