Are We Consumers, Taxpayers, or Citizens?

From time to time, thoughtful people reflect on whether there is a difference between how we see ourselves and how others see us. Introspection is important for ourselves and our relationships with family, friends, and work colleagues. It is important for the health of our democracy to also occasionally consider how we see ourselves in our relationship with our elected representatives and how they see us. Are we consumers, taxpayers, or citizens?

Are we consumers?  Consumer capitalism developed over many years and became the bulwark of our economic system by the 1920s. The prosperity of our nation became dependent on stuff being made and services being provided for us to buy. We, in turn, were paid for making all the stuff and providing all the services. It was a nice, symbiotic circle. We were in trouble when things stopped being made, or became too expensive, or when we stopped buying. That’s what happened in the Great Depression of the 1930s and the Great Recession of 2008-’09. Our leaders understand. That is why after the tragedy of 9-11, the first advice President Bush had for Americans yearning to demonstrate resilience was to take a trip to Disney World and to go shopping.

When our buying stuff became an economic imperative and patriotic duty, then it is unsurprising that some of our leaders began to think of us as nothing more than consumers. We consume Corn Flakes and health care. We consume I-Phones and education. Everything is a commodity and so government exists only to provide things to be consumed that private capitalists don’t or won’t. Our leaders, therefore, promote themselves as providers and we look at ourselves simply as consumers of what they have on offer. We complain only when price does not match quality.

Consumers, Taxpayers, or Citizens?

(Image: UGA Career Centre)

Are we taxpayers? American Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, “Taxes are what we pay for living in a civilized society.” I don’t much like paying taxes but I get his point. I pay for things from which I benefit and I benefit from living in a society in which there are assumed and enforced modes of behaviour. For example, I can go to a restaurant knowing the food is safe and the kitchen has been inspected and my card or currency will be accepted. I have never left a restaurant without paying. After all,  I benefitted from the meal and service and all the government regulations behind the scenes. In the same way, I believe that I benefit from living in society in which people are educated and healthy and so I may grumble from time to time but I pay my taxes that support public education and health care even though I don’t have a child in school and my last operation was when I had my tonsils out at age 4. I benefit so I pay.

In his victory speech after winning the leadership of the Canadian Conservative Party, Andrew Scheer said, “We are and always will be the party of prosperity not envy, the party that always represents taxpayers not connected Ottawa insiders.” With respect to a recent controversy he said, “As prime minister, I would have fought against this payout in court and made absolutely clear that taxpayers won’t be rewarding an admitted terrorist.” Are they mistakes, sloppy syntax, or a confession as to how Mr. Scheer sees us? Is that all we are to him: taxpayers? Are we not more than that? This has nothing to do with party, but perspective.

Are we citizens? Anyone can be a consumer because anyone can wander into a market and buy stuff. Anyone can be a taxpayer because anybody can be made to pay for stuff. Citizenship is more than both. It is a more noble concept. It derives from ideas born in ancient Greece. Citizenship suggests membership in something akin to belonging to a club or even, at its best, a family. It’s why we carry a membership card – a passport – sing the anthem, take pride in the flag, and celebrate our founding each July. Some of us are born into the family and others, after passing the muster of the gate keepers’ requirements, can join and become equal members. We can leave and live elswhere. In this way, citizenship is not about birth and blood but choice.

As with clubs and families, citizenship involves rights and responsibilities. The American Bill of Rights and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms spell them out. They suggest that we not cherry pick but, as citizens, respect and live according to them all. Americans, for instance can’t stomp on the first amendment in their advocacy of the second. The American and Canadian Supreme Courts exist to remind us of that fact even if, occasionally, we and our governments are infuriated by their decisions. Even when we disagree, in fact, especially when we disagree, citizenship means that we are in this together with responsibilities to and for each other.

Buying stuff and paying taxes are only slivers of what it means to be a citizen. Rallying us as consumers and calling us taxpayers cheapens the concept of citizenship. It tears at the fabric of who we are and places in jeopardy the core of our democracy.

