Wednesday, November 6, 2002
Halifax Chronicle Herald

What makes Canada great isn’t what you think

By: Brian Lee Crowley

My life is spent criticizing governments for doing a bad job on public policy. That’s the role of public policy institutes such as mine, and a better job I could not imagine. But I never realized until recently how remarkable and rare are the societies in which such a profession is even possible.

The context of this realization was the Diplomatic Forum. Organized each year by the Department of Foreign Affairs up in Ottawa, the Forum brings together the majority of ambassadors posted to Ottawa and takes them to a provincial capital outside central Canada.

The ambassadors are treated to days of meetings and presentations with people from the province, including federal government representatives, provincial officials and local business, social and cultural leaders. They visit the sights and generally are introduced to a part of the country that they might otherwise never see. Last year the Forum was in BC, the year before that, Newfoundland. This year it was Nova Scotia’s turn.

One regular feature of these events is a sort of debate between a representative of the federal government and local political commentators about the federal presence in the region. Last year, for example, federal Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion, debated the deputy head of the Canada West Foundation about the role of Ottawa in the West. I understand that the sparks really flew.

This year, Stéphane, an old friend of mine from our days as university teachers, was back to reprise his role as intellectual “enforcer” for Ottawa. Speaking on behalf of this region about the pros and cons of Ottawa’s traditional role here, were historian Brian Cuthbertson, and myself.

The exchange was vigorous and pointed, but also thoughtful, respectful and friendly. Much of what was said would hardly be new to Maritimers —there was lots of discussion of the roots of our underdevelopment, the impact of Confederation, federal policies favouring of the populations of Central Canada, regional development policies and the federal-provincial accords that govern the development of offshore oil and gas.

Brian Cuthbertson made the case that Ottawa was not living up to the provisions of the offshore oil and gas accord. I did my usual schtick about federal transfers creating dependence and short-circuiting the normal process of economic adjustment that places like Ireland have used so effectively. Stéphane argued that there was no dependence in the region, that the Maritimes had a good deal within Confederation, and that Ottawa was respecting the offshore accords. No surprises there.

For me the surprise came during the question period.

While they were clearly interested in the details of this policy or that disagreement between Ottawa and the region, because many of these arguments echoed tensions that occur within their own countries, that was not the focus of their comments.

Instead what ambassador after ambassador stood up to say, during the formal questions, and afterwards in informal discussion, was that this debate summed up everything they had come to admire about Canada. There were two things about our session that struck the ambassadors forcefully.

The first was that, in the vast majority of the world, ministers cannot be called to account for what they do with power. They, and the people they govern, would find it unthinkable that a minister would ever subject him or herself to a public session in which they would have to explain and defend their policies and possibly lose face or be embarrassed. Demands from the media, NGOs, and even foreign aid donors, for more transparency and accountability are treated as risible.

Yet here was Stéphane Dion, a minister of the Crown, willingly subjecting himself and his government, to some pretty heady criticism. Everyone in the room saw and felt that this was an unremarkable everyday occurrence. Yet for the vast majority of the world, this is itself almost unthinkable, a naïve dream in the minds of a few extreme reformers.

The other half of the equation, which the ambassadors saw as equally remarkable, was that people were willing to appear in public, indeed on the same platform as the minister, and criticize him and his government to his face. In all too many parts of the world, the consequences of such a decision would be dire. They could range from the destruction of business interests, loss of professional standing, persecution by government agents, such as tax authorities, right through to torture and disappearance, in the most extreme cases, just for suggesting that such accountability should occur. Only the obsequious and the servile may appear with government representatives in public.

Canada has its flaws, and from within it can often seem that our governments are too insulated and unaccountable. But that’s not how others, less lucky than we are, see it. As one of the ambassadors said, “What we have seen here is the very best of what Canada represents.”


Brian Lee Crowley is president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, a public policy think tank in Halifax. E-mail: [email protected].