A cloud behind every silver lining
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 6 October 2007)

Bad things are happening in Saskatchewan, even as the rest of Canada callously ignores them. Just this week, David Carpenter, the Saskatoon novelist, gave the news to Shelagh Rogers on her CBC program, Sounds Like Canada. It seems that large sums of money are flowing into Saskatchewan, the result of increased demand for natural resources. More people are working. House prices are rising, to boom-like levels. That's bad news, of course. As Carpenter reminded us, booms are often followed by busts, which make everyone miserable. Look at Vancouver!

Carpenter, altogether serious, was articulating the Canadian belief that there's a cloud behind every silver lining. He demonstrated an ancient truth: In Canada pessimism is not only popular, it's more or less mandatory. The one thing Canadians agree on is that success breeds failure.

Visitors to our anxiety-ridden country find this national disposition amusing, perhaps even lovable in its way. Andrew Malcolm, who used to cover Canada for The New York Times, wrote that Canadians always believe things are going to get a whole lot worse before they become really terrible.

To adapt a phrase of Freud's, pessimism is essential to the psychopathology of Canadian life. We learn in childhood that when oil prices go down it's a bad thing, but when they go up it's also a bad thing. Some individuals will benefit either way but as a society we never rejoice; the downside is the side where we're most comfortable.

For many years, we described the low dollar in doleful terms: feeble, frail, weak, anaemic, etc. But now that it's slightly exceeded parity with the U.S. dollar, it's regarded as a rampaging monster, creating terror among editorialists.

The Toronto Star leads the country in this field. It has a special cupboard for storing dour economic cliches. The editors never miss a chance to point out that, while things may look good, they are actually bad. In July, an editorial, "Ontario bracing for perfect storm," told us not to be fooled by the recent rise in retail trade. "On the surface, the Canadian economy looks to be on a roll," noted the Star. But apparently this is when we should worry most. The editors opened their cupboard and began spraying cliches at the problem.

Some economists are optimistic, the editors admitted, "But there are others who see dark clouds forming." Some think the strong dollar reflects prosperity but the Star now calls it "the galloping dollar." The editors also advised us that "Uncertainty over the economy is rampant," though without mentioning any time in history when uncertainty was not rampant. Weakness in the U.S. economy will hurt us, so how should the federal and provincial governments respond? "Caution must be the watchword" for policy-makers, though governments won't be able to "stand by idly." What should the Bank of Canada do? "Take a wait-and-see position ... until a clearer picture emerges as to whether the economic forecast points to blue skies or a perfect storm."

In 1965, George Grant, then of McMaster University, became Canada's most popular philosopher by writing Lament for a Nation, about the downfall of Canada and its inevitable collapse into the arms of the Americans. Young Canadians by the thousands were so impressed that they made his book the bible of that era's new nationalists.

At the time, Canada was prosperous, but Grant knew it was an empty prosperity, fuelled by American investment. The U.S. was fighting a ferocious war in Vietnam that provided spillover profits for Canada. We weren't in the war but Grant knew we operated as an American satellite.

If you interviewed Grant, as a number of us did, you eventually discovered that his views were broader than they seemed in the Liberal-hating, Diefenbaker-loving pages of Lament for a Nation. In fact, Grant's pessimism extended beyond Canada and even the United States. Western civilization, he was beginning to think, was probably a failed experiment. This was too depressing even for Canadian journalists, and most of us quickly moved on to easier topics, such as American capitalism's iron grip on our economy, achieved with the collaboration of the perfidious Liberals.

In Victorian England, there was a belief among Christians that chronic pessimism was sinful, a refusal to accept one's blessings joyfully. One day in 1889, the London Times referred to "the contagion of that moral evil ... visiting the end of the 19th century -- namely pessimism." When I came upon that quotation recently, I realized for the first time a horrible truth: Canadians are even gloomier than the gloomiest Victorians.

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