It matters whether we see ourselves as visitors to a mall, the government’s ATM machine, or members of a national family. Our founders believed it was important and created a system based on our considering ourselves, and our leaders treating us, as citizens. Perhaps we should reflect the wisdom of those founders whether Sir John A. Macdonald or Thomas Jefferson and whether there is a difference between how we see ourselves and how others see us by listening carefully to how those who lead or aspire to lead, speak of us. Let’s be aware of how others within our national family speak of themselves and the rest of us. If among the greatest gifts the ages have bestowed upon us is the concept of citizenship, then let us respect and protect it. I would rather live in a country than a mall.

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Lessons of the Bonsai

Ancient cultures are not dead. They are around and within us and offering lessons for those willing to listen. Indigenous cultures, for instance, are teaching us the power of community, environmental responsibility, circles, cultural approbation, collective responsibility, and resilience in the face of tragedy and overwhelming odds. Let us consider the lessons of the ancient Japanese culture: patience and simplification. The lessons lie in the bonsai.

The Japanese tradition of tending a bonsai tree has its origins in China and can be traced to around the year 1200. Buddhist monks began the practice of tending tiny trees as a reflection of their lives devoted to quiet, slow, gentleness, and spiritual contemplation. A seed was planted in a small container. As it grew, the sapling would be supported by string. The monk would imagine the shape of the tree that he wished to create and then nurture that part to grow while carefully pruning leaves and branches. The process would take years but slowly, as it was lovingly tended, the tree would develop into the shape imagined. The monk’s job would then be to maintain the shape by continuing to trim superfluous bits.

By the end of the 1300s, monks had taught the practice to Japanese rulers. By the 1800s, it had become a proud traditional among all Japanese people. Ironically, considering what was about to happen, just before the Second World War there was a burst of interest in Japanese culture, and the bonsai in particular, in Europe and North America. The World Bonsai Friendship Federation was inaugurated in 1980. It convenes enormously popular conventions every four years at cities around the world.

Lessons of the Bonsai

(Photo: Bonsai Tree Gardener)

As in the beginning, it’s really not about the tree. It’s about life. To create a fine one, one that brings joy and about which happiness and satisfaction can be felt, recall what you must do: imagine how you want it to be, nurture it, trim the superfluous bits.

Consider those parts of our lives that are merely habit – the superfluous bits – those that add no value, that distort it. They are misshaping our bonsai. Imagine the merit in trimming a few people, places, and experiences that really bring no joy. Picture living with fewer things that are really just clutter or stressful responsibilities. What happiness would come from reading a book, listening to or playing music, or spending time with a loved one rather than scanning a screen to perchance see and unconsciously judge or compare what someone else is up to.

I wish I had more wisdom to envision the shape and the courage to trim. Perhaps I am getting better at it. But then again, another essential aspect of the Japanese culture, and one shared with Indigenous cultures, is reverence for elders. Maybe, if I continue to work hard at remembering and recognizing what truly matters and trim all that does not, I will, someday, with the gift years allow, have the bonsai I’ve imagined. Someday. Good luck with your bonsai.

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Viagra, Frankenstein, and Us

In June 1816, Mary Shelley and her husband were enjoying a dinner party with a group of friends. They talked of books and poetry and swapped German ghost stories. The dinner led Shelley to write a short story that she later turned into her 1818 novel, Frankenstein. The book was a cautionary tale of a research scientist who successfully assembled a living being from corpses, only to have his creation turn on him and wreak havoc on the community. The book asks us to be aware of the Frankensteins of unintended consequences all around us. Let’s consider one.

Viagara and Frankenstein

One day in 1991, researchers working in England for the pharmaceutical giant, Pfizer, were taken by surprise. They had been toiling away to develop a chemical compound to treat heart problems. They had come up with Sildenafil. It looked promising but then, during clinical trials, older men who had been taking the compound reported rock-hard erections lasting more than an hour. Those in the placebo-taking control groups reported no such effects. The Pfizer heart research project took a quick turn. More tests were done, the discovery was deemed sound, and so a method of mass producing the compound as a pill in the proper dosage was quickly established. The research team had inadvertently invented Viagra.

Patents were obtained. Observers wryly noted the unusual lightning speed with which the predominately middle-aged men in charge of so many of the world’s government approval processes allowed the little blue pill to machete its way through red tape. Within six months of its American approval, in March 1998, 7 million prescriptions were written, rendering it the country’s most popular medication.

