June 20, 1996 * Vol . 6, No. 4


Open your hears and contemplate new truths

In an address at last week's convocation ceremonies, B.C. publisher Scott McIntyre urged graduands to fight for Canada's identity, or it may be lost to the small-minded forces of regionalism and xenophobic nationalisms.

Cliché though it be, it seems to me we are living in revolutionary times. And while the Millennium as symbol is greatly abused, the digital explosion we are experiencing represents a quantum change from the world as defined by Gutenberg, the printing press and the hegemony of European linear thought.

We are entering an era where communication will be characterized by simultaneity, universal access and vast power. The result will be a rate of change afflicting institutions, and countries, unlike anything since the Renaissance.

If indeed the medium is the message, we are experiencing the birth of some kind of extraordinary global culture, one which will put huge pressure on the notion of the nation state, while greatly enhancing the influence and necessity of what I like to call the Knowledge Class. Plato called democracy "but an agreeable form of anarchy." The Internet gives disconcerting new meaning to that perception.

This digital revolution will transform our globe, and could be a force for enormous good. But will it have any kind of human heart? It seems to me that your generation will have to give some real shape and substance to what so far remain new techniques, rather than new ideas.

There must be a new kind of humanism, if you will, just as the rediscovered ideas of the Renaissance broke down the walls, prejudices, and rigid perceptions of Medieval Europe. We will need more than our share of fundamental human values - good faith, balance, acceptance of minority rights and alternate truths, particularly those offered by our First Nations Peoples - to temper the chaos of rapid change and the laissez-faire brutality of the economic machine so cherished by today's conventional wisdom.

As a consequence, you will enter a tough world, tougher than that faced by my generation, which enjoyed the rather euphoric interlude between the war and the diminished economic expectations of this decade. You face a future which may seem characterized by angst, debt load, virulent regional nationalisms and an inexorable drift to the political right. Yet look around you: this world is still a remarkable place, and it is, in truth, yours.

That brings me to the heart of my remarks, some thoughts about the nature of our country and what I am sadly convinced is our last chance to reinvent it.

We must now redefine, and fight for Canada, or lose it to the ultimately small-minded forces of regionalism and xenophobic nationalisms. That is the real challenge facing us today, and, fairly or unfairly, you will inherit the results.

We seem to have lost our faith in this country's extraordinary, if gentle, virtues. Not only are we blessed by nature, and to a significant extent by history, we are in the eyes of many this century's most compelling social experiment.

It seems particularly ironic that the notion of Canada as a necessary antidote to the unchained chaos of this century is a European idea, particularly advocated by the French. Edgard Pisani - once a Gaullist minister, no less - recently spoke eloquently about what he called "the Canadian issue," saying that "what Canada comes up with, or fails to invent, will help or hinder the creation of the future outline of the world, which has seen its bipolar structure vanish ... there is an original and very special Canadian civilization that is being threatened today."

And it is up to your generation, more than even mine, to figure out some way through that bramble patch. We will be where Asia meets Europe, and the inevitable challenging ideas which such an intermingling of cultures engenders will take root here, if we let them, and have the courage to nurture them.

Are we perfect? God save us from perfection. But we have set out as a nation to defy the inevitabilities of history - to let openness, justice, and equity prevail in a state where the free-wheeling imperatives of capital flow can be blunted by some genuine sense of social purpose.

We must now, as a priority, pay greater attention to the fundamental truths of our history, fulfilling what could still become our destiny by offering full justice to our First Nations, and recognizing the distinctness of Quebec.

First, of course, we must collectively remember that history. Our writers, our books and the Academy will be called upon to play a central role in this.

My generation's record in rebuilding this country has not been impressive. Yet this country has defied the odds, and the pundits, for almost 129 years. As my friend Keith Spicer likes to say, "Canada is not an accident of the market: it has been, is, and always must be an act of will." To put that another way, if I may paraphrase René Levesque, "We have a country to save, and very little time in which to save it."

Most importantly, British Columbians must now step forward and take their rightful place within the national debate. We have much in common with Quebec, yet our politicians and community leaders have too often ignored the national stage. It is no longer acceptable to hide behind the mountains where, as a Toronto colleague of mine once sneered: "The air molecules are further apart ... that explains the languor."

Our history, our future as the continent's front door to Asia, our economic clout, and simple common sense should all conspire to push British Columbians into taking an active role in shaping a new Canada.

Culture must play a central role in this. We seem to have abandoned our faith in cultural expression as the essential affirmation of belief. Confident people express their views, push boundaries, postulate their dreams, probe the edges of their psyches, and generally torment one another in the name of challenging stultified half-truths and confronting the future, wherever that may lead. Our writers and artists are our conscience; may we have the wit to hear them!

As a book publisher, someone with editorial tastes deeply rooted in the landscape, culture and history of this place, you would think I might have mentioned books by now. Let me simply say that, for all the seductions of the new media, books are still the best, and most efficient, way to communicate an idea.

Never have books been more important or necessary than now; Canada's achievement in building a regionally and generically diverse publishing community should be acknowledged and supported as a significant cultural success.

All of this leads - blissfully, I suspect - to some concluding remarks. If they sound too much like advice, something parents learn early on to be wary of, so be it.

First, you are young; savor that. For all the angst of the world around us, it is an extraordinary period in history to be young.

Never forget that your generation will make a huge difference to your country and this planet. Whatever else you do, engage the causes and battles which confront you.

Reflect upon the fact that in this country dreams can still be realized. When I recall the early days of Douglas & McIntyre, when Jim Douglas - who has quite rightly stood upon this podium before me - and I began our idealistic little enterprise, the opportunities and satisfactions which have characterized the last 25 years were well beyond our ken. The path has not been easy, but it is a great gift to be able to look back upon a chosen path with few regrets.

I exhort you to take big risks. In my own experience, it is the risks which will define your life and become the touchstones, good and bad, which you will remember. There is great satisfaction in jumping off metaphorical cliffs from time to time, although that satisfaction is usually enhanced by soft landings.

Your generation must save Canada. Be prepared to open your hearts and contemplate new truths; you and your children will inherit whatever it is that you create.

Finally, I wish you all courage, passion, the will to contribute to the world around you, the wisdom to learn from your experience, the strength to endure the bad with the good, and, of course, a hell of a lot of good luck.

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