As I was writing my earlier article on chronic neglect of national security in Canada, it occurred to me that this phenomenon pointed to a deeper malaise. Ensuring national security is one of the vital functions of government. What factors led to not just total neglect but active degradation on this critical function? How was this allowed to go on for half a century (or longer)?
We have been a democracy ever since Canada became a country. Therefore, at least in theory, voters always had recourse to remedial action against faulty policies, via participation in the political process. We have also had some half a dozen governments in the last five decades. Why were none of these governments held to account for this glaring failure on their part? Do voters share some of the blame for the current state of affairs?
As a voter myself, I decided to examine these questions in the context of the evolution of my own political thoughts and views since coming to Canada.
Many years ago, when my daughter was in primary school, we borrowed a story book from the local library for her. The story was about a single mother going on a canoeing vacation with her son in northern Quebec. They met with an accident, lost their canoe and got stranded. After a period of difficulty, they were rescued by a kindly, elderly stranger. At a later point in the story, it was revealed that the man was Pierre Elliott Trudeau, former Prime Minister of Canada.
This was the initial phase of our life in Canada, and I had formed a positive opinion about Pierre Trudeau by then. This was based on my being told that he had brought in the official policy of multiculturalism in Canada. As a beneficiary of this policy, I was grateful; it had been gratifying to learn that Diwali was included in the list of days when use of firecrackers was allowed, and I had found it comforting that the local public library carried books and DVD’s in Hindi and Gujarati. So the depiction of Pierre Trudeau in the story solidified his image in my mind as a kind-hearted visionary – even though I knew that the story was a work of fiction. Just as happens in early childhood, I believed that a fictional account was a fair representation of reality – perhaps even an accurate one. I suppose this happens with many immigrants, so that they accept as unvarnished truth the things that they hear about recent political history of Canada. This applies regardless of whether the things that they hear are positive or negative in nature.
Around the same time, I started participating in ‘BTL (‘below the line’) discussions on the website of CBC. Afghanistan and Iraq were experiencing major turmoil, and stories of mayhem there dominated news coverage and opinion pieces. At the time, CBC still allowed fictitious names for participants in the comments section, and I mulled over what ‘name’ to choose for myself.
One of the vendors for my employer in The United Arab Emirates had been named ‘Al Talib Transport’. I had found this to be an odd choice for naming a business; I knew that the word ‘talib’ means ‘student’, and failed to see how it could be connected to a trucking business. One day, I asked the owner, a local Emirati Arab, about it. The language that is spoken ‘on the street’ in the UAE is a hodge-podge of Hindi / Urdu, Arabic and English. The exact proportion of each language depends on the speaker, resulting in much variation. Nevertheless, people manage to make themselves understood. Using this pidgin, he told me that when he was young, there wasn’t much opportunity for education. So he was keen to provide as much education to his son as possible, now that the UAE was a modern country. When he started his trucking business, he thought of naming it not after his son, but the activity that he wanted his son to pursue, viz. studying as much as possible. ‘Being a student is a lifelong affair’, he concluded.
Drawing inspiration from this, I chose the moniker ‘AlTalib’ for myself on CBC. Since my purpose for participating in these discussions was to learn more about Canada and Canadians, this moniker seemed apt. But my choice proved problematic. Firstly, everyone assumed (wrongly) that I was a Muslim. Most commenters also assumed that I was taking the side of the Taliban (and by extension, al Qaeda when it came to Iraq). In extreme cases, I was accused of being a Taliban / al Qaeda ‘plant’ in Canada. My repeated explanations as to the moniker were ineffectual, for most of the time.
At the time, I was following some excellent writing on Afghanistan & Iraq by a variety of journalists and researchers. These included Syed Saleem Shahzad, Rahimullah Yusufzai, Antonio Guistozzi, Tim McGirk, Sarah Chayes, David Loyn, Ghaith Abdel Ahad and many others. I tried to incorporate what I had read into my comments. This often resulted in expressing criticism of the approach taken by the combined forces of the US and its allies, which served to strengthen the perception that I was against both the military missions. Backing up my comments with links to the original reporting or references to books was of little use. But over time, some people from ‘the other side’ of the debate understood the nuance that I was trying to portray, and I acquired their grudging respect. After all these years, I still remember some of their ‘names’: Pigman, Big Daddy, smitty, b.c. terry and Servitium Nelli Secundus. I remember them possibly because they were able to acknowledge the merit of an argument that opposed theirs.
