Struggling for a Canadian Vision

by Jeffrey Simpson,
ISBN: 0002157950

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Culture of Crankiness
by Clive Cocking

I BEGAN reading Faultlines with eager anticipation; I finished it with a growl of frustration.

Jeffrey Simpson opened with a grabber: "Canada's traditional political culture in the 1980s cracked like river ice in spring." I read on, mindful of how the citizens' revolt over the Charlottetown Accord had made absolutely clear that something new was going on in Canadian politics. I was hoping for a lively discussion of how and why our politics are changing. Instead, I found my initial eagerness gradually fade as the text became steadily more ponderous, unfocused, and tedious.

Simpson, national columnist of the Globe and Mail, describes Canada's traditional political culture as having rested on accommodation and compromise between English and French-speaking Canadians and having depended on trade-offs and patronage to supporters and regions to maintain unity. To analyse the forces breaking up the old politics, he relies on the "conventional journalistic technique of describing ideas and events through the lens of individual personalities."

Except for an introduction and a conclusion, the book is thus made up of profile-cum-discussions about eight Canadians who supposedly represent some of the forces ending the old order. They are: the free-trade negotiator Derek Burney, the feminist Charter of Rights lawyer Mary Eberts, the Reform Party's Preston Manning, the Meech Lake foe Clyde Wells, the aboriginal-rights advocate George Erasmus, the anti-bilingualism leader Joe Fratesi, the Parti Quebecois's Lucien Bouchard, and the Quebec sovereignist thinker Leon Dion.

In the introduction Simpson offers a general discussion of how the new forces - populist, "rights-driven," multicultural, and aboriginal -have increasingly clashed in recent years with the old political culture, dominated by the preoccupation of French-speaking Quebec with language and jurisdiction. But unfortunately he does not carry forward, or expand, this discussion in any clear thematic way in the personality-dominated chapters. Surprisingly for a journalist, Simpson writes with a kind of meandering verbosity and repetitiveness that frequently leaves the reader asking: "What's the point?"

If Simpson has a central theme, it is that we've all become cranky Canadians unable, or unwilling, to compromise and agree on a unifying national vision. And this is a cause for deep concern.

That message clangs familiarly in these western ears. We've heard a lot of variations on that theme lately from central Canadian elites Faultlines betrays Simpson's regional bias as a well connected Ontario writer; my reaction reveals mine as someone deeply rooted in the West.

There is a tone of anxiety and forbidding in the way Simpson discusses the crack-up of the old political culture that I don't think westerners share. Westerners, after all, have been fighting that "traditional political culture" the means by which central Canada has preserved its dominance - for many years. Could it be that Simpson actually mourns the passing of the old order?

Ultimately, what makes Faultlines such a frustrating and disappointing book is that Simpson has failed to capture the positive aspect of our changing politics. The loud raspberry Canadians gave to their elites in rejecting the Charlottetown Accord was, to my mind, a significant step forward in political maturation and nation-building. The new feistiness of Canadian politics is an exciting, hopeful development but we'll have to wait for another writer to explore that phenomenon.


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