What are Canadians really like? Traditionally, we are depicted as meek, bland and full of self-doubt. In his recent ”œbiography” of North America, New York Times correspondent Anthony DePalma confirmed the prejudices of many of his readers by describing Canadians as annoying whiners who are obsessed with their search for national identity. What’s more, according to DePalma, we’re egalitarian anti-entrepreneurs who are resentful of individual initiative and suspicious of success.
Darrell Bricker and Edward Greenspon’s voyage inside what they call ”œthe new Canadian mindset” is a refreshing answer to these outdated stereotypes. Believe it or not, Canadians are an assertive, optimistic, self-confident and worldly people busi- ly pursuing excellence. We’ve made our peace with globalization and become more ethnically diverse than ever, while at the same time shedding the national ”œidentity deficit” that gnawed away at us in previous decades.
To reach these conclusions, Bricker and Greenspon plow through wide fields of public opinion data. They are particularly interested in how views on major issues shifted over the course of the ”œNervous Nineties,” a decade dur- ing which Canadians were visited by a recession, a series of national unity crises, government cutbacks and erod- ing public services in the pursuit of a zero deficit. It was also the decade in which Bricker and Greenspon’s own generation began to assume positions of leadership. Theirs is the generation that was inspired by Trudeau’s idealism and then taxed to pay down his deficits; that first learned to type on a typewriter but now can’t imagine life without computers; that has a rock ‘n’ roll record collection gathering dust in the basement and a new CD collection upstairs; that voted against free trade in 1988 but now questions the anti-glob- alization protestors; that was born before universal public health care was established, grew up taking it for grant- ed, and now worries about living to see its demise. Perhaps more so than the post-war generation that preceded it, and the wired generation that followed, this generation has had to change courses in midstream and, as a conse- quence, reassess its expectations of employers, governments, and itself. Bricker and Greenspon conclude that although Canadians’ often jolting jour- ney has led them to abandon many of their long-held opinions about the economy and public policy, it has not shaken their commitment to more fun- damental values. ”œThe new Canadian mindset,” they argue, ”œis steeped in the traditions of the country.”
While offering a number of insightful observations about a series of topics"from the economy and the changing work environment, through globalization, the Internet, education, health care, culture and identity"Bricker and Greenspon take the time to develop a number of more general themes.
The first is that the experience of rapid change during the 1990s left Canadians more self-reliant and more questioning of authority. Here, Bricker and Greenspon echo the now familiar ”œdecline of deference” thesis. But they add some important nuances. Canadians have not become alienated or cynical, but rather are more knowl- edgeable, more discerning and more demanding. They are less willing to place their trust in any institution, pub- lic or private, that has not earned it. This is what they mean by ”œthe search for certainty.” In their view, Canadians want to be reassured that they will in fact get the results they are looking for, whether in the market- place, or in the public realms of health care and educa- tion. Increasingly, they argue, we are reassured, not by promises, but by per- formance, accountability and trans- parency. As a result, both producers and governments ”œare going to have to be able to articulate their visions and per- suade consumers and citizens not just of their intended destination, but of how they plan to get there.”
A second theme is that Canadians remain wedded to what the authors call the ”œTory gene.” According to Bricker and Greenspon, Canadians have become fiscal conservatives, but not neo-conservatives. The 1990s destroyed our faith in government handouts and mega-projects. Yet Canadians are as committed as ever to the Tory idea ”œthat we are not different groups in a society pitted against one another so much as parts of a common organism"and that if one part is hurt so are the others.” This ”œessential Canadian quality” is evident in the support shown for public education, the opposition to private health care, and the insistence that governments have a role to play in humanizing globalization, investing in human cap- ital and protecting the most vulnera- ble members of society.
Bricker and Greenspon make their argument about the ”œTory touch” emphatically and effectively, and by doing so breathe new life into an old idea. They show that Tory and small-l liberal elements sit comfortably togeth- er within the Canadian mindset: Canadians hold fast to both, without seeing any contradiction. This helps to explain the limited success of political parties that appeal to only one of the two ideologies, and no doubt will fur- ther encourage Joe Clark in his quest, not to unite the right, but to dislodge the Liberals from the center.
