Of course, a few days (mostly spent inside the Fairmont Royal York Hotel downtown) is hardly enough to get a balanced picture of the state of things in our northern neighbor. What follows is admittedly no more than impressions, except for a few facts as reported by the local newspaper.
Last time I went through Toronto Pearson airport, transiting on the way to London, it was undergoing massive redevelopment. As one waggish Air Canada employee said, it was "the world's largest construction site with its own airport." The results seem to have been successful. As airports go, it is quite welcoming. And, at least in the terminal where I arrived and departed, calm: no TV monitors in the lounges, no security announcements every five minutes. Can you believe it?
Although I didn't see much of Toronto (except on the local television news), I spoke with quite a few Canadians during the conference, and believe I got some of the vibe.
In general, they do not like the United States.
As a guest, I avoided bringing up politics or anything that might be controversial, but inevitably political and social issues arose from time to time. All the Canadians I spoke to were perfectly courteous, even in their U.S. bashing, and most were friendly toward me. But behind the polite facade, I sensed a firm disapproval.
It is not that they don't understand us. They understand us, and they don't like what they know.
Behind specific issues lurks a difference in temperament. Canadians trust government, regardless of their divisions in party politics. This may be the only country in the world where you can say, "I'm from the government, and I'm here to help you" and be believed. Capable of heated controversy over particular policies, Canadians nevertheless in general believe government knows best.
I can respect the historical reasons for their outlook. Canada still takes some of its tone from the Loyalists who left the colonies on the eve of the American war for independence and headed north. The Loyalists were reasonable, in addition to their emotional ties with Great Britain. They knew they would be persecuted for their politics if they stayed in place during the war, and that most revolutions end in tears. They were unable to know in advance that the American revolution would be one of the rare successful ones and would result in a brilliant Constitution and a humane Bill of Rights.
But it seems that they've not quite gotten over the idea that we're the bad seed.
I had an interesting conversation with a gentleman I met by chance (he was not involved in the conference). Well dressed, in his 60s, he was quite knowledgeable about many aspects of Canadian life (as well as American; he'd gotten a couple of degrees at Chicago University). He is on the board of the Canadian branch of a well-known U.S. insurance company.
We chatted about the U.S. health care flap. He had lots of facts and figures ready to hand, I suppose because of his line of work. Canada, he told me, spends on health care about half as much as a percentage of GDP as the United States does. He acknowledged that the Canadian government-run system had plenty of problems, but said that it worked reasonably well for most people. I assumed he would next sing the praises of Obamacare.
Surprisingly, though, he said that what was sauce for the Canadian goose was not sauce for the American gander. Government health care was appropriate in Canada, but not in the U.S. If I understood him correctly, it was another example of differing national temperaments.
"We are a multi-cultural society," he said. "Here in Toronto, we have people of 200 different national origins." He spoke neither approvingly or disapprovingly. My interpretation is that for him, it was just a fact. It was what the government had decided. End of story.
Channel surfing one evening, I found one (no doubt taxpayer-supported) dedicated to all, or most, of Toronto's communities. Each ethnicity got its dedicated daypart. I watched news from Toronto and Italy in Italian, with commercials for local Italian businesses, mainly restaurants and a Catholic cemetery. A promo informed me that the following time block would be in Cantonese. I suppose it continues that way throughout the week. Monday 9 to 11, Russian. Wednesday 5 to 7, Ethiopian. Saturday 2 to 4, Papua New Guinean.
I discreetly brought up in the conversation with the businessman the Muslim population. No problem, he said. The police and security services have moles in every jihadist group. The firebrands are monitored more closely in Canada than their equivalents in the United States. And Canada wouldn't put up with burkas and that sort of thing.
Indeed, the following day's Globe and Mail reported that one Zakaria Amara had entered a guilty plea as one of the "Toronto 18" who planned "a terrorist attack that would dwarf the 2007 London subway bombings."
His attack against Toronto would be so big it would reprise of the Battle of Badr, in which the Prophet Mohammed's forces won a decisive victory for Islam against a vast army of unbelievers.
It didn't turn out that way. Instead, Mr. Amara issued a surprise guilty plea in a Brampton courtroom yesterday morning, more than 40 months after he and 17 others were arrested in connection with the most audacious and ambitious terrorist attack planned in Canada.
His cohorts were too deliberate for Amara. He wanted action.
In line with what my acquaintance said, the security services had rolled up the plotters before they could carry out their deeds. Canada 1, Jihad 0.
He struck out on his own in the spring. A singular idea obsessed him: Building fertilizer-based truck bombs to raze Toronto skyscrapers.
He hatched plans to rent U-Hauls and turn them into mobile bombs, hoping to plant one huge truck bomb outside a military base, probably Canadian Forces Base Trenton, along Highway 401; a second bomb would rip into the Toronto Stock Exchange; a third, into the Toronto offices of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.
All one happy multi-cultural family, then, with the proverbial small minority of extremists kept in check. I'm not so sure. The Great Burka Debate is by no means settled, as two letters in the same issue of the Globe and Mail suggested. They read:
As a practising Muslim, I’m no fan of the face veil worn by a minority of Muslim women. Neither am I a fan of overt sexuality, nudity or the Muslim Canadian Congress (Muslim Group Moves To Ban Burka – online, Oct. 7). As far as I’m concerned, the state has no business in the bedrooms or the closets of the people.
Where public safety and the law requires it, veiled women, KISS fans and Project Chanology’s members wearing Guy Fawkes masks should all be identifiable. But how we choose to present ourselves to the world is part of our fundamental right of expression.
Nikhat Rasheed, Mississauga, Ont.
The Muslim Canadian Congress is claiming to promote freedom, but, by calling on Ottawa to ban the burka, it’s the one trying to restrict other people’s choices. Let’s look at this issue logically: A very small number of Muslim Canadian women choose to wear the burka. These women are also professionals and homemakers; they travel, drive cars and sit on parent/teacher councils. They have not asked for special consideration, and they remove their veils for identification requirements when necessary. Furthermore, since millions of Canadians cover their faces in winter, how does the Muslim Canadian Congress propose to apply this ban?
Shahina Siddiqui, president, Islamic Social Services Association Inc.-Canada, Winnipeg
Once you accept multi-culturalism as a trump card, you have no basis for stopping any group from exercising its own traditions, even if they're 180 degrees removed from that of the indigenous population. Within their own frame of reference, the two letter writers are reasonable. If Canada has embraced them as Canadians, how can it refuse them what they believe is a "fundamental right of expression" -- even if, for some, that's burkas, sharia courts, female genital mutilation, or honor killings? It's the basic assumption that is cracked, the one that says a country must be the world.
Canada seems to me only technically a country these days. It once had an identity other than the "un-America" and two hundred solitudes. I didn't, but I wanted to ask the businessman why Canada had to import people from every nation and culture on earth. Was there something wrong with Canadians? Could they not cut it without vast infusions from outside? What skills did these Toronto immigrants have that British and French Canadians were short of?
And why did Canada have to spend what must surely have run to millions of its citizens' tax dollars for surveillance and trials of the jihadists it had welcomed to its shores, while running the risk that sooner or later a plot wouldn't be discovered in time? I have a similar question about my own, my native land.