Wide debate but narrow solutions

The Polite Revolution: Perfecting the Canadian Dream by John Ibbitson. Toronto: McClelland and Steward Ltd., 2005.

reviewed by Kathy Vandergrift*

“If I were Prime Minister, I would …”

This book fills in the blank by one of Canada’s well-known political journalists. It appeared when most commentators were bemoaning the lack of political vision in Canada and petty political quarrels dominated the national stage. With this book, Ibbitson joins the group of political observers and scholars who are putting forward big ideas for Canada’s future. All of these are fuel for the renewed public debate that comes with leadership contests and election talk.

Those who read John Ibbitson’s regular column in the Globe and Mail will find familiar themes and some surprises.

Big issues

The first benefit of this book is that it moves the debate well beyond Gomery and the current five, short-term political priorities. It dares to tackle the big issues facing Canada. A second is that it debunks the myth that health care defines a nation. In doing so, however, Ibbitson, who advocates parallel public and private health care systems, ignores some of the core principles in the health care debate that are relevant for a national vision.

Migration is a surprising choice at the top of Ibbitson’s list of priorities. Two types of migration, from poor countries to rich countries and from rural areas to cities, are trends that warrant more attention. Ibbitson asserts that how countries manage these two trends will determine the winners and losers in the 21st century.

National vision of politeness

Canada, writes Ibbitson, is doing better than most, because we go beyond tolerating diversity and turn it into an asset. Canada is successful, he says, precisely because we “are a mongrel people, a mélange.” He makes a national vision of the politeness that we cultivate in order to accommodate differences and work together. Accommodation and diversity are the first principles of The Polite Revolution, a package of reforms designed to fix, upgrade, and perfect the “Canadian dream.”

Expanding immigration is gaining momentum as a solution to an aging labour force. It is more than that for Ibbitson; it lies at the heart of Canada’s success. The immigration system draws lots of criticism; Ibbitson calls it Canada’s greatest success story. But he then proposes major reforms, some of which echo themes that CPJ also raises in its Welcome The Stranger: Becoming Neighbours campaign. While Ibbitson wants to take advantage of migration, CPJ wants to address the roots causes of migration.

History is misery

Aboriginal issues are another priority to reverse the trend toward an “uneducated, unemployed, and angry under-class in our cities.” His solution, which includes many elements of the recent Kelowna accord, would lead to long-term integration into a polyglot, open-minded society that is largely ahistorical. But then, history is mostly misery anyway, according to Ibbitson.

As expected, Ibbitson is a strong advocate for the urban agenda as a third priority, based on urban centres as Canada’s wealth-creators. In addition, the book calls for a wide range of reforms in every area of government policy and experimentation in new mechanisms for democracy, such as asymmetrical federalism, some form of proportional representation, and the use of citizens assemblies. One suggestion that Harper may want to grab is use of a citizen assembly to break the deadlock on senate reform.

What about the negative impacts?

Ibbitson’s enthusiasm for reform and experimentation responds to a decade of managerial government that avoided structural change. Most of the specific ideas are not new, but they are presented with optimism about Canada’s future and an impatience that makes major reforms look like a minor tune-up. Little attention is given to potential negative impacts of his proposals, and the difficulty of achieving them is often under-estimated.

This is not deep analysis, but every political analysis is based on assumptions about success. Success is seen primarily in economic terms, and Ibbitson accepts as core doctrine that the “first duty of a liberal democracy is to satisfy the needs of the middle class.” Forget about aid to farmers, he suggests, because wealth will come from urban Canada. Low wages for childcare workers? Not an issue because market forces will supply enough of them.

Using public justice as a filter

Without question, Ibbitson would devolve all social policy to the provinces and reduce it to little more than income transfers. With a superficial dismissal of national programs and institutions in social development, culture, and communications, Ibbitson underestimates the role that these have played in building precisely what he sees as the heart of our success, social cohesion across the country and the ability to accommodate diversity. If Canada had adopted Ibbitson’s recipe three decades ago, we would probably not have the very success he now trumpets and wants to build on for the future.

Readers attuned to CPJ’s call for public justice would have a different standard for judging success and the relative merits of the various proposals. What resonates from Ibbitson is the call to stop tinkering and move on major reforms to address the big issues that Canada faces.

*Kathy Vandergrift, vice-chair of the board of CPJ, has over 25 years of experience in both government and NGO policy analysis at all levels in Canada. She lives in Ottawa.


  • Kathy Vandergrift is the former chair of CPJ’s Board of Directors. She has worked inside and outside government at municipal and federal levels to advance social justice.

Share this post

Leave a Comment