The deepening scandal .. how much is it changing the Southern Ontario mood?

Apr 24th, 2005 | By | Category: Ottawa Scene

TORONTO. Sunday, April 24, 2005. It would be nice to think the simplest truth is just that Canadian politics has suddenly entered one of its intermittent actually interesting phases. And the democratic electorate is responding by actually getting interested.

Yet readings from deep downtown in Canada’s largest big city over the April 23-24 weekend also suggest that all such benign views  are still only half true, at best. “Canada,” the late great Southern Ontario novelist Robertson Davies once observed, “is the kind of country you worry about.” And his most urbane descendants today seem more worried than anything else.

At other weekend gatherings in other parts of Southern Ontario the mood was no doubt different. The latest opinion polls raise the prospect that in any fresh federal election soon Stephen Harper just might be able to revive the old Mike Harris conservative political base in the more rural, exurban, and suburban parts of anglophone central Canada.

The press is also telling us that such seasoned Ontario Conservative party luminaries as Jim Flaherty, Tony Clement, and John Baird are quite seriously thinking about joining any rising new federal Tory tide. And then Preston Manning and Mike Harris himself have been doing a dog and pony show of their own on assorted local television stations lately, to further encourage faltering local partisans of the old Common Sense Revolution.

The weekend mood in deepest downtown Toronto, however, was not like this. Making allowances for various other things, you might guess that it had more in common with the urban depths of Vancouver, to say nothing of at least parts of Montreal, and Halifax, Winnipeg, even Edmonton in Alberta (on Whyte Avenue maybe?), and other such places, across the entire vastness of the present second-largest national geography in the world.

Here it seems that the future of Canada probably is seriously enough at stake, once again. And Stephen Harper, to say nothing of many in any new Conservative cabinet he might form, still appears to lack the vision or even the suitably seasoned and cynical depth of character to meet the challenges he may quite unexpectedly have to face almost as soon as he arrives in office – if that really is what must happen. (Because, as John Ibbitson prophesied last summer, the next Canada will not be denied forever, and Stephen Harper is the only way to get there in the end?)

Part of this is just the lingering strong deep urban sense that there finally is no Canada-wide popular majority for any hard-right-wing neo-conservative agenda. Stephen Harper’s new Conservatives have just recently come out of a national convention in Montreal, that did its best to picture his party as a moderate, middle-of-the-road, all-Canadian organization, and so forth. But if Harper does form a government in Ottawa (and especially even a majority government, with at best hardly any seats in Quebec), what really will happen to same-sex marriage legislation and the decriminalization of marijuana – to say nothing of multiculturalism, enlightened aboriginal policy, the long-promised child care program that Paul Martin has been talking about again this weekend, national standards in health care, and on and on and on?

And then it hasn’t helped that Preston Manning and Mike Harris have been talking so much about such things as a shared US-Canada security perimeter and customs union lately. Downtown Toronto nowadays is quite sensitive to what Nelson Wiseman, the local university professor from Manitoba, has recently characterized as the fact that “Ontario has been the major beneficiary of integration with the American economy,” since the start of continental free trade in the late 1980s. But as Professor Wiseman has also stressed the “core of English-Canadian nationalism” remains “rooted here in Ontario,” especially in the “cultural industries … headquartered here” in downtown Toronto. Mike Harris and his provincial government never understood or cared for any of this. And there seems little reason to suspect that a Stephen Harper federal government will either.

It would be wrong to suggest that in the midst of all the initial deep urban worrying there hasn’t been something that looks a little like exhilaration too. “People,” it was only somewhat hyperbolically reported at one downtown Toronto house party over the weekend, “are starting to talk about this in the subway.” And surely, the point here did appear to be, that is a good and democratic thing by definition. It can be dangerous when Canadian politics gets too interesting. But nobody is going to die in any of this, and it can be fun as well. And as long as people are still arguing about Canada, the country cannot die.

Meanwhile, the local Sunday evening television news made it clear that all of Paul Martin, Stephen Harper, and Jack Layton were also in Toronto this weekend. (Downtown Toronto is definitely not the centre of Canada, as it no doubt does sometimes vainly imagine. But it is not unimportant either.) Among other things the party leaders wore orange bandannas, in honour of the Sikh holiday being celebrated in Nathan Phillips Square. And then someone phoned in a report about Paul Martin standing up pretty well on the CBC radio show, Cross-Country Checkup.

On the local television news, Stephen Harper in his orange bandanna said it was the start of the Canadian national election campaign that Paul Martin refuses to admit has already begun. That may be. But it may equally be that if we do finally have a federal election this spring, or early summer, it will prove considerably more interesting than even those most determined to have it right now imagine. When the real less corrupt and more public-spirited “next Canada” finally does stand up, it could surprise some of its current most ardent apostles.

(Maybe, maybe not, of course, but maybe too. Who can really predict such things right now? The voice of the people in a country like Canada can be a very complex thing.)

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