The Return of Canadian Smugness? A Post-Election Expat View
Berlin 22 OCT 2015. Canada has a new leader, but what have we learned from the Stephen Harper years? Living in Berlin, as a Canadian abroad, I wasn’t even allowed to vote (a legacy of our outgoing government) despite remaining reasonably politically informed and having a stake in the country. I have watched Canada for the last decade descend into what seemed to me an Orwellian nightmare. Like many other Canadians this week, at home and abroad, I now feel tremendous relief. The election has put us back on the track we somehow lost in the mid-2000s. But with this relief, also comes circumspection.
I am worried that we might go back to being as smug as we were a decade ago, when we thought we were the ‘greatest country on Earth’. If we have learned anything from the Harper years, it is not to make that mistake of thinking we are better than other countries. In this respect, perhaps Canada has a thing or two to learn from Germany as it moves forward.
Let me be honest. I grew up being really really smug.
When I lived in the United States back in the early 2000s, being from Canada meant being from the better country. We didn’t spread our democracy through force; we had lax drug enforcement, strong gun laws, had liberalized gay marriage, and, best of all, we had a universal health care system. When talking politics, I used to begin every other sentence with the words, ‘But in Canada…’ This phrase came to me so naturally, naively, unconsciously, I was hardly aware how my friends down South hated being talked down to, especially as they fell into a post-September 11 spiral of terror laws, hypochondria, and, on the left, touchy self-hatred. Canada was such a nice and inoffensive country, I thought, who could possibly disagree with me?
Canada’s left-of-centre Liberal Party (not ‘liberal’ in the free-market British sense, but rather more like an old-fashioned Social Democratic party) under PMs Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin dovetailed with George W.’s reign until 2006. Five full years of opportunity to act really smug towards Americans!
But then Barack Obama was elected in 2008, by which time Canadians already had had two years of the Conservative PM Stephen Harper. Americans basked in Obamamania, redeemed it seemed from all those bad years: with gay marriage, Obamacare, and marijuana liberalisation in certain states, on their way. For Canadians, meanwhile, the years of being superior had definitively ended. In fact, being Canadian was becoming increasingly embarrassing. The United States, to our great surprise, and despite eventual disenchantment with Obama, nonetheless looked more and more enlightened. Suddenly not everyone you met abroad loved you because you had a Canadian flag sewed to your backpack.
Canada likes to think of itself as ahead of its American cousins as a society, but trends that are popular in the United States––not just Paleo, kale, and beards––take a couple years longer to get north of the 49th parallel. The politics of fear, invasions of privacy, Islamophobia, and rampant neoliberalism, for example, that so typified the Bush years in America would find surprisingly fertile ground in Stephen Harper’s Canada well after Bush. To understand this, one needs only to look at how Harper capitalized on a gunman’s shooting spree in a poorly protected Parliament in 2014 (the ‘terrorist’ just walked in, resulting in one death), even though the gunman was mentally disturbed, a lone wolf, and apparently did not have connections to radical Islam.
Harper learned a trick from the Bush Jr. playbook: which was to use an emergency to give the government extraordinary powers. The shooting, and a second lone wolf attack that happened just a few days before, were hyperbolically and absurdly exalted to something like Canada’s 9/11. Harper brought in police state legislation in Spring 2015, giving sweeping powers to intelligence services, with the infamous C-51 bill.
Harper did not only attempt to curtail individual freedoms through C-51. He established Canada as one of the world’s leading climate criminals. He walked out of Kyoto, his government muzzled scientists, and the Conservatives turned a blind eye to the destruction of vast tracts of land the size of European countries in Northern Alberta to remove fuel from the tar sands. NGOs were subject to invasive and politically motivated tax audits; the Conservatives were accused of election manipulation; they took the vote away from Canadians abroad, and made it possible to revoke the citizenship of those with dual nationality. They blocked the intake of Syrian refugees. The government meanwhile was cagey, manipulative, afraid of discussion, criticism, and press conferences. And this is leaving out that Harper was one creepy dude.
Only six months later, Harper is gone. I talked to my mother in Vancouver on the phone after the election, and she told me, ‘It’s like a great weight has been lifted. I feel so different about being in Canada. I suddenly feel proud again’. My father, who works with environmental organisations, said, ‘It’s amazing to think we might actually have allies again in Ottawa, not people working against us’.
The extraordinary election turnout of approximately 70% (excellent for apathetic Canada) was a demonstration of the collective need to depose the Conservatives. Now that the election is over, what middle-of-the-road and left-leaning Canadians across the board are feeling is that same tremendous relief. It’s like we have suddenly been redeemed.
But I don’t think that’s enough. Don’t we have a responsibility to think differently than we did before? What kind of self-analysis does this require? Do we simply go back to the smugness of the pre-Harper era? Germans spend a lot of time walking backwards into the future. I think Canadians could learn a thing or two from their Vergangenheitsbewältigung, or coming to terms with the past. Nothing has happened recently in Canada that can compare to the Nazi years, of course, but this doesn’t mean that a little Rücksicht, or hindsight, isn’t in order.
First of all, I think we should be careful about how we embrace Justin Trudeau, the eldest son of a long-ruling icon of Canadian left-wing politics, Pierre-Elliot Trudeau. The press is touting this week’s return of the Liberal Party as our ‘Obama moment’––one for which we’ve waited ten years. We will have a PM who is an uncanny mix of boxer, teacher, performer, and good-hearted pretty-boy––but one who isn’t whip-smart like his father. But did Canadians really vote for him? Let’s be honest: Canadians voted to get rid of Harper, not to elect Justin.
And yet there’s something about Justin… one needs only to watch his famous eulogy at his father’s funeral to see how he can be a vessel for Canadian’s aspirations, even sentimentality. Perhaps it’s the smile, the fact that we don’t really know that much about what he’s thinking, that makes him such a perfect canvas for our desires. Some question his sincerity, but this is not what’s at issue. The problem is that we don’t know Justin quite yet, and we are nonetheless starting to fill him with our expectations, the way Americans did with Obama in the early days. We should be wary of projecting on a man the press could easily make a superstar, simply because he is photogenic. Is not the lesson of Harper to be wary of political power? We should not fall into the fascination of a local dynasty. Should we not be wary of putting so much trust in political authority, no matter how well groomed? I think we should become disenchanted as soon as possible.
The other question is whether the Harper years have been instructive, whether it wasn’t good for us after all to learn to be guilty Canadians. Again, perhaps I am too influenced by living in Germany, but I think that a diminution of national pride is salutary. Feeling unique, chosen, better than other nationalities, doesn’t go down very well in Germany for obvious reasons, nor should it in other countries. Shouldn’t Canada ask itself whether it is not like other countries after all: one that is capable of seeing its democracy undermined by malicious forces, and it has a duty to be vigilant about the health of its society, rather than be complacent? Yes, the democratic system was strong enough to rid itself at election time of Harper, but isn’t it worrisome that Canadians were so apathetic about the passing of C-51, or the walkout of Kyoto, and that few people went out on the streets to protest? Have comfortable and optimistic Canadians put so much trust in their system that they assume their role politically only at election time? Is not smugness––that risks resurgence––simply a conduit for political apathy?