Cohen: Compared to Centennial year, Canada at 150 has lost the ambition for great projects

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Amid the groaning banquet of objects and artifacts, a gentle awakening awaits visitors to the new Canadian History Hall in the Canadian Museum of History. It is Expo 67.

An exhibit and film trigger a cascade of memory. They recall that moment in Montreal when we staged the most successful world’s fair of the 20th century. It was Canada’s glorious, crowded hour, the centrepiece of a year-long national celebration of our Centennial in 1967.

The pavilions. Habitat 67. The Minirail and miniskirts. Against that, the soundtrack of the time: Hey Friend, Say Friend. A Place to Stand, A Place to Grow. And, of course, Bobby Gimby’s catchy anthem, Ca-na-da.

The theme was “Man and His World.” No one apologized. In imagination, the fair was to the world then what London’s Great Exhibition represented in 1851. Indeed, Expo 67 was a sprawling Crystal Palace, set on artificial islands in the St. Lawrence, heralding achievements in science, technology, health, exploration, architecture, the arts and other fields.

Having visited Expo 34 times as a starry-eyed sixth-grader, I was overcome by sentimentality and wistfulness by the display at the museum. Why? Because Expo 67 could not happen in today’s Canada. Because we don’t aspire to much anymore. Because, on our 150th birthday, Canada has many fine qualities but ambition — a coursing, creative ambition — is no longer among them.

Oh, how far we have come in the last half-century: more people (20 million to 36 million); more diversity (20 per cent of Canadian are born elsewhere); greater unity (separatism is in eclipse); deeper humanity (a sensitivity to Jews, blacks and Indigenous Peoples). In a world of terrorism, populism and radicalism, we have peace, order and stability. This is extraordinary.

For all that, we have lost something. It’s an ability to see ourselves the way a post-war Canada could: doing things such as Expo, honouring our history, imagining something bigger.

Pierre Berton called 1967 “the last good year” — a halcyon time for Canada before the constitutional wars, stagflation, and wage and price controls. We survived it all, but lost something precious, too: the capacity to dream.

By 1967, Canada had been working feverishly since 1945. We built schools and universities, laced the country with a highway and inter-city trains, dug subways, created museums, theatres and arenas. With a small but serious military, we led the world in peacekeeping, maintained respectable foreign aid and fielded a superb diplomatic service.

Lester Pearson introduced or enhanced old-age pensions, medicare, a new flag, student loans, labour rights, liberal immigration and the Order of Canada. Pierre Trudeau’s Just Society liberalized divorce and homosexuality and legislated official bilingualism.

We celebrated all that in the 1960s and kept going. In a heroic act of nation-building, Trudeau patriated the Constitution with a Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Brian Mulroney embraced free trade and a national sales tax. Jean Chrétien established 2,000 research chairs.

Stephen Harper’s government, by contrast, celebrated the War of 1812 (barely mentioned in the new Canada Hall) and the Arctic, but was seized by little else beyond lowering taxes. The Conservatives viewed the approaching sesquicentennial like the visit of an alcoholic uncle.

The Liberals inherited their meagre commemoration but have failed to declare a national project worthy of the milestone. The Liberal government invests in infrastructure, plans pipelines and announces an indigenous centre across from Parliament. This we call ambition.

In 2017, Canadians are captains of complacency. We borrow more money than ever (household debt hit a record 167 per cent in 2016) and give less (charitable donations fell to the lowest in a decade last year.) Among leading industrialized nations, we are slipping — less rich and less productive than we were.

Sacrifice is passé. We congratulate ourselves for taking some 40,000 Syrian refugees, forgetting that as a smaller country we took some 69,000 Vietnamese boat people in the late 1970s.

Why are we so timid? We could have prettier cities. We could have faster trains. We could have better universities. We could have European health care. We could have an elected Senate or no Senate, but we’re afraid – heaven forbid – to re-open the Constitution.

We rest on our laurels. We are resentful of excellence. We are hard on our politicians, unfairly so, thinking they are paid too much, do too little and live too well on our dime. Increasingly, we are stiflingly politically correct.

Our commitment to comfort begets mediocrity. It makes us unwilling or unable to seek distinction.

Patriotism? For most, it’s waving the flag on July 1, wearing red mittens during the Olympic Games, and buying a double-double at Tim Hortons. Voting? Volunteerism? Charity? National service? That’s for others.

When we want, we are the best of the world: in winter sports, telecommunications, national parks, managing immigration, finding the civility to live with each other. We can own the podium anywhere, in anything.

On our 150th anniversary, let us ask each other with honesty: Are we worthy of Canada? Do we appreciate our gifts of history, geography and prosperity? Is Canada wasted on Canadians?

The greatest antidote to the contented Canadian is ambition. It is to think big: to support culture; to encourage innovative urban planning; to close the digital divide and address a generational discontent over wealth; to reconcile with Indigenous Canada; to give our citizenship real meaning so immigrants embrace it; to act — not just talk — in the world.

If our reach cannot exceed our grasp, what’s a Canada for?

Andrew Cohen is a journalist, professor and author of The Unfinished Canadian: The People We Are.

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