Privatopias and the New Social Capital

September 27, 2010

What is the impact of homogeneous thought on political action? It is a pressing question, and one that has received extensive media and scholarly treatment since the explosion of information enabled by recent technological advancements. On the one hand, we have more access to information than ever before, and with it more access to diversity of thought. Such access makes those who can sift through and aggregate information into easily understood patterns and trends extremely valuable, as I discussed in my post about cultural intermediaries. They can make sense of it all, and turn the incoherent information noise into music.

But information can also divide. More information means more segregation, as like-minded individuals take advantage of technology to seek each other out and self-select into communities of shared interests. The result is millions of small forums for like-minded individuals, and less and less interaction with those who think differently in broader, more general social settings. It has also led to decreasing tolerance for those with different views, since it is easier and easier simply to retreat into isolation with those who will not challenge how we think.

It is an ever-quickening acceleration of what Robert Putnam famously wrote about in his 2000 article “Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital.” These days, he argued, we (and by “we” he meant “Americans,” though I believe the trend can be seen in other western societies) are more likely to join organizations centred on specific common goals and interests, such as professional associations, and less likely to participate in more general ones, like community action groups, boy scouts/girl guides, or (hence the title) bowling leagues, as citizens did forty or fifty years ago. Instead of bowling as a collective with others who may have different backgrounds, we are bowling alone.

Read the rest of this entry »

The Queen and Why We Need Her

July 6, 2010

The Queen is here in Canada again (she arrived just in time for Pride Week – how appropriate), and with her visit the media are all atwitter with the usual “controversy” surrounding whether or not we really need her at all as our head of state, or whether we should just throw the monarchy out like a truly independent postcolonial nation. Those in favour of deposing of the monarchy and moving to a republican form of government cite as justifications the “astronomical” costs, the growing numbers of Canadians who have no British ancestry, and the fact that it’s about time we shook off the yoke and got on with it ourselves, as a nation. (For proof of their commitment to good old Canadian multiculturalism and multiracialism, just look at how visually diverse their home page is.)

Those in favour of keeping the monarchy argue for the tradition and the links with a British past, the sense of stability and continuity that a separated head of state and government provide, and the fact that Canada is a “kindler, gentler nation” as headed by the Royal Family. (And in truth, our particular system of government costs only about $1.10 per Canadian citizen per year, and that all goes toward the trappings of the “constitutional monarchy” at home, and not at all toward the Royal Family’s maintenance in Britain.) There is also, for many pro-Royals, an emotional connection. Chief among those who encourage this feeling are the monarchists, organized and otherwise, who play upon the nebulous feeling among Canadians that the monarchy and our past as a loyal colony is a large part of what has made Canada what it is today – a nation very different from the United States, or even Britain. It is worth noting that most anti-monarchy arguments rest on rational reasons, and most pro-monarchy arguments are founded on these feelings of closeness.

But is it really a controversy? Is it even really a debate, to get rid of the monarchy? Granted, with the changing of the guard in the form of a new Governor General, we are forced to ask the difficult questions about the role of such a ceremonial post in Canadian society, and who would best fill it. In typical Canadian fashion, the popular vote thrusts a few of the usual suspects who have gained international fame into the spotlight once more, supposing that the global clout of a Rick Hansen or a Captain Kirk (such as it is) would stand them in good stead to parade around in uniform and shake many, many hands. And perhaps that is true. But the backing of these people represents a general catch-all celebration of fame that is long way from a Vincent Massey or a Marquis of Lorne, and indicates that knowledge of, and appreciation for, the history and significance of the Crown has fallen a long way.

The republican movement is admittedly small, and the vast majority of Canadians don’t care either way about the Queen and her curious family, which of course favours the continuation of the status quo. (A shocking percentage of young Canadians can’t even identify the head of state, or the date of confederation.) Certainly, the republican element has most likely failed to make any real traction because Canada’s monarchical links, or lack thereof, are just not as pressing as the economy, foreign policy, or even voting reform. Even the Australian republicans, in many ways similar to Canadians, keep failing to get a majority in favour of their cause, despite decades of earnest attempts to sever the links with their colonial past. Throughout history, in fact, there have been few, if any, peaceful transitions from monarchy to republic, which would seem to indicate that the Queen – and, soon, a King Charles or King William – is here to stay.

