January 22, 2016 10:01 PM ET
Every now and then with Justin Trudeau the mask slips: when that bottomless reservoir of self-assurance of his, which in his best moments presents itself as graciousness and magnanimity, instead bubbles up as arrogance and hubris. For some reason this seems most often to happen when he’s abroad. Remember that post-election boast to the BBC about having left his critics “in my dust”?
This time, it was in the middle of his speech to the annual conference of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. For the most part the speech was chamber of commerce-stye boosterism, mixed with the usual assortment of buzzwords that festoon most of Trudeau’s speeches: diversity, infrastructure, middle class, etc.
But then there was that line that must have seemed too good to resist. “My predecessor,” he began, “wanted you to know Canada for its resources. I want you to know Canadians for our resourcefulness.”
If ever there were a phrase for which the advice given to countless writers, to “kill your darlings,” might have been devised, this was it. There is always something classless and off-key, for starters, in taking a shot at your defeated opponent overseas — outside the family, as it were.
Moreover, this seemingly offhand bit of wordplay bespeaks a number of other attitudes and assumptions, none of them attractive. Consider, at its heart, the contrast he wants his listeners to take away, between “resources” and “resourcefulness.”
The canard is so common, the underlying assumption so entrenched among those of a certain set, that many readers may have missed it. But of course: resources are just something we pull out of the dirt. That’s easy. Any idiot could do that. If that was the view the rest of the world had of us — simple resource extractors — well, Trudeau would soon put that right. He would remake Canada’s economic brand in his own image: stylish, hip, clev— er, well, resourceful, at any rate.
Be clear on this. He chose these words for a reason. Indeed, he repeated the point, just to be sure. While acknowledging that Canada’s natural resources were “substantial,” he went on: “But Canadians also know that growth and prosperity is not just a matter of what lies under our feet, but what lies between our ears.” Because apparently getting at the one does not require the other.
The contrast is not only false, but insulting. Extracting bitumen from the oilsands, in particular, has required the most extraordinary feats of scientific ingenuity, of which humankind was not capable until comparatively recently. It is the furthest thing from easy.
If it strikes you I am making too much of this, there is a context. The prejudice to which Trudeau was appealing is extremely common. Remember the Globe and Mail debate on the economy during the election, and that question from the moderator to the leaders: “Do you have a jobs plan for industry beyond taking things out of the ground?” This was in Calgary, but the idea that we must get “beyond taking things out of the ground” seemed so natural that it did not occur to him that he was insulting the audience.
Which is to say, for a significant section of Canadian opinion, the prejudice against resources is not just random snobbery: it is a central tenet of their economics, or at least of their aesthetics. Every time some exquisite frets that Canadians might be condemned to remain “hewers of wood and drawers of water,” every time a luncheon speaker weighs in on the need to “move up the value-added chain,” what they are really saying is that “mere” resource extraction is not fit work for such an advanced nation, when everybody knows we should be in aerospace or biotechnology or whatnot. But resources? I mean I ask you.
In Trudeau’s case it emerges in that tiresome refrain, to the effect that the Harper government had foolishly put all of our “eggs in one basket,” betting the economy on oil and gas and thus leaving us exposed when the price of oil collapsed. Again, there is not a shred of truth to this. In fact, the entire energy sector — oil, gas, hydro, nuclear, the works — today adds up to just over 9 per cent of GDP. It was 10 per cent when Harper took office.
Of course, even if resource extraction were every bit as cloddish as its critics imagine, it would still be worth doing, so long as the world was willing to pay us $100 a barrel for the stuff. Now that it’s fetching closer to $30, investors have ample signal to shift into other sectors, without the prime minister piling on. Still, for all his chatter about the need for economic “diversification,” the broad fundamentals of Canada’s economy are unlikely to change much. We are not as resource-dependent as he makes out, but neither, I suspect, will Canada be markedly more “resourceful” when he is done.
Harmless rhetoric, then? Hardly. Emotions are raw enough as it is in Alberta and Saskatchewan: witness the burst of outrage over Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre’s declaration of opposition to the Energy East pipeline. People there are feeling besieged, abandoned, even betrayed, the pipelines that would bring their oil to market held to ransom by opportunistic political leaders in the rest of Canada, while the federal government stands by. The last thing they need is their prime minister making lame puns overseas at their expense, or implying their livelihoods are infra dig.
source: Andrew Coyne: Trudeau digs a hole for himself in Davos | National Post