Wednesday, June 30, 2010

A Great and Good Country

A 143rd birthday is as good a time as any to consider one’s health. This Canada Day, we can contemplate a storied past and wonder if we are headed the right way for the future.

The short answer is yes, Canada is going in the right direction. Moreover, we have attained this trajectory by way of the best elements in our national culture. But first, some context on the state of other countries and what sets Canada apart.

At the best of times, the world is a dangerous place. This is nowhere near the best of times, as nations are still struggling out from under a worldwide recession, and much of the Earth is bound up with wars and rumours of wars. The planet’s condition is reminiscent of Woody Allen’s Speech to the Graduates: “Mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.”

But within this maelstrom, Canada stands tall, distinguishing itself in military and moral conflict, maintaining an economy and financial markets that are the envy of all.

There are institutions that require reform, certainly – Parliament and the Hockey Hall of Fame come to mind – but in the main, this land is doing alright. Further, it is encouraging that other countries have taken note of Canada’s relative good condition.

Author Quentin Crisp opined, “Americans want to be loved, the English want to be obeyed.” If nations can be written down to such singular motivations, then perhaps Canadians simply want to be noticed.

Canada’s hosting of the recent G8 and G20 conferences, which came just as other parts of the world began to observe this country’s economic strength, may do something to scratch this itch.

Over so many years, in any photo of international heads of government, Canada’s prime ministers would wear hopeful smiles that invariably went unrecognized. They seemed like good-natured hangers-on, in the company of well-known statesmen from seemingly more important parts of the world.

Owing to reasons perfectly in keeping with the national character – caution and circumspection – Canada’s economy has finally brought the country the respect it craved.

For ages, we heard nationalist cries for Canada to “punch above its weight,” which always seemed an inapt incitement for a land less likely to punch than to compose a strong letter. Tin-eared monikers like “moral power” were fashioned, ascribing a level of influence the nation never really had.

It is not that the country’s ambition exceeded its grasp, inasmuch as I think Canada is capable of anything to which it aspires. Rather, all this talk of power, and yearning to stand astride world affairs like some wintry colossus, is at odds with the national character. The image has always been incongruous, like Paul Martin in a cowboy hat or Stephen Harper attempting a freestyle rap.

We are not chest-thumpers, by and large, though we do engage in a unique and gentle sort of self-promotion. This is often misguided, from unwatchable, publicly funded television series’ to successive generations forced to read Margaret Atwood at bayonet-point.

Indeed, the only endeavor in which Canadians cannot accept also-ran status, or even second place, is hockey, and it is ironic that a country of measured expectations and pre-emptive apologies would choose such a fast, physical game into which to pour its national pride.

There is something endearing and healthy about this exception to our rule of modesty. It shows Canadians are capable of consuming passion, just like anyone else, but the nation knows to channel that energy into something enjoyable and good, rather than, say, imperialism or mime.

We are, therefore, a nation that does one thing very well, and most everything else with the best of intentions. Canada is great because Canada is good, and with this in mind, we may press on with hope for even better days to come.

Theo Caldwell is the author of Finn the half-Great.