Canadian Values

Canadian Values David Watts 13 June 2003

The phrase “Canadian values” entered our speech after the biggest political upset in Canada’s history. This was no accident.

The Mulroney government had had the largest Canadian parliamentary majority ever elected. The PM said “You won’t recognize this place when we’re done” and made sweeping changes.

Many of these were not thought out on principle but pulled off by the deal-making skills of a man who boasted he knew when to “roll the dice.”

The Canadian people were unimpressed. In a rare show of solidarity they defeated two of the Government’s constitutional initiatives, then went on to reduce it to two seats in the House.

In the wake of that tidal wave, the expression Canadian Values appeared—born out of the experience of living for nine years under a government without them.

Canadians had voted for value-specific parties before but these were usually regional movements that had made their way onto the federal scene. They never formed federal governments but often the values they stood for were adopted by government to become part of the Canadian consensus:

The CCF/NDP party shaped agendas of Liberal government to include Health Care and pensions. The Progressive Party balanced Bay Street Tories, to create the Progressive Conservative Party.

The value-based parties that fragmented the Mulroney Government’s base did this to a lesser extent: The Reform/Alliance Party prodded the governing Liberals to adopt a balanced budget.

The Bloc Québécois claimed to be committed to the breakup of Canada. Yet in becoming the Official Opposition, it became an example of Canadian tolerance of dissent.

Among this spectrum of parties and policies, what values have been specifically and lastingly Canadian—not limited to one region or ideology but recognized as part of our national character?

In the last 150 years Canadians have upheld four basic values: Accommodation, Accountability, Creative Tension and Connectedness. Canada is not the only state that upholds them.

What makes us distinctive as a country is the fact that we alone hold to all four of them.

These four are actually two pairs that offset and balance each other. Let us look at each of them:

Our first value is accommodation: our ability to stretch and adapt. Canada is different from other countries formed in the 19th century. They were nation states—we are a Nation of Minorities.

Some call this “tolerance,” others “inclusiveness.” It is both of these and more. It is our capacity to stretch without breaking, to hold differences without letting them separate us

With much land, many first nations, more than one language, diversity of cultures and lifestyles, there is an infinite number of Canadian expressions—each fresh, distinct and still Canadian.

Accommodation is the big tent we live in, a long house with living space for all. This is possible because Canada has had time to evolve, with no one moment when we had to define who we are.

Accommodation is our first Canadian Value. It is the meaning of our country’s name: Kanata is an aboriginal word for “meeting place,” a global village where all are welcome.

Though we are accommodating in our stand, it is a mistake to assume from that that we have no standards, that “anything goes.” Many of our rulers have discovered that, to their regret.

Our second Canadian value is accountability. This balances our flexibility. Governments that become too narrow lose their public support. So do those that become too broad and complacent.

In recent years we’ve heard that word used about taxation and government spending and borrowing, the debt and deficit. That is financial accountability. There are other kinds.

There is social accountability. With many other countries, we accept that we are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. This grew out of our religious traditions, and has shaped our social safety net.

There is environmental accountability, practised by our first nations before Europeans arrived. Now we who came later are learning what it means to hold the earth in trust—as stewards.

And there is political accountability: our right to have a voice in how we are governed. It was calls for a greater say that led to Confederation. Other peoples called this “democracy”

Canadians called it “responsible government.” We developed it in Canada before Britain did. Accountability—financial, social, environmental and political—is our second Canadian Value.

Between Accommodation and Accountability is often a push-pull, a tug-of-war that stops just short of all out struggle. This gives us our third Canadian Value: a sense of creative tension.

We learned that, too, with the forces of nature. Our first peoples depended on the hunt to survive. Voyageurs who followed had to cross the country twice a year by canoe and foot before freezeup.

Some didn’t make it. Their graves in the arctic became monuments in the search for the North West passage. Others perished in our mountain passes, building and keeping the rail line open.

The ruggedness of our country gives us a challenge to pit ourselves against without the need for a human adversary in coming of age. That’s why our internal struggles stop short of armed conflict.

The Québécois who sings “My country is winter” and the Albertan who sings “The winds sure can blow cold away out there”—these have much more in common than the politicians realize.

As we hike and canoe and mountain climb and follow trails from coast to coast, the more we see Canada herself as a struggle, walking a tightrope of creative tension—our third Canadian Value.

The rope has stretched but not broken, we have slipped but not fallen off. With each successful crossing, our fourth Canadian Value—connectedness—becomes clearer.

Canada was built on connections. First it was trails and waterways, then railways and pipelines, then airlines and highways, satellite and microwave, and now the fibre optics of the internet.

Technology can be value neutral. We have used it to express Canadian values. It was the CPR that first truly made us a Dominion from sea to sea. It was the CBC—in French, English, Inuktitut and other languages that has made us a community, and part of the international one.

As old connections disappear, new ones take their place. Abandoned rail branch lines have become part of the Trans Canada Trail where we can re-create earlier Canadian crossings.

What loyalty is to the British and leisure to the French, what endurance is to a Russian and industriousness to a German, what liberty is to an American, Connection is to Canadians.

When we accommodate, when we are accountable, when we meet another in creative tension —in each situation we are Connected. Accommodation and Accountability, Creative Tension and Connections—Four Canadian Values. The greatest, which includes all four, is Connected-ness!