The Truth About Canada

By Mel Hurtig

Nobody knows the exact origin of the expression about “lies, damn lies, and statistics,” but its longevity speaks to our suspicion of the way numbers can be spun and data massaged to support virtually any side of an argument. Nevertheless, for Mel Hurtig it is statistics that reveal the essential truth about Canada. His new book is full of numbers, so many of them that he occasionally doesn’t know how to fit them all in, and making some chapters nearly unreadable. Which unfortunately makes it easy to lose sight of what he’s saying about Canada’s decline.

Relative decline, because one of Hurtig’s favourite approaches is to show how Canada stacks up against other countries around the world in various categories. So, for example, in a UN list of 179 countries our voter turnout rate came in at 109th. Our rank in reducing pollution is 126th out of 146. Or wrap your head around this: Canada has the lowest percentage of adults in the OECD smoking tobacco daily, but the highest percentage of people in the industrialized world using marijuana on a regular basis.

Such international comparisons are interesting, but also wide open to interpretation. The general theme that stands out is that Europe is good (at the top of most rankings) and the U.S. is bad (near the bottom). And Canada is becoming more and more like the U.S. So the Free Trade Agreement, the “most colossal con job in Canadian history” and long a bête noire of Hurtig’s, comes in for more criticism here, and there is even reporting on a top-level “covert, under-the-table” plan to further integrate Canada into the United States “by secrecy and stealth.” You may not have heard of these continentalist/integrationist plans, but that doesn’t surprise Hurtig. The media has shown little interest in the story.

This is a point that Hurtig underscores. Canadians don’t want to move closer to “American standards and values,” but that is what is happening anyway. There is a growing gulf between the policies of our leaders and the country we want to live in. One reason he gives for this is Canada’s corporate-conservative media. But this is not really convincing, especially given all of the commentary Hurtig quotes, approvingly, from the pages of newspapers like the Globe and Mail and Toronto Star. Even plans to integrate Canada more fully into a continental system are hardly secret. There has been public debate over a common currency, for example, for years. The truth is out there, and it hasn’t been concealed.

The real problem with The Truth About Canada, however, is the sheer weight of numbers. Whole pages are blanketed in the recitation of statistics, not all of which are clear in their meaning. And the repetitive, dulling effect is heightened by Hurtig’s habit of coupling the numbers with adjectives like “alarming,” “appalling,” “absurd,” “astonishing,” and “amazing” — just to give you some of the a’s. In the face of so much that is “appalling” (to take his favourite), one ceases to be appalled. Such words start to seem like they’ve been dropped in automatically, and lose significance. Take a statement like the following: “Remarkably, almost 40 percent of those who didn’t vote in recent elections said that the elections didn’t matter, or that they felt they had no one to vote for.” What is remarkable about this? Wouldn’t it make sense that people who don’t vote either think elections don’t matter or feel they have no one to vote for?

Even readers sympathetic to Hurtig’s positions, and he is a good nationalist in this reviewer’s opinion, will find themselves wishing more of this book had been written as opposed to simply compiled. The numbers and rankings and statistics are there, but they aren’t given a full enough context. All of the information makes it a useful resource but not much more.

Review first published May 17, 2008.

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