Future turns on tolerance, economic solutions

by Sylvain Comeau

The topic for the day was the broadest possible--"Our Society in the Next Millennium"--but speaker after speaker returned to the same two preoccupations. If Canadian unity and the economy are the biggest worries on the minds of Canadians, their concerns were well represented on Sunday in the Faculty of Law's Moot Court.

At the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada's second conference on the future of the country, a full house heard bad news and griping, but optimism as well. At the beginning of the conference, which was also broadcast live on Newsworld, Dean of Arts Carman Miller set much of the day's agenda.

"Out of this exploration, we just might find that this country holds the key to more solutions than problems."

Keynote speaker Alberta premier Ralph Klein, fresh from his recent meeting with new Quebec premier Lucien Bouchard, said that the divisions which were overcome in the creation of Canada are still with us today.

"On July 1, 1867, a new nation was formed on the North American continent by a people with their eyes firmly fixed on future opportunities, not past grievances. The wisdom of that decision lives with us still.

"On referendum day last October 30, 128 years later, we came back to the central question: can linguistic, regional, political and cultural differences be accommodated in one nation, a nation conceived in the belief that we are stronger together than we would be apart. Our nation was founded on that question, and it may yet falter on it."

But Klein says he believes that Canadians possess the necessary tolerance and flexibility to find their way through the current constitutional swamp.

"Federalism is indeed flexible, if the provinces are willing to prove it, and if Ottawa and Quebec are willing to give it a chance. That is a preferable approach to the one we are currently witnessing, with voices rising in anger on both sides. To me, that is not the Canadian way.

"We have the tools to build a new Canada for the next millennium. Those tools include a tolerant people who have a genius for consensus, a federal system that is about to be tested for its flexibility, and a willingness on the part of provincial governments to think nationally as well as locally."

Author and novelist Neil Bissoondath sharply criticized both federal and provincial governments for undermining bonds between Canadians.

"A nation is essentially a system of values. Our social programs are the concretization of values--they go beyond dollars and cents. When you slash these things, you slash at the very idealistic heart of the nation, at the essentials that bind us together."

These trends have added fuel to the separatists' fire, argues Bissoondath. "Canada has handed the separatists their most potent weapon--that is why Lucien Bouchard has us over a barrelŠ he offers a compelling dream, while Canada offers cutbacks and reduced expectations."

Canada has at best four years to solve the problem, Bissoondath added, "and anyone who truly believes that Canada without Quebec is viable is quite frankly smoking something illegal."

Keynote speaker Louise Harel, Quebec Minister for Labour, Immigration and Cultural Communities, opened the afternoon session by hinting that threats and talk of violence over the issue of separation must not be tolerated.

"We seem to be balanced between the model of the former Czechoslovakia and the model of the former Yugoslavia. We know very well that the law of the strongest is not the best; we have to speak up and say so."

She also suggested that Quebec nationalists soften their tone and forgive old wounds.

"Some people say that Quebec has to show its scars, scars from Canada, but it is time to put those aside."

The other big concerns of Canadians--the economy, unemployment and government cutbacks--were equally on the minds of a number of speakers.

Nancy Riche, vice-president of the Canadian Labour Congress, worries that "the gap between rich and poor is growing. While champagne corks were popping this week on the Toronto Stock Exchange, a man froze to death on Toronto's streets. And he wasn't the first."

Canadians seem to be feeling increasing helplessness about the economy, according to Riche, largely because of the increasing influence of market forces.

"A bias towards market forcesŠis reflected in initiatives like free trade, deregulation and privatization. UI benefits are cut so that unemployed workers will feel more 'market pressure' to accept any job that is available."

But Riche recommends that ordinary people put aside their feelings of helplessness. "We should be pressing hard for a tax on international financial transactions. People are looking for ways to participate in the decisions that affect their lives, and public institutions have to find ways to accommodate that desire.

"Our current economic, social and political realities give cause for concern, but there is nothing inevitable about our situation. It is subject to change through the political process."

She warned that the alternative is grim, according to the lessons of history.

"Anyone with a sense of history would object to the consequences of freeing up market forces. A leading business person in this country told me that more and more, the 1990s resemble the 1930s, and my thought was that the response in the '30s was to build a welfare state; the response in the '90s is to destroy it."

But Monique Jérôme-Forget, President of the Institute for Research on Public Policy, warned against a popular attitude that governments which have cut the least are the "good guys."

"People seem to think we have two kinds of governments: those which are generous, and those which are cold hearted accountants. It's as if we were in a western divided between good guys and bad guys. The fact is, governments won't have any choice."