Chairman's Desk

The fragile façade of Confederation

This editorial first appeared in the Toronto Star on April 21, 2019.

Just as it is for most people who do what I do for a living, our office is littered with television monitors tuned to a variety of news channels from around the world.

And like it is for most of us, we become inured to the onslaught of images that come our way. Some real. Some fake. Many tragic. A few uplifting.

But the truth is, the images eventually become electronic wallpaper.

That is, of course, until this week when I looked up from my desk and saw the torrent of flames blasting through the vaulted roof and spire of Notre Dame Cathedral.

Like millions of others the world over, I was stopped in my tracks. I couldn’t take my eyes off the television screen as I thought about not only the immense tragedy unfolding, in real time, before me but how a symbol so strong, that had endured for so long had been revealed so quickly as fragile and vulnerable.

Over its long history, the cathedral has withstood politics, factionalism and terror.

The 13th century gallery of biblical kings installed on the façade served to symbolically align the monarchy and the Catholic Church by implying a continued lineage from the kings of Judah. During the Revolution, these statues were torn from their gallery and publicly beheaded.

As the First Republic ushered in official atheism, Notre Dame was transformed into a monument to the “Cult of Reason,” with religious icons replaced by altars to Enlightenment values like Liberty and Truth. After the restoration, the kings were reinstated and the church returned to its glory as a place of worship.

And even more threatening were Hitler’s plans to bomb the cathedral — along with most of Paris as we know it — rather than allow the city to fall into Allied hands. It was General Dietrich von Choltitz who disobeyed Hitler’s orders and saved the cathedral.

Notre Dame has miraculously withstood the threats of history with a stubborn resilience.

I thought about that magnificent cathedral this week. The dreams that inspired it. The skill and courage that it took to build it. The remarkable ability of it to adapt, change and still stay true to its values, I thought about our very own Confederation.

We, of course, don’t have cathedrals built in the 12th century in this country but we do, in their place, have the great Canadian experiment, sometimes called the great Canadian dream.

The dream of an improbably small country spread out among one of the most vast geographies of the world. A country that has — for a mere 150 years — defied the odds to remain united in vision and purpose.

And yet like Notre Dame what seems strong and secure and enduring is perhaps more fragile than we know.

This week we are focused on the remarkable success of Jason Kenney in Alberta. But it is useful to understand that his success follows on Doug Ford in Ontario, Scott Moe in Saskatchewan, François Legault in Quebec and Brian Pallister in Manitoba.

And what do these leaders have in common? Some say a move to the right. But that is a facile understanding. What they really share is an expression from their respective electorates of a desire to retreat from that great Canadian experiment.

In province after province, voters have chosen in their narrow provincial interests and not in the national interests. There are many reasons for this; many legitimate reasons. Regional alienation. Lack of economic achievement. A sense that people are not doing as well as those before them.

But the result is the same: a dangerous diminution of the value of the Canadian experiment. A dangerous diminution in the willingness to let someone else — a fellow Canadian — go first.

Politicians are skilfully, and successfully, exploiting this. Why wouldn’t they? That’s how our system works.

In fact, our system has driven our political leaders to act like the short term managers that have come to populate Bay Street. Worry about the next quarter and hope the long term will take care of itself.

It is too early to tell but we may find that our Confederation, which like Notre Dame is grand and imposing from the outside, may actually be much more vulnerable.