It took a tragic photograph of an innocent’s death to finally raise the question of Canadian values in an otherwise petty, parochial election campaign centred mainly on divvying up the spoils of a sputtering economy.
Suddenly, we were talking about the kind of country we once were, about the discomfort and even shame we feel in realizing how mean and self-centered we have become. We began to talk about values, the kinds of higher aspirations we have for our country, beyond maxing out GDP and reducing the tax “burden.”
Our government’s lack of compassion in the face of an enormous humanitarian crisis is forcing us to face up to how much we have lost in our conversion from peace-keeper to “warrior nation,” from the land of clear skies and clean water to “energy super-power,” from welcoming host a place of suspicion and even bigotry. Not just compassion seemed to have abandoned us, but our native tolerance, forbearance, optimism, generosity, hospitality.
On reflection, though, it’s clear that what’s been lost is not the values themselves but their expression in public policy. We remain a decent people; the groundswell of support for assistance to Syrian refugees is just the most recent demonstration of that fact.
Of course, people disagree over right and wrong, good and bad, but it’s important for any nation to work out a consensus on some core values if it’s to avoid being mired in the kind of venomous cultural warfare that currently afflicts the United States and which threatens to disrupt the Canadian comity.
And the only way to achieve that consensus is through intelligent, respectful discussion. Positions need to be explored, not just in academic or political forums, but also in popular culture, from television drama and comedy and documentaries to music and literature.
We have been fortunate in this country to have enjoyed, for most of the past century, a powerful, multifaceted vehicle for developing national consensus on what we believe in, where we want to go and how we want to get there. A public space, accessible to all, in which issues that concern us as citizens (and not just as consumers or “tax-payers”) can be explored with civility and intelligence.
This is of course our public broadcasting system, the CBC/Radio-Canada, a creation every bit as brilliant and just as implicate in the Canadian identity as universal health care and UN peacekeeping.
If any proof were needed, the CBC’s significance is illustrated by the very fact that its current precarious position has not become an election issue.
Who, after all, will defend the ineptly managed disastrously underfunded CBC? Certainly not the private, for-profit radio and television industry, or even newspapers, all of whom see themselves as being in direct competition with the CBC, both on the air and online. And certainly not the CBC itself: that would be seen as highly inappropriate by the current President and Board of Directors, firmly under the thumb of their benefactors in the PMO.
In poll after poll, year after year, Canadians of all political stripes have voiced their overwhelming support for the public broadcaster. But the voices of advocates are all but absent from mainstream media, largely confined to the internet where they risk being lost in the noise.
Unless the parties themselves, and their leaders, are prepared to engage in open, competitive debate on the future of our public broadcaster—our single most important cultural institution—there is no hope of anything more than the minimal measures of support being offered in the Liberal and NDP platforms from being realized. And the Conservatives will continue to dream of dismantling the institution which has for generations appealed to our better angels, and done so much to make us who we are.