Sears: Where did Canada’s famed civility go?

Indeed:

At the beginning of this century, former senator Hugh Segal — one of the few politicians with genuine friendships across all party lines — made a plea. 

He called it “In Defence of Civility,” a book published in 2000. Segal is the classic Red Tory, fiscally somewhat conservative, socially somewhat liberal, always courteous.

His plea made the usual case for civility, especially in public discourse where its absence lets dangerous currents rise to the surface. Segal’s effort to put his finger in the dike came at a time when the decline in civility was still in its “Your mother wears army boots” phase. We had yet to fall to today’s depths, where a would-be prime minister once thought it was acceptable to attack a former Liberal party leader as the father of a policy “tar baby.” (Pierre Poilievre was forced to apologize.) 

Or when an MP can accuse Justin Trudeau of behaving like a “dictator,” although in his defence one must also note that Stephen Harper was regularly denounced as a “traitor” by opponents. 

This might all be dismissed as adolescent male schoolyard dissing, except for what comes in its wake. Some bewildered Canadians — like the man who rammed his pickup truck into Rideau Hall with the intention of killing the prime minister — decide traitors need to be “dealt” with. Or the vicious attacks on politicians — more often on women than men — on social media; attacks frequently include obscene death threats. 

Alberta MLA Shannon Phillips discovered that Lethbridge police officers had illegally surveilled her every move, stalked her into restaurants and then published covert photographs of her online, along with threatening commentary. All are still unpunished and on salary. 

Canadians used to be famous, even mocked, for our civility, tolerance and willingness to compromise, as in the joke: “How do you get a Canadian to apologize? Stomp on his toe.” 

It’s hard to nail down why a commitment to such an unusually mild public discourse emerged. 

It is certainly not part of the social DNA of Americans, Aussies or Brits, with whom we share so much common history. Traditional French incivility may be more elegantly framed, but no less wounding for all that. 

Perhaps it grew out of the need to pretend to show respect to Canada’s Indigenous peoples, so as to beguile them into suicidal concessions. 

Or as David Graeber and David Wengrow point out in “The Dawn of Everything,” their monumental study of how we made the societal choices we did, the influence may have been that of Indigenous peoples on Canadian settlers. Contrary to myth, most Indigenous peoples had deeply layered forms of courtesy and respect for each other and their enemies, communicating with eloquent formality on state occasions. It was part of how they kept the peace. 

Another thread in our effort to maintain a harmonious social tapestry must have been the often painful relationship between francophone and anglophone Canadians, and the need to manage mutual concessions on an ongoing basis. 

It is evident in our remarkable, if unfathomable, success at growing from an all-white, somewhat racist and socially rigid community to the most successful multicultural nation on earth. Surprisingly, we are in overwhelming agreement that adding nearly five million immigrants and refugees a decade — more than ten per cent of our population — to Canada is a good and necessary thing.

So why are we so frivolously throwing away the social civility that makes that possible? We can blame Americans, social media, too little civics education and more. More usefully, we might examine why over-the-top insults are so appealing to most of us, when directed at a hated target, or why Trudeau knows that when he uses insulting invective to attack his opponents, it’s a political plus for him. And then putting ourselves in the shoes of those under attack — especially the young and the vulnerable — before spitting a slur at someone who offends us. 

Perhaps even acknowledging that we are the masters of the fate of our civility, and that “ the fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.”

Source: Where did Canada’s famed civility go?

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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