We're losing the ability to imagine our future


It was my morning hour-long power walk around town. Signs of spring were in the air, tradesmen replacing shingles from the usual weather damage, tourist shops showing hints of life anticipating the new season.

I also noticed cracks and frost heaves on the sidewalks sprayed bright yellow to alert the tourists to the minor hazards, which, other than repair, was a thoughtful approach. But my lasting impression was the lack of major reinvestment in the community. It seemed like minimum maintenance to keep the place alive.

Why is that? Is there not enough tourist traffic to warrant larger investments? Could it be that our business owners are getting too old as a cohort, and risk-adverse? Or could it be something else?

Coincidentally, my thinking has been focused on confidence, or lack thereof. John Ralston Saul writes about this in A Fair Country. He points out that Canadians have lost their confidence; instead of building new products and taking them to market, we’ve become a nation of resource extractors who sell off the commons to purchase things produced by others.

He sees this as more than just a Canadian problem; it’s global. He asks why, for example, new jet fighter planes are actually slower than their predecessors. And I wonder too, with the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter purchase debacle on the front pages over the last few weeks. But it’s not the cost of the plane that’s the issue, it’s why we’re buying it that’s the real issue. The F-35 is not particularly suited to long haul Arctic patrols, nor can it out-run or out-fight the current generation of Russian Sukhoi fighters.

A few op-ed writers have already pointed out that this takes us back to the Avro Arrow program, when Canadians developed the most sophisticated fighter in the world. By 1958, before Diefenbaker’s government cut them into pieces, the $400+ million project created a plane that was the first to be designed on a computer, fly by wire, fly by wire with control feedback, capable of flying from the ground via data link and a whole lot more. After the project was killed, the chief aerodynamicist, Jim Chamberlain, went on to lead NASA’s team of engineers on the manned space mission. He was just the tip of the brain-drain iceberg that floated south.

So how bad is the new F-35? An Australian study has concluded that the plane—also slated for their air force, is simply overmatched by the older Russian planes, among others. And it’s more than three times more expensive per unit.

Still, we’ll probably buy them. The political deal was made long ago when Canada agreed to co-develop a new Joint Strike Fighter with the U.S. in return for some of the aerospace subcontracting work.

What is clear is that Canada and Canadians have no long-term vision of what we should be doing as a nation—and to protect our nation. And that lack of vision makes it impossible to invest in ourselves (as in, ‘invest in what?’), let alone believe in ourselves.

Canada is an Arctic and sub-Arctic nation with vast natural resources and a growing Aboriginal population. What will we do to engage these people, to protect our resources, and to conserve these resources for future generations? The question is not rhetorical.

The Canadian government has just let a $30 billion contract to Irving build new icebreakers for the Arctic. From what I’ve read these will be thin-hulled ships suited to lighter ice conditions of a warming polar region. But the Americans, Russians, Norwegians, Danes and others are all well ahead of us with thick-hulled equipment that could better patrol our waters right now. Where have we been for the last three decades? Answer: cutting budgets and selling off our resources and companies to foreign interests at rock bottom prices.

We can’t just limit this to the national level, either. Closer to home I worked to rebrand and reimagine a local not-for-profit.

Over the last three years I’ve watched its newly branded road signs turn into a garbled mess of pasted-over, conflicting information and its mission revert from pursuing higher goals back to utilitarian measures to keep itself afloat. And it’s not the only organization I’ve seen do that here.

Why does this happen? Because the people behind these organizations and the region itself have lost the ability to believe in themselves—believe that they can be more than what they are. Instead of aggressively pursuing a better future they live in fear of losing what they have. While the world moves on without them.

This has happened elsewhere, and more dramatically. Just yesterday I stumbled across an online file of recent photos of buildings in downtown Detroit. It was truly shocking. It looked like some deserted German city at the end of WW2.

I wondered to myself, how could I get involved in helping those people reimagine themselves, and restore some of those incredibly beautiful buildings. But alas, I fear that I’ve lived here too long, and I’m starting to doubt my own ability to change anything for the better.

And that is the greatest danger of all.


  1. Gerald, I enjoy your writing. Very perceptive. If I may suggest an answer to part of the problem. Structurally, free trade allows (rather mandates) the movement of manufacturing to the lowest cost labour force. (China et al.) What is left for us and our entrepreneurs? As you suggest, extraction of resources. Re: military expenditures - we are a servant of the US and it's military industrial complex. The purpose of these expenditures is not national defence, but extortion for US industry concerns, being all that is left to the US (I exaggerate). What is sad is that our leaders do not see the futility of these expenses of $60 billion, rather than investing in off-oil sustainable living. Hence Detroit is coming to St Andrews, and many other locations, but most can't foresee a slow motion disaster. Thanks for connecting the dots.

  2. Thanks Roy. It's kind of déjà vu all over again, as Yogi Berra said. The Brits embraced free trade around the turn of the last century (Ricardianism) while the emerging industrial giant, the US, walled itself up with mercantilist policies to protect its growing manufacturing sector.

    Fast forward a hundred years and China is pursuing the same policy the States did, and the US is now doing what Britain did.

    As you know, the main reason for this then, and now, was the greed and stupidity (more stupidity than greed, I think) of the spoiled business elites of the time in both GB and the US. They were—and are—willing to sacrifice their own nations to the altar of spurious global economic philosophy, and to take their "profits" from financial transactions rather than production.

    The loss, or rather transfer, of innovation to the emerging economic power, in this case China and Asia, is astonishing.

    All of this, as you point out, is a preoccupation with irrelevancies as our leaders play economic games rather than transitioning a post fossil fuel world. The end game seems to be, "extract the most profits from resources now, and deal with the problems later, at the last minute, when everyone will be motivated to change, and the public will be willing to pay even more for the solutions."

    Ah, more to the choir. I sure hope Detroit isn't coming to St. Andrews, but the fear is, it may be coming to us all, no matter where we are.


Post a Comment

Popular Posts