Quill and Quire

REVIEWS

« Back to
Book Reviews

The Canada We Want: Competing Visions for the New Millennium

by John Godfrey with Rob McLean

Does Canada Matter? Liberalism and the Illusion of Sovereignty

by Clarence Bolt

Outrage! Canada’s Justice System on Trial

by Alex MacDonald

Canadian politics in the 20th century have been driven by three ideologies: toryism, liberalism, and socialism. The force that has brought together these disparate ideologies is nationalism.

While toryism accepts social privilege and economic inequality as natural, it melds them with a view of an organic, co-operative, and harmonious community. From this perspective the privileged appreciate the overriding need for social order and authority and may also respond to the needs of the poor and less privileged out of a sense of noblesse oblige. One of the most revered tory spokespersons is George Grant, whose best-selling Lament for a Nation appeared in 1965. His book intellectually energized socialists and tories alike by spitting in the face of American liberal, technologically driven “progress.”

Liberalism sees society as the sum of individuals, championing their equality and favouring their rights over broader community interests. One of liberalism’s most venerated personalities is former prime minister Pierre Trudeau, who bequeathed to Canadians their treasured Charter of Rights and Freedoms, an icon of national identity and discourse.

Socialism shares liberalism’s regard for freedom and equality but defines them differently: freedom from want rather than freedom to consume; sharing rather than individual aggrandizement. Socialists talk more of equality of condition; liberals of equality of opportunity. One of Canada’s most admired socialists is Tommy Douglas, who pioneered publicly funded health care – a hallowed symbol of what government can do – demonstrating the power of political will.

Clarence Bolt’s Does Canada Matter?,/I> is a thoughtful and earnest work, from the tory perspective (one might even venture to say from the red tory perspective). Bolt, a history teacher at a B. C. community college, places his hero Grant in the dedication and on the first page of virtually every chapter. Grant’s spirit loiters throughout the book, and like Grant, Bolt is skeptical about Canada’s prospects. However, unlike Grant, he is still hopeful – if only Canadians understood Grant’s message and exercised their sovereignty. Bolt is also more of a leftist and an egalitarian than his intellectual mentor: he decries the rich and privileged and expresses contempt for the C.D. Howe Institute, the Business Council on National Issues, the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, the Fraser Institute, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and their ilk. Bolt passionately strives to popularize and flesh out Grant’s philosophic ruminations with historical narrative and a sensitivity to regionalism. The challenge in brief: Can distinct national and regional cultures survive the onslaught of globalized finance, business, and media? From Bolt’s position, corporate capitalist values are the bad guys. Narrow superficial choices (“Will that be Coke or Pepsi?”) are threatening to homogenize the diversity of the world’s languages, cultures, societies, and religions.

Bolt’s history, for the most part, is accurate. There are a few times when it is a bit shaky; so too is his regional analysis. Newfoundlanders will be unhappy to see themselves labelled as Maritimers. Ontario gets no treatment at all as a distinct region. Instead, there is a longish digression – offered as a case study – the economic development and governance of greater Victoria, Bolt’s region of residence. Bolt is anti-suburban and attacks the mantra of economic growth. He champions maintaining the government’s instrumentality and opposes its retrenchment and privatization. He expresses the tory’s concern for the natural environment and despises the liberal’s view of nature as a thing to be conquered, technologically mastered, and manipulated in pursuit of a larger gross national product. To Bolt, Canada’s elites are lackeys to the liberal ideal; they are abdicating their responsibilities and feeding public cynicism by behaving as servants of transnational corporate behemoths.

In The Canada We Want, John Godfrey, a Liberal Member of Parliament and former editor of the Financial Post, and Rob McLean, a strategic responses advisor, denounce the same American-style individualism as Bolt. While both books claim to despise the dog-eat-dog imperatives of the gurus of globalization, the villain is labelled “neo-liberal” by Bolt (because he is a tory) and “neo-conservative” by Godfrey (because he is a liberal). Godfrey got his greatest media splash for having commissioned a psychological profile of Lucien Bouchard in Saturday Night magazine. There is no hint of that incident here, although Bouchard is predictably upbraided. It’s not surprising that Godfrey quotes favourably from the 1993 Liberal Red Book and pats fellow partisan Jean Chrétien on the back.

Whereas Bolt is fixated with the past, Godfrey and McLean focus on the future. Like Bolt, the duo decries measuring the quality of life by wealth and the ability to manipulate technology. Their prescriptions, however, are quite different. For example, Godfrey and McLean propose a series of five national projects. They are unabashed boosters of Industry Canada’s SchoolNet web site, providing its address and 800 number. They hail it as a model of private-public partnership for having connected all the country’s schools and public libraries to the Internet. But with what result? There were great hopes for radio and television as educational new media too. Did they – and will the Net – develop and hone students’ critical and analytical thinking skills, or intellectually motivate them rather than serve as edutainment? Godfrey and McLean recognize that “there’s a lot of schlock out there masquerading” as educational new media. Beyond the media project, other policy chapters deal with children, health, and new energy systems. They sing the praises of B.C.’s Ballard Power Systems and its fuel cell technology. Technological innovation titillates liberal thinkers because they believe in “progress”; tories look to tradition, religion, nature, and the wisdom of the ages.

The socialist in this group is folksy and acerbic Alex MacDonald, who served as B.C.’s first socialist Attorney General in an NDP cabinet in the 1970s. Having practiced law for more than 40 years, MacDonald currently teaches a course in constitutional law. His Outrage! Canada’s Justice System on Trial is directed at the criminal justice system.

His thesis is that natural justice and the common good are being subverted by technical, legal trivialities and procedural wrangling. Whereas the Charter of Rights and Freedoms is repeatedly applauded by Godfrey and McLean, and goes unmentioned by Bolt, MacDonald lambastes it. Among other things, it has allegedly turned Canada into a haven for criminals at the expense of legitimate refugees. The Charter experience, in MacDonald’s cosmology, has privileged the rights of accused criminals over those of victims and the broader community. One of his populist proposals is to break the stranglehold of an innately conservative legal fraternity, one with a vested interest in perpetuating the status quo. MacDonald even suggests the appointment of some non-lawyers to the Supreme Court – possibly a variant of the socialist credo of “Power to the People”?

All three books have their beefs with Canada as we know it. All three envisage and want a better, more egalitarian, and more just society. In their own ways and collectively – via the ideological underpinnings of public policy options – they contribute to launching Canada into the next century. Bon voyage!