Viagara and Frankenstein2

Pfizer’s future changed and its stock and profits rose dramatically. Commercials changed acceptable public conversations by dragging discussions of impotence, or erectile dysfunction, as it was renamed, from the shadows. The research changed the lives of millions of men and couples for whom impotence had been a problem. All was well.

But then, retirement homes and senior-dominated communities began reporting skyrocketing numbers of cases of sexually transmitted diseases. Arizona’s Pima and Maricopa counties, for instance, have unusually large senior populations. From 2005 to 2009 the number of people older than 55 who contracted syphilis and chlamydia for the first time in their lives rose by 87%. As is the case with most corporate, applied research, Pfizer never released the names of those who created Viagra so we don’t know their reaction to the good and bad changes their work brought about. But Mary Shelley would have smiled.

What other research and inventions bring about Frankenstein change? What small decisions have we made in our lives, that ended up big ones in disguise, put us on roads we had hoped to never travel? How many political decisions made for expedient or partisan reasons have helped some but hurt many? Can we rise up as the torch-bearing villagers did in Shelly’s novel and defeat our Frankensteins? Let’s first identify them in our lives and our communities. Then, let’s light the torches.

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What I’ve Learned About Being an Author

My first book was published a number of years ago and I am now working on what will be my eighth. I’ve seen a lot of changes in the publishing industry over that time but the most essential element remains the same as it’s been since Gutenberg invented the printing press. An author sits alone with the seed of an idea and a reader sits alone enjoying the fruit of that idea. It’s only the middle bit between those solitary acts that has changed. Here’s what I have learned.

  1. Write

If you want to write, then go ahead. It’s like Yoda said, “No try, do. Do or don’t do. No try.” There are many ways to get started and the easiest is to set up a free WordPress webpage and begin blogging. Write about what you know. Develop a theme. Forget how many people click to read it, that’s not what it’s about.

You are writing not as a sprinter on race day but a marathoner in training. Build writing muscles and skills by using them. Read authors you admire. Then read those you don’t. Treat them as teachers. Then write more. Someone who is not writing is not a writer. They are someone who either has written or someone with a dream but no plan.

All I've Learned About Being an Author

(Iconix Brand Group Inc)

  1. Printing and Self-Publishing

Printing is often all many people want. For example, if you want to write a history of your family that no one but your family will probably read then find yourself a printer. They will help design, and then print and bind as many copies as you wish of whatever you give them. Be sure you have at least five people proof-read your work or even hire a professional editor to save yourself the embarrassment of errors that will live longer than you.

Self-publishing is becoming increasingly prevalent. It’s tough as you must essentially become your own publishing company. It demands a lot of work which means hours away from your writing. However, if willing and able to take the risk and do the work, the reward could be your book appearing on Amazon and other online sites and generating sales.

  1. Publishing Houses

Publishing houses understand that they are making art and making money but if they don’t do both then they can’t do either. Accept that. Many small houses will accept unsolicited manuscripts – over the transom, as the saying goes. Larger houses, and there are fewer of them as they have been shuttering or swallowing each other, will only accept manuscripts from agents. Agents and houses will not be interested in a whole book, just a proposal.

  1. Proposal

If you want to write a book, then don’t write a book. That is, develop your idea for a book into a proposal for a book. It is a two-page sales pitch. Be succinct in explaining why anyone would want to read your book and why a publisher will make money by publishing it. A novel’s proposal is more straight forward but a non-fiction proposal’s subtitles could be: Elevator Pitch, Argument, Market, Author, Table of Contents. If you are a first-time author you will probably also need a sample chapter. Have a couple of people read and edit your proposal. Be sure it is not someone who loves you or will not be harshly critical for you want unburnished opinions now, not later. Then find yourself an agent.

  1. Get an Agent

Scan the web and you will find lots of agents. Or, go to a bookstore, if you can still find one, and look at the acknowledgement pages of books like yours and see which agents are being thanked. You only want to approach an agent who specializes in your kind of book. An agent is the liaison between you and the publisher. If your proposal is any good, an agent may take you on as a client. A contract will be signed in which the agent will get around 15% of everything you make.

