Time for Some Serious Decisions

The “Harper government” — yes, I’m choosing the term very deliberately — is ordering Canadian embassies around the world to display an image of the Queen. So, which will it be?

The Good Queen   The Evil Queen

Look, I’m neither for nor against the monarchy. The lefty in me doesn’t agree with priviledge bestowed onto someone simply by birth, but in the modern Canadian context, the Queen’s role is so symbolic as to be meaningless — benign, but meaningless. However, I suspect that if Elizabeth weren’t still around and Charles were King, there would be a more unanimous outcry against the Harper government’s degree.

First came John Baird, Minister of Foreign Affairs, asking to replace modern paintings by a Quebec artist at his department’s headquarters with a portrait Good Old Benign Liz. Then came the reinsertion of the word “Royal” to the Canadian Air Forces and Canadian Navy. And now a portrait of Liz must appear in our embassies.

Quite correctly, I believe, University of Guelph Associate Professor Matt Hayday, quoted in this article of the National Post, sees this attempt at rebranding Canadian identity as a step backward.

“It’s a very deliberate and calculated effort to re-shape Canadian symbolism, Canadian nationalism and Canadian values back to a certain conception of conservative Canada that has very strong roots in Diefenbaker-era Canada where ties to the monarchy, to tradition, to the British world are very important,” said Matthew Hayday……

Canada’s conservatives have long loved the Crown because it plays to the ideas of tradition and respect for authority — namely, the authority of the British empire, he said.

“There’s a certain amount of nostalgia as well for a period where Canada was part of a broader British empire,” said Prof. Hayday, and the mandate plays to a “specific subset” of the Conservatives’ Canadian voter base who have watched as multiculturalism and bilingualism, in their view, overshadowed any nods to Canada’s British heritage.

However, as I commented on Matt’s blog, it occurred to me that maybe all these moves by the Conservatives, but especially this latest one, are a provocation on their part. Sure, on the surface, they’re playing to their base. But in the nearly 20 years since the failed Charlottetown Accord, there’s been agitation on the right for true Senate reform, mention on the left (especially by the late Jack Layton during the last election) of finding the “winning conditions” for Canada and Québec, and for all sides for electoral reform. In other words, could it be that, in public, they’re saying that they don’t want another round of constitutional talks, but in fact they’re itching for one through provocation via successive legislative plans and degrees that most Canadians find distasteful?

I can already hear the cries of protest against constitutional talks when there’s so much uncertainty economically worldwide. And I have grave concerns about having such talks while the current brand of Conservatives is in power. But in my view, the economic argument against such talks is the weakest, for the most significant constitutional changes of the 20th century occurred at times when the economy was precarious. In fact, if the economy were good, there could be arguments along the lines that “the economy is good, so let’s not disrupt it by reopening the constitution.”

Maybe my little “conspiracy theory” is giving the Conservatives too much credit. Maybe this isn’t a bait at all, but it could certainly be turned into one. Maybe the Conservatives really are intent on changing the country through whatever back-handed means their majority affords them. Or maybe the opposition — both in Parliament and the public at large — isn’t alert enough to recognize the bait it’s being handed…

I mean, why not consider having a Governor General as end-of-the-line head of state? Let’s look perhaps at keeping the title of “governor general” out of respect to tradition and heritage instead of seeking a republican president. And why not consider whether or not we want a Senate? And if we do, let’s discuss how it should be constituted and whether its member should be elected or appointed. And while recognizing that, for a vocal minority, the only solution for Québec is full sovereignty, why not try to find among the soft nationalist and federalist majority in Québec what they would deem acceptable for being a solid and equal partner within Canada?

Everybody Remembers

Early Nine-Eleven MemorialThese days the media is, of course, wall-to-wall coverage of the 10th anniversary of the September 11 terrorists attacks on the United States, and it is said that everyone who was alive that day and old enough to understand what was happening remembers exactly where they were when they learned the news. For many, it was intensely personal and tragic, but for the vast majority of people, it was a scene of unspeakable horror being played out live on their TV screen.

Everybody seems to remember that the morning of September 11, 2001, was a beautiful late-summer day on the east coast of North America, including in Halifax where I was living at the time. Ironically, had the attacks not happened on that day, probably few if anyone today would remember this otherwise trivial fact. It would have been just another ordinary day.

