The main message of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s speech to the United Nations in September this year was that Canada should be ashamed of the way it has treated indigenous Canadians. From the dawn of the colonial era to the residential schools system to the high suicide rates and boil water advisories on aboriginal reserves today, he said, “the experience was mostly one of humiliation, neglect and abuse.”
Trudeau was later asked at a news conference why he focused so much of his UN speech on Canadian indigenous issues instead of international crises like the threat of nuclear war with North Korea, the ongoing bloodbath in Syria and Iraq, or atrocities against Muslims in Myanmar. “This is an international issue,” he retorted.
It was not the first time the prime minister has portrayed his own country as a land plagued with bigotry and injustice. Earlier in September, he gave a speech marking a Muslim religious holiday by admonishing Canadians to “stand together, united against racism, hatred and Islamophobia.” A few months earlier, in a statement on gender and sexual identity rights, he exhorted Canadians “to fight against homophobia, transphobia, and biphobia.”
In 2015, just a month after taking office, he first went abroad to malign 150 years of Canadian history, culture and values. In an interview with the New York Times Magazine, Trudeau said “there is no core identity, no mainstream in Canada,” and proclaimed himself the leader of “the world’s first post-national state.”
It is unusual, to say the least, for a Canadian prime minister to denigrate his country as often as Trudeau does. Although modern Canadian governments of all stripes routinely apologize for things their predecessors have done, most prime ministers also habitually proclaim their love for Canada and pride in its history, culture and values. Trudeau does less of that and more self-criticism of the country than any PM before him, yet he won a majority government two years ago and his national approval rating is still around 50 percent.
His political success indicates there is a large constituency in Canada which agrees our history is shameful, and that we must atone for the sins of our past. Trudeau is by no means the only progressive politician who panders to it. Many do so at public events when they ritualistically acknowledge that they are on aboriginal land. The clear, if unspoken, implication is that the land belongs to aboriginals, that it was taken from them, and non-natives should feel guilty about it.
An awful country, getting worse
The Leap Manifesto, written by leftist luminaries Avi Lewis and Naomi Klein and endorsed by a who’s who of progressive Canadian arts, culture, academic, and political elites, opens with a damning indictment of the country: “The Truth and Reconciliation Commission [TRC] has acknowledged shocking details about the violence of Canada’s near past. Deepening poverty and inequality are a scar on the country’s present. And Canada’s record on climate change is a crime against humanity’s future.”
The TRC is but one of many voices to take up the refrain that Canada has committed “genocide” against its indigenous population. Even Beverley McLaughlin, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, has joined the chorus. Lots of poverty activists agree wealth inequality is a rampant – a “deepening scar” on the nation. And the notion that developing Canada’s energy resources including the oil sands is a “crime against humanity” has legions of devotees at home and abroad.
Niki Ashton, the Manitoba New Democrat MP who finished third in this year’s federal NDP leadership contest with nearly 20 percent of the vote, has said she agrees with the principles of the Manifesto. The Leap was also endorsed by Ontario NDP MPP Cheri DiNovo, who dropped out of the federal race before the vote. Tzeporah Berman, appointed by Alberta NDP Premier Rachel Notley to serve as co-Chair of the Alberta government’s Oil Sands Advisory Group, is an initiating signatory.
Hedy Fry, Liberal MP for Vancouver Centre and one-time Minister of State for Multiculturalism, was forced to recant when she said in 2001 that racism was so prevalent in Canada that one need look no further than “British Columbia, in Prince George, where crosses are being burned on lawns as we speak.” In the years since, however, Fry’s opinion of her country has only gotten worse. “We [are sliding] to the bottom of the heap in every global index that marks a responsible and progressive society,” she said in 2009.
This year Parliament has witnessed a contentious debate over Motion 103, which singles out Islamophobia as a form of racial and religious discrimination deserving of government condemnation and study. Authored by Liberal MP Iqra Khalid, the motion calls on the government to combat Canada’s “increasing public climate of hate and fear.”
The progressive politics of self-loathing also present at the provincial level, including Premier Notley’s 2015 reference to Alberta as the “embarrassing cousin that no one wants to talk about.” Her Deputy Premier and Health Minister Sarah Hoffman, reading from prescribed talking points in the Legislature, once described Albertans opposed to her government’s climate change policies as “sewer rats”. Of course, Notley and Hoffman were talking about people who disagree with them, but since their government is currently sitting at 19 percent in the polls, they were effectively defaming the vast majority of Albertans.
On the right, more sorrow than hate
The left isn’t alone in hating Canada. Some on the right do too, albeit for different reasons. A decade before he became prime minister, Stephen Harper gave a speech to an American audience contemptuously describing his country as “a Northern European welfare state in the worst sense of the term,” with “the fact that we have very low economic growth, a standard of living substantially lower than yours, a massive brain drain of young professionals to your country, and double the unemployment rate of the United States.”
Right-leaning Canadians have been deploring their country at least since conservative philosopher George Grant penned Canada’s epitaph in his 1965 book Lament for a Nation. Grant’s complaint was that English Canada’s fundamentally conservative character had been irreparably undermined by Quebec francophone nationalism and overwhelmed by American liberal economic, cultural and political influences.
