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November 16, 2001

I dreamt of Canada

Conrad Black's speech to the Fraser Institute, Vancouver, BC

By Conrad Black
National Post

My associate of 32 years, David Radler told a local journalist that he didn't think I would be speaking today about softwood lumber, but about sensible political thought. This rumination is in fact called "Reflections of an ex-citizen," and is offered in a spirit of goodwill and hopefulness.

In all the minor controversies in which I've participated in this country over many years, my status as a Canadian nationalist, which Peter Newman presciently detected, has largely been lost sight of. From the age of eight, a regrettably long time ago now, when I first saw New York and London, in both of which cities I am a homeowner now, I dreamt of a Canada where the most talented and ambitious people would not feel irresistibly drawn to those and other great foreign cities.

I think most English-speaking Canadians and a large number of French-speaking Canadians are pleased to be Canadian. Most regret, as I do, that Canada is not better recognized in the world and did not produce more people whose talent was recognized internationally. Most Canadians became fatigued as well as embarrassed by the intractability of constitutional problems. The fact that 90% of Canada's high culture and 80% of its popular culture come from elsewhere, mainly the United States, created serious ambivalences.

Being a gentler and less vulgar but less creative and confident country than the United States while being less formal and often more enterprising than the British in my judgement never really wholly satisfied the ambitions of citizenship of most Canadians. Defining Canadians in subtle terms of what they are not is not a compelling rallying cry.

Let us, at least between ourselves, face facts. Canada is, compared to other G-7 countries, a plain vanilla place or, to paraphrase our distinguished travel writer, Jan Morris, "a good second prize in the Lottario of life." The status of being good but not great afflicts French as much as English Canada. I know of few parts of the world more terminally self-absorbed than Quebec, but this interest in Quebec is shared by virtually no foreigners. Interest in Canada is like Canadian Art; it has no market outside the country. Believe me, I've tried. If pressed, a few Frenchmen will admit to a passing Châteaubriand interest in "messieurs les sauvages" and some Englishmen will express solidarity. Americans, with the best motives, don't regard Canada as foreign.

Canadians are rightly heartened by those United Nations surveys that show Canada to be one of the world's most agreeable countries for the average person but most Canadians in my experience are frustrated by the country's lack of recognition as a significant nationality compared to the Americans or the principal countries of Europe. And almost all practising Canadians, including me when I was one, felt the urge to help lift the country that final rung we were told in school we were pre-destined to climb, to the summit of national achievement.

In pursuit of this objective, I moved to Quebec in 1966 and took as a holy crusade the pursuit and propagation of a spirit of bonne entente between the French and English speaking Canadians. It was an asset, I told myself and others endlessly, to have both cultures in the same state. Though there were many like-minded English Canadians, it didn't work, as all Canadians know.

For many decades the leading spokesmen of nationalist Quebec, Le Devoir, the French CBC, the Union Nationale, even the St. Jean Baptiste Society, had proclaimed that if biculturalism became bilateral, instead of just the French Canadians having to learn English unreciprocatedly for economic reasons, the cultural abrasions would cease and Quebecois would become wholehearted Canadians. In 1942, one of Quebec's leading nationalists, Dr. Phillipe Hamel, said: "Conquer us with goodwill, my English friends, you will be astounded at the easy victory which awaits you."

Of course, when put to the test, all the efforts of the biculturalists were dismissed as attempts at assimilation. The real zeitgeist was clear in the hostile response to Daniel Johnson's and Jean-Jacques Bertrand's moderate Bill 63 in 1969 and in the presentation of Robert Bourassa's outrageous Bill 22 in 1974. Bill 22 submitted six-year-old children to language aptitude tests, imposed the state over the will of parents in matters of language of instruction, restricted freedom of expression, and created the language police. Pierre Trudeau and Robert Stanfield ignored it. The only prominent French Quebecer to oppose Bill 22 was Paul-Emile Cardinal Léger, and at that time he lived mainly in Africa.

One of the most prominent members of the government of Quebec told me at the time, in a radio exchange, that if I didn't like Quebec I was free to leave it. Of course, I did like Quebec but I found the colossal betrayal of those of us who believed in biculturalism to be insufferable, compounded as it was by the hypocrisy of the federal leaders who would impose bilingualism on Calgary and Vancouver but not defend it in Quebec where the English language had had an official status for 200 years. I replied, again on the radio, "with sadness but with certitude, I accept that choice." I have rarely spent even one night in Quebec since. It was a painful disillusionment.

