Over the past few years, Irvin Studin, a young political thinker schooled at York University, the London School of Economics, and the University of Oxford, approached dozens of promi- nent Canadians and asked them to write essays on the meaning of Canada. He collected their contribu- tions in What Is a Canadian? Forty- Three Thought-Provoking Responses, which was published in 2006. Studin was inspired by a similar thematic col- lection edited in 1958 by David Ben- Gurion, the first prime minister of Israel. Ben-Gurion asked: ”œWhat is a Jew?” and went to the great sages of Judaism for answers. To divine Canada, Studin went to its ”œsages” in government, letters, business, and aca- demia. Naturally, as a Canadian, he tried to strike a geographical, ethnic, and linguistic balance, and naturally, as a Canadian, he apologized for falling short. Studin asked his respon- dents to open their essays with the declaration ”œA Canadian is…” He asked them not to write prescriptively; they could not say what a Canadian should be, but they could say what a Canadian is not.
Studin puts his contributors into three classes. The first is idiosyncratic. They define the Canadian as liberal, enlightened, diplomatic, tolerant, polite, generous, complacent, deferen- tial, among positive qualities, or, more harshly, parochial and prejudiced. A recurring ”œcircumstantial” trait is ”œlucky.” The second class is socio-polit- ical. The Canadian is a creation of the state or an instrument of public policy, such as the Constitution, health care, and multiculturalism. For example, the ”œCharter Canadians” see their citizen- ship in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The third class are those who are alienated from Canada. They do not see themselves as Canadians at all but Québécois, exiles within Canada, who make the distinction between le Canadien and the Canadian. Studin suggests a people of infinite variety (which is flattering, though not unique to Canada). To expand his eclectic catalogue of the Canadian, let us consider some elements of character that the sages do not address. Classed loosely, they are the tall poppy syn- drome (envy, resentment, jealousy); moderation (the instinct for the politi- cal centre); ambiguity (the value of vagueness); and civility (decency and generosity). For examples, let us look again to our civic culture, where we find so much of ourselves.
The tall poppy syndrome is not peculiar to Canada. Some say it came from Australia or New Zealand, where the tallest poppy in a garden was cut down because it rose above the rest. Some attribute it to Scandinavia, which has its own finely honed suspi- cions of success and self-advance- ment, or Japan, where a proverb suggests that ”œthe nail that sticks out gets hammered down.” Wherever it originates, the tall poppy is as Canadian as the Maple Leaf. It has become our national flower.
Resentment, envy, and jealousy colonize our consciousness, challeng- ing the better angels of our nature. Examples abound in the political culture. On October 14, 1957, Lester B. Pearson learned that he had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for having found a way out of the Suez Crisis. The Nobel committee said that he’d ”œsaved the world.” When a reporter called him with the news of the award, he was incredulous: ”œYou mean that I have been nominated,” he insisted. When he learned he had indeed won, he said: ”œGosh!” The reaction of others was less innocent. As one legend had it, the very idea that the bow-tied, lisping ”œMike” Pearson could win the Nobel Prize led one outspoken woman at a cocktail party in Vancouver to exclaim, ”œWell, who does he think he is!”
When the Bank of Canada asked focus groups to help it choose Canadians to put on the back of its new banknotes, the respondents called Lester Pearson ”œa partisan politician” and complained that Terry Fox, the one-legged marathoner who ran halfway across Canada before dying of cancer, had had ”œan abrasive personality.”
The tall poppy syndrome thrives in our political hothouse. We think politicians are venal, vapid, and vain- glorious. When they want a raise, our instinct is to deny it; really, now, the nerve of you!