Apathy is a terrible reason to keep a national symbol, though. If anything, Canadians need more history, and more passion, and more celebration of nationhood. This is where the emotional connection of the pro-Monarchists is so powerful. I have attended a meeting of the Monarchist League, and was slightly surprised by its make-up. I expected women my mother’s age that collected Princess Diana memorial teacups and read Hello! Canada. Instead, it was about 95% men – many with connections to the military – who represented a cross-section of wealthy Toronto: private school teachers, the business elite, and gentlemanly officers in the old guard, with several eager young lawyers and Trinity College students waiting to take their places. They spoke of the Queen with reverence, and of “Charles, William and Harry” as though they were family, wayward uncles or cousins who only needed to sort themselves out a bit so we could be unabashedly proud of them too (this was in the days when Harry was spending his time dressed as a Nazi at costume parties ).  The monarchy was very personal to them, and republican attacks were felt as misguided affronts to them as individuals.

It was a great afternoon. They were passionate about their cause, however archaic it might have seemed to others. We need more of this passion. And I have a suspicion that, beneath all the polite, middle-class practicality, Canadians have a real desire to be part of something romantic and special – something royal. Deep down, we too want the pomp and circumstance and pride in our nation’s institutions that our southern neighbours wear on their sleeves every time they weep during the national anthem, or recite the Declaration of Independence from memory. We want to be proud of the Royal Family, and we hope Prince William will marry that nice Kate girl and be happy. This is why hundreds turned up to see the Queen in Toronto on Sunday morning, and why royal-watching is still a popular pastime, even if we pretend not to care.

The monarchists are right: Canada needs a monarchy. Not because of the practical, rational reasons – prorogation aside, a constitutional monarchy is one of the most innocuous forms of government, and we are in little danger of having a revolution and needing the stability of the Crown to rise above it all – but because of the emotional ones. The Royal Family is ours, and makes us unique, and is a significant part of our national history and identity. Canadians need the monarchy because there is no Canada without it.

So go out and see the Queen today. Give her flowers, and curtsy. Or return her practiced queenly wave with one of your own. She is a living embodiment of our nation, and she deserves the attention.


The Queen visited a Toronto film studio yesterday, which prompted her to don a pair of 3D glasses seriously lacking in Queenly modesty – they have Swarovsky-encrusted “Q”s! Check out the bling (and link to hilarious blog post) below:

Q bling

Queenly Bling

G20: What’s the Point?

June 22, 2010

All anyone is hearing or reading about this week is the disruption caused by the impending G20 summit in Toronto: rapidly mounting security costs, Orwellian-sounding “free speech zones” surrounded by large fences, tourist attractions closed, chaos on the roads, and that infamous fake lake. So what’s the point? Why would the government squander the little remaining political capital it has on something that is surely designed to be inconvenient and unpopular for citizens?

According to the City of Toronto, the main benefits of our hosting the event are an increase in tourism and  more global exposure to our cultural, environmental, and financial leadership. But who is doing the touring, and who is being exposed? It cannot be the delegates, many of whom hail from countries with far more economic and political clout than Canada, and who won’t be stepping outside of their securely fenced-in hotel zones to experience the “real” Toronto culture that inhabits our somewhat out-of-the-way neighbourhoods anyway. And it’s hard to know to whom Canada needs “exposing.” Presumably the idea is to attract the confidence and admiration of wealthy and influential figures in other countries by how successfully we handle the onslaught of delegates this week. Such positive press would surely result in Canada having more of a global role, a seat at the proverbial table, the thinking goes.

But, as a professor of mine once pointed out, there is having a seat at the table, and having a seat at the table. There are the seats from which your voice can be heard and you can be seen. And then there is the seat behind the pillar which you are expected every so often to vacate in order to get everyone else coffee.

It seems Canada’s principal economic/military allies – those in the G8, say, or perhaps NATO – consider us to be lightweights. Is it our poor record on environmentalism, as one opinion leader is quoted as saying in the above article? Doubtful. It is more likely the historical holdover that marks Canada as proportionately smaller (in population and GDP) and more likely to follow a course already set by Britain or the United States. It is a chronic underestimation that stems from the main knowledge of Canada abroad consisting of beer, winter, and politeness. Hardly the stuff of global leadership.

On the bright side, it seems that emerging global powers like Brazil, Russia, China and India believe Canada has, and perhaps more importantly, deserves a seat at the global decision-making table, and not just as a serving boy. The Globe and Mail seems to suggest that this is because of our participation in the G20, but the fact that the majority of residents in any country couldn’t name more than two or three members of the G20 would seem to contradict this argument.