In fact, I distinctly remember the mild summer-like evening that was September 10, 2001, in Halifax. I went out to enjoy it and I distinctly remember thinking to myself that, the next day, I had to get back to work. I was working mostly as a freelancer at the time — I had finished teaching my last class of “Text-Based Media” at Mount Saint Vincent University a few weeks before — but because I had kept a connection with the academic world, September remained for me, mentally, the beginning of a new year. But in 2001, because summer had extended beyond Labour Day, I had procrastinated at working hard on my then-new brandchild: my TexStyleM web content management system.

The previous July, I had joined Hosting Matters, the web hosting company I still use to this day. My ritual at the time was to get up, make some coffee, and sit at the computer to read HM’s message board, which at the time was not only a technical help line but a virtual social community as well. As soon as I signed on, I noticed new strings with titles like “World Trade Center” as well as one, posted by HM owner Annette, warning of possible disruptions in service due to the day’s unfolding events. I read and read and it all seemed incomprehensible: possibly thousands and thousands dead, planes crashing into buildings…

I pounced out of my chair in my office and ran to the living room to turn on the TV. The first images I saw were of a building in smoke — the Pentagon, the announcer said. It was about 11:30 am in Halifax, therefore 10:30 am in Washington and New York. As I remained seated on the edge of the couch, trying to comprehend the images I was seeing, I thought to myself, “This must be what it felt like when news crossed the Atlantic that Germany had invaded Poland and that Britain and Canada were declaring war.” But in those early moments, it was still unclear in my mind against which country war was going to be declared.

And that’s just it: In 2001, most of us still thought of war as a matter among nation states. But on this first official year of the 21st century emerged the idea that modern wars were no longer going to be that way anymore. The definition of opponents and factions had become more abstract.

By the time I tuned into what was happening, the second twin tower in New York City had fallen already, but planes were still being grounded and it wasn’t known if more attacks were coming. News then came that dozens of planes that were crossing the Atlantic were being diverted not only to Gander, Newfoundland, but Halifax as well. The city where I lived was becoming one of many focal points of the unfolding events.

Obviously, my resolve to “get back to work” was shattered for many days following September 11, 2001. Like many others, I could not peel myself away from the TV screen. I would occasionally leaf through the photos of my one and only trip to New York City in February 1995, and in a few shots appeared those two towers that were no longer — towers I had only seen but never entered, and never would. And I would recall the hightened security that early evening I happened to go to the mostly deserted financial district, as it was the two-year anniversary of the 1993 Trade Center bombing. All I kept thinking is how “ordinary” were all those who had died so brutally in those towers. That day, as any other, they did the most mundane thing: they reported to work to earn their living. But hours later, they went from being “ordinary” to one of thousands of names on a long list now infamous in history.

A few days later, I drove to Moncton as my father had been hospitalized and his birthday was on the 16th. This was the time when doctors finally figured out that his pain was due to having lapsed into depression — the time when a man who would never show his emotions would cry at the drop of a hat. So, knowing this, before going to the hospital with Mom, who confided that she, too, could not stop watching the images coming out of New York and Washington, I asked her how he was reacting to the news of these events. But it turns out that he was so sedated that, although he understood what was happening, he was curiously detached from it all. His own life was fadding; two-and-a-half years later, he would be gone. I don’t recall talking much about the events of 9-11.

I remember as well how, in the first days and weeks that followed this seminal event, the United States had the sympathy of the world, for while many understood that American foreign policy was at the root of the attacks, few believed these attacks could be justified. As much as I hated the thought, I knew that there had to be a response to these attacks and I even agreed with the notion that Canada be alongside the U.S. in this response. Sadly, however, in the months and years that followed, those heading the government of the U.S. at the time themselves hijacked the events to seek avenge on Iraq, a nation that wasn’t involved in 9-11 but “conveniently” happened to be in the neighbourhood.

Ten years later we ask ourselves how the world has changed, and the answer seems to be that everything has become more polarized, not only internationally but also within nations — even in Canada, argues Chantal Hébert. That may not have been the intentions behind the 9-11 attacks, but sadly that seems to have been the consquence.