Quizzing the nation’s happy, ignorant citizens



Canada may only rate a “gentleman’s C” for the democratic timber of her governance. In fact, when it comes to fair, just and responsible representation, the Great White North may be slipping up in all sorts of ways. But do we care?

Over the past few years, the tone of discourse on Parliament Hill has fractured into dozens of discordant shards, each cutting away at the comforting conceit that this country is not only a paragon of egalitarian virtue – it’s a courteous one at that.

From bitterly partisan attacks on former Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page  – who had the gall to do his job well – to salvos lobbed earlier this month at Supreme Court Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin – who deigned to question the prime minister on a matter of procedure – evidence of the federal government’s disdain for any authority other than its own is mounting. 

And yet, we tell ourselves: Don’t worry, be happy.

Not long ago, the Ottawa-based Centre for the Study of Living Standards – an independent think tank whose projects are financed by a variety of public and private sources – concluded that “Canadians are happy and getting happier.” 

Based on the results of a survey it conducted in 2012, it noted that “more than nine out of 10 Canadians aged 12 and over (92.3 per cent) reported that they were satisfied or very satisfied with their lives.”

In fact, the Center reported, “According to a Gallup World Poll taken in February 2012, Canada is the second happiest country in the world preceded only by Denmark. Our ranking has increased from fifth place (2007-8 Gallup World Poll), indicating that Canada is becoming happier relative to its international peers.”

The regional variations were also striking. The traditionally poorer provinces – where consistently good governance tends to be diamond-rare – were happier than the wealthier ones. “Based on the 2003-2011 period average, Nova Scotia, Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador had the highest average levels of life satisfaction, while British Columbia, Ontario and Nunavut had the lowest,” the Centre observed. “Between 2003 and 2011, life satisfaction increased by a statistically significant amount in Quebec and the Yukon.”

Clearly, it’s not the calibre of our politics that keeps us up at night. 

Last week, the Centre released another report – this one on “sustainable governance indicators” for Germany’s Bertelsmann Foundation. In it, the authors Andrew Sharpe, Anke Kessler and Martin Thunert conclude that “A strong case can be made that the quality of governance provided by the government of Canada deteriorated somewhat from May 2011 to May 2013. While the government has constructed high-quality governance structures and implemented effective policies in many areas over many decades, the actions of the Conservative government since winning a majority of the seats in the House of Commons in May 2011 have jeopardized this situation.”

Indeed, say the authors, “There are numerous examples in which Canada’s government has demonstrated a lack of commitment both to the use of evidence in its decision-making and to the provision of high-quality data.”

There is, for example, the elimination of the once-mandatory long form census, without which economists, educators, actuaries, scientists and my Aunt Mabel are in the dark about practically everything that’s necessary to maintaining a high standard of living.

There’s also the Tory fascination with putting bad guys in jail and throwing away the key, even though what statistics we still collect clearly show that incidents of violent crime in Canada are on a 40-year downslope.

Then, of course, there’s the environment to which our official attitudes have cooled even as the Earth has grown demonstrably warmer. 

“The government’s skeptical attitude toward global warming and apparent unwillingness to offer an effective strategy for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, as manifested by its repeal of the Kyoto Accord, are seen by many as inconsistent with sustainable governance,” notes the Center’s report.

Still, why don’t more of us care? We should. 

Sustainable democratic governance is the wellspring of everything we take for granted and on which we, nevertheless, depend. 

We may have a right to pursue that which makes us happy, but not to the extent of deluding ourselves about the condition of the public institutions that make the pursuit possible.


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