The positive global opinion of Canada in these countries is no doubt because of our massive immigrant populations from these countries.  Looking around the city, I see as many (or more) flags in support of the teams in the World Cup that are from developing, non-G20 nations as those who are traditional powerhouses. This immigrant goodwill is a smaller, slower more grassroots swelling of popularity and influence, but the opinions immigrants and their families hold are no doubt more positive and substantial than any based on how well zoned our protesters are for the next six days. Immigrants form significant connections between their new and old homes, and feed exactly the kind of information the government would want to spread about Canada back to their relatives in the old country: about freedom, about security, about stability, and about the opportunities here. These are the reasons people come to Canada and spend money here – not because of our global leadership in risk management.

Like the Vancouver Olympics earlier this year, the G20 is just another PR exercise, fraught with the usual allegations of overspending and political posturing, but unlike the Olympics, the G20 has no warm fuzzy feelings of pride or nationalism. There are no G20 red mittens. And I would challenge anyone to think of a positive correlation they have with a previous G20 host city. The government, for all its good intentions, would do better to spend its earmarked G20 budget on better career counselling, benefits, or English/French language instruction for new Canadians – they’re much more likely to appreciate their efforts and relay the goodwill to their captive audiences around the world.


G20 Red Mittens

Warm fuzzies: G20 Red Mittens

Themes and Trends from the British Election: Part I

June 8, 2010

After waiting a few weeks to see how it would all shake out, I remain quite pleased with the outcome of the British election. The David Cameron-/Nick Clegg-led coalition seems to be functioning both effectively and efficiently, having presented its main aims while in office in the May 25th Queen’s Speech and managed to find a way to compromise on hot-button election issues like Europe and voting reform – at least for now. While coalitions in general are often seen as failures-in-waiting, or awkward combinations of strange bedfellows who can’t stand each other for long, such a future is certainly not a foregone conclusion.

There are a few encouraging themes and trends that have come out of this election and subsequent government, and a few I wanted to highlight as potential cause for concern. I’ll start in today’s post with what I see as the positives:

  • The coalition narrows focus.

No government can accomplish everything. Past governments – and, more importantly, voters – seemed to understand this. Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier’s Speech from the Throne after he took office in 1896, for example, was about half a page long, and discussed the forthcoming compromise to the Manitoba Schools Question (regarding whether English and French/Catholicism would both be taught in schools in the province), and a minor tariff.  Student council presidents set out longer and more ambitious plans today.

Yet a large part of the trouble with modern elections is that they are never really fought over one issue, but many. The British one, for example, had several major themes, including the fiscal deficit, immigration, Britain’s supposed “broken society,” irresponsible MPs, and the ever-present concern over education funding and support for the NHS. Political parties want to be everything to their voters, even when those things are contradictory.  And they inevitably disappoint when they are unable to radically change society as they say they set out to do.

But it seems that this government has a natural focus, given that its main players had to agree upon key priorities before they even took office together. In the British political Venn diagram, there are many ideological areas in which the Tories and Lib Dems overlap, particularly when it comes to the best way to deal with the current financial situation. It’s refreshing to see that, in the areas in which they don’t agree, they are staying relatively silent – for now. Perhaps counter-intuitively, this narrowing of focus will result in a more efficient government that can overcome the stereotypes of bureaucracy and actually achieve the major reforms that are necessary.

  • There is a new emphasis on commonalities over differences.

I’ve never really believed that political parties line up neatly on a spectrum, especially if we take an international view. (Try explaining to a devout American Democrat, for example, why it would in many ways be ideologically analogous to vote Tory in Canada. Impossible task.) Each country has its own quirks, and the plurality of special interest groups masquerading as national political parties in modern elections makes a two-dimensional continuum an especially outdated concept.

Canada, for example, has intense regionalism which colours all party politics, so that a moderate might as likely vote Liberal in British Columbia as Conservative in Ontario, all the while believing in essentially the same basic tenets of sensible fiscal policy and social freedom. But a moderate in Quebec will often vote for the Bloc Quebecois, because that party is able to take a popular stand that makes sense to a broad base of people and distinguish itself from the other main parties on a single issue (namely, separation).

