The Polite Revolution: Perfecting the Canadian Dream

by John Ibbitson
270 pages,
ISBN: 0771043511

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The Phoney Revolution
by John Pepall

John Ibbitson is the Ottawa columnist for The Globe and Mail. It is, he writes, "the best job in Canadian journalism." He has published several works of fiction and non-fiction, and has written a number of plays. He is bright, thoughtful, industrious and imaginative. And now he has written a silly book.
The Polite Revolution covers a great deal. It is not an inside story of contemporary politics scooped from off-record sources such as those Peter Newman used to write. There is little in it that an obsessive newspaper reader might not have picked up already. It is rather an extended column, an excited and rather rambling argument about where Canada stood in 2005, and where it should be heading.
Ibbitson declares the book's central concern in the opening sentence: "Sometime, not long ago, while no one was watching, Canada became the world's most successful country." Ibbitson argues that Canada's exceptionally diverse population, with its high number of immigrants from a wide range of countries, living peacefully and prosperously together, makes our country a model to which the rest of the world can only aspire. He advocates greatly increased levels of immigration because, as he sees it, "the more the better," and because this is precisely what is required to finish off the Old Canada and secure the Polite Revolution.
Canada has changed enormously in the last forty years. It could fairly be said that there has been a revolution, or revolutions. But many of the changes¨social, technological, cultural, and economic¨have occurred in common with the developed world, if not the whole world. Nor is the immigration of recent decades new to Canada. Proportionally and in absolute terms, the number of immigrants to settle the prairies at the start of the last century was much greater. The peak year was 1913, when over 400,000 immigrants arrived.
Ibbitson stresses that the recent flow of immigrants has created visible minorities while immigrants in the past were practically all white. According to him, past immigration did not, after a generation or two of assimilation, produce diversity, the pride and joy of the New Canada. Yet the trip from Ukraine to Saskatchewan in 1900 was arguably greater than the one from Somalia to Ontario in 2000. Why is the colour of people's skin so very important in the 21st century?
What has changed is that in 1900 Canada was still the Old Canada, whose passing Ibbitson celebrates. Immigrants had a sense of something to which, after struggling, they could belong. But between the adoption of the Maple Leaf flag and the end of the Centennial of Confederation it was decided that the Old Canada must go. Canada was to be reforged or reinvented. This was the phoney Revolution. It was phoney because those who were striving for the new identity and who worked tenaciously to achieve it denied what they were doing. Most importantly, it was phoney because it rested on ideas that were false representations of Canada's history and the country's potential, and those who promoted these ideas did not believe in them. Ultimately, the revolution was a failure because although it destroyed the Old Canada, it could not replace it with anything real.
The phoney Revolution has been so successfully marketed that even John Ibbitson, a sharp fellow with a sense of history, has been taken in by it. So we are diverse, but there is no WE; the country's population is heterogeneous, but each of the elements making up our official diversity is as homogeneous as it pleases. The whole is less than the sum of its parts.
Canada has a small cottage industry dedicated to the political philosophy of multiculturalism, but understanding of the multicultural problem has been little advanced. Where are we headed between protecting and preserving scores of insular ethnic chauvinisms, and freeing individuals under a banner of cultureless civic nationalism to adopt cultural elements as if they were choosing cuisines or music? Ibbitson does not know. He loves diversity, but he observes that people like to live with their own kind, and he does not seem to mind. He cheers the prospect of mongrelisation through intermarriage, even forecasting the disappearance of distinct First Nations through intermarriage. But this suggests a melting pot and a fading of diversity. He fears assimilation and praises integration, but without explaining how they are different.
Ibbitson was over the moon when Michaelle Jean was appointed governor general. He hailed her as "our postnationalist future," dismissing concerns about her loyalty to Canada. She and her French husband were "the cosmopolitan, polyglot and outward-looking Canada of today." Shortly before his panegyric he wrote that Haitians in Montreal knew nothing of Papineau. They know of Toussaint. But "the price of a truly cosmopolitan society," he writes, "is ahistoricism¨an absence of collective cultural memory." He accepts this with "a regretful sigh." What will be left then for the youth of 2050 with Haitian, Cree, Chinese, and Irish grandparents? Four kinds of memory or none? These are deep waters and Ibbitson barely skims the surface. That is the Canadian way, the phoney way: enthusiasm for the superficial.