I retreated to Toronto in 1974 and began the noisy championship of, in Quebec parlance, a distinct society vis à vis the United States. This would be a society that would retain more original talent, especially cultural talent. Simply, even glibly stated, the problem of Canadian identity has been that there is a much subtler distinction between Canadian provinces, except for Quebec, and the adjoining American states than between those states and southern states such as Texas or Georgia. The only really prominent distinction between Canada and the proximate United States is the French Canadians and they are, as I had discovered, sentimentally, largely separatist and not really Canadian at all as most English Canadians would define it.

Before Canadians become too impatient, I used to remind myself, we must remember what we started with. Quebec declined to join the United States and eventually adhered to Confederation because it was afraid of assimilation, not out of any great enthusiasm for Britain, British colonists or English-speaking Canadians. English Canada was originally almost entirely Empire Loyalists fleeing the new American republic. Newfoundland narrowly voted to join Canada after it had gone bankrupt as an autonomous dominion. It was never going to be easy to create a distinctive nationality out of these bits and pieces which were scattered along the U.S. border, but for different reasons, didn't happen to be American.

As the more conspicuous aspects of the British connection faded after World War II, Empire loyalty, which had been the basis of English Canada for over 150 years, faded also. What we were left with was the paternalistic, monarchical and progressive British Tory tradition, best illustrated in this country by Sir John A. Macdonald, that a benign state confers good things on the people. This is at sharp variance with the American tradition that the people confer government on themselves and that all unallocated powers reside ultimately with the people.

This tradition became identified in the Trudeau era and its aftermath as being simply a more socialistic society than the United States. Partly this was Trudeau's ideology and partly it was his effort to buy the affections of Quebec's nationalists by proving the relevance to them of the federal state, especially with transfer payments from outside Quebec. We became the only country in the history of the world to entrench regional economic equality as a constitutional raison d'être of the country. This is ultimately an impossible concept. People must move to resources; not the other way round. If Newfoundland wants the same standard of living as Vancouver, more Newfoundlanders will have to move here.

In the era of Vietnam and the racial disturbances in the United States, and the assassinations of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King, Canadians were susceptible to the view that theirs' was a kinder and gentler society than the United States. In some ways it was. Whether it would have been if Canada had had to cope with the legacy of slavery and to lead the world to victory in the Cold War, is not so clear. It all began relatively innocuously with universal medicare and vigorous gun control. But these programs backfired as we became one of the few countries to abolish private medicine, drove out many of our best doctors, reduced levels of medical service and persecuted antique gun collectors, hunters and farmers defending their animals from predators. But the wave of social intervention, as British Columbians well know, quickly moved well beyond this and became pervasive.

From the Diefenbaker regime on, Canada has generally accorded higher social benefits to virtually all categories of employees than did the United States. Our productivity levels steadily lagged those of the U.S., the wage and security components of our industrial cost structure were higher than the American and the result was that in the last 45 years Canadians maintained their ability to export to the United States, upon which 87% of Canada's foreign trade and 43% of its Gross National Product now depend, by reducing the comparative value of the Canadian dollar by over 40%. Canada's standard of living, compared to that of the United States, factoring in tax reductions and productivity increases in the U.S., has declined by almost 40%. It is 30 years since Pierre Trudeau set out to reduce the U.S. percentage of foreign trade with spectacularly unsuccessful results. In addition to moving resources to people we defined ourselves as a nationality through social programs, another original concept that is unlikely to find emulators. I believed and often wrote, that these policies would lead to a painful day of social and fiscal reckoning, that they encouraged underachievement, the spirit of envy and that they dampened individualism.

Thirty-five years ago, Canadians were moved by genuine compassion for the plight of African Americans in the United States. Today, the black population of the United States has a higher standard of living than Canada has. The movement of talented people to the United States has grown steadily to between 75,000 and 100,000 per year. The head of the Canadian government says they will be replaced by Haitian taxi drivers. They will not. A country needs good taxi drivers and many of them will be upwardly mobile but it also needs leaders in every field. Too many of Canada's leaders live in New York and Chicago and Los Angeles and London, which is one of the main reasons why the leaders in Ottawa and Toronto and elsewhere tend to be inadequate.

