12/18/2013 12:25 EST | Updated 02/17/2014 05:59 EST

Has Canada Lost Its "Cool"?

We've always loved being such a "cool" country. We've loved our own brand. We've loved comparing ourselves to our gigantic southern neighbour and bragging about our much more progressive, much more "worldly" social values...from racial integration, to gender equality, our social safety net, our smaller income disparity, lower crime rates, gun laws, gay marriage, environmental sensitivity -- you name it!

We just loved being the continental superstars and we always corrected every unaware European who would dare call us "American." Canada has always stood out by being one very big step ahead and that may have been our most precious national asset.

But is that still the case?

I found myself in Washington a few days ago, accidentally and continuously immersed in Republican circles, staying with Republican friends and going to Republican Christmas parties. I was so intrigued and so ready to launch into typically righteous Canadian lectures about who's on the wrong or the right side of history. Imagine the stark contrast -- an outspoken, liberal Canadian social entrepreneur in rooms full of hardened, prominent American Republicans! As black and white as it gets!

And yet, something funny happened on the way to that brag-fest:

First came the "Oh No Canada" bus shelter ads on Pennsylvania Avenue, a block away from the White House. They were hard to miss and even harder to take. Their stinging message: how Canadians like to brag about our environmental credentials but how it's all smoke and mirrors; how we pretend to care about the planet but we only really care about our oil and our wallets; how we pretend to set nice targets but we shamefully and unapologetically miss them, all the time. I was stunned, crushed and speechless.

Then came the party conversations about cities and youth and new lifestyles. People (Republican people) bragged to me about how their world is changing so fast, about how so many people are moving into their urban cores and transforming their cities, about how none of those people will ever drive cars and how superbly important public transit has become in transforming lives and economies.

They asked if we too, "up in Canada", saw the same enormously transformative trends in our cities and they seemed genuinely ready to embrace it and harness it all as a new giant opportunity, the way Americans have always been known to latch onto and harness new trends faster than anyone else. And again I just stood there, almost speechless, reflecting on our endless and paralyzing debates about the "war on the car" and the crazy "cost" of public transit.

And then, at the height of the party, I noticed the few gay couples in the room, dancing affectionately together and blending so perfectly into the crowd. I went up and talked to them and found them to be so completely comfortable, so perfectly "colour blind" on the issue of sexual orientation, so much keener to debate world affairs (from a Republican perspective, of course!) than what they already perceive to be yesterday's social integration issues. Really? Is this right-wing America today?

Eight years ago our country chose to take an unusually sharp turn to the right and at the core of that change was the question of whether we had been a bit too far ahead, a bit too progressive in terms of our social values. For the first time in our history we elected a party that was simply Conservative, not Progressive Conservative.

For the past eight years things have been shifting steadily in our country: We toughened our crime laws, when the rest of the western world was actually moving in the opposite direction; we toughened our stance on world affairs and became less of a peace broker and peacekeeper nation; we concentrated our economic ambitions sharply on our natural resources, ignored the concerns of others and mismanaged the optics around climate change; we disenfranchised and tuned out our young people; and, by obsessing over the vast, vote-richconservative suburbs of our cities, we completely ignored one of the biggest economic trends that's sweeping the industrialized world: rapid urbanization.

And while we were so busy slowing down our progressive national march, the rest of the world was picking up the pace!

Maybe it's time to take a really honest look at ourselves and figure out how to win back some of our "cool."

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