I abhor this explosion of single-issue politics, as it creates an artificial divide between ideological positions that are actually quite similar. In the American context, for example, this hair-splitting has reached an almost farcical level, with the rest of the world looking on in disbelief as two parties that are both far to the ideological right of the rest of the world bicker over to what extent the Bible can be taken literally or which ignorant, nativist bigot can more legitimately be styled a “conservative.” These of course are the burning questions that affect our world in 2010, no?

In Britain, the political “spectrum” can more easily be conceived of as a triangle. Labour under Tony Blair moved quite far toward the right, and David Cameron, a self-styled Blair follower, brought the Tories out of the still-unpopular Thatcher/Major territory and planted himself some distance to the left of his predecessors. The Lib Dems float about in the middle of the two, but somehow the three have not landed on top of each other on a political continuum. They all have different opinions about Europe, nuclear deterrence, and education, for example, and they never completely agree.

But with the coalition comes the promise of some kind of appreciation that there are many basic beliefs that the Tories and Lib Dems hold in common, and that their supporters do too. Hopefully this will set the example that in politics, as in life, people who have differences of opinion can still work together effectively keeping in mind the things they do agree on.

  • This is an opportunity for the post-election mudslinging to happen behind closed doors.

Hopefully Labour’s defeat, and Cameron and Clegg’s exemplary harmonious relationship, will teach its MPs that the public airing of dirty laundry about a leader – no matter how Scottish and growly and supposedly unable to run the country – will get you nowhere. Electoral mutiny is unacceptable and unwise in a first-past-the-post system that gives equal weight to a vote for a local MP or national leader. M. Bernier, you might be wise to take note of this as well.

What do you make of the new government? Are you as hopeful as I am about the prospect of government actually achieving something? Will this coalition pave the way for future amicable multi-party cabinets? And could other democracies learn something from Britain?

Stay tuned – Part II comes tomorrow.

The Educated Class and Its Discontents

April 13, 2010

In a Special Report on Germany in the Economist recently, the traditional German system of education, while excellent at producing great engineers and skilled trade workers, came under criticism for its rigidity and unfairness. In Germany, ten-year-olds are marked out for either a career of manual labour (skilled or otherwise), white-collar work, or the bureaucratic/professional work that comes after university, and sent to separate schools accordingly. Ten is too young, its critics argue, to give a child a direction for life, which will become difficult to change later on with guild-like labour markets that prohibit entry into professions without the right qualifications. And many complain that Germany does not have equality of opportunity. Family background is more likely to determine test scores and social status in life in Germany than it is in any other country.

With any talk of equality of opportunity, it comes up again, that old aspirational myth of moving between classes, the Horatio Alger or perhaps Will Hunting story of a genius saved from poverty by good education, mentoring or his own perseverance to rise to a different class. Because it is about class. Germans (and the writers of the Economist) are not concerned as much about eventual income distribution, which is quite fair, as they are about having the opportunity to do something else: move up the social ladder.

Focusing on class seems to be a very Old Europe thing. Only in Europe do we see that holdover of a very, very privileged elite (or aristocracy) that has old family wealth, and a poor or working class that never really seems to shrink outside of meddling with statistics, and isn’t going to because those within it have a sense of pride in being working class. A recent article on class and politics in Britian in the Economist seems to describe the six established statistical class divisions as essentially fixed. David Cameron must appeal to the same middle-class voters as Margaret Thatcher, who appreciated their aspirations to “improve their homes and their lives; to get gradually better cars, washing machines and televisions; to go on holiday in Spain rather than Bournemouth.” Hardly a rapid rise to the upper echelons of power – really just a desire to keep up with what is expected from being “middle class.”

In fact, it seems the most common way of achieving a material increase in living standards is immigration. The quality of life is much higher in “New World” countries like Canada and Australia because the basic cost of living is less, while health care and education are still available at the same high standard, or higher. It’s hard not to notice that eight out of 10 cities ranked “most liveable” by the Economist last year were in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

And there is more opportunity for movement between classes in the New World (a term I’ll keep using despite the fact that it makes me sound like Columbus, because I can’t think of a better one), not least because there is less emphasis on “class” in general as something that matters, at least explicitly. The class system of North America has less of a focus on income and history and more on the combination of these with other factors, such as education. My theory is that because New World societies were formed based on merit, and evolved with much less distinction based on income or family wealth (since most everyone was a poor immigrant upon arrival), education and occupation became the primary means of separating out the kind of people with whom one should associate.