In 200 years more than 4 million Canadians have emigrated to the United States, including Alexander Graham Bell, James J. Hill, Saul Bellow, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Jack Kent Cooke and many of Hollywood's greatest stars, such as pre-war America's designated sweetheart, Mary Pickford. If they had remained here, Canada's population would be twice as large and more than twice as productive as it is today. We have peace, order, and what most Canadians profess to accept as tolerably good government. If Canadians were a little livelier, freer and happier, fewer Canadians would look or move to the United States and elsewhere in pursuit of life, liberty and happiness.

I supported free trade in the great debates of nearly fifteen years ago not because I thought it would greatly expand trade prospects but because I hoped Canadians would realize that they could compete successfully with the United States without recourse to protectionism. And I hoped that Canada could then be less self-conscious, less defensive, in its relationship with that country than it often has been.

I always dissented from those who claimed Canada was more generous or humane than the United States because it is more socialistic. But I am one of those who believe Canadians can be fully competitive, as employees and as executives, as farmers and as policy-makers, with that country. This is no small achievement. Whether the bedraggled Canadian left likes it or not, the United States is by far the most successful and powerful country in the history of the world. To keep pace with it is a challenging yardstick and Canada's media should have done a more efficient job than they have of informing Canadians of their exemplary competitive performance. Instead Canadian media have tended to focus excessively on perceived American shortcomings.

Canada's achievement is particularly noteworthy as the United States has reasserted its competitive strength over the Japanese and started to surmount what just a few years ago was widely perceived, including by the local left, as an insuperable Japanese challenge to U.S. industrial leadership. You will recall that Bob White, then of the Canadian Auto Workers, and other members of the NDP told us during the free trade debate that Canada was "hitching our wagon to a falling star."

As is their almost unbroken tradition, the Canadian left was completely mistaken. So were those who followed Pierre Trudeau in his ardent courtship of the Soviet Union and his hostility to Ronald Reagan, and who mistakenly imagined Canada could influence the balance between the super powers. In the end, Canada's role in the collapse of communism and the victory of freedom and of our natural allies was unnecessarily small.

The lesson I drew from this national experience was that Canadians have an opportunity to build a society worthy of emulation, which is the ultimate proof of competitiveness, not by being more socialistic than the United States which I never did believe, but by skilfully combining the British tradition of the benign paternalistic state with the American tradition of triumphant popular fermentation.

I believed Canada could evolve to a more confident, spontaneous, individualistic, enterprising and unenvious society than it had been by its own methods, not imitative ones. With only 11% of the U.S. population and a less temperate climate, Canada had a less complicated sociology. I thought most Canadians perceived that Canada does have the potential to be one of the world's ten most important countries and a fairly distinct and much admired political laboratory. I believed it myself for a long time, and advocated it strenuously, as a commentator, a business spokesman, and ultimately as a publisher, arguably the country's leading newspaper publisher. What I was proposing was not annexation, as I was regularly accused of favouring but did not, or even American imitation, it was successful competition with the United States. I thought, and still believe that if the social safety net is rolled back from being the hammock Trudeau made of it to buy votes from the separatists in Quebec and distinguish Canada from the United States, many of those who have left this country, most of them reluctantly, but lured by greater opportunity, lower taxes, and a less envious social ambiance, could be attracted back. In any case, the drain could be stopped or drastically reduced and Canada's talent pool would rise.

The way to make this society constructively distinct from and truly competitive with the United States was never fabricated righteous collectivism, but civilized individualism.

This was essentially a cultural and philosophical change but so was the over-socialization of Canada in the sixties and seventies.

The problem was greatly compounded when, as a skilful tactical antidote to the agitation for increased provincial budgets, Trudeau produced the Charter of Rights. The other provinces, incidentally, after the briefest pause for unctuous demurral from Quebec's antics, demanded the same jurisdictional treatment as Quebec. The Charter was designed, I don't doubt sincerely, to emphasize individual over jurisdictional rights.

But the effect, as you all know, was to unleash on this country swarms of mad judicial tinkerers, social worker judges ignoring the law and carrying out what they took to be the moral imperative of remaking society along faddish and idiosyncratic lines having little to do with relevant legislation. Canadian courts of law have largely become courts of equity, and the equity is politically correct dogma. The Charter was gutted of any defense of private property to secure NDP approval and is revocable in each province in civil rights matters. So it institutionalised judicial socialism and retained a power to oppress, but little capacity for amelioration. The contrast with the fairly steadfast American judicial defense of individual rights became even more stark and unpromising.

