Parochialism, Canadian modesty, and getting out of our own way


When I was growing up, my world was the size of the Island of Montreal and, mostly, the part of it west of St. Lawrence. You could fit what I knew about goings-on on the far side of the St. Lawrence River on the head of a pin. Toronto, New York, Boston, Detroit and Chicago were home to each of the other 5 of the Original Six NHL teams. I knew that because I loved hockey, not because I’d travelled there. Later, I discovered that I could listen to radio stations in Toronto, New York, Boston, Detroit and Chicago at night on an ordinary AM radio without travelling there—because I couldn’t. The word for that worldview is “parochialism” and I grew up with it.

When it came time to look for full-time work, it was understood that I would find it in Montreal because there was a job there with my name on it and I was a Montrealer. The thought that people from “l’étranger” (abroad) might actually travel there to snatch “my” job away from me never occurred to me or my parents.

That was “combination lock thinking”: turn the dial in the right direction far enough and often enough and the lock will open. Applied to preparing for a first job it became: Turn once to the right and enter public school. Turn once to the left past public school and enter high school. Turn once to the right past high school and enter university or community college or trade school. Twist the handle, open the door and your job will be waiting.

It isn’t like that any more: it only looked that way. The last tumbler is the university tumbler. Tuition fees have risen to the point where they’re beyond the reach of a growing number of Canadians. But as a lot of families have learned through bitter experience, even if you manage to afford to slip that last tumbler into place and enter university, there’s no guarantee that you’ll be able to open the door to the job waiting behind it, assuming there was one there in the first place.

That doesn’t mean that the system doesn’t work. But it does mean that the combination is a lot harder to figure out and that it has to be to all the right doors. If people are willing to work at it, they will figure it out. It’s happening as we speak. That’s because those people educated themselves about how to educate themselves. The words that describe that are “market wise” and “strategic”.

As you ponder this, here’s something else to think about. Our modesty is making it harder to get out of our own way. We use language like “looking for work” as though it’s there waiting and someone is going to bestow it on us as an act of charity. We should be using language like “competing for work and winning”. Check out the World Economic Forum’s Competitiveness Index and look at which countries have been moving up in the rankings and why.

I remember hearing a conversation about Canadian business people several years ago. The speaker made the point that we build world-class Canadian companies so that we can ruin them. We did it to Northern Telecom and the jury’s still out on whether we did it to RIM (BlackBerry). We did such a magnificent job on the Toronto-designed and built CF-105 Avro Arrow that we ground up and disposed of the 5 aircraft A.V. Roe built. Those aircraft embodied Canadian world-beating aerospace technology. Shutting down the project populated NASA with Avro engineers.

 

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The debate over the Arrow continues to this day.

We have to learn to think strategically and, dare I say it, immodestly about educating ourselves to educate ourselves. We need our young people to attend and leverage our universities, our community colleges and our trade schools because we’re more than oil, lumber, maple syrup and beer.

 

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