Canada’s Future: From Rights To Responsibilities (March 2005)

What are Canada’s ideals and goals in the 21st century? Can we achieve great things and contribute to creating a better world for all? Or will “Canada” simply refer to a semi-autonomous geographic space in the attic of North America?

Many of us today have a sense of malaise, of confusion. There is no road map or historical precedent for what Canada has become – a multicultural state open to others’ differences and the pursuit of social and economic justice, solidified in an entrenched Charter of Rights and Freedoms. But while we place the highest value on tolerance of the increasing diversity within Canadian society, we have lost a sense of purpose. Tolerance cannot be an end in itself. We owe each other more than tolerance. For example, as those of many different cultural backgrounds build their lives in Canada, we all have a responsibility to ensure that fundamental values, such as equality of women and no discrimination on the basis of disability or sexual orientation, are respected.

Canadians need to get back to serious thinking and moral discourse. We have to set out positive goals for the future, and then construct a range of possibilities to allow us to achieve those goals through concrete actions.

Too often we are presented with a wall of fear which constrains our constructive responses: fear of international terrorism, fear of weapons of mass destruction, fear of infectious diseases, and fear of environmental disasters. We know that the instruments for maintaining an open, progressive and just society – good public education, adequate healthcare, environmentally sound development, an adequate safety net to prevent the emergence or further growth of an underclass – are in decline. We know that we are living off the diminishing capital of both Canada and the planet, trapped on the incessant merry-go-round of extreme and unchecked consumption.

What we are not told is that it is more frightening to be mere spectators; that passivity means helplessness and that helplessness defines and sharpens fear.

If strength resides in unity of purpose, we are fractured and adrift.

How can we rediscover public purpose and actively engage in public life? How can we once again look beyond our immediate needs and fears, think of the needs of future generations, and engage in the serious business of the stewardship of this planet? How do we return the emphasis in public life to our mutual responsibilities for each other and the wider communities in which we live?

One way is for those in public life to establish a clear balance between rights and responsibilities in the reality and rhetoric of both national and international affairs.

The 20th century has come to be seen as the century during which the world community affirmed the universality of basic human rights and freedoms. The Pearson and Trudeau generations of Canadians were at the forefront of the steps taken to establish the global infrastructure to protect those rights. The irony of our successes in the 20th century was that we failed to elaborate and enforce the responsibilities corresponding to those rights, with the result that the years of the late 20th and early 21st centuries are scarred with horrific genocides, acts of terrorism, extreme poverty and the AIDS catastrophe which the world community seems powerless to prevent.

The 21st century needs to affirm the universality of human responsibilities that correspond to our rights and freedoms. Without such affirmation, this century could be even bloodier than the previous one, with conflict within states as much as between states, fuelled by religious fanaticism and hopeless poverty.

Recognizing and enforcing universal human responsibilities is critical to continuing progress towards greater peace and humanity, tolerance and mutual respect. A positive focus on our human responsibilities will strike a responsive chord with the many people who have become cynical about the negativity in public life and are disengaged from public action.

Suppose we start with a simple, basic proposition: that “every person regardless of gender, ethnic origin and social status, political opinion, language, age, nationality or religion has a responsibility to treat all people in a humane way.” (From proposed Article 1 of a Universal Declaration of Human Responsibilities, drafted in 1997 by the InterAction Council – a group of respected former world leaders). From this, all other moral responsibility flows. You have the right to practise the faith of your choice. You then, however, have a responsibility not to express prejudice and incite hatred and discrimination against those of different beliefs. Religion should not be a weapon; it can be a positive force that helps us explain our mortality, our significance in the universe, how to distinguish between right and wrong, how to establish a peaceful community life and discharge our responsibility for our fellow human beings.

Some small steps are now being taken toward recognizing our responsibilities. The international “responsibility to protect” is gaining support as the legal and ethical framework within which to protect vulnerable populations at risk from civil wars, insurgence, state repression and state collapse. This is the more effective way to approach the issue of the right of intervention and potentially misguided preemptive attacks.

Canada has been in the forefront of the development of this doctrine. But we have not devoted sufficient military and development resources to maintain our credibility in international affairs. And we have not been clear and firm in our denunciation of the current United Nations structure and in our demands for radical change. As it now stands the U.N. is simply not in a position – if it ever was – to advance peace and humanity in the 21st century, a century in which the U.S. will lose its preeminence to rising powers such as China and India. We will not merit the respect of future generations unless we insist on fundamental changes to ensure respect for international law and multilateral action, and express our internationalism not through empty speeches but through substantial commitments to our military, peacekeeping and development. Until we and the world community are able to put an end to genocide in Darfur, Rwanda and elsewhere, put an end to the lethal arms trade, we will continue to lose power and influence.

We must also promote the responsibilities that go along with the rights of citizenship. In gaining the rights of Canadian citizenship, all persons must accept the responsibility to maintain a civil society and a political community that has outlawed the use of violence as a means of political expression. As well, all persons must accept the responsibility to maintain a civil society and political community in which women have equal rights and privileges with men. There can be no doubt that we have been naïve in the past in not insisting more clearly that new Canadians, in particular, not fund violence and acts of terrorism in their countries of origin, and that they act to adapt cultural norms to advance the rights of women. Such naivety cannot be permitted if we are to continue to build a secure, open, progressive, multicultural state.

