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James Cowan

The Hon. James  Cowan, Q.C., B.A., LL.B., LL.M., LL.D. Senator James Cowan has greatly influenced the educational and legal communities of Nova Scotia. He was appointed to the Senate on March 24, 2005 by the Rt. Hon. Paul Martin.

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Canada's Innate National Modesty — Inquiry

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Statement made on 02 November 2011 by Senator Tommy Banks (retired)

Hon. Tommy Banks:

Honourable senators, I am sure that everyone here and probably everywhere has seen an article written in a British newspaper a long time ago that is laudatory of our forces' efforts in Afghanistan and in other previous conflicts as well. It makes the point that those contributions and sacrifices often go unnoticed by the rest of the world. In that article the author refers to Canada as a brave and modest nation.

The members of our forces are certainly brave, as all of us know, and Canada is widely known in the world as a modest nation. Sometimes we are even self-effacing, but we are almost always modest. We enjoy that reputation as individuals and as a nation. We do not ordinarily go in for self-aggrandizement. We do not often trumpet ourselves, except to ourselves. We are not known to seek or accept the idolization of our most widely achieved citizens. This modesty has, in the past, served us well in international affairs, particularly in the good old days when we used it along with our other attributes in our role as honest broker, as the seeker and often the proposer of modest and reasonable directions. One of the good effects of our unobtrusiveness was that when we did speak loudly or forcibly, great attention was paid simply because such things were rare.

This is a modesty that has in the past — so far as I have been able to find in an assiduous search — has been observed by our political leaders of all stripes, none of whom seem to have sought or permitted personal glorification while in office. They were governing all of us, regardless of how we might have voted, regardless of whether they were lefties or righties. They always thought it proper in the headings of announcements to refer to the government of which they were the leader as the Government of Canada. They all seem to have been quite scrupulous in this regard when it came to announcing this or that grant program or meeting or proposal or policy. I think most Canadians have the impression that we are being governed by the Government of Canada.

This nicety is not a matter merely of etiquette or of courtesy. It is a matter of principle and propriety. It is one of those things about which we might in the short run say, "It does not really make much difference," but which in the long run concerning our political culture writ large will make a very large difference indeed.

In the present regime, the cult of leader worship seems to have got a toehold. Whether it is the Prime Minister himself who has decided to shift things in this direction or whether he merely decided not to oppose some sycophants, we now have leader worship finding its way into the headings of announcements by what most Canadians, I hope, think of as the Government of Canada.

It is in fact the Government of Canada, the government of all Canadians, that is making these announcements, but that is not what the headings on the announcements coming from government offices say. For the first time in our history, the Government of Canada is sending out press releases and the like saying that it is not the Government of Canada at all; it is the Harper government.

That is not something to be proud of. I am talking about these announcements.

Here is a collection of 45 such announcements, honourable senators. These announcements from the Government of Canada are about things that the Government of Canada is going to do, but they say things like the "Harper Government Invests in the Beaches International Jazz Festival," and "Harper Government Supports Weigl Educational Publishers," and "Harper Government Invests in Quebec Culture."

An Hon. Senator: Why not?

Senator Banks: Why not? It is because it is improper and it has never been done before. That is why not.

Here I thought all along that it was the Government of Canada that was investing in Quebec culture and supporting the Beaches International Jazz Festival and supporting Weigl Educational Publishers — and these are not exceptions, honourable senators; they are now the rule. I certainly do not have them all here, but 45 is a pretty good representative sample.

You may think my complaint about this is picky; and it must be said that the Prime Minister has a great deal about which he is entitled to be immodest. He has united disparate interests into a cohesive political party, albeit with an iron hand, and he has succeeded in fashioning a majority government, as is well known, after a spate of minority ones by both parties. These are no mean achievements that the Prime Minister has accomplished.

I heard Mr. Harper make a speech at a Canadian military cemetery in Holland, the eloquence and elegance of which harked back to an older time in which we expected elegance and eloquence from our political leaders. He made me proud on that occasion, and he was modest.

Now, it is perfectly okay for the news media and interest groups, as they always have, to refer to the "Harper Government," as they have in the past referred to the "Martin Government," the "Mulroney Government," the "Trudeau Government" and even the "Macdonald Government," in fact; but in my perhaps curmudgeonly view, our national government ought to recognize, at least in the headings of its own press releases, our natural reserve by calling itself by its proper name, which is the Government of Canada, rather than by the name of the interesting person who might from time to time be leading it.

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