All my changes were there: The teacher and Canadian nationalism

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By Roderick Benns

Roderick Benns is the publisher of The Advocate. An award-winning author and journalist who grew up in Lindsay, he has written several books including Basic Income: How a Canadian Movement Could Change the World.

My friend, John Boyko, says Canada is a conversation. In his blog he was referring to how we tend to hash things out with words here, not guns, whether in Parliament, in a political leadership race, or at Tim Horton’s. He’s right of course – and we are a decidedly fortunate nation because of this. Not all nations can claim this civility.

If Canada is a conversation, then I’d like to start a new-old one. It’s one that began for me back in high school, here in Lindsay, where I grew up. 

Like Neil Young sings, I thought all my changes were there.

As it turns out, maybe just the seeds of my changes were planted back then – because for a while I’m not sure I was the Canadian nationalist that I thought I was. Now, I’ve seen enough, studied enough, and lived enough to reject some of my initial thinking about how this country should work.

Those seeds of change were planted by one of my pivotal high school teachers, Dan Miller. He taught me Geography for four consecutive years and within the Human Geography courses that were my favourite he also taught me three things to be skeptical about:

  • unbridled capitalism
  • provincial power in Canada becoming too strong
  • the United States’ intrusive foreign policies.

As often happens, young people’s political perceptions can be coloured by the political voting patterns of their parents, and by whomever is leader of the country during these seminal years. For me, it was the late 1980s and Brian Mulroney led two incredibly ambitious terms of government. He sparked important conversations that we needed to have as Canadians. All those words galvanized Parliament and disrupted coffee shops.

I was swept up in all the grand initiatives of this time, from the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement, privatization and deregulation, to the Meech Lake Accord that endeavoured to gain Quebec’s signature on the constitution, to the Charlottetown Accord that tried to salvage Meech Lake.

At the time, I thought we needed to seize the day and embrace free trade and let the chips fall where they may.

Now I question all that unbridled capitalism.

I thought it was imperative that Quebec sign the constitution. To make that happen, surely Canada could divest itself of a few more powers for the provinces.

Now I wonder what good can come of further decentralization. Canada always needs a national vision.

As for free trade, deregulation, and the drive to more and more privatization, I now believe too many major sectors of our economy are dominated by foreign multinationals. For instance, the federal Liberal government recently approved the Chinese takeover of a Canadian satellite-communication systems firm, without a thorough security review. Can they not understand how short-sighted this is? Can they not see how this impacts our sovereignty?

I believe the commodification of nearly everything – water included – is a great injustice. I think the rise of precarious work – work that is part-time, contract, or temporary in nature – has devastated the underbelly of the Canadian working class and middle class.

As for the third thing my high school teacher told me to be skeptical about – U.S. foreign policy – there was definitely naiveté on my part in high school. Who wouldn’t want to think that our friend and neighbour always meant the best for their global neighbours? Now, the world is riddled with examples of how that just isn’t always the case, from the Congo and the lust for minerals, Iraq/Kuwait and the lust for oil, and an ongoing desire to actively destabilize other nations to maintain influence and control.

 In referring to his sombre 1960s offering, Lament for a Nation, George Grant writes that Canada’s hope “…lay in the belief that on the northern half of this continent we could build a community which had a stronger sense of the common good and of public order than was possible under the individualism of the American capitalist dream.”

I think we did, for the most part. In fact, the differences between Canada and the U.S., the values that we share, continue to diverge as if to underscore this truth.

As Michael Adams wrote in Fire and Ice, “Canadians are moving toward cosmopolitan values associated with idealism…Americans are moving away en masse from the trends associated with civic engagement and social and ecological concern. Instead, Americans are retrenching, becoming paranoid and isolated…”

I think Dan Miller was right about those three key points he told us to question. Many would say he was too political – that teachers have no business promoting such discourse in the classroom.

I say ‘good for him.’ You see, he wasn’t just an educator – he was an advocate. He taught his students to question what they hear or read. I wish there were more like him in our schools.

In the meantime, this Canadian nationalist will do his part to keep the conversation going.

1 Comment

  1. Joan Abernethy says:

    Conversation, civil debate, and an open mind are essential to progress. Sweeping condemnation of our neighbours is not.

    The I Ching observes the balance nature seeks to maintain. So too, we must be careful to balance social contract with diversity.

    Identity politics may pose the greatest threat to progress in our time. The judging of individuals based on their group identity can lead to the dehumanization of large groups, an initial step on the slippery slope to rationalizing inequity, oppression, and genocide.

    I doubt an equitable control of capital can succeed outside of a world government administration. But world government conjures a spectre of oppression sufficient to cause local revolt.

    To be equitable and progressive, to avoid cruel oppressions and genocides, any world control of capital needs to be democratically administered. And that can be messy.

    There is a chance, though, in our digital age, to democratically administer a global budget. Data partnership agreements can download decision making to the world’s people via referenda.

    Conversations, open civil debates, remain key to justice. Not only is it essential to respect the right of even the ignorant and the offensive to speak but also the right of everyone to hear the full range of human perspective and opinion.

    It may be that there is no final solution to human suffering, that the best we can and should hope and aim for is the open and civil debate that drives life-form evolution with its own purpose independent of human agency.

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