The North American system is thus designed to provide more equality of opportunity. In theory, all have the same access to education, even, in some ways, up to the university level. It is a noble goal, and higher education is certainly more accessible in Commonwealth and countries and the US than in continental Europe, as this 2005 study ranking university enrollment in developed countries shows.

But the result of our comparatively open and well-attended university system has been a generation or two of liberal arts or natural science graduates who spend ten years flailing around the entry-level job market before eventually settling into corporate middle management in a completely unrelated field somewhere, making essentially they same money they would have had they been pre-classified at age ten as they do in Germany. Most look back fondly on the days they spent at university, but more for the social connections they made than the time spent reading Cicero. And we, as a society, have trouble finding enough people to sell us mortgages or build our houses, because there aren’t really university programs that teach those skills. Universities have become training grounds for the “middle class” as a whole – including the low end of white collar work – instead of training grounds for occupations where they actually provide valuable preparation, that is, the “upper middle class” work of medicine, law, academia and the like.

If nothing else, we North Americans are certainly losing efficiency with all of this finding ourselves that comes after attaining our university qualifications. We’ve also created a society in which having a B.A. means you’re under-qualified for many jobs – either in experience, or because everyone else applying also has an M.A. or the college-level diploma which is all that’s really required to do the job. It isn’t going to change, though, because we value two things too highly: our “right” to attend school (especially university) for as long as we want to, and the class position that doing so will get us.

True, recently there has been a real push by the government and colleges to recognize skilled labour and professional work as viable career options for high school graduates to consider, and one often hears flippant comments about the world needing more plumbers and electricians, who “actually make a fair bit of money.” (Reality check: this website puts a plumber’s average hourly wage at $24 in Toronto, which over a year works out to about $47 000. This is around what your average white collar worker earns, at least at first, and a plumber doesn’t carry the same student loan debt.)

But while the logic of matching skills to actual jobs may have (almost) caught up, the overall effect on what class one will end up in has not. Doctors and lawyers are still far more likely to associate with white collar workers who have attended university than electricians who earn the same amount, because education and occupation are still important class signifiers.

What would it take to change these biases? And would changing the biases reverse the trend toward hiring managers requiring ever-more degrees when hiring someone to answer telephones and make photocopies? Is there a happy medium between the German and North American systems, where there is still mobility between classes, and still equality of opportunity, but more cultural acceptance that skilled trades and professional work is a respectable way to earn a living? I’m not sure – but for all that, I would still struggle to recommend that anybody give up learning about politics or history or biology and instead learn about practical data models in order to secure a job. We are fortunate to have the privilege of being able to buy those three or four (or more) years of time to learn. I would advise anybody who asked to enjoy it while it lasts, because there’s plenty of time for uninspiring desk work later, if they so choose.

Toward a Hierarchy of National Needs

April 6, 2010

My last post was about how we use our own bodies as the lens and language through which we describe the world, based on a hypermasculine focus on physicality that is in many ways a holdover from the later Victorian period. In this one I’d like to explore how we tend to anthromorphize nations as well, and consider what this means for a “national hierarchy of needs.” 

Humans feel national consciousness so deeply that in some cases the nation becomes an extension of ourselves. Gandhi once famously said of the post-independence partition of India and Pakistan that “before partitioning India, [his] body [would] have to be cut into two pieces.” The Economist recently described the German Federal Republic as a “matronly 60” and unification approaching a “post-adolescent 20.” And the “body politic” is a familiar concept to all of us. 

But what about national needs? I’m sure many of you are familiar with the hierarchy of individual human needs first articulated by American psychologist Abraham Maslow in 1943: 

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

 Maslow’s hierarchy charts the progression of human needs from basic physiological survival – breathing, eating, etc. – to the highest-order need of self-actualization, which involves acceptance of oneself as is, being all that one is capable of becoming, and living with internally-motivated purpose. 

What does this look like when applied to whole nations? Because this kind of thing keeps me up at night, I created a conceptual model of what might be included in a national hierarchy of needs: 

Exon's Hierarchy of National Needs (Click for a larger version)

 The Hierarchy: Definitions

Like Maslow’s personal needs hierarchy, the national one assumes that lower-level needs must be met before progressing to the next level. And like Maslow’s pyramid, the upward progression through the different kinds of needs is one from physical security/territorial necessities to more psychological or social ones. In both, the apex represents the fulfillment of potential and is the optimal state.