She will then be like your best friend, supporting you or kicking your backside depending on which you need most at the moment. She will help to hone your proposal and make it better than you thought it could be. She will then approach publishers attempting to have them take it on. She will negotiate an advance on royalties and contract with them. Meanwhile, you concentrate on your writing.

  1. The Publishing Contract

Famous people sell a lot of books and so they get huge advances that can sometimes be in the millions of dollars. First-time authors, however, can expect between $5,000 and $20,000. You should not get too excited, though, because the money is there to pay for expenses incurred while writing the book and it is later deducted from royalties earned from sales. Most authors will earn from 8% to 12% of the book’s sale price. The contract will establish when the finished draft manuscript must be submitted. Now you must actually write the thing.

  1. Writing

There is always time. I am up and writing each day at 5:00 am. The sane world is still asleep so there are no emails or calls, just me, tea, and the muse. Even if the muse doesn’t show up some mornings, I am there doing what feels like a punch-the-clock effort but at least I’m there. I run and take long walks without music and it is there the real writing takes place. When in my office, I am usually just typing what I have already written in my head. The best secret as to how to get words on a page is to get your ass in a chair.

  1. Editing

Kurt Vonnegut once told students that anyone can write. To be a writer, though, is to write something then rewrite it, and then rewrite it, and then re-write it again. Then, when it is absolutely perfect, re-write it three more times. You should do this before submitting the manuscript. When you do, you will be assigned an editor. This is your other best friend or perhaps like your best high school teacher. He will take your manuscript and mark it up noting where the structure should be improved or grammar fixed. You will go back and forth a number of times until finally, you are on the phone or in an office going through the entire manuscript one sentence at a time. It will then be sent to a proofreader who will, hopefully, find all the little mistakes left for you to fix.

  1. The Box

It’s a glorious feeling. A box will arrive at your front door and inside are the dozen or so books that your publisher sends you for free. There it is. After two or three years of solitary work and then months of editing it is finally a tangible thing. The verb has become a noun as your writing is a book.

  1. Marketing

Your publisher will assign a publicist. She will do all she can to sell you and the book. You may be interviewed on radio or TV, do speeches, or appear at literary festivals. You must be ready to explain your book in twenty seconds, or ten minutes, or an hour. You must never be ashamed by shameless promotion. You are no longer in the business of writing. You are now in sales. This will involve your engagement in social media for you must take on a lot of the marketing work yourself.

You will need to grow the hide of a rhinoceros because there will be those who will not like your book. You may get trashed in a review. You may have no one show up for an event. Your book may be ignored altogether. All you can do is your best and keep smiling.

  1. Dividing Your Brain and Time

Usually, several months or even a year may go by between your having submitted the final draft manuscript and the publication date. While editing that one, you will be writing your next one, beginning with the idea and proposal. You will then be in the odd position of talking about your first book while all your brain really wants to focus on is your next one because your first one, to you, is already two or more years old. It’s an interesting dance.

  1. Sales

About five to ten years ago, it was predicted that book sales would plummet. They did not. There are actually more people buying and reading books today than ever before. Even the sales of physical books have become relatively stable year to year. Even if physical and e-book sales are combined, the sales of nearly all books are relatively low. There are only a few Harry Potter like hits each year. They allow publishing houses to publish all the others. One can have a Canadian best seller at 6,000 – 8,000 copies. That is why nearly all writers have other jobs. Most teach or are journalists but there are a lot of writing waiters.

Like in the music business, there are a lot of people doing it but only a few making a good living. That said, if all you are interested in is the money then forget it. You probably won’t make much and you will probably not be much good because you are in it for entirely the wrong reason.

And so….

Writers understand and live for the warmth of a well-written sentence and cogently constructed argument. Margaret Atwood once observed that you know you are a writer when you are writing in July about a winter scene and then after an hour lost in creative thought you look out the window and wonder what happened to all the snow. Good luck. I’m pulling for you.

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The People Will Always Be Heard – Luddite Lessons For Today

People affected by change need a way to express their concerns. Even if those concerns are not significantly addressed, they at least need to know they’ve been heard. The results of being ignored can be unpredictable when change beyond their control, led by complex forces outside their comprehension, alters all they once thought was certain. A people scorned by change will bring about even more change.

