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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006

Listen up, Canada

By Matthew Mendelsohn
Globe and Mail
Tuesday, Jun. 2, 2003

Sometimes governments lead public opinion. Other times they barely manage to keep up. In the past decade, Canadian governments have remained largely oblivious to some significant evolutions in our public values.

What should governments learn from The Globe and Mail's New Canada series that wrapped up yesterday? What governance challenges emerge from the new realities presented in that series?

Here are a few things every policymaker should take away from our:

1. Canadians trust the courts more than legislatures.

To young Canadians, our high courts take their responsibilities seriously -- they have pushed recalcitrant legislatures to make decisions that the New Canada supports. By abdicating leadership on issues such as same-sex marriage, doctor-assisted suicide, stem cell research, or the legalization of marijuana, elected officials have lost moral authority with young Canadians. Young Canadians do not fret that courts are usurping the power of elected officials.

This loss of confidence is having a real impact on political participation. Young people are simply not voting. Turnout in the 2000 election among potential first time voters was about 21 per cent. The connections between young people and formal political institutions have become flimsy, and no one in the formal political world seems to care. Young Canadians have come to believe that traditional politics is irrelevant and offers few avenues for change.

Political discourse in Canada and elsewhere has become impoverished, wrapped in half-truths and public relations, and young people have little interest in participating. Democratic reform is necessary if we are to avoid becoming a managerial democracy without citizens. What new Canadians want is the re-establishment of integrity, transparency and accountability in government.

2. Tolerance and egalitarianism have become the norm.

The old battles over family structure and sexual orientation are things of the past, as foreign to young Canadians today as debates over segregation. Who you want to have sex with, which god you choose to worship, or how many parents you have are non-issues. Young Canadians hold this social tolerance -- this freedom -- as a moral principle.

A radical change from our deferential past has occurred in Canada, producing a highly egalitarian, non-hierarchical political culture. In the New Canada, it is happily accepted that both parents may be working and society therefore has to accommodate this reality. Young people -- along with older women -- are very supportive of government-funded daycare, for example. Only older men have their doubts. They, however, are still running the country.

Young people with children, particularly women, struggle to juggle work and family, and evidence mounts that middle-class women take a real career hit when they take time off to have children. Canada has made progress on income support for poor children and parental leave for all, but the third piece of a successful family policy, adequate and affordable daycare, remains undelivered.

3. Neither the market nor the state can solve the big problems.

Whether the issue is aboriginal poverty or general homelessness, Canadians do not believe that a government bureaucracy or a market solution can address the problem adequately. Indeed, this is one of the real challenges in the New Canada. Government could destroy public sector bureaucracies and most young Canadians would not bat an eye.

In the New Canada, the test of a social program's viability is: does it empower individual Canadians to make the most of their opportunities, and free them to make their own choices?

Programs that pass the New Canadian litmus test are those directed towards individuals, rather than groups, and that provide choices to pursue education, training, small business start-up, or opportunities for social entrepreneurship and volunteerism. This is why rising student debt is such a problem, and such a source of stress for young Canadians. University, college, technical school and apprenticeships are becoming less accessible for those from more modest backgrounds.

4. The New Canada is concentrated in four metropolises.

Already, half of us live in Vancouver, Edmonton-Calgary, Toronto, and Montreal, and this proportion continues to grow. The population of these centres is already about four times larger than that of the six smallest provinces and three territories combined, but these metropolises lack any formal constitutional powers.

To young Canadians, the empowerment of large municipalities is overdue. That does not mean Winnipeg needs the same powers as Toronto, or even the same powers as Kamloops. Different municipalities require different powers based on their own unique needs. Call it "pragmatic asymmetry."

In Canadian cities, immigrants are integrated better than anywhere else in the world. Within one generation, the children of immigrants and the children of native-born Canadians share the same values and sense of Canadian identity. The New Canada would be comfortable with a significant increase in the number of immigrants coming to the country.

5. Racism and sexism still exist.

Most Canadians, regardless of ethnic background, continue to believe that racism exists, though this belief is somewhat higher among immigrants. For example, about 65 per cent of young visible minority immigrants believe the police show bias in their treatment of blacks and aboriginals. This experience is something that governments must address.

The Y chromosome still explains a lot in the New Canada. Young women's values remain more social, men's more economic. Young women see discrimination in the workplace -- directed against both women and visible minorities -- and still perceive a glass ceiling. Young men largely think the glass ceiling has vanished. These differing perceptions will no doubt be a tension in the New Canada.

Young women are the custodians of the new mythologies: They are the ones most supportive of multiculturalism, bilingualism, and peacekeeping abroad. Governments must be conscious of the different priorities of young men and women and ensure a balanced policy agenda.

The issues of Quebec and aboriginal peoples have not been addressed in the New Canada. The claims of these groups, to different status rather than simply equal status, do not fit easily with the official ideology of individual rights articulated in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. These challenges have not disappeared in the New Canada.

6. The Canadian identity is becoming more Canadian and more international.

Young Canadians and young Americans have grown apart in many of their values, despite the increased integration of our economies and societies. Unlike in Europe, where a common European identity is developing, no common North American identity exists. The notion that Canadians and Americans are becoming indistinguishable because we watch the same TV shows is a fiction.

Canadians have embraced the trade agenda and are prepared to enter into new trade agreements. They believe that trade, based on a level playing field, is in our interest and in the interest of the world's poor. A real trade liberalization agenda, where markets for goods and services to and from the developing world are more open, would be fully embraced as an extension of our New Canadian values.

Canada is uniquely placed to help build civil society, trust, and the rule of law in the developing world, and this could be our unique contribution to global security. Canada itself is a global network, a nation where borders inside and outside the country matter less and less. As Canada becomes an increasingly Asian country, for example, we should be building a better and special relationship with key Asian-Pacific countries such as China, India and Mexico.

In the Old Canada, the symbols of Canadian identity were institutional and government-driven: the Crown, the CBC, Air Canada, the Auto Pact, the Wheat Board, Via Rail. As many of these have come under threat or vanished entirely, some Canadians worry about our survival. They shouldn't.

The new Canadian identity is not tied to institutions created or maintained by the federal government. It is about how we live and about a set of unique values connected to multiculturalism, individual rights, the Charter, social egalitarianism, internationalism, bilingualism, peacekeeping, the environment, social liberalism, living within our means, and getting along with each other.

The federal government makes a serious mistake if it thinks it can instill Canadian identity through regulation and state bureaucracies. The Canadian identity is evolving at a societal level, and is being re-created on a daily basis at an interpersonal level. Governments need to emerge from their slumber and catch up with the social change all around them.

Matthew Mendelsohn, director of the Canadian Opinion Research Archive and associate professor in the political studies department at Queen's University, was a consultant on the CRIC/Globe Survey on the New Canada. ROBTv Workopolis