Then we complain about the quality of our politicians. Our disdain for public service is spreading. The antipathy is magnified by govern- ments seeking to be seen as squeaky- clean and a media eager to scrutinize expense accounts and travel budgets for extravagance or malfeasance. Newspapers think it is important enough to report that the prime min- ister’s chef went to Egypt (at a cost of two thousand dollars!) ”œto share recipes” with the chefs of sixteen other nations ”œcourtesy of the Canadian taxpayer.” It is also impor- tant for the well-informed citizen to know, figuratively speaking, the bot- tle of wine the Ambassador to France served a visiting delegation of bee- keepers or that the Minister of Justice took a government plane to attend the Rotary Club in Lethbridge. Or that the Conservatives use the gov- ernment Challenger jets half as much as the Liberals did. We dine out on a minister’s expense chits, airline tick- ets, and hotel bills, which now appear on the Web. No wonder restaurants in Ottawa are closing. The mandarins are afraid to be seen lunching with the wrong people ”” or perhaps lunching at all.
Money matters in Canada. Canadians look askance at public salaries, perquisites, and benefits, as if no politician or public servant could possibly deserve them. It may be why the governor general is paid $114,725, far less than a federal cabinet minister. The spending of Brian Mulroney, the mellifluous glad-hander who was prime minister from 1984 to 1993, became an obsession. ”œClosets designed to hold hundreds of shoes, including dozens of pairs of loafers, are among the lavish furnishings of 24 Sussex Drive,” the Canadian Press reported on April 16, 1987. ”œBrian Mulroney’s closet was designed to accommodate 30 suits and 84 pairs of shoes, including at least 50 pairs of Gucci loafers…” This Emperor had too many clothes. Mulroney had reached a level of consumption ”œthat would shock most Canadians,” columnist John Ferguson observed. The reality was that Mulroney had invited this kind of scrutiny when he and his pre- decessors attacked Pierre Trudeau for a suede couch and fifty-dollar ashtrays in the waiting room of his office on Parliament Hill. Or, years earlier, when the Tories pilloried Trudeau for accepting an indoor swimming pool at 24 Sussex Drive from anonymous donors. In the blood sport of poli- tics, the Liberals were soon asking Mulroney if taxpay- ers were paying for his chil- dren’s food.
Whatever Mulroney’s personal excesses, the interest here was odd, even unseemly; at root, it was about dis- paraging politicians. We like to do this. As Hugh Segal said, this idée fixe over Mulroney’s spending ”œfalls into the tradition of pettiness with which we treat people in public life…” Pierre Pettigrew, no friend of Mulroney, winced years later when he recalled this inquisition. As the minister of for- eign affairs, who would face questions on his own spending in office, he said: ”œYou know, we can be very petty, very mean in Canada.” We can, we are, and it demeans us.
Mulroney’s imbroglio made it politically impossible to renovate 24 Sussex Drive for years after. When Jean Chrétien moved there in 1993, he wouldn’t spend any money on the house; according to a frequent visi- tor, he proudly declared the curtains on the windows had been made from the tablecloths used at the G-7 sum- mit in Halifax. When Paul Martin arrived 10 years later, he wouldn’t touch the house, either. Susan Delacourt of the Toronto Star wrote that Martin knew ”œthat any move to fix up the home in a substantial way ”” with taxpayers’ dollars ”” would be a public relations disaster.”
By then 24 Sussex ”” a Gothic revival pile built above the Ottawa River in 1866 ”” was in grave disrepair. It was cold and draughty in winter and oppressively hot in summer. The kitchen was small and dated, the win- dows filled with unsightly, dripping air conditioners, like those in a tropical tenement. The sunroom was so chilly in winter that it was wrapped in clear plastic, which seemed to be taking the federal energy conservation program a little far (though Jack Layton of the New Democrats advised installing solar panels). When Sheila Martin opened the house for a charitable event, visitors walked around and expressed ”œdisappointment, shock and embarrassment.” No wonder. The prime minister’s residence looked like a tarpaper shack in Appalachia.
When Martin expressed his reser- vations, the leader of the oppo- sition pounced. Naturally. Stephen Harper said he was delighted with Stornoway, the official residence. It was the best place he’d ever lived; Martin should stop whining and worry less about his needs than those of Canadians. ”œWe have a $9-billion surplus, and I’d like to see some money go to taxpayers rather than our obsession being our personal living accommodations,” carped Harper. There it was, then. If we can make politicians live in genteel shabbiness, like a déclassé socialite forced into a homeless shelter, why not? It is as irre- sistible as soaking the rich. Take ’em down a peg. That’ll show ’em. Reform Party leader Preston Manning had wanted to sell Stornoway ”” that was before he lived in it as opposition leader. Before him, Bloc Québécois leader Lucien Bouchard refused to move in. And so on. It was always about politics, never about ensuring proper official residences for the prime minister of Canada and the leader of the opposition. Not that they should resemble the Kremlin or the Elysée Palace. Just dignified, modest homes, befitting the leaders of a rich, resentful country.
