When do you cease to be a country? When do you stop being a people, a nation?
Former governor general and Liberal cabinet minister Romeo LeBlanc had an answer. “When children sleep on the streets,” he said to us once. “When they have nothing to eat. That is when you are no longer a country, and when you become something else.”
LeBlanc said that to those of us in the Liberal Party war room in 1993. Back then, Conservative Leader Kim Campbell had been asked by a reporter about an apparent Tory plan to gut social programs. “An election is no time to discuss serious issues,” she was quoted as saying.
LeBlanc, like the rest of us in the war room, had been angry.
Recent statistics suggest that, on any given night, 35,000 Canadians sleep on the streets. Children are among them. And, every year, more than a quarter million people are forced to use homeless shelters at least once.
All of us under LeBlanc’s leadership agreed with him: when one child is hungry and sleeping on a grate on a downtown sidewalk in February, you aren’t a real country yet. You are something else. Something less.
In 2017, there are too many other examples like that – ways in which we fall short.
In the United States, of course, there is plenty of that. Donald Trump – who has been shown to be, again and again, a liar and a racist and a coward – has remade America. His executive decisions and his policies have made the air and the water dirtier. He has barred women and children seeking refuge from famine and torture and death.
He has pushed laws that will make the super-rich richer and leave everyone else to bear the burden. He said he will build a wall to keep out Mexicans, who he calls rapists and murderers. He has worked to eviscerate a program that made health care affordable for 30 million Americans who previously had none.
If LeBlanc were still here, he would say that any one of those things have not just rendered the United States of America less of a country – they have ended it. But he’d probably say that Canadians shouldn’t start feeling all that superior to our neighbours to the south, either.
Last week, Quebec’s government nudged us towards the abyss. Bill 62 makes illegal the wearing of niqabs or burkas by women offering or receiving public services. The target, notwithstanding what Quebec’s allegedly Liberal government claims, is Muslim women. A previous version of the law would have banned the display of any religious symbols by public servants – crucifixes by Christians, yarmulkes by Jews, turbans by Sikhs.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, to his enormous credit, has denounced the racist law. So too has new federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh. The Conservatives, meanwhile, had wanted to pass a raft of similarly Islamophobic laws. But they were voted out of office in 2015 before they could get away with it.
Speaking of the Conservatives, they contributed to the diminution of Canada last week, too. They announced that Hamish Marshall was going to run their next federal campaign.
Why would such a thing hurt Canada? Because Marshall helped to found and fund an avowedly racist organization called Rebel Media. Rebel Media achieved notoriety, in recent weeks, for publishing statements that their luminaries were “sick of” Holocaust “brainwashing.” And “much less than six million” were slaughtered in the Holocaust. And “left-wing, commie, socialist Jews” killed “millions” in the Second World War’s aftermath. And columns titled Ten Things I Hate About Jews. And at a neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Va., where a woman was allegedly murdered by a white supremacist, one Rebel celebrity said there has been a “rising” in what she called “white racial consciousness.”
Marshall ran Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer’s campaign out of Rebel’s offices. And when a Globe and Mail reporter asked Scheer about that, he actually ran away.
Finally – and this we must never forget – we cease to be much of a nation when 4,232 First Nation women and girls are murdered or go missing. And when the federal government spends untold millions to launch an inquiry into those murders – and it becomes such a sham, such a mockery of justice, that the father of Trudeau’s Justice minister (himself a hereditary chief) calls it “a bloody farce.”
There are other examples but we don’t have any more room to describe them.
If he were still here, perhaps Romeo LeBlanc would say we don’t have much of a country, either.
Troy Media columnist Warren Kinsella is a Canadian journalist, political adviser and commentator.