Dispatch from The Front Line: C+ Nation

We're not as good or as evil as all that. We're just ordinarily terrible.

Writing a dispatch to you all on Friday of each week is something your Line editors genuinely enjoy. We think you enjoy them, too. They're some of our best-read pieces.

However, we take no pleasure in writing this one in the aftermath both of the horrific find of an unmarked burial site in Kamloops, and the apparent terror attack in London. We fear it'll rub a lot of people the wrong way. 

But this needs to be said: Despite the rhetoric about Canada being broken or inherently evil … it isn’t. Canada isn't broken, or evil. It's a liberal democracy populated by ordinary humans.

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This is not intended to diminish the recent news. It is right to be upset by these stories. But any of our politicians and commentariat are in a full-blown garment-rending panic because these news events reveal that we are not the morally superior country that we had always set ourselves up to be. Rather, we are ordinarily flawed, beset by the same poisonous ideologies, self-regarding delusions, and negative emotions that seethe under the skin of the collective body of humanity.

But because Canada, and Canadians, have always reveled in a Pollyanna self-regard— sew the flag on your backpacks, kids! — truth, revelation, and tragedy have to be uber-mourned on a performative, meta level. It’s not just that we grieve for the children lost to unmarked graves, or the death of a beautiful Muslim Canadian family. We’re also grieving for ourselves, and for the loss of what we thought we were. Better.

Hence the show. When Prime Minister Trudeau makes a point of saying “We are here for you,” and “We stand with you,” he’s offering those words not just to the Muslim Canadians and Indigenous peoples who need to hear them; it’s a demonstration for the benefit of the national narrative as well. “See, see, we care harder! We’re still … Better.” It’s an attempt to rehabilitate the Canadian self-conception; the “sunny ways, punch-above-our-weight moral leader of the free world” polish that has felt thin for a long while now.

This isn't about hating Canada or thinking it's trash or broken or fake. We are very happy we live in Canada! We don't plan on leaving. But our affection and gratitude is grounded in an understanding of what Canada is. This country is neither a white-and-red cartoon Disney set, nor an irredeemable hellhole. It’s just a country with a past — and that past comes with baggage that we are reconciling.

Let's just lay out some facts. Racism and other forms of prejudice are not unusual in Canada. A third of Canadians don't trust Muslims. A quarter don't trust Indigenous peoples, and a fifth don't trust Jews. These figures are all from a Leger poll from late 2020, and we can quibble about methodology and precise numbers, but the general contours are clear — lots of Canadians don't like other Canadians for reasons that are, simply, bigoted. 

Here's some more facts: a 2020 report by Gallup found that Canada is the most accepting nation of immigrants anywhere in the world, with a score of 8.46 out of a maximum of 9. Further, in 2014, Statistics Canada surveyed immigrants to Canada, and found that most of them were not only happier here than they were in their home country, but were generally as happy as native-born Canadians.

StatsCan found that immigrants from poorer countries generally liked Canada more than immigrants from rich countries.

But this was what jumped out at us: "Comparisons with the native-born [Canadian] population indicate that when socio-demographic, economic, and health factors are taken into account, few immigrant groups differ significantly from the Canadian-born in life satisfaction." Another StatsCan report, this one from 2016 found that 93 per cent of immigrants to Canada felt a strong sense of belonging to this country.

As for economic outcomes, we go back, once more, with feeling, to StatsCan, and find a pretty mixed bag — immigrant employment numbers (relative to the native-born) have been improving in recent decades, though a wage-gap persists and has widened. An analysis done by Calgary economist Arvind Magesan in 2017 looked at the wage-gap numbers and found that the biggest issue was proficiency in English — once that was corrected for, the wage gap among first-generation Canadians narrowed from 16 per cent to 5.8 per cent, and for second-generation Canadians — the children of immigrants — a fraction of a per cent. 

These metrics are not perfect proxies for how welcoming and tolerant a country is, and we don't assume that of the people surveyed, none experienced prejudice or bigotry. But consider both those versions of reality above. The story of Canada, holiest of the holy, doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. But neither does the “Canada is evil, broken, and racist” narrative now competing with it.

Canada has racists, and systemic racism remains an issue in many realms. Canada is also a great place for immigrants and minorities to live. We stress that later point — Canada remains very, very safe. Violent hate crimes happen, but at a very low rate — roughly equal to the rate of attempted murder (which is also at a very low rate).

Meanwhile, as Maclean’s columnist Scott Gilmore once put it: terrorists are “simply are not very good at actually killing people…Moose are far more likely to kill you.” That was true when it was written in 2015. It’s still true today.

We lack a perfect understanding of what motivated Nathanial Veltman to allegedly kill the Afzaal family. If this crime follows other patterns of terrorism, it would be safe to presume that he followed the well-worn path of online radicalization — a problem that is not unique to Canada. In a globally connected world filled with extreme ideological bad actors, the question is not “why is this happening here?” it’s “why wouldn’t it also be happening here? What makes us think we’re so special?”

The same logic can be applied to the unmarked burial site of children sent to one residential school, which is currently being investigated in Kamloops. Canada began its life as a nation as a rural agricultural outpost of a far-flung and brutal expansionist Empire. Why did we ever imagine we would be insulated and protected from the horrors of that history?

