What makes Canada special
Michael Ignatieff, National PostPublished: Saturday, December 20, 2008
- Copyright 2007 by Michael Ignatieff and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Reprinted with permission from House of Anansi Press. -The world's deepest problem is not climate change or the supposed clash of civilizations or inequality between rich nations and poor ones -- as important as these problems are. The fundamental problem facing humanity is political: how to create stable political order among people of different religions, cultures and economic classes. As long as states can cohere as viable political communities, all their problems can be managed. But if they cannot maintain order and freedom, they cannot solve any of them.
Here, Canada has shown the way: maintaining freedom among peoples who value their differences yet desire to live as equals in a political community.
Being Canadian, we do not shout our achievement from the rooftops. We know we still have a long way to go before the achievement is complete. Many of our people do not share in the promise of Canadian life; many of our regions feel left out of our prosperity; our national unity is a permanent work-in-progress. But we know what we have to do. The rights enshrined in our Charter of Rights and Freedoms exhort us all to narrow the gap between the Canada we actually live in and the Canada we know we can build together.
Interim Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff listens to a question during a news conference in Ottawa, December 10, 2008. REUTERS/Chris Wattie
Other countries have also managed to maintain successful political communities. What makes Canada's achievement distinctive? While all modern democracies protect rights, our system is special in the way it reconciles individual and group rights.
Both our provincial and federal charters protect group rights to language in order to guarantee the preservation of the French fact in North America. These charters also protect the treaty and Aboriginal rights of our First Nations, Inuit and Metis peoples.
Reconciling group and individual rights is not easy. Canadians want both their equality recognized and their differences respected. They want to be acknowledged as equal individuals and as members of communities. Recognition of equality points one way; recognition of difference can point another. Moreover, while all communities in Canada should be equal, not all communities are the same. Aboriginal Canadians claim the status of first nations, in recognition of the fact that they maintained political order before European settlement. The Quebecois see themselves as a national group within Canada, in recognition of their distinctive language and history as a French colony.
There is no reason in principle why acknowledging the national character of certain communities in Canada should put the unity of the whole at risk. We have been working at reconciling these competing principles since Confederation, and while constitutional reconciliation of equality and difference remains elusive, our arguments have not broken up our country. Indeed, we have become a model for the world of how to balance majority and minority interests and how to maintain the unity of a complex federation.
Our vocation in the world is to help other countries deepen and develop their citizenship as we have deepened and developed our own. Just as we seek to promote "peace, order and good government" at home, we should seek to do the same abroad.
We have also established the most progressive political culture in the Americas. Our laws protect the equality rights of all Canadians regardless of sexual orientation, including rights to marriage. Our laws guarantee a woman's right to choose. The Canada Health Act commits the federal and provincial governments to guarantee equal rights of access to health for all citizens. Our constitution commits the federal government to use its authority and spending power to maintain rough equality of services among all regions and among all citizens.
There are some other distinguishing marks as well. Unlike the United States, Canada does not recognize a constitutional right to bear arms. Canada does not practise capital punishment. In these and other ways, our rights culture entrenches our national identity as a progressive people.
Maintaining these commitments is not easy. There is no stable political consensus in favour of them. It takes political leadership to articulate why these values matter, and why we need to make sacrifices in order to keep them flourishing. It is also the work of political leaders to hammer out compromises when the rights and interests of competing groups conflict. Active engagement in politics -- by citizens and by leaders -- is essential if we are to maintain our distinctiveness as a progressive people and to find the compromises that keep us together.
The Iggy Book Club will reconvene in three weeks for a discussion of Blood and Belonging© National Post 2008