In 2016, we saw the connection between change and people’s response to being ignored when British voters chose to leave Europe and, in electing Donald Trump, Americans chose to leave the world. Those bringing change about and benefitting from it had become the enemy. The silenced and disparaged, who had been negatively affected by change, reacted in the most positive way they could. We are all now reaping the effects of the great unheard’s determination to be heard. It is not the first time.

English workers in the 18th century felt as mistreated and ignored as did the 21st century American and British working class. They didn’t have the ballot to express their rage against change and so, like people always do, they found another means.

In the Nottinghamshire village of Arnold, a group of framework knitters took pride in their work. The artisans complained to their overseers that their skills were being debased by the company’s use of substandard material and by “colts”, young workers who had not completed the seven-year apprenticeship. Further, the big, loom machines were producing more product but it was of an inferior quality. The machines also meant that because their skills were less important, their wages had been cut. Things had been made worse when the war with France led to the issuing of the Prince Regent’s Orders in Council. It effected jobs and production by cutting textile exports with France and its allies. There had been layoffs and slow downs. Each time the workers raised complaints, they were told to get back to work. On March 11, 1811, the unheard and frustrated workers destroyed their machines.

Workmen take out their anger on the machines

(Image: Look and Learn Picture Library)

This was not the first time that English workers had protested in this way. In fact, in 1727, the British parliament had passed legislation that rendered wrecking the tools of work a capital felony offense. But the old law had been ignored. News of the Nottinghamshire violence spread. It presented other disgruntled workers with a hero. Ned Ludd was applauded as the apprentice who began it all by having snapped his needles in defiance of his strict boss. Those who followed his lead were called Luddites. Ludd was a myth. There was no such man. But it didn’t matter. The Luddite movement was born.

Over the next two months, textile loom-frame machines were smashed in a number of surrounding villages. There were no arrests. How do you arrest a whole village? But there were also no negotiations between mill owners and workers. Violence erupted again in November and the winter saw sporadic attacks on mills and machines in Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire, and Leicestershire. The military was dispatched to a number of towns to help police. Mill owners hired armed guards. The Luddite movement nonetheless spread, first to the cotton-weaving industry in and around Manchester.

In April, a number of protesters turned their violence directly against mill owners and many were beaten up. Grand homes were burned. Elected officials were threatened. Rawfolds Mill owner William Horsfall was murdered. Some Luddite agitators were arrested but the workers stuck together and refused to give up friends who had been responsible for specific acts of sabotage or violence.

In an 1812 speech to the House of Lords regarding the proposed Frame Breaking Act, Lord Byron demonstrated his understanding of the situation. He knew that responsible leaders don’t react to the symptoms of problems but rather, address a problem’s root cause. Bryon said, “had the grievances of these men and their masters (for they also have had their grievances) been fairly weighed and justly examined, I do think that means might have been devised to restore these workmen to their avocations, and tranquility to the country…These men never destroyed their looms till they were become useless, worse than useless; till they were become actual impediments to their exertions in obtaining their daily bread.”

Byron went on to speak of the danger inherent in dismissing the protesters as a mob to be arrested and tamed. The mob, he said, was the people. The people served in the military and mills and made the country work. It is the people, he told the Lords, to whom they were responsible. It is the people being dismissed as a mob who are responsible for Britain’s growing power and wealth. Byron understood that in commodifying people and valuing them less than the machines they ran, the people were in danger of becoming not partners in the country’s progress but its victims, and thus, its enemies. It is a shame that, over the last decade, the United States and Britain did not have more Lord Byrons.

The government and mill owners eventually responded. Wages were raised a little and work conditions were slightly improved. Food was subsidized and prices dropped. Napoleon’s defeat reopened European markets. The machines remained and continued to change how people lived and worked but the workers most directly affected by change had, at least, been heard. By 1816, the Luddite movement had subsided.

The Luddites were never a unified group advocating a package of political reforms or even, as the word has been passed down through the generations, just about resistance to new technology. The movement represented people’s reaction to change. It reflected a new class consciousness among a group that the invention of steam power and the industrial revolution had helped to create. They were the class that the invention of the assembly line would help to build and the invention of robots would help to destroy.

