Skip to main content

Two dominant forces in the country's dynamic have each lost leverage. One is Quebec, which, with its run of prime ministers and its blackmail threats, set much of the agenda for an astonishing four decades. It no longer does. The other is the United States. Always the reference point beyond our borders, it is now less so. As American exceptionalism wanes, we move out from under the shadow.

The reorderings serve to unshackle the country. The age of globalism does the same. As one of the world's leading multicultural nations, we are a good fit - an orchestra of peoples - for the new way. Throw in our abundance of natural resources, our stepped-up military strength and you have, as Ken Dryden says in his book Becoming Canada, a big new story set to be written.

The old story, as the MP maintains, was an underwhelming one because of our self-effacing nature. The new one will be different - but only if someone in Ottawa sees it and builds it. With candour, Mr. Dryden writes that his own Liberals have been unable to seize the new narrative. The Conservatives, he notes, care only about demolishing opponents, a consequence of a Prime Minister too transfixed by his animosity to all things liberal to get off the low road.

Like so many, Mr. Dryden, a latecomer to politics, is appalled by the smallness of the enterprise, the daily avalanche of vituperation, the tabloidization of the discourse. Great causes and great ideals are dwarfed by the pettiness. He says his Liberals have long suffered from the absence of conviction and direction. With nothing big on the table, the party has looked inward.

In despair, the public turns away from both major parties. In the last election, the voter turnout was 59 per cent, compared with 75 per cent in 1984. The younger generations remain aloof, the game being too cheap and undemocratic for them to abide. The Conservative government's wedge politics seeks to divide Canadians, running against the very nature of our multicultural achievement - collaboration and co-operation. The country is an orchestra. The government is a one-man band.

What the Liberals have to realize, says Mr. Dryden, is that, if George W. Bush made Barack Obama possible, Stephen Harper is now making a great Canadian liberal possible. But only if the liberals can locate that new narrative, as Mr. Obama did - at least for a time.

Mr. Dryden is vague on what the new narrative should be and whether Michael Ignatieff is the one. The Liberal Leader is showing more vitality and strength. But you get the sense he's boxed in by fiscal constraints - the big deficit and the anti-tax psychology that inhibit public-sector ambition. As such, he risks being seen as a tinkerer as opposed to a tribune of change. Change, he needs to remember, doesn't necessarily require a flush treasury.

If, as Mr. Dryden suggests, being steeped in the grime of politics is what prevents the big new Canadian story from being written, then surely the first priority is a major reform of our politics.

As has been seen and has been said, our democratic system is a sham. It's an antiquated system, an elected dictatorship that drives away voters and occasions serial abuse of power. The media and the politicians throw up their hands, as though nothing can be done.

Much can be done. The new frontier is a new democracy, a grand reform that brings our system into the 21st century, that ends one-man rule, creates an elected Senate, introduces real checks and balances. Such a grand remake might require constitutional change. It's been two decades since we've tried constitutional reform. The mere thought of it brings out all kinds of nervous Nellies who dream small. But it might be time to show that kind of courage.

The conditions are right for a new Canadian story. But so long as the democracy is in decay, it won't get written.