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The Beginning of Canadian History
by Stewart Butterfield

"Canada is a better country", a Canadian ex-pat living in the deep American southwest once said to me, "but the U.S. is a greater country."

* * *

Canada is fine. It's good. And in Canada, our nil magnum nisi bonum*s keep us warm at night. In the identity we have created and maintained as uniquely Canadian, who we are is good, but, well, not particularly great. That is the only zeitgeist by and for Canadians that is articulated with any regularity in the magazines, television and billboards, or in the streets and schools and homes and offices.

Nice. Polite. A little better, in some ways, maybe. It's a joke, sure. We don't have guns. It's meant to be self-effacing. We're smaller — in population — but did you know that Canada is the second largest country in the world after Russia? Yes, it's cold! Ha ha! We apologize. Trudeau was friends with Castro! And once we burned the White House down!

Of course we are larger than that. Of course, there are musicians and scientists and entrepreneurs who are at the very least on a par with their Scandinavian or Australian counterparts. (Sorry.) Of course, we are larger than even that: the United Nations always used to say that Canada was the best country in the world to live in, and they probably will again soon.

But we can go farther. Now is when Canadian history can begin.

* * *

Francis Fukuyama's 1989 essay "The End of History?" and 1992 book with the more declarative title The End of History* made popular the notion that History, in the big "H", Hegel and Marx, path-of-progress sense — "history understood as a single, coherent, evolutionary process, when taking into account the experience of all peoples in all times" — had an end: both in the sense that it could cease and in the sense that in this cessation — in the end state — was its purpose.

Variations on this theme have sunk into the popular imagination over the last decade: most prominently the idea that the advantages of liberal democracy were so undeniable and so profound that its acceptance and eventual global spread were inevitable: the Berlin Wall came down, China began liberalizing, and (perhaps rightly) the states which had not already become liberal democracies of one kind of another were seen as being anachronistic holdouts rather than examples of legitimate alternatives.

It is over-critical to say that these events took us to a new level of complacency, yet it is undeniable that most of us could only be compelled to examine our fundamental political convictions by the occurrence of some truly exceptional event. Exceptional events do happen — the attacks which resulted in the collapse of the World Trade Center being the obvious and spectacular recent example — and they do cause a profound re-evaluation. So, it was not surprising to see something called — like Fareed Zakaria's article in the September 24, 2001 issue of Newsweek — The End of the End of History*.

On September 12, 2001, and for a few weeks following, we collectively experienced what it would be like to wake up living in a country which is in all respects save one the same as the one we live in now, comprising the same individuals, practices, assets and obligations, with the same history and with the same geography. The sole difference was that in the world of September 12, 2001, we all lived as if what happens in "out there" in the world actually mattered.

For those weeks we lived as if the things that we heard on The News were things that made a difference and listened with a sense of significance that was previously out of the question. Before, as far as anyone could tell from public conversations, the world was merely the stock market, pop vocalists, professional sports, economic indicators and entertainment industry goings-on tempered with a few highly improbable and often humorous events or particularly unfortunate disasters. Afterwards, for a short time, those things stopped being significant.

The kind of attention we can pay when we're living as if life matters is the kind of attention our history deserves, and living in that manner is the necessary for the creation of our history. Our history does not begin because so many people died in New York (for in many ways, one has nothing to do with the other); rather, the deaths of all those people in New York gave us a vivid demonstration that we can dramatically alter the way in which we perceive the events that make up our lives, individually and communally.

* * *

We already have our Louis Riel* and our Plains of Abraham*, our Avro Arrow* and our FLQ*. These are not the components of the kind of history this essay addresses. Rather, the kind of history which may now begin is a history which is born out of an true engagement with the world and with each other.

Engagement requires overcoming the facile cynicism which characterizes the predominant attitudes towards politics. Most people are not merely apathetic but actively subscribe to some belief which has as a consequence some reason that their own actions do not "count" and simultaneously some reason why those people whose actions do count always act in their own self-interest to the detriment of others. Manifestations of this learned helplessness* posit external control by "big corporations", "crooked politicians", "the WTO/World Bank" or forces as ridiculous as "Jews in league with communists". If these beliefs can be overcome, we can begin to make history.

