Book Reviews: The State of Canada

The controversial British right-wing politician Enoch Powell once wrote: "Politicians who complain about the media are like ships' captains who complain about the sea." That may be true, but it seldom stops either breed from trying. Former prime minister Brian Mulroney, in fact, cursed with the practised eloquence of a master seaman at almost every mention of the media. More recently, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, who used to boast that he never cared about what journalists said, publicly expressed anger at what he considered biased coverage of the Quebec referendum.

Now, the fall book season brings a variety of offerings that politicians are likely to greet with varying degrees of enthusiasm. Mulroney, for one, plays a key role in two books by Maclean's writers that are among the bigger and more controversial volumes of the fall. Peter C. Newman, the magazine's senior contributing editor, chronicles the changes in politics and societal attitudes that took place in Canada during the Mulroney years in The Canadian Revolution: From Deference to Defiance (Penguin), while senior writer Marci McDonald takes the Mulroney government to task for its relations with the United States in Yankee Doodle Dandy: Brian Mulroney and the American Agenda (Stoddart). And the current Prime Minister is the subject of another recent release, Chrétien: Volume 1, The Will to Win (Lester), by Ottawa-based author Lawrence Martin, the first of a planned two-part study of Chrétien's life.

Excerpts from all three of those books have appeared in recent issues of Maclean's. But they are far from the only significant political works being released in time for Christmas. Another is Whose Country is This Anyway? (Douglas & McIntyre) by former Progressive Conservative adviser Dalton Camp. A collection of the best of Camp's nationally syndicated newspaper columns, the book presents the former Tory in a guise that will surprise some - as a defender of and unabashed believer in the need for a strong central government and generous social programs, as well as an opponent of unfettered free markets. Whose Country belies the old dictum that "anyone who is not a socialist at 21 has no heart; anyone who is not a conservative at 30 has no head." Camp, through his columns, persuasively makes the case that it may be possible to be both at the same time.

Three other new releases feature original material that deals with the current political scene. Assessments from the Maclean's Ottawa bureau:

One of the best and most original of releases of this or any other year is one in which individual politicians play a secondary role to ideas. Nationalism Without Walls: The Unbearable Lightness of Being Canadian (McClelland & Stewart), by author and syndicated Toronto Star columnist Richard Gwyn, will enrage some readers as much as it will delight others. But its freshness of thought should allow the country's often moribund political debate to take off in new directions. Gwyn looks at some of the most deeply embedded beliefs that have taken root among the country's ruling political classes in the past three decades and concludes that some have achieved the exact opposite of their intended goal. Among his targets: government-mandated employment equity programs, official multiculturalism and an immigration policy that, he says, is "hopelessly" out of date in meeting Canada's needs. All three, he suggests, have done more to divide Canadians than unite them. At the same time, Gwyn bemoans the present fondness for concluding that "historical Canada was a seething cauldron of racism and sexism."

But despite those views, Gwyn's book is neither a conservative's polemic nor a paean to imagined better days in past times. Instead, he suggests that Canada is uniquely placed to become the world's first "postmodern" country - and a model to all others - if it can learn to combine the traditions of egalitarianism, civility and tolerance that characterized so much of its past with the cultural richness and diversity of modern times. In short, he argues that a country whose people feel free to be themselves, rather than conforming to a national stereotype, should be celebrated rather than stigmatized.

Almost all of Gwyn's main points fly in the face of present accepted wisdom, or stand it on its head. Although many Canadians look at the 1982 Charter of Rights and Freedoms as a guarantee of equality and proof of Canada's distinctiveness, he says it is neither. Rather, the thrust of the charter has unintentionally Americanized the country's political system by placing more power in the hands of the Supreme Court, and has ensured inequality and discrimination. As proof, he cites clause Section 15(2), which says that, despite the guarantees of equality elsewhere in the charter, it "does not preclude any law, program or activity that has as its object the amelioration of conditions of disadvantaged individuals and groups."

Gwyn's prediction in the book that the sovereigntist side would be roundly defeated in the Quebec referendum is as wrong as the views of virtually every other analyst on the issue. But he is right when he concludes that in relations between Quebec and the rest of the country, "it is the emotional distance that matters the most" - and the gulf has been widening between the two sides for decades. In the wake of the close referendum result, he is particularly prescient in arguing that English Canada should devote more time to defining itself and its values, and to coming to terms with the idea of being a nation with or without Quebec. Perhaps the book's most startling and refreshing conclusion, given the country's tradition of angst and hand-wringing on the subject, is that being English-Canadian doesn't have to mean saying you're sorry.

Another Toronto-based author is responsible for another of the season's most eagerly anticipated books, but with less successful results. Ron Graham's All the King's Horses: Politics Among the Ruins (Macfarlane Walter & Ross) marks a return to familiar ground for one of the country's best-connected political writers. Graham's earlier efforts include One-Eyed Kings: Promise & Illusion in Canadian Politics (1986), which was duly praised for its masterly chronicling of the Trudeau-era Liberals. In addition, Graham ghostwrote and edited Chrétien's 1985 memoir Straight from the Heart, and was lead interviewer of former prime minister Pierre Trudeau for his televised biography.