In the piping days of my good relations with the present Canadian prime minister, our newspapers took a leading role in demanding imposition of the principle that if Canada is divisible, so is Quebec and that in any yes vote on a sovereignty question in a Quebec referendum, those counties contiguous to other provinces that voted to remain Canadian should secede from Quebec and stay Canadian. We wanted a policy a good deal more robust than the Clarity Act, but at least recognized that measure, tepid though it is, as progress.

When David Radler and my other associates and I took over a majority of the country's newspapers in 1996, we set about revitalizing the industry. There was hardly a constituent newspaper that wasn't a drearily predictable, soft-left, humourless and somewhat stridently politically correct echo chamber for the prevailing, unchallenged ethos.

Then, and particularly with the founding of the National Post in 1998, we set out to achieve commercial success while drastically raising the quality of the country's written press. We would offer the country an alternative to the soft-left path on what had become, with the fragmentation of the old federal Progressive Conservative Party, a one-party federal state.

We must not forget that Brian Mulroney negotiated Free Trade with the United States and then Mexico and that he got rid of the catastrophic National Energy Program. He did not, however, exercise his mandate to institute a comprehensive reconstruction of the tax and welfare systems, or generally to produce a radical reform of the government as Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan did in their countries. And John Turner did not exercise his mandate to take the Liberal Party back to the right and the party of Louis St. Laurent and C.D. Howe.

When Brian Mulroney tried to run a party where Quebec separatists and prairie federalists would work happily together, the federal Conservative Party disintegrated. The Liberals had no particular program, no credible opposition, and just proceeded unquestioningly on the old Liberal path, governing to the left of the United States and ignoring the brain drain and the steadily deteriorating currency.

We offered an alternative: an end of preemptive concessions to Quebec, reduction in taxes and regulation and a steady move toward a government less socialistic than the United States but still generous to the disadvantaged. We proposed emphasis on the most easily assimilated immigration without shortchanging other groups. We called for reinforcement of the Canadian currency, not only to restore value to the Canadian public, but to put some discipline on Canadian industry and labour, which had relied on steady devaluation for 35 years to continue to be able to sell to the United States.

We strenuously advocated a restoration of private medicine and tax treatment for private education to help emancipate Canada's children from the teachers' unions. And in foreign policy we opposed continued truckling to Castro and pandering to the Third World, and advocated a restoration of Canada's ability to play a NATO security role.

The newspapers revived, profits rose and circulations rose or at least ceased to fall. The National Post rose swiftly to enjoy a circulation effectively equal to The Globe and Mail's. The Post gelignited the fetid little media log-rolling and back-scratching society in Toronto, where The Globe and Mail, the Star, the CBC and like a yapping little dog at the heels of the other three, Maclean's magazine, zealously maintained the soft-left orthodoxy.

The Globe and Mail had lived for about 20 years on the myths that it was a good, conservative, and national newspaper. It was mediocre, five degrees to the right of the Star which still left 150° of the political spectrum to work with, and was Toronto's patronizing view of how the regions of the country should behave.

I am proud to say that we shattered that oppressive little world in the Toronto media, which had resisted the publication or airing of any views not in lock-step conformity with the official version of Canada as a humane paradise superior in all respects except size to its neighbour. Canada's wealthiest man felt it advisable to sell The Globe and Mail to one of the country's largest companies, The Globe and Mail was driven heavily into loss; the Star's profitability also evaporated and even though the Post was not aimed at the Star , the Star lost about 15% of its fully paid circulation.

Canada's newspaper industry became competitive in quality with almost any in the world, which it had never been before. This was in marked contrast to the Canadian cable television industry which essentially consists of buying American programming, simulcasting it with the U.S. networks and selling advertising through recourse to piracy, officially described as cultural sovereignty in the Canadian cable system.

Unfortunately, while this progress was being achieved, my associates and I became concerned that it would be imprudent not to reduce our exposure to the newspaper business, to debt, and to Canada. Canada is consistently seen in the United States and elsewhere as not the most desirable place to invest, and our company is a New York stock exchange listing. There being few buyers, given the absurdly restrictive Canadian media ownership rules, and a large potential liquidity problem looming, we moved to sell most of our Canadian newspapers.

There was only one certain buyer for the assets we felt it prudent to divest. The price and the time were right, and the properties deserved a resident publisher of similar ideological views to my associates and myself, but more in sympathy with the nature of Canadian public affairs than we were.

