The age of rule-by-pandering

By Peter Sauvé on May 15, 2008

As noted in The Métropolitain's May Day launch edition, the essential mission-statement of this new Montreal media enterprise is considerable—to encourage all of us take back our democracy from those political, media and bureaucratic elites who've commandeered it for the worse.

And that starts by expanding public debate from those who, all too often, have self-servingly defined it only to limit it.

Have our leaders really led us? Have they led us to where we want to go? Federal government support payments and equalization transfers from Ontario and the West aside, is Montreal better off now than it was before the socio-cultural engineers in Ottawa and Quebec City turned language and culture into a national industry?

Toronto sure is.

Do Montreal merchants along the Main praise the city's leadership and vision in road-work administration? Did the concept of "public works" actually work for those businesses?

Our federal leadership supports Quebec's Bill 101, but opposes bilingualism on English-media airwaves here. Locally, many non-French leaders and journalists who would never condemn Bill 101 or its sign regulations indignantly huff and puff whenever the language police actually do their job enforcing them.

We live in times of rule-by-pandering.

No, this isn't going to be a tedious "idealistic journalist bashes government, defends the people" piece. On the contrary, we the people usually get the government we deserve. To a lesser extent, we also get the media we deserve. And having had considerable exposure to both in the English part of this city and province, it's clear that we the people have been greatly complicit in our own dimunition.

We the people—particularly those of us west of St. Lawrence Boulevard—are lazy. Very lazy, and self-defeating. When the bad gang from Quebec City threatens and thunders against us, we always go into cower-and-deny mode, expecting "our" media and elected officials to do battle for us.

They never do, of course, because the governing interests of our Big Media typically follow Big Politics on such delicate national issues. However, it's not all-Pravda all the time here. There are several highly welcome exceptions—enough to prevent any of us from misrepresenting our intellectual laziness and indifference as being consensus-driven.

But we the people west of St. Lawrence like to pretend. We like to think that it's all that bad gang's fault, and that all would be well if they would just go away. We want our media to sneer and take cheap shots at them while reporting even their petty foibles as news. Under no circumstances do we ever want to critically examine "our" own big-media's agenda, however—we'd rather believe a lie in The Gazette than a truth in a weekly paper.

For us, size makes right. In any public debate, we're suckers for quantity, not quality, and our elites know it. That's why we the people west of St. Lawrence are in such a mess, and why many of us can't deal with it. Easier to buy into the same old big-media bromides that perpetuate the staus quo than to generate intellectual and political self-initiative.

The irony is that we the people west of St. Lawrence think they the people east of St. Lawrence who hang with that bad gang from Quebec City are the brainwashed people in this province. The former accuse the latter of simply transferring their earlier religious worship and governance practices to the new church of parochial political nationalism and failing to see how they're manipulated by their leaders.

Well, let the people west of St. Lawrence who are without sin on that one cast the first stone.

Writing in The Suburban, Quebec's second-largest English newspaper, musician-comedian Rick Blue astutely summed it up, noting how all our political leaders divide and manipulate us through fear.

"It is good for them to keep both linguistic populations in a constant state of fear: in the case of English-speaking federalists in Quebec, the fear of losing their country; and in the case of French-speakers in Quebec, the fear of losing their language and culture," Blue notes. "For my entire lifetime, I have watched the elite of this country use this fear to their advantage. Careers have been made on one side or the other of this divide and billions of tax dollars have been spent on it."Deliberately misdirecting our attention to the so-called national-unity issue enables all leaders to skirt more routine and tougher questions we want answered, Blue says, adding it's just as important for Ottawa to perpetuate this game.

That's precisely why, from 1980 through 1995, federal politicians and Quebec's English media rarely failed to aggrandize the separatist threat while consistently suppressing any coverage of its logical counterpart— partition. God forbid we should ever tell the great Canadian unwashed the truth about secession for fear of challenging Quebec nationalism while emboldening the weak people west of St. Lawrence.

The same separation stick complemented the carrot in Ottawa's promotion of official bilingualism across Canada in 1968. The Official Languages Act was sold as a powerful preventative that would quash Quebec separatism, the Liberals said, before proceeding to spend the next 30-odd years beating the same tired drum to buttress their policy agendas.

Fittingly, the bafflegab that            has characterized national-unity discourse has spread to higher levels of inter-provincial relations, with Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty's call for fair play in federal equalization payments to Ontario marking the latest outbreak.

For decades, Ontario has benefitted enormously from the existence of Quebec's anti-English language laws through head-office and talented human-capital migration—one reason why, aside from its federal Liberal ties, the Toronto Star supported Bill 101. In return, Ontario's so-called "have" status benefitted Quebec greatly through lopsided, federally-mandated transfer payments.

Thus, instead of suffering the natural consequences of legislating and strictly enforcing laws against English, Quebec's odious practices were effectively subsidized at others' expense—mainly Ontario's. Doubtless, this scheme was Ottawa's cowardly way of appeasing Quebec nationalism while sparing Bay Street the financial fallout from hyped-up separation rhetoric.

That might have been good for Ontario, but, thankfully, deals with the devil always backfire. And now, faced with Quebec's newly-emerging "have" status and the prospect of having to send equalization transfers to Ontario, the bad gang in Quebec City has been given a powerful argument for self-extrication from the Canadian mosaic -- la nation Quebecoise shouldn't have to pay Ontario's bills.

If McGuinty hasn't already received the phone call from Ottawa, he will soon be made to understand the first law of the new Canada: that equality is not a two-way street. And if you complain too long, the separation stick will trump the carrot.

Our public debates are controlled largely by the aforementioned elites—not always a bad thing necessarily, as long as their members remember the "servant" in the term "public servant," and consistently undertake to act in the "public interest." But why should they when the public isn't interested in public debate.

Three-hundred years ago, Montreal was governed by the fur trade. Today, we talk about free-trade and fair-trade. Here's hoping correctitude-indifferent media like this one can help end the fear-trade that's hurt Montreal. 


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