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On October 19th, Let's Remember Who We Are As Canadians

10/15/2015 12:40 EDT | Updated 10/15/2016 05:12 EDT
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One of my most prized possessions is a framed front page of the Beirut Star newspaper from Tuesday February 16th, 1965.

It features a photograph of a beaming three-year-old boy presenting Canada's new flag to the Arab world in a wire-service photo flashed around the Middle East. Canadian embassy officials, including his proud parents and Ambassador John Maybee, flank him.

The little boy in the photograph is me.

That day, the ambassador's son was supposed to be the flag's presenter, but he was ill and I was available. I treasure that front page, not because I was anything other than a cute, dependably photogenic stand-in for the ambassador's son, but because it reminds me that my first conscious awareness of Canada was as a country held in high enough esteem the world over to warrant a front-page news story in Beirut when we changed our flag.

In subsequent years abroad, my father's diplomatic postings coming like clockwork every four years, I realized the degree to which being Canadian was a particular privilege when seen through international eyes. Non-Canadian backpackers frequently sewed Canadian flags onto their rucksacks in those days, knowing it would often warm their welcome in their travels abroad.

And Canadians were welcome. We were very welcome.

My parents made sure my brother and I both spoke fluent French, not because it was chic, but because it was one of our two official languages. From others, I learned that we were a country highly regarded as peacekeepers and peacemakers. We were known as a country where respect, civility, tolerance, decency and progressiveness were cardinal virtues. We were known for our generosity, not only to other nations but to each other. As a nation, we were respected and admired as diplomats and negotiators. We considered that more important than being feared.

That's the vision of Canada I took into adulthood. It's the vision I still hew to today in spite of mounting evidence that it's becoming a nostalgic anachronism.

The contemporary phrase "take our country back" has certain unfortunate connotations based on its recent popularization by the right-wing so-called "tea party" in the United States. It carries the spoor of reactionary racism and has been a cartoonish rallying cry for the celebration of white, Christian, heterosexual hegemony -- even, occasionally, actual white supremacy.

In Canada today, however, it means something else entirely.

In the final days of our national election, it's become a cri de coeur for a return to an era when being Canadian meant aspiring to something greater than merely occupying space, or being for sale to the highest bidder as we have been, to one degree or another, for the past nine years. A great nation is not a business and cannot be run like one, particularly by a government with no discernable vision for Canada, let alone any evident awareness of the greatness that once defined us. A great nation needs statesmen, not procurers.

After the tangibles have been sold off to the highest international bidder -- the embassies, the wheat board, the water, to name a few -- what's on the auction block are the intangibles that comprise the Canadian identity, indeed the national soul

That's the point at which Canadians cease to be horrified at the sight of riot police charging a crowd of peaceful G20 protestors singing "O Canada," beating their shields and knocking Canadian citizens to the ground. It's the point at which restricting veteran services for the same patriotic men and women whom the government cynically used as photo-op props, when they were healthy and whole, becomes just another day at the office. It's the point at which science libraries are shuttered; international environmental and climate change commitments are abandoned; arts and humanitarian organizations critical the government are hounded; the disappearances and murders of aboriginal women are dismissed as low-priority; and Canadians are encouraged to spy on each other.

It's the point at which the country that used to lead the world in peacekeeping troops sells warfare equipment to nations that torture and execute their citizens for daring to exercise the freedoms Canada claims to represent, and shuts the door in the faces of desperate refugees, hinting darkly that they're as likely to be "terrorists" as shattered families with terrified children.

And finally, it's the point at which a certain cold, metallic meanness becomes the daily national norm, culminating in an election during the last weeks of which Canadians have witnessed a government so morally and ethically bankrupt that it thinks nothing of setting Canadians against each other, using race and religion as bait, and throwing under the bus a vulnerable minority whose social conservatism they were perfectly happy to exploit when exploiting it was expedient and useful.

There is nothing intrinsically "Canadian," let alone "conservative," about leveraging insecurity, racism and xenophobia for votes through ethnic scapegoating. That is not a "conservative" strategy; it's a fascist strategy with a long and bloody history, and it has no place in Canada. Nor is destroying the environment a "traditional" or "family" value. By definition, it is the opposite. Long after we are in our graves, our children's children will have to live in country, indeed the world, we leave behind.

On October 19th, we have a chance to "take our country back." We have the chance to declare once and for all that who and what we are as Canadians is no longer for sale. We have a chance to steer Canada off its collision course with history, to save it from derailing and crashing beyond our ability to recognize it, let alone repair it.

Let us not not have an entire generation grow up with no sense of what Canada used to be -- who we were, what we were, what our values were, how we regarded our fellow Canadians, how we regarded the world, how the world regarded us.

On October 19th, let's remember who we used to be. Let's remember who we are.

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