That said, the overall mood among the commenters remained to be one of jingoism reinforced by lack of actual information on the subjects under discussion. There was a narrative about these conflicts that had become popular – unsurprisingly, it was black-and-white in nature – and few people thought it necessary to go beyond it. I found it disturbing that the voluminous combined literature of historical accounts and current reporting failed to inform public opinion in Canada regarding policy on these issues.
Then at some point, my life took a turn, and I was no longer able to participate in these discussions or to keep track of the goings-on. As a result, I initially missed the news that the journalist Syed Saleem Shahzad had been tortured and killed in Pakistan. This happened only a few days after Osama bin Laden was killed. A couple of years later, while on vacation, I came across an article in The New Yorker magazine by Dexter Filkins, pointing to the possibility that the US (and by association, its allies in Afghanistan) may have been responsible for Shahzad’s brutal murder. My life was still too hectic, so I don’t know if this article led to any soul-searching – or even a more basic public discussion – as to whether Canada was a likely accomplice in this crime. The issues that arose from those military missions are no longer being discussed in Canada, so there is no way for me to know.
Roughly a decade after reading that story about the single mother, I stepped into the world of social media. Initially, this was primarily in the form of participating in discussions on the Facebook pages of National Post, Globe & Mail, Toronto Star and Toronto Sun. By then, Justin Trudeau had become the Prime Minister. From time to time, news stories and opinion pieces about his policies relating to the oil & gas industry appeared, and caused heated debate on those pages. This was the first time that I heard about Pierre Trudeau’s National Energy Program. I was surprised at the intensity of many people’s negative opinion of him on account of NEP. On the other side of these debates, people were equally intense in their support for NEP. There was hardly any middle ground.
By this time, the culture of social media had developed its negative trait of uncivil behavior, and insults flew thick and fast in all of these discussions, in both directions. This wasn’t surprising – even though it was disappointing – but my attention was drawn to a different aspect. On one side, there were people who were convinced that the NEP had been an unmitigated disaster for not just Alberta but all of Canada, and on the other side, there were people who were equally convinced that NEP was such an ureservedly beneficial policy that Albertans had been stupid to reject it. Following these discussions, it was impossible to conclude as to whether the NEP had been good or bad policy – or even a mix of good and bad. One would have thought that with the benefit of nearly four decades of hindsight, public opinion on a piece of major policy would have settled around one belief – or even one set of points that diverged somewhat from each other. Instead, it was as if the arguments on both sides were frozen in time. Actual experience that resulted from the policy was not a reflection on the merits or otherwise of the policy, but was rather seen through an ideological prism. Depending on the side of the prism one was on, this evidence either served to strengthen their argument or was to be dismissed as pure baloney (as ‘CON propaganda’ or ‘Libtard lies’). There were frequent references to ‘Koch brothers’, and going by the accusations, anyone criticizing the NEP was supposed to be getting money from them. On the other side, there were references to the ‘Tides Foundation’, and similar financial arrangements were alleged.
This schism spilled into the present as well. On one side, people were convinced beyond doubt that Justin Trudeau was hell-bent on destroying Canada’s oil & gas industry, while on the other side, there was an entrenched belief that the oil & gas industry is killing the planet and therefore deserves to die. Again, there was no middle ground. Pointing to the examples of other countries that are increasing their production and consumption of fossil fuels didn’t shake the latter group from their belief. Later, after Trudeau suddenly announced that the government was buying the TMX pipeline, the same group adopted a stock response of ‘but he bought a pipeline’ as a shield against any criticism of Justin Trudeau’s policy on the oil & gas industry. The contradiction between their ideological stance that the industry needs to die and the purchase of the pipeline by the government didn’t seem to matter to them; in their minds, both the arguments were valid defence of Trudeau and his government.