A third theme the authors develop is that Canadians have bought into globalization. Not only have we reversed our opinion on free trade" choosing to support agreements we had previously opposed"but we embrace technological change and have decided that we have the necessary tools to compete internationally. In short, Canadians are forward-looking, self- confident and ”œwilling to test the fast waters of the new global economy.”
But Bricker and Greenspon’s strongest and most original point about globalization is that Canadians have accepted world economic inte- gration while at the same time becom- ing more, rather than less, secure in their sense of national identity. More specifically, they argue that globaliza- tion may actually be enhancing our sense of national identity: ”œIt may well be that globalization has produced an opposite and equal reaction"a new outward-looking nationalism.” In say- ing this, they do not discount the con- cerns raised by the critics of multina- tional corporations or the World Trade Organization. In fact, they understand more than many commentators that there is a genuine democratic deficit, and that Canadians, propelled by the ”œsearch for certainty,” will support efforts to ”œhumanize and democratize the governance of the global order.” This even-handedness serves to make their overall argument about Canadians and globalization more convincing.
Finally, although multiculturalism is not a major theme of the book, Bricker and Greenspon’s treatment of it is one of their most important contribu- tions. They show that the idea of multi- culturalism is no longer something to be added on to our understanding of the country, more or less as an afterthought. Rather, Canada has become first and foremost a multicultural society, both demographically and in terms of its identity. The demographic facts are well-known. Regarding identity, Bricker and Greenspon emphasize how com- fortable most Canadians and especially younger Canadians are with the coun- try’s growing diversity"and how this remarkable comfort level has become part of how we see ourselves and what we value about the country. ”œThe tri- umph of multiculturalism in Canada,” they argue, ”œlies in the wonder of its becoming more of a unifying symbol of Canadian identity than a force of divi- siveness.” Enlisting with philosopher Will Kymlicka, Bricker and Greenspon demonstrate unequivocally that, despite constant sniping by some, multicultur- alism has been a success that is unmatched anywhere else in the world.
The book is curiously silent on a few points of interest"first and foremost, the presence or absence of differences both among Canadians of different regions and between anglo- phones and francophones. Perhaps we can infer from this omission that such factors are much less important to the new Canadian mindset than they were to the old, but it would have been bet- ter to make the point explicitly. Nor are differences of opinion between men and women discussed, despite their significance in cases such as health care and social policy.
The authors also avoiding a num- ber of difficult questions relating to the capacity of governments to respond to the demands that a more assertive public is placing on them. To cite but one example, will govern- ments succeed in making our water safe to drink and our food safe to eat? In fairness, however, this is a subject for another book, and not one on the recent evolution of Canadian public opinion.
In the end, the book will displease only the minority of readers who fall into the following camps:
neo-conservatives who don’t want to hear that Joe Clark is more in tune with Canadian public opinion than any of the current candidates for the leadership of the Canadian Alliance
grumps who think the coun- try is going down the drain and don’t want to hear that most of their fellow citizens are enthusiastic about Canada and optimistic about its future
policy junkies fed-up hearing that Canadians support public health care and are mainly interested in pro- posals that might put the system on a more sustainable footing, and
anyone allergic to the sugges- tion that globalization and Canadian nationalism are compatible.
Most other readers will appreciate the book’s thorough and entertaining introduction to the state of public opin- ion in Canada. One final observation: while the manuscript was completed prior to September 11, there is nothing here that seems suddenly outdated" with the possible exception of the authors’ insistence that governments now enjoy large budget surpluses. This either is both a testament to the fact that they have succeeded in focusing on Canadians’ deeply held beliefs, and not their passing fancies, or further evi- dence that September 11 may not have produced the seismic shift in public attitudes that might first have been sup- posed. Or perhaps a bit of both.