John Ralston Saul – Canada as a Metis nation

I hadn’t read John Ralston Saul’s book “A Fair Country: Telling Truths about Canada”, so I was happy that Patrick brought this talk from TVO’s Big Ideas to my attention. Ralston Saul’s thinking resonated in me. In particular the idea of hybrid ide…

I hadn’t read John Ralston Saul’s book “A Fair Country: Telling Truths about Canada”, so I was happy that Patrick brought this talk from TVO’s Big Ideas to my attention. Ralston Saul’s thinking resonated in me. In particular the idea of hybrid identity resonates with me as a German-Canadian making sense of post-modernity.

To Ralston Saul, Canada was upon arrival of Europeans an aboriginal civilization of minorities, 2 million people coexisting in this land with many cultures and languages while contemporary Canada continues to exist as a country of 30 million as a mixed set of cultures and languages. This coherent sense of a polyglot civilization of complexity that Ralston Saul describes makes Canada not a new country, but a very old country. He claims that contrary to our mythology, we are not a child of Europe in the Americas, we are in our philosophy the most American country in North America while the United States is the largest experiment of European ideas that happens to be taking place outside Europe.

He claims that what works in the Canadian civilization can’t be traced back to Europe.  It is a country of aboriginal inspiration, where complexity and mixedness is more interesting than clarity and homogeneity. Newcomers, in order to survive in this harsh environment, had to aboriginize themselves. They mixed with aboriginals and created a new people, the Metis. It is the only place Europeans colonized where they abandoned European modes of transportation and adopted local modes, in this case the canoe. Champlain said “our sons will marry your daughters and we will make one people”. Hudson’s Bay Company employees were under instructions to arrange marriages with the daughters of local chiefs to create military and trade alliances.

Today, we live with complexity, with multiple levels of government, with accepting differences among us. We’re a nonmonolithic nation-state. We adore negotiating, living comfortably with unresolved questions of clarity, we are in a constant state of negotiation and renegotiation. We are constantly thinking about how we can comingle individual and group rights in our Charter of Rights and constitution. Our approach to belonging, our approach to immigration and our capacity to adapt. We have taken the idea of the aboriginal Great Circle and worked through how to bring people into it. The oral traditions of aboriginal treaty rights are integrated into our legal foundations.

Ralston Saul argues for an urgent need for the incorporation of true Canadian philosophy and mythology into our sociology and political science. Harold Innis and Marshall Mcluhan and theories of communication came from here but we think they’re less important than Rousseau.

Declaring war on Canadian complacency

Stephen Harper is counting on Canadians??? complacency as he rewrites the rules of his country???s politics to weaken legislative scrutiny Reuters via This shocking piece from The Economist is much more blunt than most Canadian media has…

Stephen Harper is counting on Canadians’ complacency as he rewrites the rules of his country’s politics to weaken legislative scrutiny


This shocking piece from The Economist is much more blunt than most Canadian media has dared to be on the threat to Canadian democracy implicit in the Harper government’s cynical prorogation ploy.

In this new and frightening re-interpretation of Canadian democracy, Parliament sits at the pleasure of the Prime Minister. In this new world, black is white and up is down. It is a horrifying affront to democracy, regardless of your ideological or partisan leanings.

In Iran, the Green Revolution swept the streets of its major cities in response to a threat to the democratic processes of their constitutional Islamic Republic in a vast ongoing struggle for the future. Where is the equivalent Canadian movement? In Canada, I’m afraid, we just take it. We are a country of learned helplessness. Canada is a polity suffering from collective Stockholm syndrome. Call it democracy’s death by a thousand cuts.

I don’t know how this will all play out, but I’m fed up. I’m angry. I’m afraid for the future of democracy in the country that I love. But I also know that I am all the more motivated to do something about it. Others will have their own analyses and prescriptions, this is mine.

This is not a rant against Harper, the Conservative Party, Ottawa or politicians as a class. This is not me advocating to elect Liberals, Greens, NDP, or to talk about electoral reform, constitutional law or parliamentary procedure.

