I have a big favour to ask: Can we please stop with this Canadian niceness PR campaign? Aw crap, there I go, guilty as anyone. Sorry. I mean not sorry. Sheesh. I’ll try again: It’s time to stop this “Canada means nice” foolishness.
Don’t take that the wrong way, we can still be lovable hosers if we want. Polite? Sure. Helpful? Sounds great. By all means, let’s stand proud that we (if we) deserve those accolades. But it’s time to stop with this mantra that niceness is our natural national identity.
For starters, we don’t have a patent on niceness. You know who’s nice? How about people from North Dakota? Or California? Or Texas? Or, heaven forbid, New York? I’ve met people from all those places and a lot in between, and many are nice beyond belief. The New Yorker? It’s true. An African-American woman watched me holding up a line to board the subway in NYC, rooting around for my pass, and she smiled and silently reached over and handed me a transit ticket and headed off to work. That’s obviously anecdotal and not proof of a phenomenon, but things like that happened as often as the other way. There are of course rude New Yorkers, as there are rude Torontonians, and Calgarians and, believe it or not, even the odd rude Maritimer. On average, some places are more openly nice, friendly and helpful, like in the Maritimes, but maybe as a national identity, we should stop leaning on/bragging about how nice we are.
What does it matter? It’s not a bad thing to be known for, and it’s better than, I suppose, being regarded as cranky and pigheaded. But we need to draw a line: it may be admirable to be a nice citizen, but we should not worry so much about being a nice nation. It’s hard to think that way; even saying that makes me feel uncomfortable, because to consciously aim to be not-nice doesn’t sound like a very noble objective.
The issue though is that on a geopolitical basis, the opposite of nice means something much different than on a personal level. To be not-nice as a person may mean you are mean and nasty, whereas for a country, it may mean you are not a doormat or a punching bag.
Take the quote in this post’s title. The comment is from an interview I heard on the radio with Iyad el-Baghdadi, President of the Oslo-based Kawaakibi Center, a non-governmental organization that studies liberty in the Arab world. Mr. Baghdadi was trying to politely (see? Everyone’s nice) explain why Saudi Arabia was singling out Canada for a pummeling over comments made about Saudi Arabia’s human rights issues. He felt a bit sheepish saying it, but thankfully he did – that there seems to be little downside to slapping Canada around.
The energy business does not need the slightest reminder of that sad state of affairs. The Canadian energy industry has had both its arms broken, metaphorically speaking, by its own government, which has been too nice to even stand up for one of the main pillars of the economy. This is a reference to the Trudeau government, but frankly this nonsense has been going on for a while, even before Justin grabbed the reins.
The inability of Canada’s energy products to reach markets that want them is an absolute disgrace, brought about because we as a nation cowed before the angry little mobs that accused Canada of leading the charge to destroy the climate. Environmental organizations around the world have put Canada on its heels by erroneously claiming that development of Canada’s resources is one of the largest problems in the fight against global warming. The lunacy of this position is so profound as to be bewildering; how anyone anywhere could conclude that Canadian energy (including natural gas, which we’d like to export from the west coast) is going to harm the environment more than China’s or India’s coal consumption, or the world’s SUV addiction, or the world’s air-travel addiction is incomprehensible. Yet you’ve never seen international protests or smear campaigns against any of those things, and you never will.
Instead of making it fairly clear that global consumption is the problem and that Canada’s resources are not, we’ve allowed ourselves to be boxed in by a flurry of apologies and niceness. We block infrastructure development and get no thanks for it, and to make things more insulting the climate isn’t helped at all. We could shut in the oil sands tomorrow, and the world will consume as much oil after that event as it does before. We nicely catered to the extremists of the environmental movement by cancelling pipeline projects and export terminals, killing off a major pipeline (Energy East) by holding its owner accountable for the greenhouse gases of the product that would go into the pipeline as well as those that will be caused by the product when it exits the pipeline. Think about that for a second. Nowhere else on earth has that qualifying hurdle been applied before, even though it could be applied to anything. Do we make Boeing do the same thing with jets? Tesla with cars? Or a new highway – couldn’t that transport petroleum (by truck) exactly the same as a pipeline would?
Paradoxically, while we cater to whimsical demands that don’t solve any problem, falling over ourselves to be good corporate citizens, we then find our government tweeting about Saudi Arabia’s poor handling of some human rights activists. We think we can do that because we’re nice, we’re the good guy, and when the nice guy singles you out as misbehaving, well, shame on you, you must be bad indeed.
But the world is full of human rights abuses, some far worse than the ones singled out, and even then, Saudi Arabia is currently making vast strides in its human rights status. The speculation in the article linked above was that the Saudi ruler didn’t want the women’s rights activists to appear to have forced the nation to change its ways, which may not be pretty but it is at least part of a plan to liberate women, at the pace they deem manageable. Cultural changes like that have a whole hornets nest of challenges, like keeping the conservative society from rebellion if things move too quickly.
Regardless, this “Canada as world’s niceness-advocate and super-conscience” has its place, but not in the geopolitical realm or when we should be focusing on keeping our own house in order (as in, our economy). The gent from Oslo was absolutely right, it makes us easy to whale on. And whale the world does.
This niceness thing has become wrapped up in our national identity, and we wear it proudly. There is definitely nothing wrong with being known for that trait, on an individual level. But as foreign policy?