We need a clear vision of tomorrow’s Canada – a vision that appeals to our higher aspirations and hopes for the future, not to fears, distrust, and resentment.
Canadians seem to be disengaging from the national conversation. Barely 60% of us vote in national elections. Many of us sit on the sidelines because national politics seems too confusing and irrelevant. Many of us have lost any sense that the federal government can make a difference in our lives; we’ve lost confidence in government’s ability to serve people honestly and efficiently. We increasingly believe that there are only local answers to our challenges.
But the truth is very different. More and more Canadians are active every day with groups such as faith communities, unions, and non-profit organizations that advocate for change in our society and our world. Our ability to connect through the Internet and social media has changed the pattern of power by amplifying new voices. Cyber-powered democracy is taking over from the political party as the way to raise our pressing concerns in the public square.
From the Occupy movement to the streets of Quebec, one thing is clear: Canadian citizens are disengaged not from society or political action, but from the usual political institutions that produce neither inspiring leadership nor effective governance. The message to political parties is that they must listen and respond to all the people, not simply the select few in a closed party hierarchy, and not just at election time.
I see growing public unease with the degree of inequality within our society. Canadians recognize the intrinsic unfairness of CEOs and professional athletes earning astronomical multiples of the average incomes of their workers and fans; of politicians holding on to gold-plated pensions that most of us can only dream of while lecturing us about austere times; of high youth unemployment rates while long-term investment in education and training receives scant attention compared with retirement security.
Citizens are frustrated when our various governments pass the buck to one another. Ask the parents of children with autism, who need greater comparability in relevant health services across Canada. Ask low-income families and individuals living on the margin, who find that when they earn more at work, clashing program rules can trigger devastating cuts in essential housing or other benefits. Many Aboriginal citizens live in shameful conditions while governments argue about who’s at fault.
The centralized control practised so skillfully by the Conservative government depends on maintaining Canadians’ low expectations of national government, and on our willingness to remain indifferent. So we are played for fools while it is decreed from Ottawa that we shall have oil pipelines, Old Age Security changes, and F-35 aircraft, with little or no debate in Parliament and inadequate disclosure of inconvenient information. An increasing number of national responsibilities are quietly and unilaterally transferred to the provinces, from environmental assessments to pensions, and the federal government withdraws from any meaningful role in health care beyond sending a cheque.
With so much power concentrated in the Prime Minister’s Office, our current national government rarely engages with Canadians at all. We are subjected to manipulative politics that pits west against east, rural against urban, resource-rich against resource-poor. We are presented with false choices between big and small government, high and low taxes, energy and environment, economic competitiveness and social security, resources and manufacturing, federal and provincial.
But we are not the divided, ungovernable country that our political elites like to claim – our diversity of geography and population is a source of dynamism, not difficulty. The polarized politics of left versus right is not what ordinary Canadians want; it is a creation of an outdated mindset that values winning at any cost, while Canadians are interested in getting things done. We are more than ready for a more principled politics that neither clings to ideology nor brokers the interests of those with the power to sit at the table.
We need a national government that speaks for Canada as a whole and sees itself as an instrument of the people. We want a better-functioning federation that fosters and requires the open collaboration of all levels of government – federal, provincial, municipal, Aboriginal – so that government actually helps Canadians meet the real challenges that we all face on a daily basis: finding and keeping a decent job with decent pay, raising children in a safe and clean environment, caring for elderly parents and disabled relatives, ensuring enough food is on the table.
Canadians want investments in our social infrastructure and even-handed taxation, to re-establish a shared sense of justice and equality, so we all feel we are treated fairly and with respect not only by each other, but also by our governments.
We want coherent action. No more half-measures of unknown impact passed by stealth through Parliament in omnibus bills: governments must be accountable. No more manipulative, closed, unprincipled government operating in a bubble: we must restore power to Parliament and the people.
We need leaders who understand the changing pattern of power created by the digital revolution and the new ways citizens are forming communities of interest. Politicians must plug in to these networks as they form their agendas.
Canadians need to work together to strengthen a sense of common destiny, of national purpose. We have to re-establish our ability to work together as a nation and return to the practice of fairness and respect among Canadians that has become seriously frayed after too many years of absentee federalism.
We need to work together to create a better Canada, a Canada that deserves the admiration of the world for our innovation and competitive spirit, for the respect we show to our environment and our indigenous peoples, and for our commitment to social justice and our support for the disenfranchised.
We are building a great nation. Canada can have all the essentials for economic and social progress in the 21st century: secure sources of clean energy; accessible education and training; high-quality health care services for everyone; public infrastructure that supports environmentally sustainable growth; strong trade and communications links in a borderless world; and an economy where competitions for investment and jobs are won by a race to the top, not the bottom.
At its best, Canada represents the finest of universal values ─ justice, diversity, the rule of law, fundamental freedoms, equal rights, and a commitment to oppose discrimination. We are learning how to build an inclusive, cohesive society that is open to the world. We are showing the world that diversity need not lead to economic, cultural, or political fragmentation or to violent conflict. We have every right to be proud and assertive on the world stage, promoting global cooperation to support a more peaceful and sustainable future.
Canada is a land of vast opportunity with a vibrant, globally connected population and extraordinary and expanding human energy and potential. It is time to fully embrace what we can do as a country and as a people, to unleash this tremendous energy – the ideas, the talents, and the drive. Together we can build tomorrow’s Canada: a powerhouse of prosperity, sustainable living, and social justice. One Canada for all Canadians.