There is an economic value to immigration, but Ibbitson never makes clear whether he hopes to see maximised Canada's economic product or the wealth of the average Canadian. These distinct goals would require different immigration policies.
Ibbitson, however, is after something beyond mere prosperity. He thinks Canada is simply wonderful and going to be more wonderful still. There is a strain of callow boosterism in his book that makes way too much of Yann Martel, Margaret MacMillan, and Arcade Fire. Get real. For a country with Canada's population, prosperity, and security, our achievements are disappointing. For comparison, consider only the achievements of the Australian and even New Zealand film industries.
As for "Canada's gift to the world," our wonderful cities, Ibbitson is so wide-eyed at them, it is hard to believe he has ever been abroad. His one foreign posting was Washington, which may make Ottawa seem cosy, but Ibbitson does not seem to have overcome being a native of Gravenhurst. In his bleak picture of rural Canada he alleges that "casual racism, sexism, and homophobia [go] without saying in the Central Ontario counties and districts between the Ottawa River and Georgian Bay." Gravenhurst is at the west end of this rural idiocy.
Ibbitson claims that Canada is unique not only in the scope of its immigration, but in successfully avoiding racial conflict and other social problems. He implies that multiculturalism achieved this without sparing a thought for the Old Canada that peacefully took in millions of immigrants before it was officially extinguished for recidivist bigotry, racism, homogeneity, and dullness. He points to recent tensions in France, the Netherlands, and elsewhere in Europe, and implies it can't happen here. What these events show is that diversity is not special to Canada but widespread in the developed world, and not without its problems. It is simply too soon to tell whether Canada can avoid serious trouble. It is foolish, but very Canadian, to be smug about the future.
Ibbitson's continuously stresses that millions of people around the world want to immigrate to Canada. But why should they want to come here? For the bars on Toronto's College Street? For the Montreal music scene? There will always be a billion or so destitute people in the world who would like to come to Canada for better, safer living conditions or welfare system. Immigration is always from poor or stagnant countries to rich or booming countries. Immigration from Western Europe dried up as those countries reached North American levels of prosperity. New immigration from Central and Eastern Europe has not amounted to much and will probably dry up. China and India are now booming. In the medium term a young Chinese or Indian citizen would probably do best to stay put.
Before the 21st century is over, Canada may be way down the list of the world's most prosperous countries. It is foreseeable that the kind of immigration Ibbitson wants is coming to an end. Some people of any degree of prosperity and skill will want to go to the United States as long as it is top nation, and the only way for Canada to find the millions that Ibbitson wants may be to take people without skills, those who are illiterate in their own language and far more remote from our general population in culture and understanding than any we have known before.
Though the wonderful New Canada of massive immigration is Ibbitson's overarching theme, much of the book deals with problems the country faces in always excited and often hectoring tones. Successful though it is, he argues, Canada must shape up. So, we need to do something about health care¨basically try everything and see what works.
Ibbitson has fallen for the democratic reform vogue, but is too polite to say what exactly should be done. He suggests that Cranks' Assemblies modelled after the British Columbia Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform should be empowered to work their own revolutions on our political institutions. His one concrete suggestion is to lower the voting age, a fatuous idea that will not be made safe by beefing up civics and history courses. And what history should be taught? He concedes it is a problem.
Ibbitson's discussion is at times wonkish; there is frequent talk of "tax points". In a discussion of defence and foreign policy (more spending on defence, more foreign aid) he even suggests a useful Canadian initiative: a Canadian Institute for Democracy to advise other countries on how to be like us. But since he thinks our own democracy needs radical reform, what can he think we have to offer?
In a chapter headed "Making Canada Matter", Ibbitson, a keen decentralist, would leave Ottawa with little to do beyond coordinating defence and foreign policy. Yet somehow the blank New Canada must cut a figure in the world. It is an extension of the foreign policy of the Liberals with a dangerous new aspect as the days of Boy Scout peacekeeping recede. It looks like the age-old strategy of seeking relief from domestic political trouble by pursuing foreign adventures. Ibbitson hailed Stephen Harper's trip to Afghanistan, seduced by the Tories' patriotic agenda. But how can a postnationalist be patriotic? By being phoney. It is the New Canadian way.˛

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