Why are we so hard on ourselves?

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March 9, 2020

Why are we so hard on ourselves?

Written by Robin V. Sears for the Toronto Star. Click here to read the original.

Reflecting on crises past, former prime minister Jean Chretien said last week that blockades, “won’t break the nation … because Canada is stronger than that.” The 86-year-old statesman recalled the genuine challenge to state authority that was the FLQ, saying, “we always face the problem[s] and we solve them.”

Of course, he is right.

If Canada were a person our shrink would probably diagnose us susceptible to long cycle but deep mood swings. We go through long periods of quiet acceptance of the challenges of life, sometimes crash into deep depression and occasionally brief bouts of hysterical joy. Remember the Raptors victory?

According to Angus Reid this week, we have swung wildly by more than 20 points in our assessment of Justin Trudeau since the election. And then there was the stunning poll that claimed than nearly seven out of 10 Canadians feel the country is “broken.”

On one level it is easy to understand the fear and anxiety that a possible pandemic and disruption to our transport system will do to the economy. From a partisan perspective it is also easy to understand why Conservatives would want to torque that unease going into a leadership campaign. Given the hyperventilation that social media necessarily induces at times like these, it is easy to see how this incredible volatility was generated. But the nation is broken? Really?

One can reasonably claim that the prime minister’s approach to solving the pipeline battles is broken — though it is surely too soon to tell. One could even complain that the economy was facing a massive shock and the government’s response was “broken” — though it might be more reasonable to await their budget in a few days’ time to make that judgment.

In every global quality of life survey, Canada ranks in the Top 10, year after year. According to the Wharton School we are No. 1 in the world. Wages are growing faster than inflation for the first time in years. Life expectancy, family income, gender equality, and employment levels are all on a positive track. Curiously, we drop down to the Top 30 in various happiness indexes. So objectively our lives are better than most, and getting better, but nonetheless we are not very happy.

Do we have a crisis of confidence about climate change, pipelines, and Indigenous reconciliation? Yes, probably to a majority of Canadians, but even for them it is surely government policy in Ottawa and some of the provinces that is broken, not the nation.

As many a returning expat Canadian has exclaimed in the face of a litany of dinner party complaints and criticisms about the true North, “You do know that much of humanity would kill to be given the privilege of raising a family here!?”

Venezuelans live in a broken country, as do many Afghans, Iranians, Syrians and two dozen other nations struggling to maintain peace and stability, let alone prosperity. To them the notion that Canada is broken would appear simply absurd.

Yet, for some reason unclear to those pollsters who have tracked this phenomenon for years, a large percentage of Canadians perennially make invidious comparisons between here and other places, between today versus a long past golden era. The problem with describing something as large as a nation as broken, is that it implies it is beyond fixing. It makes a mockery of anyone fighting for greater justice or equality — “What’s the point, this place is broken …”

Canada fought its way back from the nightmare of communal riots over conscription in both World Wars, the huge losses in the wars themselves, one of the worst depressions in the developed world, 20 years of constitutional warfare triggered by bombings and an assassination, and the crash of 2008. Throwing our hands up and saying, “This place is broken” was not an option for earlier generations.

Would we not be wiser to say to all our leaders, “This is a great nation, built out of adversity and determination. We expect better on climate change, on reconciliation, on child poverty, on affordable housing. We expect you to make Canada a fairer, more equal and just society. We expect you to find consensus and a path forward — as we have usually succeeded in doing. If you don’t, we’ll consider you have broken your mandate to govern. We will find others who are up to the task.”

But on the issues that are roiling Canadians today, especially the threat of a major health crisis on top of battles over resources and pipelines, we are likely nearer the beginning than the end of those challenges. As Chrétien observed with the wisdom of old age, “We’ll see when it’s over. These things take time.”