Canada's Prophets Of Pessimism

Historians in the News

Clifford Krauss, The New York Times, 29 Sept. 2004

As one of Canada's pre-eminent historians, David Bercuson of the University of Calgary is not your average couch potato. But with beer in hand and feet up on the sofa, he watched the Olympics on television last month to cheer on the world champion hurdler Perdita Felicien to win a gold medal for Canada.

When Ms. Felicien inexplicably stumbled into the very first hurdle like a rank amateur, Mr. Bercuson dashed straight to his computer. He knocked out a screed declaring that her sad performance, and that of the entire Canadian Olympic team, was just another symptom of ''the national malaise'' that is making Canada a second-rate, uncompetitive nation.

''It's not the individual performers whose shortcomings are on display for all the world to see,'' he wrote in an op-ed article for The Calgary Herald. ''It is the very spirit of the nation and the sickness that now has hold of it that is at fault.''

His acidic commentary is characteristic of the view of a growing number of historians, foreign policy thinkers and columnists from some of the nation's top newspapers. Many see themselves as part of an informal school that has no name or single mentor, but all are writing the same assessment: Canada is in decline, or at the very least, has fallen short of their aspirations.

For these thinkers, Canada is adrift at home and wilting as a player on the world stage. It is dogged by not only uninspired leaders but also by a lack of national purpose, stunted imagination and befuddled priorities even as its economy prospers.

''I'm in almost total despair,'' Michael Bliss, a University of Toronto historian, said in an interview. ''You have a country, but what is it for and what is it doing?''

In a newly published updated edition of his classic ''Right Honorable Men,'' about Canada's leaders through history, Mr. Bliss wonders about the recent ''decline in quality'' of the nation's leadership. ''A logjam developed in the river of Canadian political history,'' he wrote. ''Where are the visionaries?''

Canada may still have a glowing reputation as a sensible country that promotes peace and social justice abroad, and it is a pioneer in decriminalizing drugs and allowing same-sex marriage. But, they groan, the bold foreign aid programs of the past have been much reduced.

It once built great railroads, conquered the Arctic and had the world's fourth largest armed forces at the end of World War II, pioneering peacekeeping in distant trouble spots. But today, they argue, Canada outfits its peacekeepers with 40-year-old helicopters and decrepit jeeps akin to dune buggies.

The country, they say, has seemingly come to define greatness by how much money it sinks into health care or day care. Even so, education budgets are shrinking and there is brain drain of doctors and other professionals to the United States.

Such themes run through two widely sold recent books by two of Canada's most distinguished authors, ''Who Killed the Canadian Military?'' by J. L. Granatstein and ''While Canada Slept: How We Lost Our Place in the World'' by Andrew Cohen, which earlier in the year was on the Canadian best-seller lists for 10 weeks.

The two books hark back to the days when Canada lifted far more than its weight to win World Wars I and II and when Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1956 for his role in establishing a United Nations peacekeeping force that settled the Suez Crisis.

''What has happened to that sense, that impulse for excellence, that sense of ambition that gives life to a nation?'' asked Mr. Cohen in an interview. ''We're a country with a strange attitude toward success.''

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