The Luddites offer lessons regarding the importance of seeing the role that technology plays in spurring change but also in looking past immediate economic benefits to acknowledge and manage change’s costs. I’m betting that even Donald Trump knows that technology and not immigrants or Mexicans or Muslims is responsible for today’s job losses and economic dislocation. I’m hoping that responsible leaders will act responsibly to manage current changes for the benefit of the many and not just the few. I hope those leaders understand that one way or another, people affected by change will always be heard. Always.

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Are We The 5-Year-Old Us?

I am currently reading Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon by Larry Tye. It’s the latest of many I have read about the man who was a childhood hero of mine and for whom I still have a great deal of respect. Among the things Kennedy taught me, when my Mom used to say was too young to be thinking about such things, was existentialism. He spoke of being one and so I looked it up and thought it was a tremendous philosophy. I told myself that I was one too. An essential notion is that we are in control of our own destiny and able to create and recreate ourselves regardless of both nature and nurture. This new book, which is very good by the way, had me thinking about that notion again. But it also reminded me of an event whose anniversary is approaching that made me wonder if I should throw existentialism into the ditch. It involved a report card.

You see, about this time last year, my three younger brothers and I were cleaning out my father’s house. My Mom had been gone for some time and it was time for my Dad to be where he could be happier, healthier, and safer. So there were with a dumpster in the driveway, in what had been our home but had suddenly become just a house. What had been family treasures was bothersome stuff. “Why take this,” my one brother said, “only to have my son throw it out thirty years from now?” He was right. Furniture and kitchenware went to a Syrian refugee family and more went to local charity re-use centre, but a lot was going straight into the steel bin of sin. But then we were stopped cold.

My Mom had saved a box full of our old report cards. We stood together, laughing as we read comments from the days when teachers were allowed to be honest and communicate in English. I found my kindergarten final report card which said, “Johnny likes to sing songs and write stories.” Well, so much for Bobby Kennedy and existentialism.

I still like to sing songs. I learned to play guitar when I was nine and sang in a band in high school, then in coffee houses and bars with a friend and later alone. I recorded three songs that I had written as singles and still write a song every month or so to prove to myself that I still can. I play in a little band. We love working out new songs and playing the occasional gig. It is a rare day that I do not pick up the guitar and enjoy time singing and playing; it slows me down and slow is good.

I still like to write stories. I am writing one now. I also write newspaper editorials, magazine articles, book reviews, entries in the Canadian Encyclopedia, and am now writing my eighth book. There is a warm satisfaction earned by composing a well-constructed sentence or in weaving a lucid argument. The muse can occasionally be kind.

So the report card led me to wonder if I have really been living the existential life that I thought I had been living for all these years. Have I really been rediscovering and reinventing myself or was I set at kindergarten?

Consider yourself at age 5 and whether you are significantly different now. How have you changed, or not changed, since high school? When together with old friends, is everyone looking a little older but essentially the same? I wonder if despite the buffeting winds of change, the moments of celebration and chagrin, and the years that colour our hair and idealism, whether we are really that different than the five-year-old us?

Bobby Kennedy was assassinated 49 years ago last week at age 49. It was just weeks before he would have won the Democratic Party’s nomination and gone on to defeat Richard Nixon to become president in January 1969. Think about that. Vietnam would have ended earlier with thousands of lives spared. There would have been no Watergate. He most likely would have been president until 1976. God, he may have even stopped disco – ok, perhaps I’m stretching it.

Robert Kennedy

The point is, that if Kennedy had lived then policies would have been different, the media would have been different, America and the world would have been different and, perhaps most significantly of all, we may have been spared the cynicism born of his having been killed so shortly after his brother and Martin Luther King. The existentialism in which he believed would have been writ large through his example and legacy.

Of course, last year I would have still found the old report card that inspired both a smile and furrowed brow. Even Bobby Kennedy could not have changed that.

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Power Where it Belongs

Canada is a conversation. When confronting troubles visited upon us, or of our own making, Canadians reach not for a gun but a gavel. We talk it out. Every leadership race and election, every new bill, public initiative or staggering crisis, and every table pounding in the House of Commons or at the local Tim Hortons is another element of that conversation. And when we’re talking, we’re always talking about power. So, let’s talk.

