Explaining the beaver to the eagle

Preston Manning
June 25, 2015
In 2003 Preston Manning was recently retired from a decade in federal politics and free to speak candidly about his experiences. On the occasion of the 34th annual Leacock Luncheon at the McGill University homecoming in Montreal, he did just that in a speech that did full justice to the event’s namesake. Revealing a comedic talent rarely glimpsed by Canadians during his political career, Manning left the audience in stitches with a speech explaining Canada’s unique political culture to Americans. An abridged version appears in this edition of C2C Journal.

Explaining the beaver to the eagle

Preston Manning
June 25, 2015
In 2003 Preston Manning was recently retired from a decade in federal politics and free to speak candidly about his experiences. On the occasion of the 34th annual Leacock Luncheon at the McGill University homecoming in Montreal, he did just that in a speech that did full justice to the event’s namesake. Revealing a comedic talent rarely glimpsed by Canadians during his political career, Manning left the audience in stitches with a speech explaining Canada’s unique political culture to Americans. An abridged version appears in this edition of C2C Journal.
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Manning - MainThis is an abridged version of a speech Preston Manning gave at the 2003 Leacock Luncheon at McGill University.


You may have noted from the newspapers that there is a new effort to “unite the right.” Actually the original idea behind this was to “unite the bright,” but there was a typo in our original press release and this is where we ended up.

I once tried to work with Joe Clark to unite the right, but Joe didn’t trust me. And it all went back to an incident involving a dog in the 1988 federal election campaign.

I was running against Joe in the Yellowhead riding in Alberta, and I was door knocking in the oilfield town of Swan Hills. It was getting dark. I leaped up the porch steps to greet a man at his door. His puppy ran across the step. I stepped on its paw and the poor thing started squealing like a stuck pig.

The owner, glowering at me, swept up the dog and disappeared into the house, to be replaced by his bewildered wife who came out to see what the fuss was about.

And here’s the great test of a candidate and a political door-knocker. What do you say to make amends, in a town where dogs are more highly valued than politicians? Of course, there is only one thing I could say: “Good evening, my name is Joe Clark and I’m running for Parliament.”

I later tried to convince Joe that impersonation was the sincerest form of flattery but he just wouldn’t buy it.

Eventually I did get to the House of Commons where my friends and I tried to introduce some radical ideas – like democracy. I was just glad that Stephen Leacock, whose memory we honour today, wasn’t a member of the House. In Leacock’s day, it was socialism that was the radical political idea. But his comment was that “socialism…would work only in heaven where they don’t need it, or in hell where they already have it.” I shudder to think what he might have said about Reform.

I spent nine years in the House, being released in 2002 for good behaviour. And during my time in federal politics I completed two books entitled The New Canada and Think Big. They sold about 30,000 copies each, but my publisher told me we could have sold more if I’d had better titles.

Now you may have heard that Bill Clinton has been advanced millions for his up-coming book, all on the basis of the title, Sex Between the Bushes. Wish I’d thought of that – the title, that is….

I would have gone further in federal politics if it hadn’t been for my image. We tried hard to fix it, but nothing really worked. In fact, a lady who tried very hard to help fix my image is in the audience today – but she wishes to remain anonymous.

One thing we tried was to enlist the help of a “tie consultant” in Calgary who had a unique service. He would come to your house or office with his laptop computer and a program for designing custom-made ties that improved your image.

He would feed all sorts of relevant information into this computer – like your hair colour, eye colour, skin colour, diameter of your Adam’s apple, the distance from your navel to your chin, your astrology chart, the Farmers’ Almanac, and your appointment schedule – and it would design a tie exactly right for every circumstance.

There was the “power tie” which radiated executive authority, the “come-hither tie” which was warm and friendly, the “back-off tie” which established psychological distance, not to mention the “look at me” tie and the “don’t look at me, I’m just part of the woodwork” tie.

We bought them all, but the problem was that I couldn’t remember which tie did what. My wife Sandra tried attaching little yellow stickum notes to each tie, but they would come off in my suitcase, or worse yet, come off and reattach themselves to the wrong tie.

In fact, it was that kind of a mix-up that again got me on the wrong side of Joe Clark. I went to this meeting on uniting the right, intending to wear my “come hither” tie, only to find out later that I was wearing my “back off” tie.

Image, of course, is part of a much broader subject: communications. And it is communications that I really want to talk to you about today – especially communications between us Canadians and our American neighbours, something Stephen Leacock himself wrote extensively about.

Manning - Inset 2

The Americans just don’t understand us these days, so I have developed some guidelines on understanding and communicating with Canadians which I intend to share with them. But I thought it might be wise to give you a little preview just to make sure I’m on the right track.

We begin by explaining about Canada’s two official languages and how Canadians are so linguistically accepting that it is possible, like Jean Chretien, to become Prime Minister of Canada without being able to speak either official language.

I am linguistically challenged myself, but when I went to Ottawa I actually enjoyed speaking in French because in the House of Commons they give you this little thing to put in your ear, and if you listen carefully you can find out what you’ve been saying.

I received a number of compliments from the media on my first French speech in the Chamber. They said my accent wasn’t that bad, and the only question they had was whether I had really intended to declare war on Chile.

But let’s get beyond language. I once called up 20 Canadians from a client list I had as a consultant and asked them a simple question: “How are you today?” The most frequent response I received was, “Not too bad,” which tells us several things about the Canadian psyche and how we communicate.

The first is that Canadians use negatives to convey positive feelings and aspirations. These people who said they were feeling “not too bad” were actually feeling pretty good. But they expressed that sentiment by using a double negative, “Not bad.”

