Oh, Canada — My Country

On July 1, 2007 Canadians marked their country’s 140th birthday.

I, too. celebrated, for I have lived the past 40 years of my adult life as a proud and involved Canadian. Back in the 1960s, when Canada needed eager and innovative young researchers to work in the fast-growing field of microelectronics, this country and I made a good match.

I wanted not only to contribute to Canada’s stature in international technology, but also to promote its enlightened social justice agenda and help the cause of world peace through justice. Thus, I left my native land of Egypt and chose Canada over the U.S. because I believed that Canada "had a heart" in dealing compassionately and honorably with its own people and the world at large.

Inspired at the time by the diplomacy and engagement of Canadians like Nobel laureate and former Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson, I believe I was right in my choice. But I’m saddened to admit now that the Canada I knew 40 years ago has lost much of its heart — and perhaps even more of its soul — and is becoming more like the U.S. with every passing year.

It is ironic to look back in history and learn that in the years leading up to 1867, many Canadian leaders worked hard to resolve the tough political issues of their day so as to establish their own Confederation; they were chiefly motivated in this enormous effort by fears of imminent annexation by the U.S.

Yet on many important issues that have faced this nation over the past 40 years, Canada’s governments have badly failed her people.

Canadians today enjoy less democracy than 40 years ago and give themselves less voice in its mandate. During the 1960s, some 80% of eligible Canadians voted in federal elections. Now only 61% vote, and the ratio of active voters is even less among youth. In provincial elections, participation is even lower, while municipal elections come in a poor third with an average turnout of only 20%.

In addition to voter apathy, Canada’s abnormally high concentration of media ownership is also steadily eroding the health of our democratic system. Few Canadians know, or even suspect, that more than 50% of all the media in this country – print and broadcast combined – are owned by just one family.

Another historical irony is that in 1867 Canada’s democracy was based on the vote of rich landowners. That was the law; to vote, you had to own land. Now we regressing back to a troubling reflection of 1867 – a society in which the rich and powerful occupy most of the political public space.

On the civil liberty front, Canada has also markedly declined during my four decades here. Our judicial and law-enforcement systems recently opted to discard the legacy of 300 years of struggle that resulted in British and European civil freedoms; to appease the U.S., Canada endorsed indefinite detentions without charge, security certificate investigations, no-fly listings, and various forms of unrestricted secretive police surveillance on Canadians.

In fact, Canada’s response to the terrorist attacks of 9/11 in the U.S. followed the American format to the letter. It was not typically Canadian at all, as our own recent history of terrorist activity shows.

When FLQ (Front de Liberation du Québec) members kidnapped two political hostages at gunpoint in October 1970 — British trade commissioner James Cross on October 5 and Québec labour minister Pierre Laporte on October 10 — they demanded to exchange them for 23 imprisoned FLQ terrorists, as well as money, safe transportation out of Canada and other items.

When the Québec and the Trudeau governments jointly refused the FLQ demands, there were vehement protests and outraged Quebecers appeared poised to riot. Only then (on Oct. 16) did Ottawa temporarily implement the War Measures Act; 497 were jailed without charge, but most were soon released.

Tragically, Laporte was killed by his captors on Oct. 17 and Cross could not be freed until a successful police raid in Montreal on Dec. 3. But after the War Measures Act was withdrawn, Canada did not use this sad occasion to respond defensively and reactively, or to target any segment of our society for special discrimination and security investigations.

Four times during the 1990s, the United Nations ranked Canada as the world’s best country in which to live. But thousands of homeless Canadians and some 500,000 Canadian children who live below the poverty line must find that hard to believe! Canadians were also protected by more public health care services 40 years ago than they are today. The minimal resources still left are increasingly eroded and attacked by right wing politicians, who want to create a multi-tier system favoring the rich, and priced beyond what most poor and middle-class Canadians can afford.

And now, as Canadians mark 140 years of history, we are also haunted by the fact that most of our own aboriginal First Nations – the indigenous people who welcomed us to their land centuries ago — are living in remote and impoverished conditions comparable to Third World slums and barrios. Thousands across the nation protested peacefully but eloquently on this past Canada Day by wearing T-shirts imprinted with "Indian Holocaust, 1492- ? Printed in Occupied Canada." What a shame!

Over the past 40 years, my fellow Canadians and I have witnessed our collective social justice agenda suffering repeated setbacks. Canada’s rich have grown richer and the poor poorer. Post-secondary education is now accessible only to the rich, or those willing to live under the weight of huge tuition debts for a decade or more after graduation. In the meantime, the quality of education itself has also suffered. In general, public school education is less concentrated, less imaginative, and more narrowly focused than it was 40 years ago; the rich have realized this and more and more affluent Canadians are sending their children to expensive private schools.

Canada’s climate is less predictable than 40 years ago. Most of our large cities suffer from numerous "smog alert" days each year; many of our inter-urban green spaces are being eaten up by greed-based, energy-devouring development; and an ever-increasing number of internal combustion vehicles are causing both our highways and air to deteriorate. Rail transportation was once the lifeline connecting our country coast-to-coast by efficiently moving people and goods; today it is neglected, infrequent, or absent in many regions, in favour of pollution-making cars and trucks. Despite these growing environmental challenges surrounding us every moment of every day, our politicians seem unable to clearly acknowledge or address this life-threatening issue.

Forty years ago, as Canada celebrated its first century amid the colour and optimism of Expo ’67, we Canadians were hopeful that our young country would make it as a global model for success, offering the best hybrid of the British parliamentary and American federal systems.

Forty years ago, we Canadians were dreaming of a better future – together – as French and English, immigrants and newcomers, First Nations and mixed races. But today I do not know if we can truly dream anymore, let alone live our dreams together.

Today, we are at war in distant Afghanistan, because America said we have to; and we passively obeyed. In Ottawa, there is a marked lack in leadership quality like the decisive style that characterized the governments of Pearson and Trudeau, for example. No one seems to have the vision to lead us as Canadians again; instead we are taught to behave as a client state to the U.S.

The "good old Canada" of the 1960s and earlier was by no means perfect or ideal, but Canadians with good memories and good hearts miss our collective tradition of creative compromise, our aversion to violence, and our innovative adaptability. Whatever the temptations offered to us, we are unlike Americans – a fact that even Americans recognize. Inside, we are still proud Canadians; make no mistake about it.

Our patriotic duty should now be to reclaim that pride and give it all the energy we’ve got.