Telling Truths About Canada

Canadians have a fairly solid sense of themselves. If you seek, among the complexities of our national life, the expressions of common themes, the often repeated desires, the shared indications of intent or frustration, you can identify quite easily what sort of country we keep saying we want to be. Whenever asked, whenever listened to, citizens express with some confidence what kind of education system we want, what kind of health care, what minimum standards of living, what approach to justices. These are contemporary manifestations of fundamental themes. If a people know how they want to treat social and physical well-being, and shared rules of behaviour, and responsibility versus authority, then they have a good handle on the way they want to live together.

Yet our structures of leadership seem unable to digest these expressions of fairness, inclusivity, and effectiveness. Although entrusted with the mechanisms of power, those in charge seem to lack the self-confidence to listen. They seem paralyzed by the reality of their responsibility. Instead they peevishly concentrate on disparate short term details. If they reveal any hint of grander themes, these usually involve trying to drag the country off in directions the citizenry has never expressed much interest in. These are usually focused on a narrow and again short term idea of efficiency, order, and whatever the latest imported fashion might be. And so, when I look at how my country functions what I first see is a largely failed elite, – people given responsibility and power in a multitude of ways by the citizenry and yet somehow unable to act.

How, you might ask can I assign such importance to our elites when I have been arguing through the first two parts of this book that we are an egalitarian society in search of fairness? The answer is that we often misunderstand the meaning of the word elite. All societies have political leaders, civil servants, people who risk their lives for the rest of us, creative voices, professional intellectuals, corporate risk-takers, and business managers. These are, by function, leaders. That leadership function makes them into an elite. But a quick glance around the world also shows that elites come in all shapes and sizes. Ours is of the relatively innocuous sort. People rise into it and fall out of it with surprising ease. That ought to be a great strength. Few members manage to hold onto their influence, social position, or even financial advantage much beyond two generations. This is very different from most other democracies. But in our case, if there is a constant cleaning out and flowing in of new blood, it is all the more disturbing if they are failing in their role as a leadership group.

What is a successful elite? One that is able to think about the direction of its society and about its role in helping society as a whole to think about itself. This is an elite that can explain itself to society, and is able to act in both the broadest and narrowest sense upon the ideas that emerge from this thinking and explaining. These are people who want to build and to own, to be on the edge of creativity whether in business or the arts. They want to own things in order to shape events. To be a player. To create wealth. The more the actions of these public or private leaders are tied to a broad understanding of the situation at hand, the direction and the risks, the more successful the elite is.

John Ralston Saul
from A Fair Country
Telling Truths About Canada

A Fair Country