Perspectives on a Country: Charlottetown

By LAWRENCE KOOTNIKOFF

Does anything change in this country of ours? Maybe not, though what´s important is to remember how long these problems have been with us - since 1759 at least. I wrote this rant almost six years ago, for the Vancouver Sun.

MEXICO CITY - (Oct. 21, 1992) From my vantage point in the smoggy centre of Mexico City, I watch the constitutional dance play out on my computer screen. Through the Associated Press system, I can read Canadian Press and follow the debate hour by hour.

I cover elections in a country that has never had a free vote. I report on human rights where torture by police is common. I write articles on free trade where opponents of the government's economic program are often warned not to speak to foreign reporters.

I live in a country where 40 million people live in extreme poverty, according to conservative estimates. Millions of children suffer from malnutrition. Each day I give a few pesos to the beggars and children as I go into my office to read that Canada doesn't work.

They say there's nothing like leaving your country to turn you into a patriot. I've been working in Mexico for two years now, brought here partly by the challenge and adventure of working in a foreign country, partly by the prospect of unemployment in Canada.

I'd always planned to return one day, but now I wonder if I'll have a country to return to.

The worst of it is that there's nothing I can do about it. I watch the once-great Canadian spirit of compromise disintegrate on my computer screen, but I have no say in the Oct. 26 referendum. Canadians are being asked to vote on the latest modification to our 230-year-old compromise called Canada. But I, like two to three million other Canadians living abroad, cannot vote in what may be the most important choice we will ever make.

I was born on the West Coast and grew up in Vancouver. Before coming to Mexico I lived and worked in Quebec. I spent two years in Quebec City, five minutes from the windy Plains of Abraham, where this whole mess started in 1759.

From that vantage point I watched the last badly handled attempt at compromise crumble, and saw federalist francophone friends become separatists. Now Canadians are getting one more chance: I believe a ``No'' this time would lead to the inevitable splintering and destruction of my country.

In school I was taught that Canada was a place where tolerance and reason had banished extremisms. I was taught that there was a Canadian talent for nation-building and compromise that had created living arrangements between English and French, East and West and rich and poor provinces, while other countries destroyed themselves in sectarian conflicts.

Those were the values, I and millions of other Canadians were told, that had fashioned a nation that was the envy of the world. I still believe that. But now I see other values, values I suppose were always present, coming now to the fore and tearing my country apart.

When I come home to Vancouver for a visit, it takes a while to get used to some things, like being able to drink water from the faucet, not having to cross the street at the sight of police, and not being confronted with the obscene contrast of fabulous wealth and crushing poverty that I see every day in Mexico.

But there's something else that takes getting used to, something new. There's a sourness, a sense of intolerance and meanspiritedness abroad in Canada today. And it's focussed all its rancour on the current constitutional debate and referendum.

Try explaining to friends and relatives who live in other countries that Canada may destroy itself over a ``distinct society'' clause. Try telling them that some Canadians are preparing to risk the end of their country to punish an incompetent prime minister. Try explaining to them that many English Canadians, who see their culture threatened by free trade and a flood of American culture and values, get upset when their French Canadian friends enact a sign law to protect their own threatened culture, so upset that some are ready to end a two-century partnership.

Try telling the 40 million Mexicans who live in extreme poverty and who would gladly trade their troubles for our own, that some Canadians are going to vote ``No'' because the Charlottetown deal doesn't do enough for the rights of disabled people. Try telling those Mexicans that ``Canada doesn't work.''

Mexico has a fine constitution, guaranteeing freedom of the press, of thought, religion, and promising equality of all before the law. It also promises democracy, free elections and specifically bans torture. Yet the current president holds office following an election many believe he actually lost.

Police routinely prefer to beat confessions out of innocent people rather than pursue investigations to find the guilty. Reporters risk losing their jobs or even death by criticizing the powerful, and the president's office routinely phones newspaper editors and broadcastors to instruct them not to cover certain stories or to print views critical to the government.

The Death of Wolfe...

What matters then is not letters on paper, but the willingness to compromise, live together and get along. This vote is important, not because of the details or the final wording of the legal text, whether government lawyers will sneak a semi-colon into a subsection that used to have a colon.

It's important not because it will end the struggle that has continued since Wolfe bested Montcalm on a windy plain outside Quebec City 230 years ago. It's important because it will demonstrate whether or not we still have the maturity and ability to accept an imperfect compromise, I fear we may have lost that. I'll be watching my computer screen on Oct. 26 to see if I'm wrong.