The most basic national need is territorial integrity, through a defined physical space, and both de facto and de jure independence. It seems obvious that physical borders have a huge impact on the populations therein: they shift people’s movements into school districts, tax codes and trade permits, as well as, on a more general level, forcing them to go through particular national channels to conduct their daily business. They represent official languages and religions, laws and norms, war and peace. We often term nations that do not have this need satisfied “failed states”: failed, perhaps, because they cannot sustain any higher level without it. 

Next is a free government, and by that I really mean a functioning representative democracy. I debated whether or not to put democracy here, as there are certainly many examples of states in history and in the present day that seem to function on higher levels in some ways without fully democratic government. But I do think that in order to secure the kind of economic and cultural freedom of the higher levels that democracy is a must. The government must have fair laws enshrined in a constitution that are not easy to meddle with (there goes Italy, I suppose), and civil rights. Perhaps the majority of nations today haven’t passed this stage, especially without universal adult suffrage. 

The third need I identified is a free economy, because a nation that is unable to sustain its independence without bailouts from international organizations, or one that is subject to a “colonial economy” where natural resources are exported and manufactured elsewhere can never really fulfil the higher-order needs that come next. (Let’s not get into the fact that many modern nations weren’t able to choose their borders and/or natural resource allocations and whether or not this is fair. It isn’t.) 

The fourth is a thriving public sphere. Really this is the nation’s view of itself, through its political discussions, art, literature, and history. It is at this level that individuals really start to use the nation as a cultural touch point for identity, as I wrote about in an earlier post. This is where national pride comes from. An appropriate term for this is “imagined communities.” I have borrowed here from Benedict Anderson’s landmark book by the same name, which explores how nations are formed by citizens who “imagine” national political communities. These communities exist at a higher level than one-on-one interaction and as such are in the mind, which makes them a powerful force. I also wrote here of the concept of “loyal opposition,” which, from the British tradition, means a party or individual can disagree with the policies or ideas of the governing party but still respect the authority by which it is in power – an essential trait of a functioning democracy. Implicit in this is respect for the opinions/culture of others (which I sometimes fear is being lost in many political debates today). 

The highest-order national need, which occupies the same place as “self-actualization” on Maslow’s pyramid, is that of global leadership. At this point, a nation achieves the pinnacle of influence. It will probably exert extensive “hard power” through international organizations for the betterment of other nations (i.e. the United Nations or NATO). But more importantly, it will have soft power in the form of a defined image outside of its borders which other individuals and nations respect. An example that sums this concept up perfectly is the “American Dream,” the idea that, in the United States, one can achieve anything with hard work and determination. Soft power like this is a powerful force – much more so than armies or multinational corporations. As The Economist put it in a recent article, “the greatest strength of America is that people want to live there.” 

Inconsistencies Within the Model 

As with the personal model, progression through the needs is not always linear or complete. Nations may exist on several levels simultaneously (as people do), or may to fulfill higher-order needs without yet having satisfied lower-level ones. Would nineteenth-century Britain, which in many ways could be seen to have positive global influence and a set of national ideals, be considered a global leader? Certainly – yet this despite not having attained universal adult suffrage, or even peaceful relations with its neighbours. 

Another obvious contradiction that springs to mind is a colonial state, which may have a thriving public sphere, entrenched civil rights, or international influence without having the basic needs of independence, its own elected government, or an independent economy. India in the 1930s and 1940s is a good example of this, certainly in that it had an active public sphere, well-established art and literature, and global sympathy to its cause — while still under the yoke of the British Empire and held back by its own anachronistic caste system and bitter history of conflict. (Perhaps this is why they did not remain under the yoke much longer?) 

One might also point to “nations” that are not independent political entities, like Quebec, which have a defined culture separate from the rest of Canada. Interestingly, Gilles Duceppe, leader of the federal secessionist Bloc Quebecois, recently used his own corporal metaphor in referring to his party as a young twenty years old, a “nice age…Especially when compared to the Liberal and Conservative parties, which are 143 years old… When you’re 20, you have the energy to fight against the system, which in our case is the federal system.” But in response to Duceppe’s incendiary claim that Quebec separatists are akin to French Resistance fighters in WWII (!), I would hold up a federally united Canada as an example of a self-actualized nation of imagined communities, at the top of the pyramid. Canada is strong and unique because of unity among its differences, linguistic, cultural, historical – whatever. It is the peaceful acceptance of dissenting and disparate views within (and without) that allows a nation to have such global influence. This is what separates Canada from, say, Iraq, and why it is one of the most common destinations for immigrants. 