You can see how this explanation of how Canadians communicate positive feelings through negatives could help our relations with the United States. When our Prime Minister and those around him refer to the Americans as “morons” and “bastards,” these words are not intended as insults; these are terms of endearment.

These are exactly the same words our Prime Minister uses to express his affection for his good friend Paul Martin.

It is quintessentially Canadian to use negative terms to express positive feelings and aspirations. In fact, we even do this in our original Constitution, the BNA Act of 1967.

The first substantive section is labelled “Union.” But having proclaimed the positive desire to unite, our Constitution immediately declares that “Canada shall be divided into provinces.” In particular the United Province of Canada shall be divided into two separate provinces, Ontario and Quebec.

Here we have the genius of Canadian federalism – pursuing unity through division – the positive through the negative. We deliberately divide ourselves so as to make unity a priority concern and preoccupation.

You may think that separatist sentiment is confined to Quebec. But polling data shows that Vancouver Island wishes to separate from British Columbia; that Northern Alberta wishes to separate from Southern Alberta; that rural Manitoba wishes to separate from Winnipeg; that Newfoundland would like to separate from Atlantic Canada; and that the rest of Canada would all like to separate from Toronto.

Quebec of course is indifferent to separatism, now that most of the country has embraced it.

But obviously, if all these separatists would get together, they could unite this country! We pursue positives, negatively. It’s the Canadian Way.

I said that the most frequent response to the question “How are you today?” was “Not too bad.” The presence of that little modifier “too” tells us something else about the Canadian psyche.

We Canadians, as Pierre Trudeau once observed, are “extreme moderates.” Why did the Canadian cross the road? To get to the middle. We love the middle. Football, soccer, and basketball games are divided into two parts – the first and second halves. But our national game, hockey, how is it divided up? Into three periods. Why? So there would be a middle.

We Canadians prefer the centre. We’re scared of falling off the edges. (That’s why people live in Winnipeg.) We don’t like the edges; they are too far from the middle.

This also means that we Canadians hate being confronted with stark choices. “Here’s (a) and here’s (b). Now choose one or the other.” We hate that situation because there is no middle. If we’re forced into these stark choice situations, we’re quite likely to invent a middle by saying, “Why can’t we do both?”

Remember the Fathers of Confederation? They had a choice between adopting the British parliamentary system and the American federal system. What did they say? “Let’s do both.”

We prefer the muddle of the middle to the clarity of choice. Or in American parlance, we follow the Yogi Berra strategy of, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” That’s us.

And of course our extreme moderation is rooted in the simple fact that we Canadians are a modest people. Modesty is rooted in our very origins as a nation. Canada is the only nation on earth founded on the pursuit of a rodent – the beaver – or as some historians have said, “the founding rodent,” unless you include the muskrat, in which case we must speak of the “two founding rodents,”… but I digress.

Manning - Inset 1Modest beginnings produce a modest people. Our Constitution is a very modest document. Despite references to the monarchy there is absolutely nothing imperial about our Constitution at all. The Constitution doesn’t even mention the Prime Minister or the Cabinet. It vests all authority of the government in what it calls “The Queen’s Privy Council for Canada.”

Now, in the 19th century – and here we come to the modest and delicate part – a “privy” was commonly understood to mean an outhouse. Some constitutional historians have speculated that the Queen’s Privy Council for Canada may actually have been a committee established to suitably locate a privy for the Queen in Canada should she choose to visit. This interpretation is reinforced by Section 16 of our Constitution which declares that the seat of government of Canada – not the “head” but the “seat” – shall be in Ottawa.

Our first Prime Minister and how he is presented in our history, continues to reflect this modesty of Canadians. Our first Prime Minister was not a military hero. He did not at all see himself as the personal embodiment of federal power and authority.

What was Sir John A’s favourite section of our Constitution? The clauses which brought tears to his eyes when they were first read at Quebec and Charlottetown? It wasn’t Section 91 listing all the powers of the federal government. No, it was modest sections 97 and 98 which declare, “Judges of the provinces shall be selected from the respective bars of the provinces.”

In discharging his responsibilities under these sections, our first Prime Minister, rather than striding the halls of power, chose to mingle with the common folk in as many of those bars as possible.

Of course, Sir John A always said he was sorry for his drinking habits. In fact, in the Canadian Etiquette Handbook for Members of Parliament receives, there is a whole section entitled “Fourteen ways to say you’re sorry.”

As Canadians, we say we’re sorry even when we aren’t or shouldn’t be. It’s an integral part of being modest. Like all our other characteristics, this modesty of Canadians ultimately reflects itself in how we communicate. We are uncomfortable with strong, declarative sentences. They’re too stark. Too far from the middle. They’re too, well, assertive.

So we soften the front end of the sentence with the word “like” and we soften the end of the sentence by adding the little word “eh” as we seek for a little affirmation of what we’ve just said. We don’t say, “It’s a wonderful day.” We say, “Like, it’s a nice day, eh?” We don’t say, “That was a great game last night.” We say, “Like, it was a good game, eh?” And we don’t say to our American friends, “You’re wrong.” We say, “Like, we’re not exactly sure that was the right thing to do, eh?”

So where do we end up when we are trying to explain the beaver to the eagle? We explain our humble origins – the founding rodent, our modest Constitution with its union through division and its outhouse for the seat of government. We point to our first Prime Minister humbly searching the bars of the provinces for wisdom.

And most importantly, we lay bare our national character: our pursuit of positives through negatives, our extreme moderation, our affection for the middle, our penchant for being sorry, our softening of the declarative, and our longing for affirmation.

And having laid all this out for our American friends, we challenge them: Who else would you prefer to occupy this vast land beyond your northern border?

“Like, we’re really not too bad, eh?”

We’re really not too bad!

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