I blame us.

It is the particular Canadian culture of complacency that has empowered a skillful and cynical tactician to remake the political landscape in a way that other parties are jealous of more than horrified at. Voting the bums out and putting in new bums won’t change this fact.

I don’t actually believe that Canadians are apathetic. Canadians care deeply about many issues. They engage in their own quiet and private ways on many issues outside of politics and elections.

Complacency is not apathy. We care, we just don’t do anything about the things we care about. Our actions don’t match our words.

Canadians are disconnected from each other, their sense of citizenship and from civic life in general. I believe this disconnection is the legacy of the 20th century and the modern industrial welfare state. It is disconnection and the absence of a public life for the majority of Canadians that is the source of complacency. We don’t know each other. We can’t see each other and as a result we can’t find common cause or mobilze to take action around the things we care about in a way that is relevant to our politics.

Into the vacuum of a disengaged electorate, we have allowed cynical tactical opportunists of all political stripes to restructure our democracy in a way that keeps Canadians as silent and disconnected clients of the State. Mainstream media, political tacticians and socio-economic realities work to maintain and reinforce this disconnected and defanged democracy.

So, before we will ever see real change in our politics, I believe that the electorate needs to reconnect to itself, one individual to another and from individuals to their communities, one community at a time. Thankfully, we have the technologies and the methods to do this. We just need the individual and collective will to take on a major project of civic re-engagement.

This is the work of our age: to restore community, rebuild our civic institutions and reinvigorate our democracy so that we can transform our communities and society to face the very serious and difficult challenges that lie ahead.

So, to my ChangeCamp colleagues and collaborators across the country, let me offer a proposal about the change that I believe we seek.

The change we seek is two-fold:

  1. To make government more open, transparent, innovative, participatory, accountable, effective and efficient
  2. To reinvigorate the public sphere, re-engaging ourselves, our neighbours, our colleagues and our loved ones with each other around our civic passions

This is what we mean by “Reimagining government and citizenship in the age of participation”.

We are doing this not because we love technology or social media, but because we need a better democracy, a restored sense of community and a society that works for us and the historical moment we find ourselves in.

The moment demands our urgent efforts to reverse the tide of a culture of complacency. Now is our time. 2010 is the year it begins. The alternative is unthinkable.

#ChangeGovCA: What and who is the change we need?

Join the conversation on Twitter with tag: #changegovCA
Join the conversation on Twitter. tag: #ChangeGovCA

Recent political developments in Canada have taken us all by surprise and left many of us confused and disillusioned, but also super-engaged. This a tremendous opportunity and a moment for real dialogue among Canadians about our politics, our democracy and our individual citizenship.

Many of us are watching with rapt attention what’s going on in the transition to an Obama administration in the United States. I’ve been amazed at how the technologies of participation are being married to the philosophy of transparency in very real and exciting ways. An administration-in-waiting that blogs with open commenting! And offers a Seat at the Table for open policy conversations and submission of documents!

Inspired by these developments and the work of Laurence Lessig and Joe Trippi with and, I registered the domain, with an eye to it being a place for a new conversation for a multi- and non-partisan movement of Canadians interested in changing our institutions of government to reflect our times. I don’t know what this might become, but I’m inviting people interested in democratic renewal and the principles of politics embedded in the philosophy of the open web to join and open the conversation.

Leave a comment on this post, or join the conversation on Twitter by using the tag: #ChangeGovCA. You can follow the conversation at or using the awesome search pane on the powerful TweetDeck twitter app.

AgendaCamp: Citizen-driven economic intelligence

The global economy is undergoing what appears to be the finance equivalent of a heart attack, the circulatory system of credit now frozen.  The policy response looks like shock therapy. $700 billion in public bailouts (or is that ‘investment’) hanging in the balance, $630 billion in new money being printed by the Federal Reserve together with central banks around the world and sudden and frightening drops in global stock markets. Meanwhile, news that talks on Canada-EU economic integration are due to begin mere days after the Canadian federal election has gone largely unnoticed. It is clear that we are not living in normal times.