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A recent illustration of the tall poppy syndrome is the pillorying of Adrienne Clarkson, the broadcaster, publisher, diplomat, and writer who was governor general of Canada from 1999 to 2005. When she left Ottawa after a feverish period at Rideau Hall, some called her the finest governor general since Roland Michener in the 1970s, or Georges-P. Vanier in the 1960s, or the finest in memory, or the finest in history. In six years, Clarkson reinvented a dusty, antiquated institution. With her husband, John Ralston Saul, the novelist, essayist, and philosopher, she arrived with an idea of herself and the office and brought it to life. Clarkson brought with her a record of professional and public service, a term as Ontario’s agent general in Paris, a familiarity with every region of the country and its history, fluency in both languages, and intelligence, energy, and imagi- nation. This is the depth and experience a governor general should have. Indeed, a reason that Clarkson was extraordinary in the role is that her four predecessors were pedestrian. Roméo LeBlanc, Ramon Hnatyshyn, Jeanne Sauvé, and Edward Schreyer were decent, honourable, successful politicians. But each was chosen to repay a debt, confer an honour, or set a precedent. It mattered little that Hnatyshyn couldn’t speak French or that LeBlanc was phlegmat- ic, that Sauvé was aloof and that Schreyer was eccentric. To be the first Ukrainian, Acadian, woman, and Manitoban was enough to make the appointment. Clarkson was the first immigrant to become governor gener- al, having fled Hong Kong as a child early in the Second World War. She was also the first governor general who had not been a professional politician or career diplomat. She was articulate, stylish, refined, attractive, opinionat- ed, and self-confident. Very self-confi- dent. Her husband was all that, too.
When Clarkson got to Ottawa, nothing was too petty. Her clothes were too loud. Her friends were too elitist. Her tastes were too rich. Her indiscretions and offences were unending. Clarkson misses the funeral of the Lt. Governor of Alberta, a friend and confidant, and a columnist hisses that ”œthe nation’s Empress of Excess was merrily vacationing with haughty husband in Paris.” She goes to the the- atre in Ottawa accompanied by Richard Mahoney, who at the time is running for the Liberals in Ottawa, and is accused of ”œcozying up to Paul Martin’s pals in the hope of being reappointed to her lavish life at Rideau Hall.” She visits skid row in Vancouver, and she is ”œdegrading” the homeless and ”œexploiting” their poverty. Even straight reportage has an edge: ”œThe couple arrived ”” a little late ”” on foot, dressed casually, as if out for an autumn stroll,” said The Globe and Mail. A whole book was given over to their foibles and contradictions, called Mr. & Mrs. G.G.: The Media Princess & the Court Philosopher. None of this pre- vented Clarkson and Saul from per- forming their duties ”” travelling, speaking, honouring, receiving, host- ing, sponsoring ”” and a whole man- ner of other responsibilities that they carried off with aplomb.
The drumbeat of criticism ebbed and flowed but never went away. The detractors resented that the viceregal cou- ple repainted and redecorated much of Rideau Hall and some of its outbuildings, displayed Canadian art and furniture from government warehouses, served fine vintages from the country’s best wineries (pro- moting Canada’s vintners is one of Saul’s passions), and presented organic, creative food prepared by the country’s best chefs. They clucked when she travelled some 150,000 kilometres a year, often to small communities in the North (among the four hun- dred villages, towns, and cities the couple visited over their six years). Most of all, though, they howled when she led a visit to Iceland, Finland, and Russia in 2003 accompanied by a delegation of 59 ”œRosedale” associates. It cost $5.4 million. Having asked the governor general to make the trip, the Martin government panicked when the critics started bleating. It cancelled the sec- ond half of the visit, to Norway, Denmark, and Sweden, which had been two years in the planning. A par- liamentary committee even hastily summoned her principal secretary from Europe to testify, questioned her for an hour, then chastised her for hav- ing flown home business class. Clarkson was rising above her station. This is a cardinal sin in a resentful country. The governor general should not fly to her cottage on Georgian Bay on a private plane (even though the RCMP insisted on it after September 11). Go commercial.