But what do you think? Does the model make sense to you? Have I missed anything out? Is anything in the wrong place, in your opinion? Do you believe Canada and the United States are “self-actualized” nations? If not, why not?

Upon This Rock I Will Build My Condominium

March 28, 2010

It’s been a very wordy, theory-laden week with all of this talk of progress and history, so I thought I’d end the week with something light: a post about religion. Kidding! Not actually religion, per se, but the visual effects of religion in our cities: churches.

Churches are such a common part of the cityscape that I doubt many of us even notice them. And yet it’s hard not to notice that as more and more condos go up (especially here in Toronto where it seems every spot of vacant or ‘underutilized’ land has been co-opted for another residential building) they are the last bastions of low-level architecture. They strike a stark, and beautiful, contrast to the glass and concrete boxes around them. They are often stunning buildings with the appropriate amount of age-grime to make me really interested. And they are a common visual reminder of the place that religion used to hold in this city, and country generally. There is a church on almost every corner (indeed, there are almost as many as there are Tim Hortons), but they do not reflect the city as it is today. Most are Anglican, but with only about 7% of the city population followers of that church (and more arriving every day with a different religion entirely, or none at all), many sit empty most of the time.

Bloor Street in Toronto. I know there's a church in there somewhere...

Quite frankly, it seems miraculous to me that more churches aren’t torn down. Why aren’t they? Is it that there is a great public attachment to historic places of worship, even if they are barely frequented anymore? Toronto is not so hesitant to tear down other older buildings to make way for the new. Or are churches still relevant in some way? And will they continue to be? I’ve certainly never seen a new one being built, so they must be accommodating the changing needs of the city as is.

Ah, yes. There it is!

Churches have actually adapted fairly well, if one considers that they are not only there to shepherd the flock toward redemption/holiness, but also to serve as the space in which communities come together. Some have continued to have services during the week for the few who still attend them, though many only host them now on Sundays. One Lutheran church near me offers services in German, Latvian and Korean in an attempt to bolster its numbers, but the majority of activities attempt to build communities in other ways. Many now offer ESL training, yoga classes, day care, or basketball during the week, which certainly serves the second purpose well. And why not have your next corporate meeting in the chapel? Others now rent out the space to corporations that aren’t squeamish about the religious overtones and not concerned about strict objectivity or the separation of work and religion. (And who, after all, wouldn’t want to look at a crucifix during their next meeting about vendor selection? Would really liven things up.)

A break-out room at St. Paul’s on Bloor, the largest Anglican church in the diocese. Personally I require fancy windows at all my corporate meetings.

Many churches have also turned to innovative architecture and development partnerships to preserve their land. Consider the Church of the Redeemer, which has been all but eaten by a Four Seasons Hotel. Why not just build your building around a church? Redeemer has also adapted in other ways: it now hosts rock concerts as part of nuit blanche, as well as opening its doors to everyone the church would normally exclude. Very open-minded.

The Church of the Redeemer has managed to cling on to its space at one of Toronto's busiest corners...for now.

The spire of the Cathedral of St. James, Toronto’s oldest congregation, was once the dominant feature on the skyline, but now shares air space (and has sold some of its land to) the new and appropriately-titled Sp!re condominiums next door.

The Cathedral of St. James in the 1930s.

And today, with the Sp!re condos sharing the skyline.

Other churches have been converted directly into condos themselves, like the Victoria Lofts in the west end of the city, on what was once the West Toronto Presbyterian Church.

Site of the Victoria Lofts

It makes me wonder how much of a building’s purpose is tied up in its structure. Will churches always be churches in the popular imagination, even after many have been divided up into apartments, or rented out as generic corporate meeting rooms? What effect will this divvying up of public, communal space into private compartments have on city dwellers?

And how will churches adapt in future? Will they remain religious strongholds, or will their presence largely fade to one of historical significance? I suspect many of these questions will  be answered as Toronto, and Canada more broadly, decides what kind of identity it wants to have – as a nominally and historically Christian city/country, or a new “multicultural” one. In the meantime, consider a steeple for your next condo purchase – I hear they get great nighttime city views.