The essence of New World countries is our common ambition to be classless societies, where individuals are judged on their merits. In my broadcast essay for TVOntario's The Agenda, I express concern that we may be growing away from rather than towards that ideal. The broadcast is available via streaming video through my YouTube Channel and via podcast through iTunes, as well as directly above. My original text is below.
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One of Canada’s highest articles of civic faith is that we are a meritocracy.
Throughout our history, Canada has grown through the toil of generations of Canadians who were inspired by the belief that our country is free of the rigid class systems of the Old World, that Canadians’ success or failure depends on our own efforts and our own abilities.
Canada prospered as a country because Canadians believed that a fair opportunity to prosper as individuals was our birthright.
Even extreme inequities of wealth have rarely roused us, because of our confidence in the equality of opportunity. While we exult in the equal dignity and equal worth of all citizens, we have held fast to the principle that inequities of outcome are acceptable when they reflect people of unequal talent and industry reaping as they sow.
But in recent years, we have come to doubt our faith in this meritocracy.
The average Canadian is now more skilled and works far longer than his parents, yet enjoys no greater wealth and endures far higher debt and insecurity. For the first time, an outright majority of Canadians believes that our children will be worse off than ourselves.
Amongst both the poorest quarter and the wealthiest quarter of Canadian families, the single greatest determinant of a child’s future prosperity is not his personal characteristics, but his father’s annual income. Amongst the fabled wealthiest one per cent of Canadian adults, more than two-thirds work or worked for the same corporations as their fathers.
More pointedly still is the means through which advantage and disadvantage are now passed from generation to generation.
Until the late twentieth century, vast wealth in Canada emanated from the multigenerational accumulation of assets. Today, it flows primarily from high personal wages. Yet, we have become a less mobile society, where Canadians’ lives are being increasingly defined not by what they are, but by who their parents were.
The critical inheritance that wealthy parents now bequeath to their offspring is investment in private instruction in music, art, and sport, while such facilities wither in the public school system. It is formal education at sought-after institutions, while mainstream universities become bloated with students and starved of resources. It is access to a web of professional and social relationships beyond the ken of the poor. It is, in essence, opportunity itself.
In this context, Canada’s sense of self as a meritocracy is in peril. The risk is not that we are regressing into a class-based society where the rich hold down the poor. It is that we are degenerating into a caste-based society where the poor and middle classes are trapped by inherited unequal access to culture, education, and self-development.
Although we are certainly a less economically mobile society than we once were, we are still more mobile than the vast majority of other western nations. But there is no doubt that we have arrived at a moment of decision for our country.
Canada was built on the dream of meritocracy: on the promise of better lives for our children and on the dignity of hope. The time has come to ask, is it still a dream worth fighting for?
UNICEF Team Canada Click image for the team web page
Time is an unyielding master, and the last few years have been so full of professional obligations for me that I have had little time to practise tent pegging, the sport of sword, lance, and horse that brought me into the world of equestrianism. Taking some time to myself has allowed me to revisit my passion; unfortunately, it has also caused me to discover that any talent I may once have possessed wandered away while I was chained to my desk.
However, tent pegging is a sport that favours the bold over the sensible, and so I have nevertheless decided to accept an invitation to sally forth to India, to represent Canada at the 2012 Asian Tent Pegging Championships. The Games will be held in Ghaziabad, a district of the Delhi national capital region.
Tent pegging is an ancient sport, and some two-and-a-half millennia of history shroud its origins. It was undoubtedly created to equip cavaliers with the skills necessary to wage war from the saddle; it was probably used as battle drill to prepare horse-mounted cavalry to fell elephant-mounted opponents. It is not for the faint of heart; it is perhaps for the soft of head.
Irrespective of the story of its formative years, its place of birth is a settled question. Tent pegging emerged from the great Asian cavalry powers, and galloped outwards with the spread of empires. Today, the Olympic Council of Asia has made tent pegging part of the biennial Asian Beach Games, and the sport is one of the ten disciplines recognised by the International Equestrian Federation (FEI).
The 2012 Asian Tent Pegging Championships will bring together teams from across the equestrian region (Asia proper, the Middle East, and North Africa), as well as three teams from the three other continental regions: the United Kingdom from Europe; South Africa from Africa; and Canada from the New World.
I arrived in India in the early hours of Wednesday morning, after a halting journey from Ottawa, pausing in Washington, and sprinting from gate to gate in Frankfurt. A minor miracle, my equipment followed me loyally through the checked-baggage system. At the Delhi airport, the fact that I was traipsing about with a rifle case raised a few eyebrows, but security waived me on with alarming indifference when I told them that the case merely contained a sword and dagger.
I have spent the day trying to sleep off jet lag at the athletes’ hotel, and enjoyed a lovely dinner hosted by the Indian Equestrian Federation, at which I caught up with some old friends from previous competitions.
On Thursday, we will walk the course, greet our horses, and deal with administrative technicalities. The Games will begin in earnest on Friday, and I will be tweeting and updating my blog as they unfold.
At previous international tent pegging competitions, I have known what it is to come first, and I have known what it is to come last. While there is no denying that one feels better than the other, I can say with my hand on my heart that both experiences were dwarfed by the emotion of carrying the maple leaf unto the field. There is no greater athletic honour for an athlete than to represent his country in competition: it is a privilege that no victory can dwarf and that no defeat can diminish.
I hope my results at these Games will be creditable, but more importantly, I will do my very best to represent Canada with honour.