In 2004, after Clarkson had been in office five years, it all came to a bizarre climax. When the politicians learned that her budget had risen to $41 million from $17 million a year, they balked. That she was travelling and entertaining far more than her predecessors, including making annual visits to Canadian troops in Bosnia and Afghanistan, scarcely mattered. In one of those exquisite moments of our nationhood, the Parliament of Canada told the Governor General of Canada that she was spending too much. It would have to slap her wrist. So, in a fit of pique, it cut $417,000 from her budget. But when pinched parlia- mentarians learned that her office was planning to eliminate children’s win- ter activities at Rideau Hall, they winced. Joe Preston, a Conservative MP, said that ”œit’s always easy to point at the most glamorous things and say you’re going to make people suffer because of this.” His colleague, Peter MacKay, a future foreign minister, advised: ”œIf they have to cut children’s programming, I would suggest they maybe have to serve less caviar at the next cocktail party.”
What was behind all this? Try a culture of resentment. One of Clarkson’s loudest critics was Pat Martin of the New Democratic Party, a peppery populist from Winnipeg who wanted to reduce Clarkson’s budget by the cost of her circumpolar visit. You might have thought that Martin would have approved of Clarkson and Saul publicizing the homeless or visiting rural Canada or making the office a Canadian institution. From dropping royal toasts at state dinners to rearrang- ing (or removing) some of the royal portraits at Rideau Hall and ensuring ceremonial pipers played Canadian music, they always promoted the coun- try. But Pat Martin and his ilk could not see Clarkson and Saul as reformers or exemplars (no one ever mentioned that not only did Saul not receive a salary or pension for his work at Rideau Hall, he also gave up lucrative speaking engagements to avoid any conflict of interest). Rather, Clarkson and Saul were effete, impudent snobs, high-hat- ted and snooty, kicking back on the plush sofas and rolling around in the thick oriental carpets. Said Martin: ”œFrankly, Canadians would like her even more if there was a little bit more of the common touch demonstrated here instead of an elitist role.”
Clarkson was not blameless. She should not have gone on the CBC to answer questions about her spend- ing and said, ”œI am above the law.” Rather, she might have said: ”œConstitutionally, my office is above the law and that is why I cannot dis- cuss this.” It was unwise of her to take the large delegation of artists, native leaders, entrepreneurs, and industry representatives on the circumpolar tour, but not because they were not legitimate. She and Saul should have anticipated the criticism. That the cost of her trip was about the same as a royal visit or the ”œTeam Canada” mis- sions, that she pioneered the strategic use of the state visit, that the trip was value for money in publicity and pres- tige (as Russian president Vladimir Putin told Stephen Harper years later) were sound points.
But this was less about reason than resentment. Clarkson’s critics weren’t going to give her a break. They would never see her unpublicized acts of kind- ness, from making bedside visits to the dying to award them the Order of Canada to raising money for street kids in Thailand. Or small acts of protest, such as refusing to shake the hand of the Ambassador of Burma, a country notorious for its human rights abuses. They could never acknowledge how hard she worked, which may have con- tributed to the heart condition for which she had a pacemaker inserted in her last summer in office. They would not appreciate, among her other achievements, her establishing the Governor General’s Northern Medal and the Clarkson Cup for excellence in women’s hockey.
No, there remained a lingering feel- ing about Saul and Clarkson that she later ascribed to ”œmalice, ignorance and a certain kind of tall-poppy syndrome.”
From The Unfinished Canadian: The People We Are, by Andrew Cohen. Published by McClelland & Stewart Ltd. Reprinted by permission.