a canada of light: 
bruce powe beats back the darkness

A Canada of Light
B.W. Powe
(Somerville House, 155 pages)
a canada of light cover
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Partly a hymn to Canada’s unrealized potential, partly a polemic against the politicians who have betrayed those possibilities, B.W. Powe’s A Canada of Light strives for emotional resonance at a time when just such a book - a sort of missal for the true believer Powe believes resides in every Canadian breast - should shine with relevance. 

Confused in its perception of technology, and hobbled by fuzzy notions of economics and global statehood, A Canada of Light professes to strive for a “dancer’s lightness of step, lightness opposed to heaviness or weight, opposed to tragedy and gloom”, but fails to soar, fails to convince, and fails to illuminate the most imperative facet of our amorphous national “identity”: our relationship to the rest of the world.

Originally published four years ago as A Tremendous Canada of Light, Powe has brought out this new edition at what must be percieved as a crucial time: the eve of a national election. “May each election and referendum continue to shake us to our roots”, Powe implores in his conclusion, believing, not unreasonably, that the “Canadian experiment” is more about process than agreement, each crisis a provisional milestone in the history of a country free of the weight of bloody history and reverent constitutionalism. 

The earlier edition was explicit in its choice of Brian Mulroney as the villainous figurehead in this phase of our story. Four years later, Mulroney has left the stage, but the threat persists: fiscal austerity, dismantling of the social infrastructure, the unquestioned ascendancy of corporatism. 

To this end, Powe addresses the “corporate mindset”. He rues the meanness of the contemporary political mind, observes with dismay the resemblance of our most powerful politicians in character to middle-management number-crunchers, and longs for the sentimental statesman:  “We need anti-politicians, as it were, who can contemplate and advocate the profound ambiguities and ambivalences of our country.” 

Powe tries to preempt the derision such a statement invites by arguing that the corporatist mindset promotes the “language of trade and markets over the language of inspiration...so that people feel embarassed and uncomfortable when they hear any argument that is not considered realistic.” That may be socially accurate, but it overlooks the desperate need most Canadians, indeed most citizens in any country today, feel for solutions to what seem like insurmountable problems - in economics, in government, in the basis of civil society. Powe acknowledges the problems, but seems to misunderstand the desperation.

“Economics is about states of mind, about moods”, Powe writes. I would disagree. In the modern era, economics has become theology. Powe accurately depicts the distrust with which most Canadians view their elected representatives, but inasmuch as few politicians anywhere in the world are valued for their integrity, Powe’s observations are banal. Overwhelmingly, the west has discarded any questions about the efficacy of laissez-faire capitalism in the material life of a country and its citizens, at least for the moment. 

The mood, if such a thing is to be defined, at the end of this century, is of limited options, pragmatism, and impatience with idealism. In a grimly secular world, economics is a religion to which we dictate our limited needs, but hardly a dictator, of moods or anything else.

Powe’s grasp of technology also seems inconsistent. While on one hand his “Canada of light” is borne aloft in electromagnetic waves, bound together by communication technology, its corporate nemesis consists of “minds mesmerized by screens and numbers, by reams of statistics and the flash of computer speed, the electrons and digits of the pulsing 1s and 0s.” He denounces the “virtual models” that informed the budgets of Tory finance minister Michael Wilson, but celebrates a future Canada whose citizens live in a harmony made possible by technological “virtuality”. 

What Powe seems to lack, like many Public Intellectuals dazzled by the phenomenon of the Internet and Information Culture, is an understanding of who owns the technology, who develops it and who profits from its use. What Powe understands implicitly is the great paradox that forms, and confounds, the question of Canadian identity: a nation defined by what many would percieve to be a negative concept - solitude. 

It’s an idea that Glenn Gould explored poetically but unsentimentally, yet Powe overestimates its potency. The idea of a country shaped by its vast, unpopulated, unpeoplable distances, held together over great distances by fortuitous technology, might be profound to an intellectual, but it offers little solace to those unemployed in the hinterlands, to recent immigrants, or to youth, who lack memory of a different kind of country, and who long to feel part of a vital society. Inasmuch as emerging technology is more solvent in character than binding, more atomising to the individual in its thrall, I fear that technology might have forsaken not just Canada, but every country without a stake in its distribution. 

Not surprisingly, the flaw in Powe’s argument begins in the title of his book, taken from Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March. Bellow uses Canada not as an object or place name but as a descriptive metaphor: “...and then of abstraction, a tremendous Canada of light.” Like Bellow’s vision of Canada, Powe’s argument is born of abstraction, and like most abstractions, seems of little use in the face of the hard truths we, as a nation, face now, and in an uncertain future, glimpsed more in darkness than light.

©1998, 2002 Rick McGinnis