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The year 2009, in Canada and throughout most of the world, was dominated obviously by the recession. It focused the attention of federal and provincial governments, worried business, hurt a lot of people and stored up debt that some day, somehow, the country must pay off in spending cuts and/or higher taxes.

But beneath the recession lay a more serious challenge to Canada: an inability or unwillingness to debate seriously, let alone try to tackle, major social and economic challenges. It is as if the country is on autopilot - a very comfortable place to be sometimes, but not good enough with the looming challenges at home and abroad.

Who, for example, is addressing the inescapable impact of our aging population, an impact that will stress government budgets, subtracting revenues and adding expenditures? You could argue that, to their credit, governments are talking about pension system challenges, but pensions are only a piece of the puzzle.

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Canada's place in the world is diminishing everywhere, partly because Canada has so little to say, and partly because the world is throwing up countries of far greater population, economic might and future potential than an inward-looking, morally superior little place of 33 million people that used to aspire to punch above its weight, but now prefers to believe that myth without even trying to give effect to it. Does anyone care?

Does anyone care about some sort of a national energy effort, rather than a series of provincialist approaches? Or refugee/immigration policy, neither of which are working very well, as many studies reveal? Or poverty, whose levels are regularly highlighted to be high by international standards, according to comparative studies?

The major international issue has been climate change, but do we hear a serious national debate about it in Canada? The Harper government hates the issue and tries to de-dramatize the file, having yielded up the initiative, or lack thereof, to the United States. It brings no moral or ethical dimension to the issue, just a deadening sense of minimalism.

Canada had a serious debate - a rare one indeed - about climate change in the last election when the Liberals proposed a carbon tax, but the voters, egged on by the Tory attack machine, rejected it.

Since then, the question of how to price carbon (the only serious way to tackle emissions) has entered the no-go zone of Canadian discourse, joining other subjects apparently taboo for discussion.

These include health care, whose costs rise faster than inflation adjusted for population and government revenues but whose immutability and political danger scares off politicians of every stripe from even raising the conundrum. Instead, they all promise only to "preserve" the health-care status quo, a formula for decline if ever one existed.

These include aboriginal policy, including a treaty process that is going nowhere fast, and the secular theology of self-government that has produced so little for "nations" whose average population is 1,250.

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These include Afghanistan. Canada's largest foreign aid and military expenditure sparks no debate whatsoever because Parliament, with all-party support, has decreed that our military effort will end in 2011. The result is that Canadian men and women in that country are literally playing out the string as part of a mission from which they will be withdrawn. Instead, we chew over how Afghan prisoners/detainees were handled three years ago, a subject of some importance to be sure, but hardly something of relevance to the war's conduct in the next few years.

These include words such as "productivity" and "competitiveness" that countries such as Sweden and Finland and Denmark worry about and act upon all the time, as opposed to Canada, where the mere mention of the words, let alone what might be done about them, strikes fear and terror into political hearts.

You will undoubtedly have your own favourite subjects for inclusion in the no-go zone of serious debate in Canada, but whatever the list, it would certainly be long and contain important subjects.

It is said that from crisis comes opportunity. The recession was a short-term economic crisis from which, in theory, the opportunity for more fundamental reflection might have emerged. Instead, the year was dominated by spending announcements, attack ads and sterile, partisan debate, with barely a whiff of a sense of where Canada needs to head to ward off marginality abroad and stagnation at home.

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