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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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