canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Does Canada Matter? Liberalism and the Illusion of Sovereignty
by Clarence Bolt
Ronsdale Press, 1999

Review by Michael Bryson

Oh Canada! Do you matter? From the evidence presented here, the answer is NO. For the entire length of its existence, back to 1867 and way earlier, Clarence Bolt argues, Canada has been a kid brother to the Liberal / Enlightenment / Modernist experiment - and the only way the country can save its sovereignty is to pull itself out of the tide of history. The unspoken assumption here is that Canada has never been independent, and never will be if drastic action isn't taken. 

However, if Canada has never existed apart from the Big Brother's of "Liberalism", then the question must be not "does Canada matter?", but "is there any such nation as Canada?" This latter question echoes the absurdities of Philosophy 101 (do I exist?), and also Lucien Bouchard's off the cuff remark that Canada isn't a real country. Bolt seems to agree with Bouchard on this latter point, although they go in different directions after that - Bouchard believing Canadians should stop pretending they're a nation, and Bolt arguing that Canadians should get busy becoming one.

About three-quarters of the way through the book Bolt writes:

Canadians must leave the welcoming party for the new global order, although it will not be easy, since seldom in the history of humanity have subjects embraced imperialism as eagerly as in our time.

This could very well be the central quotation in Bolt's extended essay, since it will take a paragraph or two to unpack it. There is, of course, that weasel word "imperialism", which will require definition. There is also that (George) Bushian phrase "the new global order" and the metaphor of "the welcoming party." What is going on here? What is Bolt getting at? To answer those questions it is necessary to outline the broad scope of his argument.

Bolt borrows heavily from George Grant's analysis of Canada in his 1960s classic Lament for a Nation. Grant argued that PM John Diefenbaker had been Canada's last great hope, since Dief had stood up to the Americans and articulated a small-c conservatism that emphasized community values. With the fall of Dief's PCs, Canada fell solidly in line with the Liberal / Enlightenment / Modernist project represented most obviously by the U.S.A., but also by Western capitalism in general. "Liberal" here does not mean the Liberal Party, nor does it have any of the connotations of socialism as in "Ted Kennedy is a well-known Liberal." Bolt uses term Liberal as it became prominently known in the 18th-century, associated with such capitalist thinkers as Adam Smith and John Hume.

The 18th-century Liberals provided the theoretical framework for the rising industrialism of the 19th-century. They championed individual rights, particularly property rights, and the rights set out in the U.S. constitution to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." Grant spent a good part of his career articulating the shadow side of this Liberal / Enlightenment dream. In particular, Grant pointed out repeatedly how Liberalism elevated technology to a force of nature, which "evolved" naturally and served as a rhetorical crutch for everything from public policy to environmental destruction in the name of development and "progress." This is the argument picked up and extended by Bolt. We are now more than 30 years past Grant's Lament for Nation, and much of what he predicted has come true. Bolt uses Grant's prophecies as argument for turning back - his optimism is almost as tragic as it is naive.

The "imperialism" named by Bolt in the quotation above is the technological world-view first articulated by Grant, and now extended to the lasted dot-com stock craze. The "new global order" is the capitalist dream enforced by the World Bank on struggling "developing" nations around the world. The "welcoming party" is the unchecked optimism of the new breed "neo-conservatives" - who see big government as the enemy of the people, and taxpayers instead of citizens. Bolt rightly points out that these conservatives are actually old-time Liberals. There is little conservative about them. For sure, there is no John Diefenbaker in them!

A couple of years ago it was fashionable to ask, what happened to the left? Was there any left left? Perhaps there isn't. Perhaps Canada has ceased to exist, too - or maybe it never existed - though every day I witness bits and pieces of it. The newspapers are full of stories about "re-investing in health-care." Perhaps this is all Canada ever was ... a giant health-care plan ... with a national hockey team ... and a railway ... and a sea-to-sea hatred of Toronto. Does Canada matter? No. But Bolt's visions of alternatives to Liberalism do terribly. And his articulation of our Enlightenment inheritance is a great gift. His nationalism, however, is misplaced idealism. We are all pawns in a larger game. (Didn't Leonard Cohen sing that?).... That's no way to say goodbye.

Michael Bryson is the editor of The Danforth Review.







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