Political power touches us all. Positively expressed, it offers a vehicle through which we are collectively encouraged and enabled to act for the common good. Power matters, and so it matters who has it.

Our founders understood. In 1864, they met in Charlottetown and Quebec City and talked their way into the creation of a country. From Britain came the concepts of a limited monarchy and parliamentary democracy. From the United States, they took the ideas of a written constitution and a federal state, in Canada’s case one composed of a central government and provinces. This is where the real talking about power began.

Power and Sir John's Echo

Sir John A. Macdonald led the way in arguing that while the American Constitution was brilliant in its conception, the fact that the United States was, at that moment, butchering itself in the Civil War demonstrated its appalling failure in practice. Seeing this, the Canadian Confederation delegates decided to stand the American system on its head. Macdonald explained that Canada would reverse the “primary error” of the United States “by strengthening the general government and conferring on the provincial bodies only such powers as may be required for local purposes.”

The provinces were given only municipal-like areas of responsibility and a limited ability to raise revenue. The federal government, on the other hand, was afforded the major powers relating to sovereignty, including trade, the military, the post office, criminal law, currency and banking. Unlike in the United States, where, until 1913, the states appointed senators, in Canada the prime minister was given the power to populate the country’s Senate. The prime minister would also appoint the lieutenant-governors, who approved provincial bills while sending questionable ones to the federal cabinet, which could disallow them. It was decided that responsibility for anything the Constitution left out or that came up later, such as airports, would go automatically to the federal government.

Throughout Canada’s 150-year conversation, provinces have worked to overturn our founders’ vision and shift power to themselves. An example is the decades-long provincial demand for greater power that sabotaged repeated federal efforts to earn greater independence for the country by gaining control of our Constitution. In standing up for what they believed was best for their province, too many premiers betrayed and undermined the very concept of Canada while dividing Canadians against themselves.

This is not to say that premiers are not patriots and provinces don’t matter. Of course they are and of course they do. But it was successive federal governments that fought to maintain our founders’ vision. Provinces were cajoled and dragged along as the federal government led the building of Canada through projects such as the transcontinental railway, St. Lawrence Seaway and the Trans-Canada Highway. The federal government needled, nudged and negotiated for Canadians in creating national policies such as pensions and health care. Federal governments rallied our response to emergencies such as global wars, the Great Depression and the FLQ crisis. The federal government spoke for Canadian values whether reflected as peacekeepers or climate-change leaders.

Some federal leaders have made boneheaded mistakes and some perpetrated tragic policies. Macdonald himself can never be forgiven for the crimes he committed with respect to indigenous people. Those actions condemn the men not the structure from which they worked.

Let us move to the present. Ignore whether you like or dislike our current Prime Minister or his policies, but grant that his Canadian tour last spring indicated his understanding that this country is indeed a conversation. He is also demonstrating that he is the personification of Sir John’s vision. He gathered the premiers and then led the revamping of pensions, unemployment insurance and health care. He told the provinces that we will combat climate change as a country and that they will step in line. His government organized a national emergency response to the Fort McMurray wildfires.

We have been at our best when the power that our founders afforded the federal government was effectively employed. We have gone off the rails when firewall letters, referendums and power squabbles have attempted to distort that vision. We are better when we consider ourselves not as of a particular province but, more broadly, as Canadians first, stronger in the complexity of our citizenship.

Every time you hear our Prime Minister speak, listen carefully for a hint of a Scottish burr, for you’re hearing Sir John’s echo.

If you liked this column or disagree with it, please send it to others and consider leaving a comment. You see, the Globe and Mail posted it last week as an opinion piece and it sparked debate then. It is a summary of my latest book, Sir John’s Echo, which Dundurn Press asked me to write, urging me to stir debate as part of Canada 150. It has been doing so. The book is available at book stores or online through Chapters, Amazon, and elsewhere. Polite, informed debate is good, it’s our conversaion.

https://www.chapters.indigo.ca/en-ca/books/sir-johns-echo-speaking-for/9781459738157-item.html