The year after 150th feels like the year after my graduation. There was a lot of pressure. Folks said, ‘He spent a lot of money on that degree, how did he use it?’ Now, how do you see the year after 150th?
Maybe this torches your analogy a bit, but I don’t think we graduated. I don’t think the 150th was, in any meaningful way, a success. In fact, I think many people would say it was a bit of a non-event. It certainly didn’t leave the kind of mark on the country that the Centennial did. As two major milestones, they are miles apart.
Why was that?
Part of the reason is context. It was the ‘60s, we were in the midst of the Baby Boom. Canada’s population was growing and our economy was roaring. Canadians asked themselves, ‘What should a self-respecting country have achieved by its Centennial?’ The response transformed the country. It was a wish list that included everything from major infrastructure like subways in Montreal and Toronto, to new national institutions and social rights, to new iconography such as the flag.
Fast forward to 2017: No one asked Canadians about their sense of the country’s unfinished business; about the work that needed doing. Consequently, 2017 proceeded in a void that lacked both political ambition and social imagination. Now we’re seeing this same void filled by strong apprehension about the future. My sense is that Canadians are kind of smiling through gritted teeth right now. Today is okay—just—but people are worried about the future and how we’ll deal with profound environmental and economic change.
In terms of the climate, it’s hard not to feel deeply pessimistic. In terms of employment, it’s about technology displacing skilled labour. This is even harder to swallow than stagnant wages, because people start to worry that technology will make them obsolete. It goes right to the core of a person’s sense of self-worth.
How can you make the future relevant to people in the present?
I think the future is abundantly relevant to most people already. People have a good sense for the clouds on the horizon. The difficulty is that these challenges are so much larger than any one person, community or nation. As a result, people start to feel powerless and, socially, that’s the real hazard just now—much as we’re seeing in many, many other countries. Of course, as a double-whammy, this is compounded by the decline of many of the sense-making institutions in society: labour, mainstream media, big tent parties, civic associations, communities of faith.
Here too, our politics is largely silent about the future, despite all the platitudes about children and our children’s children.
I think we need a much more future-oriented politics that talks more actively about how we collectively apply ourselves to meet these challenges. Sense-making, sign-posting, an elevating narrative of shared purpose: these are each in high demand.
There must’ve been something during the 150th that captured our social imagination?
I think one of the most phenomenal events in recent Canadian history has been hiding in plain view: the private-sponsorship Syrian refugee settlement program. It started in 2015, but arguably as a national project that inspired and mobilized tens of thousands of Canadians, it will be Canada’s most successful legacy from the sesquicentennial period.
There was scale, mobilization, and a unique model of public-civic partnership that responded to a specific and overwhelming humanitarian tragedy. We don’t yet know how to take the lessons of this incredible experience and translate it to a wider array of policy or social challenges, but I think the future of citizenship and public leadership can be found here.
As a country, we have to take on some big challenges and opportunities over the next decade. What is that daily dose of bottled 150th energy you think folks should carry with them?
Let’s not bottle it. Instead, let’s learn from the Syrian experience and tap into the much deeper currents of civic ability throughout this country. I think it’s vitally important that periodically, in people’s lives, we each have the opportunity to have an experience of civic life that is incredibly memorable, powerful, strenuous, and beautiful.
We need civic scaffolding that can support experiences that can’t be found in the market, at home, or in workplaces. Ultimately, it is an experience of civic purpose and civic efficacy that deepens our sense of belonging.