What these unending duels told me was that instead of having a marketplace for competing ideas, what we have in Canada is an ongoing battle between ideologies – and in battles, you don’t yield an inch of ground to ‘the enemy’. We are no longer a nation of people sharing a sense of destiny, but rather different groups that seek to subjugate each other.
In the same period, the federal government announced that its summer jobs grant would require a new attestation from the applicant organizations regarding women’s reproductive rights. This kicked off another round of furious debates in the public sphere, including on Facebook. As was to be expected, the debates immediately degenerated to into the internet version of screaming matches, possibly because they weren’t meant to arrive at a mutually acceptable compromise. My key takeaway from these was the question as to whether the rights in question were guaranteed by the Charter or not.
In order to get a clear idea on the matter, I caught up on the already existing literature and wrote an article on the issue. Based on my own reading of the Supreme Court judgment in the Morgantaler case and other source materials, I reached a conclusion that abortion isn’t a Charter Right. It took me a few days of online research. What I mean to say here is that the question as to whether Canada should enact a law on abortion is separate from abortion being a Charter right. I think it is indicative of the state that our society as a whole is in that after over three decades since the Supreme Court judgment, public opinion is still intensely divided on a verifiable fact.
By the time 2018 rolled around, the energy fiasco in Ontario had become the number one issue for the upcoming election. Over the preceding 15 years, electricity rates had doubled, and depending on the time of use, had quadrupled in some cases. ‘Heat or eat’ threatened to become a slogan that would defeat the incumbent Liberal government. Premier Kathleen Wynne had the dubious distinction of having the lowest approval rating (14%) of any elected official in all Canadian history. She was naturally on the defensive. At one point, she attempted to defend the performance of her government on the matter by blaming the actions of former Premier Mike Harris. I knew that Premier Harris had been voted out in 2003, and that the Liberals had enjoyed uninterrupted power since then. Premier Wynne’s claim thus left me with two alternative conclusions:
Either her claim was true, in which case the Liberals’ failure not only to fix the inherited shortcomings over the course of 15 years but also to bring them to light was proof of their incompetence, or,
She was just tossing out a lame excuse to escape responsibility for the mess that Ontarians had on their hands through their own actions and decisions.
The Liberals went on to an ignominious defeat in the election – but that hasn’t changed a thing when it comes to public views on the energy file. From time to time, I see the same arguments going back and forth, from the same people, as to who is responsible for the mess. The ghost of Premier Harris’s government lives on in the debates.
INNOCULATED AGAINST KNOWLEDGE
Exactly the same situation is seen with respect to the Covid-19 crisis. Every step taken by various governments, every bit of policy is hotly contested in terms of what the facts are. Whether it is the supply of PPE, or emergency stockpile thereof, or banning international travel, or screening international travelers, or procuring vaccines, or our capability to produce vaccines, or shutting down businesses selectively, everything is mired in a miasma of claims, counter-claims, refutations, counter-refutations and so-called ‘fact-checks’. It is tempting to surmise that we have fewer facts in the era of ‘fact-checks’ than we used to have prior. It is entirely possible, and in my opinion, to be expected, that the same points will continue to be as hotly debated and disputed decades from now as they are today. And since our society is now increasingly leaning in favor of political dynasties, it is likely that another Trudeau will be the Prime Minister at the time of these future debates – so even the taunts and barbs will be the same.
Hindsight is 20/20 only if we can arrive at a consensus – or at least a broad agreement – as to what actually happened. Canadians’ determined resistance to arriving at this consensus / agreement deprives us of the ability to (a) take remedial action, (b) apply the lessons from prior episodes to newer policy, and (c) move on from disputes of the past.
The last point is especially important. Our collective failure to come to agreement over a historically truthful account over major pieces of policy creates, over time, a cumulative, ever-increasing overhang over all further policy discussions. No issue ever gets taken out of the pile as having been settled, while newer issues keep getting added at the top. This growing overhang weighs us down more and more as time passes. The inevitable result of this is that it erodes our ability to learn. The particularly painful part here is that we are doing this as a conscious choice. The dysfunction of our policy-making process is structural, because we want it to be that way. We would rather not learn than concede a point. In other words, not learning takes priority.
I wonder what the illiterate owner of Al Talib Transport would have to say about that.