Saturday, 22 December 2007

Facts, Fiction and Canadian Public Discourse

Last week I read a letter in my local newspaper that typified the public debate in Canada. The author had very strong opinions about the nature of Canada, but those opinions were based on an erroneous understanding of Canadian history.
It's not surprising the author of the letter believed what he did (although a look at the map of Alberta would have shown him that there were indeed Francophones here in the 19th Century).
Canadian history has been been edited by pundits, politicians, business groups, lobby organizations, and yes journalists --on both the right and left sides of the political spectrum -- for decades now. And the 20 second clips, op-eds, and documentaries the 'reinterpet' historical events for entertainment purposes continue to flood the media. Even history books are written from a 'point of view' that 'critiques' events for 21st century readers. (ie: tells us what we should think.)
But until we reject this spoon feeding and dig deeply into the facts, we cannot begin to understand the vision that founded this nation and envisioned a place for Canadians as leaders in the world. And we cannot claim our full inheritance until we know what that inheritance is.
And that is a pity that's goes well beyond Canada.

Tuesday, 18 September 2007

Does Our View of History Matter Anyway?

I don't believe we should remain stuck in the past. Nor should we idolize our forebears. Our ancestors do have lessons for us. But these lessons are based on their humanity: their failings, dreams, struggles and faith. They are lessons we can relate to in our own lives as we seek to move into a better future.

But over the past forty years, most analysis of history and public policy discussions have taken a materialist approach. History books talk about Acts, events, and results, not dreams, grand visions and the emotions of historical figures. Their religion is either scoffed at or ignored.

Fiscal reality, not emotional attachments, governs public policy. Political leaders love to tell us that 19th Century based political and cultural arrangements that 'hamstring' politicians and economic interests don't make sense. The idea that such arrangements were made with full intention of curtailing power of elected officials and economic interests is usually forgotten in discussions about the future of Canada.

We have adopted a materialist approach that says feelings, dreams and emotions do not matter. Politicians and political theorists have relegated symbols such as the Crown, flags, and anthems to political fluff that to be changed 'at will' without any concern for the effect this has on citizens' attachment to their country or on the structures safeguarding citizens' rights. International relationships are simply utilitarian.

This view says Treaties and constitutional arrangements regarding language, religious rights and the role of provinces or the role of the Crown or its representatives don't matter to us, because we weren't born when those arrangements were made. We can change them even when they leave out an original party to the agreement -- as Quebec was left out 1982. (Change is seen as good. Waiting for agreement and timing that works for everybody is deemed not necessary.)

But the vision that built Canada was based on dreams, faith and big ideas. It was also based on on consensus of peoples and regions. 19th century 'political elites (especially in London), colonial administrators, and capitalists' rarely thought of the rights of individuals. The idea that colonists could keep political and cultural arrangements they loved -- and sometimes died to protect -- and turn themselves into nations was unthinkable to the guys who hung around gentlemen's clubs in London and New York. Why not sell out the rights of colonists in order to facilitate trade across the Atlantic?

But the colonists dared to dream impossible dreams. They believed that it did not matter what the 'money men' said. They could turn Rupert's Land and British North America into a sovereign nation without war and without severing ties to the rest of the Empire. (These visions of interdependence and peaceful transformation remain key parts of the Canadian identity.) They believed God could intervene in impossible situations.

By the mid 1880's their faith and hard work not only had made their dreams reality, it was beginning to change their Empire into sovereign nations (dominions) within the Empire. While the bureaucrats in London thought this was merely a change in status for 'their' colonies, colonists from Canada to Australia were dreaming that their nations would be equal in status to Britain and that they, and their fellow colonists from many nations, would have as much protection from the Queen's government as the Lords, Ladies, and Financiers of the realm.

This is what the Commonwealth of Nations is actually intended to be, but it goes a step further by recognizing that groups such as the Indigenous peoples of Australia and the First Nations of Canada ought to have protection equal to their 'colonist' neighbour. And that the poor should be protected as much as the rich.

This is why we continue to see Our Queen and her representatives visit hospitals and espouse the rights of the poor and minorities. It is also the reason The Crown recognizes the accomplishments of artists, writers, theologians, innovations, community leaders and even individual acts of heroism. It is why the Queen quotes Bible verses and speaks of role of many faiths in the lives of people throughout the Commonwealth -- and only a few radical materialists protest that she is the embodiement of the union of 'faith and public life.' Why? Because, in Canada, it is the Crown's role to acknowledge that there is more to life than 'materialism.'

The Fathers of Confederation recognized that politicians and businessmen should not have total control of the nation. They recognized that one class or one part of the Empire should not run over the rights of others. It was a world changing dream, based more on poetry than rationalism. (And no they didn't get it perfect, but that is a post for another day.)

My next post will talk about some of the dreamers who created our country and consider what role 'Dreams and Grand Visions' still play in this nations of 'dreamers, innovators and poets.

Wednesday, 4 July 2007

The Forgotten Vision of the Red Coat Trail

As I sat in the chapel at the Fort Museum in Fort Macleod on Canada Day, I felt like I was capturing a little of the vision that inspired our ancestors to create a nation out of wilderness. I realized that vision wasn't about furs, or imperialism, or even about making money.

The British subjects who created Canada were immersed in a culture that valued justice, compassion and grace more than making money. They viewed prosperity as the result of moral uprightness and a disiplined life. Staying true to their values mattered. The good fortune that might flow from adhering to these values was of secondary importance.

Many settlers, policeman, teachers, and doctors, who came to the plains to alleviate suffering and injustice, died with only a few dollars to their names. Even Justice James Macleod, the hero of the NWMP, died with only $8.00 to his name. It's popular to denounce the coming of the whites to the Canadian prairie and to point out evidence of greed, injustices and the inequality that still exists today.

But those injustices exist because we allow them to exist. And we forget the promises previous generations made to live in harmony and and justice.

The North West Mounted Police were not perfect. Nor was the man who named this province, Governor General Marquis of Lorne. Or John A. Macdonald. Or George Etienne Cartier. Or Louis Riel for that matter. They did the best with what they had. It is our turn to rediscover those ideals and make their vision a reality.

We are bound by honour to pick up their torch and finish their work.

Tuesday, 26 June 2007


According to the Canadian Oxford Dictionary, vision is the 1. act or faculty of seeing. 2. a thing or person seen in a dream of a trance. b.a supernatural or prophetic apparition. 3. a thing or idea perceived vividly in the imagination 4. imaginative insight. 5. Ability to plan or form policy in a far-sighted way, e.g. in politics. 6. a person etc. of unusual beauty. vt. see or present in or as in a vision.

Hmmm. Maybe we all need to work on creating a little more vision in the world.

As Canadians, we have a particularly strong indebtedness to vision. Without seeing past the problems and the impossibilities we would have no nation. The colonists would have thrown their hands up in defeat and accepted invasion and the loss of their dreams.

And Today. Do we still need vision? Yes. Without a vision of the future we cannot solve problems of inequality, homelessness, and violence it the world. Lack of vision leaves us in the mire of despair and uncertainty. Without vision we can't even figure out who we are.

It's that idea -- of vision -- that I am most interested in exploring in my writing and in my everyday life: Where it has brought us; where we came from and where we are going; and what inspires us to dream that vision.

It's those questions that prompted me to write Stars Appearing: The Galts' Vision of Canada. And it's that search for vision that keeps me working.