The latest work by Peter MacKinnon, president emeritus of the University of Saskatchewan, went to press just before the Freedom Convoy hit town. I suspect he disapproved of the truckers’ aims and methods. Yet Canada In Question is so timely MacKinnon could have been taking notes from the cab of a Freightliner double parked outside the CBC building.
Some 15,000 Freedom Convoy demonstrators and many more cash donors set out to let off steam. This could only mean water was boiling somewhere. Cabinet then clamped a lid on the boiling pot, succeeding only in making a bomb.
Why were Canadians at the boiling point in the first place? Ask MacKinnon. He knows. “Canadians are losing confidence in their democratic institutions,” writes MacKinnon. He calls it ominous. “Reform efforts either have fallen short or have come to naught,” he says.
Canada In Question observes MPs’ power is nominal, cabinet is so mediocre it doesn’t even represent regions, Senate leadership is tolerated only because public expectations are so low and public service executives are “seen as occupying privileged and protected positions.”
This is a crucial point. MacKinnon does not ascribe public cynicism to political conspiracies or bad Facebook friends. He depicts it as a rational response to parliamentary failure.
“We need effective and respected institutions and we are falling short on both counts,” writes MacKinnon. “The severity of shortcomings and their causes are debatable but we cannot sidestep the issues.”
Canada In Question does not invoke torches and pitchforks. It laments the rise of “populism” associated with a “flight from reason, science and humanism,” a “threat to our liberal democracy and the pluralism on which it rests.”
Yet MacKinnon is an honest correspondent with an unvarnished view of officialdom. He is almost sorrowful about it. “Institutions matter,” he writes. “They house the governance of our vast, decentralized federal state and our democratic processes.”
Canada In Question is concise, scalpel-like and refreshing. It seeks neither heroes nor villains. We are what we are, a land of “intermittent and sometimes smouldering resentments.”
No, we are not at the precipice. “Patriotism is an expression of sentiment and while Canadians may not be exuberant in their patriotism – except when their sports teams participate in international competition – their pride in country is robust,” writes MacKinnon.
Yes, the Government of Canada is a deserving butt of scorn. “The political class fares less well in our surveys,” says Canada In Question. “In the 2017 Ipsos poll more than one third of Canadians indicated the country’s form of government was the worst thing about the country.”
“Canadians may be so preoccupied with their private lives they pay scant attention to citizenship,” writes MacKinnon. “They look to personal, social and community allegiances to express their public impulses and wishes, or they may feel they don’t count.”
“Some may not care,” he concludes. “Political parties reflect this decline or indifference. Fault lines in the 2019 federal election emphasized predictable labels and differences on issues The only party that invoked citizenship was the Bloc Québécois.”
Canada In Question is good. How interesting that nobody in Ottawa thought to write it.
By Holly Doan
Canada In Question: Exploring Our Citizenship in the Twenty-First Century, by Peter MacKinnon; University of Toronto Press; 136 pages; ISBN 9781-4875-43143; $24.95