It was once joked of the conservative newsmagazine Alberta Report that all its cover stories were a variation on the theme, “Canada’s Going to Hell in a Hand Basket”. Indeed, a 2002 article in the Report entitled “A self-hating nation” asked several prominent conservative Canadians if they thought the country could survive its penchant for self-abuse. Jamie Glazov, a Canadian conservative writer working in the U.S., said he could hardly wait for Canada to be subsumed into the United States and relieved of its “’sovereignty’, that absurd joke that has imposed socialized healthcare, federal funding of bilingualism and multiculturalism, and other intellectually-bankrupt policies, onto heavily-burdened Canadian taxpayers”.
This was around the time that former newspaper magnate Conrad Black gave up his Canadian citizenship for a British peerage (after Liberal PM Jean Chretien refused to let him have both). Black had founded the National Post in 1998 with the evident goal of giving voice to conservative ideas and shifting the national political culture at least slightly to the right. After Black left, according to the Report story, one newsroom insider memorably observed that “the Post has a problem. It was started to save Canada, but Canada isn’t worth saving.”
Nowadays, it seems that hatred for Canada burns hotter on the left than the right. Conservatives are only two years removed from a ten-year reign in Ottawa, (and a 44-year dynasty in Alberta), so they can still imagine Canadians returning to their senses. The revolutionary zeal of contemporary left wing social justice warriors evinces much more anger and impatience.
Passions on both sides wax and wane depending who is in power, but the locus of their argument does not. The left denigrates the past to perfect the future. The right venerates the past to inform the future. The first Prime Minister Trudeau homogenized the military to sever it from its traditions and justified a Charter of Rights on the grounds that Canada’s historical human rights record was inadequate, if not abysmal. Stephen Harper never missed an opportunity to celebrate Canadian history, tried to set limits on rights as if little had changed since the Magna Carta, and put “Royal” back in our military nomenclature. The second Prime Minister Trudeau got elected by portraying the Harper era as one of the darkest periods in Canada’s awful history.
The best of a bad lot?
At best, this hatred is undeserved, and at worst, irrational. According to the Reputation Institute, Canada, for four years between 2009 and 2015, had the best international reputation in the world. We regularly rank in the top 10 in Forbes’ best countries for business. A poll by the Thompson Reuters Foundation ranked Canada the best country in the G20 for women in 2012, because of our “strong policies against violence and exploitation combined with good access to education and healthcare.” Several of our big cities are routinely listed among the best places to live in the world. As they have for generations, immigrants and refugees flock to Canada from around the world in search of a better, safer, life.
It was puzzling and frustrating for any reasonably proud Canadian to watch the leader of our nation, addressing a room populated with representatives of countries governed by dictators, despots and war criminals, portray our country as no better and possibly worse, and enlist us all in his shame. Does Trudeau really not see a moral and material difference between the way Canada treats aboriginals and the way ISIS, for example, treats Yazidi Christians? Do he, and his fellow progressive travelers, not see a moral and material difference between the way women are treated in Canada compared to say, Saudi Arabia, where women are executed for adultery? Would the Canadian left exchange Canada’s wealth distribution profile for that of oligarchical Russia? Would they prefer the environmental regulatory regimes of Nigeria and Venezuela?
It should be immediately and unquestionably evident that, on balance, Canada is superior to many if not most other countries in the world on essentially every measure of civilized behaviour. This does not mean we are perfect. It does not mean we should not be reflective as a country. It is true that Canada has past sins for which we ought to atone. It is true we have myriad social, economic and environmental problems that we must fix.
But it is equally true that we have also done a lot of good, for our own citizens, including indigenous Canadians, and for repressed people around the world. We continue to take in refugees fleeing conflict and persecution, through programs instituted by both Liberal and Conservative governments. We reliably stand up for democracy and freedom on the world stage. We are one of the most egalitarian, generous, and forward-thinking countries on the planet, yet our prime minister paints our country as a backward cesspool of rights-abusers deserving of international shame and humiliation.
So does the left hate Canada? Hate is a strong word. But how else to explain Trudeau’s message to the world, and its echoes from the progressive chorus at home. If the answer is yes, then the next question is why does the left hate Canada? One admittedly cynical answer is that perpetuating the anger machine is a reason to keep voting for left-wing governments – if our history is irredeemable and justice is never done there will always be a need for revision and recompense. Perhaps a better answer is that it distracts people from the absence of constructive, tangible achievements by progressive governments, and from their policy failures.
Halfway through their mandate the federal Liberals have very few accomplishments they can champion. The deficits pile up, the machinery of government is stalled, and our economic growth is largely sustained by debt. They would do well to stop the rote self-flagellation and remind Canadians that we have a lot to be proud of, particularly when compared to the rest of the world, so at least their successors will inherit a modicum of social cohesion instead of a festering cauldron of recriminations and resentments. There will always be work to be done, but it doesn’t mean we can’t celebrate our successes even as we expiate our sins.