The Canadian economy is, by any numerical measure, in rotten shape. Canada's collective psyche, however, is in far worse shape.
There is some debate in Canada about the magnitude of depth of the economic recession. The gloomiest of Canadians will tell you that there are serious structural problems with the nation's private sector, such as its dependence on "branch plants" of corporations based in other countries with little interest in Canada or its markets.
The political debate over what to do about Canada's economy is more intense. But the politicans seldom touch the deeper psychic questions about the nation's malaise.
On virtually every street corner crossed during a recent week's swing through Ottawa, Montreal and Toronto, people universally seemed obsessed by Canada's problems.
For a visitor from the U.S.A., Canada's gloom is striking. Here are people who outwardly seem a lot like us, who drive our cars and play our baseball, but who have lost their optimism. Optimism has long been one of North America's natural resources.
Of course Canada's gloom is meaningful in more practical ways. Canada and the U.S. are each other's largest trading partner, a $100-billion-a-year relationship. A broad collapse of the Canadian economy would, for instance, jolt the energy and automobile industries.
Yet Canada's situation is clearly unique. The U.S. is not at a critical stage in the development of its national character, and the U.S" The confidence of the young Kenyans we metr . recession does not seem to have caused many Americans to have raised fundamental questions about the country's economic and political structure.
In the U.S., people also talk of economic woe, particularly in hard- pressed industral areas like the midwest or the northwest where the timber industry, dependent on the collapsing construction business, has been crippled. But one hears relatively little economic gloom and doom on the streets of New York or Washington.
The Canadian phenomena is different. On the streets of Ottawa -- like the Washington of the 1970s said to be the only healthy urban office space market in the country -- or in showy Toronto -- with high fashion and trendy lifestyles to match any city in North America -- talk everywhere dwells on the combination of high inflation and high unemployment that is depressing Canada.
White collar, blue collar, young or old, there is little optimism to be had in Canada these days. Instead, a visitor is buffeted with talk about Canada's crisis of confidence. "I worry about where this country is going," said Kenneth Harrigan, president of Ford of Canada. "We don't have any goals for Canada. We haven't set out our destiny."
Others seem to share the view. The editor of Maclean's, Canada's prestigious weekly magazine, recently agreed with the findings of a Canadian pollster about the nation's gloom.
"Seldom, if ever before, has such an impending sense of panic pervaded our society," wrote editor Peter C. Newman. "Almost with a single voice, Canadians are expresssing a litany of fear, baffled almost beyond endurance by contradictory warning signals, vainly searching for glimmers of better days ahead."
Newman went on to explain that the heart of Canada's psychological problems lies in the nation's basic insecurity, its lack of identity. Ironically, however, much of the last decade or two has been spent trying to deal with problems raised by Canada's multiple identities.
Whether it is the debate over the political and cultural future of French-speaking Qu,ebec, or the continuing fights between the nation's energy-rich, right-leaning West and its more liberal eastern provinces, or even the continuing controversies caused by a government structure so loosely confederated that it actually places major national policy decisions in Canada's provincial capitols, the nation's war with itself seems a constant.
The Trudeau government's nationalist economic policies are intended to unify the Canadian people around the proposition that they should control their own economic destiny. That theme also provides the government with ready whipping boys -- multinational corporations, primarily those in the U.S.
It's easy in a welfare state like Canada to beat up on big business. But Canadians are also visibly taken with material wealth. They live for the second home in the country and many yearn for the return of the American gas-guzzling car. There is a movement to force Canadian broadcasters to develop more "Canadian programming," but at the same time U.S. situation comedies enjoy wide popularity.
There are other theories about the nation's gloom. One suggests that since the U.S holds what are in effect national elections every two years, there is a more regular chance to read the public's views than in Canada, where parliamentary governments generally do not hold elections more often than four years apart. Many Canadians feel disenfranchised as a result, some political observers say.
Others say that Canadians have been eager to believe that their new- found wealth in energy would spur decades of steady growth, that their "new money" would only grow. With all that material wealth underground and beneath the water, Canadians seemed to give little thought to the management of their economy. Canada has just begun to come to grips with fundamental economic policy issues.
The consequences of what Maclean's called "the Canadian disease" are more difficult to measure, although Toronto business economist Laurente metr Thibault says he is afraid for the nation's economy.
"What makes an economy run is people doing things and believing they will get rewards" as a result, he said. If the people stop expecting those rewards, he reasons, the economy could virtually stop dead, and not revive again for several years, even if the worldwide recession ended sooner.
It is difficult to imagine an economy freezing, but that is what Canada could face. One can carry that scenario even a step further, and worry about what political direction an angry, cynical populace might take after 14 years of nearly uninterrupted rule by a single man, Prime Minister Trudeau.
For the Canadian public has neither a government it believes in nor a private sector it can call its own. Although that helps explain the measurable problem, and provides fairly easy targets for public and official anger, Canada seems unable to deal with its spiritual problem.