Finally, we need to assume our responsibility for the defence of North America with a maturity that befits a modern sovereign state. For example, we must do much more to secure our borders and extensive seacoasts, as well as bolster our internal defences – and it must be done in close cooperation with the Americans. Such cooperation does not constitute a loss of sovereignty; rather, it strengthens our sovereignty by ensuring that joint policy and decisions reflect our country’s interests and needs. This applies to cooperation over missile defence, however limited our role might be given the huge hurdles relating to technological feasibility and the enormous cost. Not being at the missile defence table will negatively impact our ability to safeguard Canada’s interests.

Canadians must recognize that to advance social justice, peace and humanity for future generations, we must act coherently with a purpose. The federal government, which speaks for all of us, must be capable of articulating and pursuing national and international initiatives and standards for the benefit of all Canadians. If the federal government abdicates its role to speak clearly for all of us, we dissolve the purposes around which citizens can mobilize, and we entrench power in the narrowly-based local elites.

So, we are entitled to insist that only our federal government engage in foreign affairs and that our provincial/territorial leaders respect the federal sphere of action.

We are entitled to insist that our federal and provincial/territorial governments cooperate in programs of national concern, rather than engage in unproductive squabbles.

We are entitled to insist that our national leaders make a positive case for Quebec in Canada and Canada in Quebec. Quebecers, like the rest of Canadians want to be active participants in building this modern multicultural state.

We are entitled to insist that our federal government establish the minimum common entitlements of Canadian citizenship that must be assured by all levels of government, as well as the related responsibilities expected of us. This includes healthcare, parental leave, primary and secondary school education, the environment. We must remember that the Fathers of Confederation placed a great deal of emphasis on the federal power to further peace, order and good government and to deal with matters of national concern. This is what brought us unemployment insurance, medicare and other essential national programs, and must in future inspire public action in a wide range of areas.

Above all we must be prepared to ask the right questions.

Should there be more private financing and delivery in healthcare? We already spend more private money in the area of healthcare than France, but France has been much more successful in combining public and private insurance and delivery, and in avoiding the long waiting lists, shortages of family doctors and overloaded emergency rooms so plaguing our Canadian system?

Should the federal government take steps to ensure comparable availability and quality of public education and childcare across provinces and territories? Education may be a matter of exclusive provincial jurisdiction under the Constitution Act 1867, but taking responsibility for the well-being of future Canadians is a matter of grave national concern. Should we undertake a national initiative to make public education (combined with childcare) available in our public schools from the age of three, and provide the funding to provinces/territories to enable this?

Should expanded parental leave be available to all Canadians, not just those in Quebec?

Should our public expenditures in healthcare be allowed to grow at the expense of education and the environment?

Is our safety net legislation such as the minimum wage or income supplements adequate to eliminate the struggling underclass of working poor?

Most Canadians do want to address these and other questions, and are interested in listening to vigorous debate on all major issues of the day. Most want to see strong leadership and collective action to maintain and strengthen our coherence as a unique multicultural state, both nationally and internationally. For example, the recent public response to the tsunami disaster and other global tragedies clearly demonstrates that Canadians support government action to reach out globally and shoulder the responsibility to alleviate suffering in other parts of the world.

Currently, hundreds of non-governmental organizations have become the beneficiaries of citizens’ frustrated activism, and are the backbone of a vigorous transnational civil society. We need to channel more of this valuable civic energy into positive public action by governments. We need to reverse the loss of civic spirit arising from our extreme consumption and our sense of powerlessness in influencing the public agenda. We need to stop being passively polled ad nauseam on our current needs, and instead actively engage in the public policies that will affect future generations. We need to demand more of those we elect and challenge them to see the big picture and tackle the big issues.

If we could imagine the future, what might it include?

A Canada in which all children had access to good public education from the age of three, where one parent could choose to stay at home without financial stress for at least the very early years of a child’s life or have access to good quality childcare.

A Canada where healthcare is available and accessible to all, but where the emphasis is on preventing disease as much as on cures, and the environmental causes of ill health are actively addressed.

A Canada where advances in communications technology are pursued not simply for entertainment, but to further the ability of individuals and communities to interact on a human level, to expand mutual trust and understanding.

A Canada which is not governed by fear: fear of terrorism, fear of rogue states, fear of weapons of mass destruction, fear of infectious diseases, fear of uncontrollable migration.

A Canada where our children can travel and work freely, comfortable with their multiple identities as citizens of a community, of a nation, of the world.

A Canada where achievement is not measured by our level of consumption, but by our level of commitment to our fellow citizens.

A Canada where we freely express our outrage and take or demand action to address economic or social injustice.

A Canada where we listen to each other, respect each other, where we vote for and act for positive change, not against something or someone.

The early years of the 21st century are already scarred by the catastrophic events of September 11th and their aftermath. Yet, as we have in the past, we can turn challenges into opportunities and move forward once more. Let the early 21st century be remembered as the period of wide public reflection followed by action, when global forces were harnessed to promote a more equitable world order, when we focused on discharging the human responsibilities which accompany our human rights and without which we would be unable to live together in peace and humanity.

Canadians need political leaders who will carry out coherent national policies to promote greater social and economic justice both nationally and internationally. Canada has many strengths and resources, enjoys an enviable world reputation, and continues to be a magnet for immigrants around the world. If we can take advantage of the many opportunities open to us today by continuing to build an open, progressive society that respects rights and responsibilities, our voice will once again carry significant weight throughout our global village.