Matt Gurney: Aiming for excellence in Hoserdom
Canadians are settling for mediocrity. We don't have to.
By: Matt Gurney
Let’s get a couple of things out of the way right at the outset. As an editor at The Line, I feel protective of everyone who contributes here under their own byline. This is our home, and you are guests. Recently, I read a piece that I really liked, was happy to publish, and have been thinking about ever since. I don’t really agree with it, and I think it’s even problematic, in a way. But it was fun and thought-provoking enough to publish ... as evidenced by the fact that I can’t stop thinking about it. The thoughts remain provoked!
The next point is something most of you would never know unless I told you. So I'm telling you. The overwhelming majority of you will only ever know me through my work. You might hear my radio show, read my columns, or follow me on Twitter. You'll never really have the chance to discover that in real life, I’m a pretty basic hoser. Really. Total beer swilling hockey dude. In the summer, I like to barbecue, and then sit on the dock listening to Rush or the Tragically Hip. This is not a joke or an exaggeration. I am extremely Canadian. Hell, I even prefer Tims to Starbucks.
That’s why I really enjoyed Laura Mitchell’s recent piece on why it’s okay to just be a hoser. I really recognized what she was writing about, because I’m a hoser myself. My American friends will often laugh and roll their eyes, usually affectionately, and say, gosh, you’re so Canadian. I wear that as a point of pride. I am Canadian, dammit.
So don’t take this as a knock on hoserdom. I am one of you, fellow hosers. But what worries me about Mitchell’s argument is that it seems to set up a false dichotomy between being a hosehead and being, well, competent. Maybe even being excellent. We don’t have to settle for less. There is nothing preventing us hosers from being excellent. We should try that.
Mitchell’s piece made an important point. It does not make sense for Canada to compare itself, in almost every relevant metric, to our neighbour, the United States. We simply do not play in the same league as they do. They are a global superpower with cultural, economic, diplomatic, political and military reach that extends to every inch of this planet, and hell, out into space. That ain't us. Mitchell is entirely correct when she notes that Canadians shouldn’t get down on themselves when we can’t sit at all the big kid tables that the Americans get an automatic invite to.
From Mitchell's article:
The Canada of the 21st century is suffering from an identity crisis — somewhere along the line we stopped feeling inferior and began to fancy ourselves superior. Whether it be our health-care system, immigration policies, perceived influence on global affairs or success of some of our celebrities (looking at you, Celine Dion), we took on a feeling of grandiose majesty we simply don’t deserve.
She is absolutely right about that.
But what worries me is the fact that I think we Canadians sometimes overcorrect in the opposite direction. We are some 40 million people, sitting next to something like 330 million neighbours. We should remember that, and keep things in perspective. But what worries me about affable and cheerful "Hey, we’re just a bunch of friendly hosers, eh?" discussions, is that it can give us permission to tolerate a degree of dysfunction and incompetence that we really don’t need to. I mean, who cares if we fall short? Who was counting on the Canucks anyway?
Mitchell never says this. Indeed, she says the opposite, noting that Canadians should pull their weight. Yeah, we should.
But we don't. And I sometimes worry it's because we're too quick to fall back into the attitude of, "Hey, man, we aren't the Americans or the Chinese or the British, we're just Canadians. Let them handle it." Being smaller than the Americans, and less vital to international affairs, doesn’t mandate that we be militarily feeble. Or complete non-entities in foreign assistance and development, or a monument to irrelevancy at many international summits. There are many small countries in the world that excel in that role: they are great at being small countries. They fully max out what they are capable of doing. They are the best Norway or Ireland or New Zealand that they can be.
Is Canada today the best Canada it can be? It's hard to make that case. We are a middle power, by most metrics, but we are terrible at being a middle power. Why not aim higher? Forget being a superpower. Let’s just max out being a middle power.
We tolerate an awful lot of dysfunction at home, too. Alex Usher, president of Higher Education Strategy Associates, a consultancy with a focus on public policy related to education, skills and innovation (and a sumo evangelist, he likes to stress) asked a devastatingly on-point question months ago, and it, like Mitchell's column, has been lodged in my brain since:
Usher did get some genuinely interesting answers. Our pension and old-age support systems were cited as Canadian policy successes. Immigration. Monetary policy (maybe the recent spike in inflation changes that — Usher's tweet was seven months ago). So it's not all bad.
But it's bad enough that a smart guy like Usher felt moved to ask the question, and that smart people had to reach pretty far and wide to come up with possible answers that would disprove the notion.
Very few people enjoy the hoser life more than I do. I've already had the smoker out once this year, and I'll be barbecuing with a beer in hand this weekend. The lake's still a bit cold for the canoe (especially given how prone I am to tipping the damn thing) but it'll be out soon enough. None of this is a put-on for the sake of the column. I really am this Canadian.
But keeping perspective about our place in the world, and retaining our Canadian sense of humour and enjoyment of donuts, mustn't blind us to the fact that on many, many metrics, we are a country that is settling into mediocrity — if we haven’t officially arrived there already. We continue to enjoy a high standard of living largely because of the work of prior generations, our natural resource wealth, and the security and stability offered by the United States. And that high standard of living obscures a lot of serious structural problems. None of the things that gave us this life are guaranteed to last forever — indeed, it's more likely that they won't. We're going to have to start rebuilding our institutional capacity to do stuff, including pretty basic stuff.
We can't build housing. We have an infrastructure deficit of hundreds of billions. Our military can't fight and our federal government struggles to pay its own employees. Our health-care systems are disasters, and were long before the pandemic; our long-term-care homes are even worse.
I'm not asking for American-style power and prestige here. I'm asking for the country I live in and intend to raise my kids in to get the basic stuff basically right. Excellence would be nice, too. I'm all for aiming for excellence. But for now, as a starting position, let's aim for general, across-the-board competency, and break the bad habit of using American failures as convenient ways of justifying or downplaying our own.
Let's stay hosers. Let's keep the hockey rinks full, the Timbit makers busy and the lakes full of boats each summer. Let's keep our CanCon classic rock cranked, and our beer cold.
But let's also be competent, okay? Just competency would do for now. We can start there and build up, eh?
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