While these commercial decisions facing our company were being determined and executed, these issues became confused with the minor controversy between the Canadian Prime Minister and myself. Because this was a personal matter insusceptible to general interest, I haven't much commented on it. If you will indulge me, I will say a few words about it now.

The National Post had exposed the fact that the prime minister had improperly influenced a government agency to make grants to a commercially dubious hotel in his constituency. It is adjacent to a golf course in which the prime minister had an interest and he had misled Parliament about it.

As we were exposing this story, the prime minister deliberately gave false advice to the Queen of the United Kingdom and Canada, that I was ineligible under Canadian law for the British peerage to which I had been nominated. The British government had initially asked the Canadian government's view of this as a courtesy, and Ottawa had suggested that I seek British citizenship and be a dual citizen. I did so.

The Canadian Prime Minister then used the fact that I was a dual citizen, and the fact that the Queen cannot choose between conflicting advice from two prime ministers, to both of whom she is technically Chief of State.

I had not lifted a finger to achieve this honour and to become a member of what is certainly the most talented legislative chamber in the world. But the honour having been offered, I wasn't disposed to be deprived of it in this outrageous way. I was assuredly happy to be asked. As I am not under the illusion that I have any aptitude for electoral politics and this is almost certainly my only chance to be any kind of legislator, and it is a fascinating time in British politics, I wished to accept. I sued in Canada for recognition of my rights as a citizen of the United Kingdom.

I was always impressed, as a law student and as a non-practicing lawyer, by the independence and cogency of Ontario's high courts. When seized of the fact that the Canadian Prime Minister had exploited the anomalous position of the shared monarch to compromise my rights as a U.K. citizen, the courts simply denied that they had any right to review the prime minister's advice to the monarch. I was, as I said when the Court of Appeal decision came down, the only adult, sane, solvent, unincarcerated citizen of the U.K. ineligible for an honour in that country because I was also a citizen of a country with a capricious and antagonistic Prime Minister without a serious political opposition or the discipline of a reliably independent judiciary.

Commercial and personal and political factors became confluent.

While we had challenged the soft-left establishment in which virtually every prominent individual and institution in Canada occupies a niche, it was clear we could not fill the vacuum created by the self-immolation of the Ottawa opposition parties. Up to 40% of the thinking people in Canada might approve of our views, but the carve-up of Canada's shrinking relative wealth under the auspices of the federal autocracy would continue. It would be supported by all those to whom the brain drain was a welcome reduction in competition. My native country, in commercial terms, had for me become not an opportunity, nor even a nationality susceptible to reason, but a trap, at least commercially. Canadian citizenship was merely an impediment to my progress in another, more amenable jurisdiction.

The majority of Canadians are still profoundly seduced by notions of the country's surpassing virtue, the world's indispensable peace-keeper. Without mocking the forces involved, my own view, heresy in this country, was that if you have peace you don't need peace-keepers and if you have war, they are of no use. Most Canadians remain resolutely oblivious to their country's objective decline.

The commercial logic was clear; the political tea-leaves were unambiguous. In a democracy the people are always right and dissenters are free to go, as I was when I left Quebec in 1974. If its natural resources could be quantified and divided between its citizens, Canadians would be the wealthiest people in the world, and they are in fact, no longer among the wealthiest people in the world. To someone just arrived from Haiti or Romania, Canada is a far more satisfying place to be a citizen than it was to me. I had fought, as ardently, though less successfully than the upholders of the status quo, for an exceptional country the world would notice and emulate.

If I am mistaken and Canada flourishes, or if my views are taken up and implemented, I will be happy to resume my citizenship. I believe I could still meet the criteria for acceptance.

Renouncing my citizenship was much more than a ticket to the House of Lords; it was the last and most consistent act of dissent I could pose against a public policy which I believe is depriving Canada of its right and duty to be one of the world's great countries. In its way my renunciation was, and was intended to be, an act of patriotism directed against Canadian complacency at being a one-party federal state with no deliverance in sight. It was my gesture against the condition Irving Layton described 35 years ago as the Canadian political and intellectual communities tendency to regard "cowardice as wisdom, philistinism as Olympian serenity and the spitefulness of the weak as moral indignation". Surely we, or as I must now say, with some regret, you, can do better than this. When I left Quebec 27 years ago it was with "sadness but with certitude". This year I acted, as I wrote in May, "with reluctance but without rancour." I still hope to have reason to reverse that decision eventually.

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