Because we’re not American?

The meta-problem isn't rampant racism or violence in Canadian society, it's that too many Canadians simply don't understand what we are. We’re a normal country. Hell, we'd even go so far as to say that Canada is better than average! But we’re not immune to normal human prejudices, hatred, crime, or to history and its many atrocities. We never were.


Look, we at The Line are as tired as you are about the more, shall we say, theatrical aspects of Justin Trudeau’s approach to being prime minister. Whether it was his Day One “because it’s 2015!” smirk, his obsession with showing off his socks to foreign dignitaries, his fashion sense while vacationing in India, and countless other Trudeauvian trips of the light fantastic, the man has always seemed more interested in performance than in the substance of governing. 

But that’s not quite right. Because if there is one thing we’ve come to realize over the past five years and a bit, it is that for the Trudeau Liberals, the performance is the governing. For example, we used to wonder at the amount of time and energy that Cabinet ministers spent working on their Instagram accounts, since it went far beyond what would seem to be necessary for promoting and communicating policy. But once we understood that it was the job of policy to promote the Instagram account, and not the other way around, all of this proudly vacuous behaviour started to make a lot more sense. 

But while we’ve gotten more or less used to it here in Canada (or maybe the right word is “numb”), we’ve always wondered how it looks through foreign eyes. Those abstract wonderings became a little more concrete over the past few weeks. Countries are opening up, people are starting to travel, politicians are going back to their old habits of holding regular meetings to make sure the world is still ticking along. And for Canada’s leaders, all the world’s a ‘gram. 

So it was that at the G7 summit in Cornwall England this week, Prime-Minister-In-All-But-Name Chrystia Freeland was the only finance minster to wear a mask in a group photo taken outdoors. Ok, we thought, maybe she’s not fully vaxxed, maybe she has reason to be extra cautious. Except in a string of photos taken just before the official photo, Freeland was captured scrambling to put on her mask, not for safety, but for show. 

Freeland was just getting the crowd warmed up for her nominal boss, Justin Trudeau. At his official G7 welcome on Friday, Trudeau was the only leader to put a mask on to give Boris Johnson the chummy elbow, only to remove it a few seconds later. We get it. It’s a version of the old “what lie did I tell?” problem, but for acting. Which audience am I playing to at this exact moment? It’s hard for even an old luvvie like Trudeau to keep track. 

Once he’s back in Canada, Trudeau is going to hole up in a hotel for a few days, which the Globe’s Cam Clark aptly referred to as “symbolic penance for a symbolic policy.” We agree with Clark that there’s some good fun in seeing someone get tied up in their own moral posturing. But while Clark is unhappy at the prospect of the prime minister cooling his heels for three days, we’re less fussed about Trudeau’s prospective stay in Hotel Q.  Because while Clark thinks “there are real things” for the prime minister to be doing, we doubt that very much. 


Roundup:

  • In our typical, crochety, shake-fist-at-sky fashion, we welcomed Pride Week by complaining about the Progress Flag — the aesthetic atrocity that is coming to replace the traditional rainbow. We will note that that the number of gay men involved in a movement is directly correlated with the quality of that movement’s design language: the fewer gay men, the uglier it gets. Read into that observation what you will, but we give the last word to Allan Stratton: “Slapping the ‘Progress’ chevron on the Rainbow is like slapping the fleur de lis on the Maple Leaf. It creates resentment and division to the sole benefit of performative social climbers keen to wave their Alphabet status and cachet.”

  • In light of the London terror attack, Conservative strategist Ken Boessenkool offered a thoughtful and reflective critique of where he’s seen some of his own cross the line on Islamophobia. “The fact that the alleged attacker, Nathaniel Veltman, is a young Dutch blond boy who could well have come from my own religious community hit close to the heart.”

  • Meanwhile, defending the Conservative Party of Canada — just a little — Kaveh Shahrooz noted that the potshots against the party members who voted against M-103, a motion against Islalmophobia. “M-103 may have been a well-meaning motion, but it was a poorly drafted one. And in a liberal democracy, it never should have been adopted.” The term “Islamophobia” was never properly defined. As a result, Shahrooz feared the motion was too far-reaching, and would encompass ordinary dissent and critique against Islam.

  • Lastly, Line columnist Jen Gerson narrates the latest drama from Alberta politics in the form of a soap opera. “To the brave rotating cast that continues to step forward season after season, I must admit that I sometimes empathize; the scriptwriters only ever seem to want to top the previous episode, which subjects our main characters to increasingly implausible and cruel dramatic scenarios. We're one season away from a shark-jump plot twist in which a cynical minister of the crown winds up in a ditch with no memory, only to be taken in by a kindly family living on a farmstead in Grande Prairie who teach him the true meaning of community and love. But, then, they all auditioned for the part.” Gerson also made an art.

No more pithy comments this week, friends. We’re tired, and we’re hoping for a slow news week ahead as we glide into slacker season.


The Line is Canada’s last, best hope for irreverent commentary. We reject bullshit. We love lively writing. Please consider supporting us by subscribing. Follow us on Twitter @the_lineca. Fight with us on Facebook. Pitch us something: lineeditor@protonmail.com