In Charles Spinosa, Fernando Flores and Hubert L. Dreyfus's Disclosing New Worlds*, the authors describe a sense of "history-making" which transcends the meaning of the term as it is understood in everyday speech — "while the dates of each new presidency are found in U.S. history books, for example, the election of each new president is not history-making. Something that makes history ... changes the way in which we understand and deal with ourselves and with things." Like the feminist and civil rights movements those things which cause "changes at the heart of perception are the ones we designate as history-making".

This is the kind of history-making we should do.

* * *

Almost without exception, none of us have to go back more than a three or four generations before finding a trail of ancestors whose world was much harder their our own. Look back far enough in any direction and almost all one can see are people whose energies are devoted to sustenance and other obligations: think farmers, answering to a local Lord, paying tithes to a Church to whom their allegiance was compulsory. Men were often subject to being drafted to fight wars which were engaged to enrich (or even to merely maintain the honour of) those who had the power to initiate wars. Women were often treated as the property of their father or husband and were deprived of even the rudimentary education of the day. For all, the freedoms were fewer, the leisure briefer, the opportunities less varied.

Now, almost without exception, we all have material wealth beyond the imagination of those ancestors. Normal people can command the capital necessary to capture the enormous technological, human and raw material resources which go to make up a car — a fact which may seem trivial but which represents just a tiny proportion of the profound changes that have occurred over the last few hundred years. We have dentistry. We can listen to music whenever we want to. People do not starve to death in Canada.

There are labour laws which, in general, protect us. There is the chance of more or less permanent peace with other countries, and there is the rule of law at home so that corruption, property crime and coercion by those who are more physically powerful are exceptions rather than the normal course of events. "Might makes right" has given way to a system of fundamental rights for all: and even though we may not always be successful in ensuring the fair enjoyment of those rights, there are corps of people whose job it is to make sure that everyone is treated fairly and the commitment of the society as whole is beyond question.

Further, most of us had 13 or more years of free education, to learn history, geography, mathematics, literature, foreign languages, the sciences, music. Many of us had the opportunity to study at a University — and everywhere there are newspapers, books, magazines, whole libraries and, of course, now the internet. And as it turns out, it was not the lack of all these advantages which prevented us from acting in solidarity and purposively making the history and hence the country that we wanted. As it turns out, there wasn't anything else that needed to happen before we could be great. We can be great now.

* * *

This does not all, so to speak, have to be a drag. We don't have be earnest all the time, and we don't have to watch our moral development in the way that a dieter watches the incoming calories. Greatness means creativity and prosperity, diversity and increased freedom. Greatness is actually more fun than mediocrity.

But what does it actually mean? Where do we go from here? This "manifesto" is incomplete. In fact, there is little manifesto here at all. The answers are not obvious, but we need to begin a conversation that transforms the way our society functions. I will start a ball rolling, beginning with politics, and you can fill in the blanks. Add your own. Reorder them. Reflect. And we can begin making history.

Acknowledge that politics is us. Don't blame the politicians — they don't even have a chance. We have created an environment where open debate is forbidden and hypocritical stances are required — any politician who regularly speaks frankly and openly would be out of a job. Fixing this means eliminating the formal and systemic inauthenticities which prevent politics from being effective. And whatever their culpability, the onus is on all of us because the alternative is merely sitting and waiting for Gandhis to spontaneously arise.

Vote, of course. And evaluate the people you are voting for as human beings with a particular job to do, not as representatives of some party. The bundling together of issues necessary for party politics reduces the problem space to too small a matrix — each issue deserves independent thought and action. Demand that your representatives not participate in the inane sniping, the constant calls for resignation, the time-wasting distractions of always working against each other. Recognize and reward expressions of respect for members of other parties and encourage pragmatism: politicians need to work together in the creation of optimal legislation.

Shift power to the cities. Cities, not Provinces and not Federal states, are the primary unit of civilization and they should also be the primarly political structure. Cities are where we live and they are where the things that matter to us occur. They are the locus of the arts, of entrepreneurship, of invention and learning and most things we value. And they need power that corresponds to their importance to ensure that the people flourish.

Accept our collective success or failure as a personal responsibility. If it is not each of us who is responsible for making politics work, then it is no-one; there just isn't anyone other than us. It is, as a matter of fact, our responsibility. And though it may not be obvious how to make it work, it can work.

* * *

Canada is still very young. The process of maturation has begun and with the that the beginning of Canadian history. This is our opportunity — we can be better still, and we can be greater.


Stewart Butterfield is circles and mines. Parking lots.


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