How will this instability in the system affect citizens and businesses in the places they call home?  Even before the Wall Street meltdown, Ontario’s local and regional economies were under stress and changing rapidly. The current crisis appears likely to accelerate and exacerbate these changes.

It is said that all politics are local. What about economies?

Dan Dunsky, Executive Producer of TVO’s The Agenda with Steve Paikin, believes that we need to think about Ontario’s economies in the plural and his team has identified that major sectors of Ontario’s economy correspond to our geographic landscape and its people in specific places. How do these places and people adapt to global forces that are largely outside of their control? How can we get ahead of the change curve and make our regions more resilient and adaptable to accelerating change?

To tackle this critically important question about our future well-being, TVO is launching an innovative new project that brings together collaborative events and social media together with premier broadcast journalism and expert inquiry.  I am advising and supporting TVO for this project, “The Agenda with Steve Paikin: on the Road” & AgendaCamp.

We’re looking for participants – like you. More after the jump…

Continue reading “AgendaCamp: Citizen-driven economic intelligence”

Hacking democracy, Canadian style

A broad progressive (neo-progressive?) movement is emerging on the web, rallying Canadian netizens to defeat the Harper Conservatives in the October 14th federal election.  Dozens of sites and groups have suddenly emerged in the blogosphere and on Facebook with a single unified goal – to defeat the Harper government.

I’m helping with one of these campaigns,, which is a viral media and strategic voting campaign launched from a Facebook group in less than two weeks.  The idea is to create, distribute and share viral media that will drive anti-Harper forces to take action in the form of strategic voting.  The campaign includes videos produced by community members that are hosted on Vimeo and YouTube and a strategic voting widget hosted at Widgetbox.

The strategic voting widget is a democracy hack response to the current situation that progressive Canadians face. Today, the Conservative party can achieve a majority government and push ahead a neo-conservative agenda with only 38% of the popular vote. This is due to the first-past-the-post electoral system and a splintered centre-left  composed of four parties lined up against a united right wing Conservative party. Other approaches to hack this situation include sites and groups that facilitate strategic vote swapping between progressives living in different ridings supporting different centre-left parties.

Meanwhile our friends at Fair Vote Canada are creating a home for Ophan Voters – voters whose votes do not help elect anyone in a first-past-the-post system. They hope to raise awareness of the need for electoral reform, but they are challenged in building the momentum they need when the beneficiaries of the current system control the path to reform. It appears that fundamental reform is not gaining sufficient traction, certainly not in the short term.

Why now?  I think this activity can be seen as the result of some underlying forces:

  1. The social web and the technologies of so-called Web 2.0
  2. The experience of and the Obama campaign in the U.S. election
  3. A frustrated and digitally enabled electorate, looking for change but lacking a galvanizing leader (like an Obama) to rally behind

Can regular Canadians, using the tools of the web, work around the limitations of first-past-the-post electoral system to snatch a progressive outcome from a system otherwise gamed in the favour of the incumbent Conservative party?

This emerging movement is going to try. It remains to be seen what it can do in the short three weeks remaining in this electoral cycle.

Must Read: Progressivism’s End (and renewal)

I highly recommend reading my good friend David Eaves‘ article Progressivism’s End co-written with his frequent collaborator, Taylor Owen. The analysis is very strong and it is the most effectively written articulation of what I believe to be the emerging realignment of policy and politics as influenced by web technology, the creative class and the steady transition of power from Boomers to Gen Y.



Because I love it so, a couple of excerpts. On how the Left is killing Progressivism:

Seeing their hard-fought accomplishments under threat, traditional baby boomer progressives began to prioritize the survival of New Deal policies and institutions over the idealistic outcomes they were built to promote. Thus the central paradox of progressivism was born: its older-style advocates, entrenched against innovation and reform, even in the service of progressive values, had unwittingly become the new conservatives.

Continue reading “Must Read: Progressivism’s End (and renewal)”