Sat, January 29, 2005
Canada rots while we hide our heads in the sand

I've been thinking about this a lot lately, and arrived at the conclusion Canada has become a nation of societal cowards.

Weighted down with fear of the unknown, made skittish by change, terrified of offending anyone else's tender sensibilities, we fraidy-Canadians have turned insecurity into an institution and resistance to change into an art form.

Michael Harris's recent book, Con Game, reminds us Canada's penitentiaries are largely populated by unrepentant thugs juiced up on smuggled drugs and bootleg hootch and ruled by the law of the jungle. Rehabilitation is more pipe dream than reality and both inmates and their under-equipped guards are in constant fear for their lives.

Ask almost any Canadian if this is acceptable and the answer is no, yet the situation is allowed to continue year after year. Why? Because our politicians lack the guts to legislate the steps required to change it and we lack the courage to insist they do.

Just slightly upstream from prison, our courts have become so hidebound and formulaic the average person has no choice but to hire a lawyer for all but the most simple procedures. Who decided the law couldn't be simple, concise and easily understood by the average person? Indeed, what kind of law has it become if it isn't?

Yet the Criminal Code continues to swell in size, the civil codes do the same and the lawyers wax fat and sassy as a result. Meanwhile, millions of Canadians face financial ruin (or worse) if they are unlucky enough to run afoul of the law, however innocently.

But we remain afraid to push our leaders for meaningful change, struck immobile by fears we may lose some of our legal safeguards if we dismantle the huge pile of precedent, tradition and entrenched self-interest that supposedly protects us.

Thousands of Canadians die on the highways each year through lack of proper driver training, indifference to others and a chronic shortage of law enforcement officers to catch them before their mistakes become fatal. We could change that for the better with more extensive use of photo radar.

But we're too afraid our "liberties" would somehow be infringed upon if our actions were monitored too closely, so the careful drivers among us continue to be picked off by the irresponsible. Better the devil we know behind the wheel than the demons we don't behind the camera, it seems.

We have allowed politicians to hijack our medical system in the name of social justice and providing better health care for the poor, only to have it decay under the heavy hand of government bureaucracy into worse health care for everyone. If we could find a few high-profile political champions for a more truly equitable and responsive system, we could begin rebuilding health care into something where lineups weren't months long and doctors were less likely to be long gone.

Yet our leaders stand silent when it's become obvious we must change or die (in ever-increasing numbers), afraid like most Canadians to do anything bold for fear they might make a mistake. As if it could get much worse (actually, it will if we don't do something).

Tragically, our fear of change doesn't even help us protect ourselves. We're just running scared, and like most species when in full panic-driven flight, we pay little or no attention to the damage we self-inflict along the way. We stumble through disasters of our own making to escape even indistinct terrors nibbling at our heels, and consider ourselves lucky to escape.

But turn and fight for what we deserve? Never. Cowards we are, and doomed like all cowards to die a thousand deaths.