Ken Dryden's triumphs as goalie for the Montreal Canadiens — five Vezina Trophies, five Stanley Cups — are remembered today almost as keenly by almost as many Canadians as way back in the 1970s when he achieved them.
Afterwards, he went into politics, as a Liberal, and made it into the cabinet. He lost his seat in 2011.
Ever since, Dryden's abiding goal has been to make Canada a better place.
One such project was to write a book, “Becoming Canada,” and criss-cross the country telling audiences that he could attract so easily that their country needs “a new story” or a commitment to some ambitious goal that would take us out of our habitually self-doubting selves.
Dryden’s latest project is a mantra he has minted specifically for Canada Day that he hopes Canadians will first unravel and then act upon. The gnomic phrase he's been bandying about is: “What is in us to be?”
At first reading it’s incomprehensible. After a second go, it starts to become tantalizing. The rest up to each individual. But what is as plain as a pikestaff (whatever it is that a pikestaff may be), is that Dryden is deliberately reminding Canadians that humans do not live, either individually or collectively, by bread alone.
I’m not going to use the platform provided by Canada Day earlier this week to lecture readers about ideas or projects they should stir up within themselves about where their country could, or should, go. My own notions are no better than anyone else's.
What I can, perhaps, do usefully is to describe some of the circumstances that define us at this stage in our national journey. Of these, I’ll have space for just two.
One circumstance is that we have more bread available to us than almost any other of the countries that are more or less like us, these being the other industrial democracies.
The other is that while prime minister Wilfrid Laurier got it wrong when he said, “the 20th century belongs to Canada” (quite obviously, it belonged to the U.S.), contemporary Canada belongs more fully to the 21st century than does any other nation.
Add those together and we do have a national obligation to attempt to do more than just consume our bread, as well as our excellent baguettes.
To identify a key reason why our economic condition is so good, comparatively so at the very least, read the new book “Fragile by Design” by two American academics, Charles Calomiris and Stephen Haber.
It reviews banking systems all over the world. We’re close to the top, if not at it. We get an entire chapter to ourselves. To read it is to blush. While the U.S. has had 14 major bank crises in its history, our record is “extraordinarily stable,” involving two minor bank crises way back in 1837 and 1839.
The authors surveyed the banking systems in 117 countries to see which had avoided any crisis since 1970 and at the same time provided all the credit that country’s corporations and individuals needed. The “shocking answer” was that only six national banking systems passed this test of basic competence. Canada was one of them. (Intriguingly all were ex-British colonies.)
Having good banking is a long leg-up to economic prosperity. Far more so is having the right kind of people.
We have more of these than does anyone else. This is because we attract them and, critically, because we welcome them.
Beyond any argument, our program of immigration, with our parallel policy of multiculturalism, is without equal in the world.
No other country's is as large (proportionate to our population size), as ambitious (here, a rise in unemployment isn’t followed by a reduction in the size of our intake) or as diverse, even remotely so.
Our real accomplishment matters far more. People-watch in any of our large cities. You’ll realize that many Canadians are becoming colour-blind. That’s what the 21st century is all about, far more so than smartphones and the rest.
Don’t ask other Canadians about this. They’ll revert to our traditional self-deprecating pose. Ask the newcomers. A couple of years back, the polling firm Ipsos asked people in 25 countries where in the world, if able to do so, they would move to from their own country. Canada wasn’t just the first choice. It was the first choice of more aspirant immigrants than all the other alternatives combined — 53 per cent.
Which makes it time to stop telling jokes such as (one actually accurate as well as good) that the way to tell a Canadian when abroad is to step on his shoe; his response will be to apologize.
Rather, it’s time to ask, “What is in us to be?” That’s to say that now that we’ve made it pretty well, at least for the time being, what do we do that’s new and daring and worthy of a people in that condition, some part of it the result of sheer luck?
Richard Gwyn’s column appears
every other Thursday.