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Searching For Canada's National Narrative

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A recent CBC television movie about John A. MacDonald, Canada's first Prime Minister, highlighted the debates and struggles that preceded Canadian confederation. The movie showed the challenge of forging together divergent interests and regions into a pan-Canadian union. What initially seemed a utopian idea ultimately proved the only practical solution to the prospect of absorption of Britain's fragmented North American colonies into an expansionist United States.

With the regionalism and ideological divisions in Canadian politics today, with our overseas reputation tainted on environmental conservation and military intervention, it is easy to forget the importance and boldness of this Canadian union, without which we would quite likely be sitting in American territory today.

Generations following John A. MacDonald built on his vision and forged a unique and compelling narrative for Canada. The Red Tory vision of John Diefenbaker, however imperfectly implemented, sought a Canada that was clearly distinct from the United States in domestic and foreign policy. It was Diefenbaker who fought against the placement of American nuclear-tipped missiles on Canadian soil, something which unfortunately the Liberal government of Lester Pearson accepted, though which the following Liberal government of Pierre Trudeau undid.

Pearson, despite this shortcoming on nuclear-tipped missiles, did himself offer a compelling narrative for Canada with the creation of a new flag, and productive minority governments that, with NDP support, saw the establishment of universal public health care across Canada -- an idea popularized by Saskatchewan's social democratic premier, Tommy Douglas.

Prior to his tenure as Prime Minister, Pearson played a crucial role for Canada at the UN, establishing the peacekeeping force, and setting a role for Canada on the world stage as a constructive peace-keeper.

Pierre Trudeau, when he was prime minister, brought official multiculturalism thereby recognizing Canada's diversity, bilingualism thereby recognizing Canada's linguistic dualism, protection of human rights with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and national identity with the repatriation of our constitution from Britain.

Trudeau's vision of bilingualism in particular recognized the importance of the French language in Quebec, as well as across Canada including groups such as Franco-Ontariens and Acadians who are often sidelined in national debates on language rights. While concessions did have to be made to decentralist demands for asymmetrical federalism in Quebec, nonetheless Trudeau's narrative of a bilingual country from coast-to-coast-to-coast was a compelling one.

In New Brunswick, a more integrative vision of bilingualism -- similar to Trudeau's national vision -- did take hold, emphasizing the role of Acadians as full participants in New Brunswick's political, economic, and social life.

Today a compelling national narrative seems to be lacking. The Conservatives offer a hollowed out federal government focussed on wars overseas and prison building at home, rather than true nation-building. Meanwhile, the NDP has become beholden to decentralist and nationalist forces in Quebec, making the party often seem too beholden to one province rather than truly representing Canada as a whole.

The Liberal Party, the party of national unity, the party of Trudeau, Chretien, and Dion, has been relegated to third party status, and is now struggling to offer a compelling narrative of its own.

Though there could be hope among (potential) successors to the Liberal leadership. Dominique LeBlanc, who would be the first Acadian to lead a major national party, could show the importance of a country that is bilingual from coast-to-coast-to-coast and bring attention to a part of Canada's bilingual narrative that is often overlooked, that of francophones outside Quebec, thereby offering a strong contrast to the Quebec nationalist narrative.

Another potential successor, Gerard Kennedy, ran a strong grassroots campaign for the Liberal leadership in 2006, inspiring youth and connecting with visible minority communities across the country. His roots in Western Canada, current home in Toronto, and wife who is Acadian from the Maritimes, represents a true pan-Canadian story. As well, Kennedy's background as a food bank director, standing up for the poor and disenfranchised, can bring a strong narrative of social justice to the Liberal Party and to Canadian politics.

We can also look to a provincial government, Dalton McGuinty's in Ontario, with its emphasis on an environmentally sustainable economy, and economic competitiveness, as offering both a compelling narrative and compelling policies for the national arena. As well, McGuinty's emphasis on policies to help immigrants find jobs in Ontario, strongly keeps in the tradition of multiculturalism.

We need a compelling national vision again, a clear idea of what Canada as an entity means. A compelling vision would be one that places importance on environmental sustainability and economic competitiveness, that values diversity and multiculturalism as well as bilingualism from coast-to-coast-to-coast. A compelling vision would also emphasize social justice for the poor and for First Nations communities, and a strong social safety net that helps the poor and the middle-class. Finally, a compelling national narrative would be one that re-establishes Canada's role as a productive force on the world stage, as a peace-keeping country.

An earlier version of this article appeared in the Telegraph Journal.

Hassan Arif is a columnist with the Telegraph Journal in New Brunswick. He is a PhD candidate in urban sociology at the University of New Brunswick and has a background in law and political science. He can be reached at arif.telegraphjournal@gmail.com.