Hewers of Wood and Pumpers of Oil: Is That How Canadians See Canada?

US President Barack Obama puts a temporary halt on the Keystone pipeline that would pump our oil down south. In response, Prime Minister Stephen Harper flies to China to talk up our oil. Energy companies (mostly foreign) want only to pipe our oil out of our country. Yet Canadians from coast to coast to coast talk louder and louder about refining our oil here, about “exporting” our oil to the Eastern half of Canada.

There is a disconnect here.

Like on Toronto Council, our Canadian political and business leaders are disconnected from what the majority of Canadians want and think and believe. Like in Toronto where the people want subways and politicians run from funding options and vote for small-town transit, so in Canada our elite run from Canada’s burgeoning economy of intellect and self-sufficiency back to our past of hewers of wood and drawers of water. Or in this case oil.

And it isn’t only in our natural resources where we export the raw goods and import back the value-added stuff, it’s also in our tech industries. I don’t know about you, but I sure am tired of being excited about some technological product that rises up in Canada, makes waves around the world, only to be sold to (usually) the US or another country as it reaches the cusp of greatness. And when one of the few tech companies that became multinational while remaining Canadian stumbles, the country screams sell sell sell! (To the US.)

I caught a bit of The Current this morning on CBC Radio 1, where one guest said it was better to increase the price of our bitumen than to refine it here and supply the whole of Canada with our own oil. It would profit our economy more. Really? How would not creating higher-skill jobs, not becoming self-sufficient in our own energy be a good thing?

Back in grade ten, I studied political history, with a focus on current politics. I think that class is now called Civics. One lesson that lodged in my brain like a thorn was the idea that Canada was a branch-plant economy. We didn’t own our own oil. We produced nothing of our own. We did not capitalize on our individual and collective intellect. Canadian banks frowned down upon Canadian start-ups. We exported our best and brightest; we extolled those that left and sneered at those that stayed; and we were content to work for foreign masters. Gradually, that changed. Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau created PetroCan so Canada could own a barrel of the oil well. Prime Minister Brian Mulroney brought in free trade. The initiatives piled up and freed us from the shackles of we-must-depend-on-others-to-be-great. We learnt we could dream big, and not only that, we could make it happen.

But somewhere – and I don’t know how or where or when – those glorious days of being our own masters gave way to the old ideas of we profit best when we sell off our natural resources and are not  energy self-sufficient, when we look to other countries to lead on climate change or diplomacy or any global policy (though we take pride in leading a mission once others have established it), and when success is building up a tech company to the point that a foreign entity wants to buy it, not to build it up to compete with the Yahoos or CNNs or Amazons of the world or with corporate China. We can’t do that! Look at RIM (and why hasn’t it sold out yet, the temerity of thinking it can rebuild itself like Apple did)! Our leaders are content with being our old, dependent selves, but whenever I listen to talk radio (mostly CBC these days) or talk TV, I get the sense that ordinary Canadians are getting restive. We’ve touched the grail of independence and vitality and being our own masters and being looked up to by the world, and we want it back – damn it! – in our TTC and our oil and our diplomatic skills and, for some of us, our tech.

What will it take for our political and business and banking leaders to hear us and follow?