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Glen Pearson


Has Canada Lost its Honour?

Posted: 04/10/2012 8:38 am

The last decade in Canadian parliament has witnessed one of the most dramatic reversals in Western democracy. Regional differences, language issues, resource-sharing and citizenship disenchantment with all things political have resulted in a Canada at troubling odds with its more professional and stabilized reputation of only a few years ago. Speaking with a former United Nation's official last week who worked for years in an effort to reconstruct Haiti provided a sage observation on how this is viewed from nations outside of our own -- "Canada seems to have lost its sense of honour." It was phrase that has stayed and troubled me since it was uttered.

There is every sense that whatever Canada was in the eyes of the world has been radically altered, at least in perception. When Canadians themselves talk of the last decade in politics there is clearly a sense of jadedness, but when comparing the present context to those days when this country was highly regarded as an equitable nation and a terrific generator of Foreign Service professionals, many Canadians clearly sense a certain decline in stature.

Perhaps it's because politics itself has changed. The rustic/eloquent observer of the Canadian scene, Rex Murphy, commented last week that the two past Liberal leaders -- Stephane Dion and Michael Ignatieff -- were more like "boy scouts" than tough politicians. It's likely that there's some truth in this. But the victor is one who has succeeded in taking us down a number of dark alleys, where compromise is cast aside for conflict, and a sense of permanent partisan warfare replaces respectful governance.

What Murphy was saying, in effect, is that the days of respectfulness, dignity, and professionalism in the Canadian political landscape are more suitable for old National Film Board newsreels than the modern era of rumble-tumble bludgeoning political intrigue. We now live in a world where a government can turn on its own parliament, deny it the proper accounting assessments necessary for the approval of mega-expensive items like the F-35 jet, and proceed as if the need for the Canadian people to have a proper accounting for such expenditures (the largest military procurement in Canadian history) is not of prime importance. It is a world of political assassination via the airwaves, the silencing of professional ministry staffs, and a media that largely delights in the sheer parry and thrust of it all.

Welcome to the death of political honour -- that now unattainable practice of sticking to your word, where a commitment made was one worked out in a multi-party setting, and where all political representatives, especially the prime minister, would demonstrate the dignity of office by bowing to the will and constitution of parliament itself. Was it ever this ideal? Absolutely not, but past eras instinctively understood that it was a measure by which they would be judged. Furthermore, it was an effective means for dealing with public policies in a way that limited excessive friction and roguish behaviour. The new world of politics is more about fear of the leader and loyalty to the party than about honouring an institution that has watched over a very successful country for decades and guaranteeing that outcome by a personal sense of self-respect and honour.

The irony of it all is that Canada's reputation was clearly linked to its "boy scout" sense of responsibility. We were the folks in the blue berets, storming Vimy Ridge; residents of the most successful multi-cultural state in the world, business people who could span an entire country with a prosperous model; and citizens that at least pursued that most mercurial of all democratic pursuits -- equality.

The Machiavellian nature of our present Canadian political power structure has the potent result of demeaning the very greatness that honoured us at home and abroad. In response to Rex Murphy, I can only offer the perhaps outdated view of David Gemmell in his Shield of Thunder: "I may be stupid, as you say, to believe in honour and friendship without price. But these are virtues to be cherished, for without them we are no more than beasts roaming the land."

The days of roaming are now upon us. Careers have replaced character. And the only ones who can halt that transformation are the very citizens who have turned away from our national embarrassment.

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