But Graham's new book is disappointing. Although he writes with his customary grace and ease, All the King's Horses is ultimately heavy on style but light on substance. To be sure, its central thesis is enough to warm the heart of any unrepentant Trudeau-era Liberal: Canada, Graham suggests, would be a lot better off today if Canadians would believe more in the Trudeau-esque notions of a strong central government and a single vision of their country. Today, Trudeau's centrist vision of Canada has been discredited by everyone, it seems - except ordinary Canadians, who repeatedly rank him at the top of lists of "most admired countryman" in public opinion polls.

That in itself makes Graham's defence of Trudeau worthwhile, but he weakens his case by extravagant claims and a paucity of original reporting. At one stage, Graham asserts that Trudeau, by implementing such policies as official bilingualism and multiculturalism and his notion of a just society, created "the core of what distinguished Canadians from Americans and bound them as a community." Thus, in one swoop, he dismisses the notion that Canadians had any sense of self-worth or accomplishment in the 100 years that preceded Trudeau's becoming prime minister.

Beyond such rhetorical excess, what is most surprising is the lack of new material. All the King's Horses is heavy on interpretative history; it begins, for example, with a discussion of the significance of former prime minister Kim Campbell's fondness for line dancing. A surprisingly large part of the book, in fact, is given over to Campbell and her five-month term in office. Little of the material is new, and much of it was covered far better and more comprehensively in former Campbell adviser David McLaughlin's 1994 book, Poisoned Chalice: How the Tories Self-destructed. The main reason for its inclusion seems to be for Graham to throw darts at the Ottawa press gallery for its coverage of Campbell - before lobbing a few of his own at her.

Despite its inconsistencies, Graham is too skilled a writer for the book to be without redeeming qualities. His chapters on the 1993 election race in the Toronto-area riding of Mississauga West do vivid justice to the notion that no voters would ever be as hard on their members of parliament again if they could spend just one week living their lives. Winning a seat in the House of Commons, as Liberal Carolyn Parrish did over incumbent Tory Bob Horner and Reform hopeful Charles Conn, can be an all-consuming and soul-draining task - which makes the sheer irrelevance and impotence of life in the government backbenches all the more frustrating. And Graham, with the shrewd eye of an outsider, makes a valid point in arguing that despite their protestations to the contrary, federal politicians of all stripes and the journalists who cover them have a self-serving interest in keeping power and attention focused as much as possible on Ottawa.

But given the author's wide range of contacts, the book is surprisingly light on the sort of anecdotes and sense of atmosphere that give a book life. And Graham, with access to Trudeau, Chrétien and other senior Liberals, too often appears content to accept their assertions unchallenged, and their visions of history unquestioned. The sense of intellectual curiosity that marked his earlier books is gone. It is as though the author, having been given the keys to the Liberal kingdom, is determined to be regarded as a good guest rather than, in journalistic fashion, an interloper.

A very different take on the Liberal party is to be found in Straight Through the Heart: How the Liberals Abandoned the Just Society (HarperCollins). Maude Barlow and Bruce Campbell paint a deliberately horrifying picture of life after the dismantling of political and social institutions, a policy launched a decade ago by the former Conservative government of Brian Mulroney and accelerated under Jean Chrétien's Liberals. In the authors' vision, greedy transnational corporations run roughshod over an impoverished Canada and the eviscerated political system that once shielded it. The Canada of Barlow and Campbell is a Canada that only the most heartless of fat cats could love: a country of food banks and relief camps, ruled at the whim of an entrenched business elite. "Corporate interests have captured the political agenda," warn the authors. "They have put government and its citizens on trial."

As the clever title suggests, the culprit fingered by the authors is the federal Liberal party, under whose mantle the social safety net was spun. Since the introduction of family allowances in 1945 under Mackenzie King, succeeding Liberal governments expanded the net by either begging, borrowing or stealing progressive ideas that included universal old-age security in 1952, federal medicare in 1966 and, as an element of Pierre Trudeau's so-called Just Society, unemployment insurance was expanded 1971. Perhaps, as the authors suggest, establishment of the social welfare framework was in large part a calculated response by a party that knew how to capitalize on public opinion. Whatever past motives were, the book argues that present-day Liberals, steered by their pro-business wing, are busy ripping Ottawa's covenant with the nation asunder, despite promises to the contrary during the 1993 election campaign. "We keep being told that Canada is going through a bad time, and that if we are patient all will soon be well," Barlow and Campbell write. "Let us confront that corporate lie: it is a matter of ideology, a clash of values, a contest of interests."

By presenting their case so stridently, Barlow and Campbell often trip into the same quagmire occupied by their archenemy, the right wing. To them, everything is suspect, even missions to galvanize international trade. Note the duo: "Perhaps nothing symbolizes the change in priorities and values of both the nation and the Liberal party more than Chrétien and the premiers acting as pimps for Canada's corporate elite as they sell their wares around the world." Still, despite more than an occasional leap of hyperbole, and scant concern about the deficit, the book's message is one that Canadians should consider - if only as part of the process to shape a nation to which the 21st century once belonged.

Maclean's December 4, 1995