OSLO—Britain is cool, Denmark is heavenly and Norway is next.
Two down and one to go in my three-nation quest to find out why Stephen Harper in 1997 sneered in a speech to Americans that “Canada is a Northern European welfare state in the worst sense of the term, and very proud of it.”
I can hold a grudge for 15 years, easy, but that isn’t the point. I assumed the innocent Harper simply hadn’t visited these northern nations or he’d have seen how badly we needed to nudge closer to their style, their way of thinking.
Britain and Scandinavia are full of good ideas for a Canada at the crossroads, with a Conservative government trying to take us back to the 1950s while provinces like Alberta and Quebec stare at the future with a wild surmise. We should study the northern nations. We are one of them.
On the other hand, Norway fills me with apprehension. Norwegians are famously rational and courteous, almost as good-looking as the Danes and rich as Croesus.
Teen poet Adrian Mole once saluted the nation in a 1984 novel by Sue Townsend:
Land of difficult spelling.
Hiding your beauty behind strange vowels.
Land of long days, short nights and dots over ‘O’s.
One day I will sjourn to your shores.
I live in the middle of England
Norway! My soul resides in your watery fiords fyords fiiords
Good Idea: Get rich, properly
Norway has become stupefyingly rich, something I am accustomed to in totalitarian women-hating countries like Saudi Arabia but not in sophisticated generous nations with photogenic industries like logging and fishing.
The great B.C. online magazine The Tyee ran a long — and brilliant — series by Mitchell Anderson this year on the economic glory of Norway. I urge you to read it. It shocked me to my greedy Canadian core.
The Norwegians discovered offshore oil in the 1960s but, unlike Canada, learned to manage it well and now, well, they’re loaded. Norway’s Sovereign Wealth Fund, is worth $650 billion (U.S) and will hit $1 trillion in this decade. (Alberta’s Heritage Fund, set up in 1976, is at a banana republic level of $15.9 billion Cdn.).
As Anderson says stolidly, that’s equal to “140 per cent of GDP (gross domestic product), or about $120,000 for every man, woman and child” in Norway. (They have 5 million people, we have 31 million.)
The fund owns 1 per cent of the world’s stocks. Norway has a debt surplus. It has full employment, a phrase that in my world ranks with “cure for cancer” and “climate stability.”
According to the International Monetary Fund, it has the third highest per capita GDP in the world, after Luxembourg and Qatar, where you do not want to live. We’re 10th. I am filled with retroactive shame for how Canada — most notably Alberta — messed up its stewardship of natural resources. It’s like a lottery ticket we failed to cash.
Let’s look at how Norway has dealt with rapacious multinationals, mitigated environmental damage and decided to rule its own destiny, along with feeling a certain amount of guilt at its good fortune.
“We have an abundancy problem,” says Prof. Dag Harald Claes, head of political science at the University of Oslo. “It seems like a nice problem but it’s still a problem.”
There is a startling right-left political consensus in Norway, but it may be the consequence of wealth. For instance, when the so-called right-wing wants to get difficult, I am told, it argues that not enough is being spent on welfare. No one blinks.
It wasn’t always this way. When oil extraction began, regulation was weak, Claes says. “The American companies came, did it the way they did it in Texas with no labour, health or environmental regulations.” Then in 1980 an offshore oil platform collapse killed 123 workers. “The Nordic logic kicked in.”
Now the industry is heavily regulated, taxed and structured for the future, the only debate being at what pace extraction should continue, to avoid the “Dutch disease” of an oil-dominated economy crushing manufacturing exports.
Canada faces this problem in its rush to pull money out of the tarsands at full speed. It uses low-paid foreign workers, for instance. Here, local workers are trained, so that the expertise doesn’t leave if a multinational departs.
Einar Lie, a history professor at the University of Oslo, says the Norwegian government initially had a semi-war with multinational oil firms because it wanted control of its own resources and a marginal tax rate of at least 90 per cent. (In 2010, Alberta charged only 10 per cent royalties on its all its oil revenue, Anderson reports.)
The multinationals threatened to leave the Norwegian shelf. “(Norway) didn’t want them to leave but they didn’t beg them to stay because that’s not how we do things in Norwegian politics,” Lie says.
And Norway is set to double its carbon tax on offshore oiland is setting up a 1 billion pound fund to help repair climate change damage in the developing world. That’s how they do it. That’s how Alberta didn’t, and doesn’t, do it. Even the suggestion of confronting foreign oil companies makes timid Canadians feel faint.
Norway called the multinational bluff yet kept it civilized. “We have a strong belief in negotiations without winners and losers,” Lie says. “Norway is an extremely egalitarian society.”
Despite all the lectures about equality, I go to Aker Brygge, a former shipyard turned into a nest for the rich, and see evidence of astounding wealth. Here in adjacent Tjuvholmen is the Astrup Fearnley Museum designed by Renzo Piano who describes it as “a roof with pieces under it.” Some roof. Some pieces.
“Fashionable, expensive and vacuous,” critics have called it, a case of a gallery overwhelming its art. It’s a curving glass cap over wood, containing wonderful modern Norwegian and Chinese photography that almost make up for the 1990s Damien Hirst pre-surgery genitalia et al. Oh Damien, pubic hair is so old.
The rich are everywhere, in crass New York, where their homes are rendered in glass and steel, and in London, where people build three-storey basements in a studied effort to be non-ostentatious.
But on the wharf I saw an apartment building whose beauty — yet palpable air of menace — made me gasp. Its roof was shaped like a Viking prow, and the ship’s body rolled out over the rooftop to the fjord like some kind of threatening blast from the 11th century.
The parapet proclaimed might like an aircraft carrier. For the first time in my life, I understood not the 1 per cent but the 0.01 per cent. I know that the person on the top floor thinks the way I do: “One day the grave will claim me. Also my toe hurts.” But I felt as though I had been beaten with golf clubs.
On the other hand, people describe Oslo wrongly. They tell me the university is “out in the suburbs.” No, it’s not. I say that as a Torontonian. It’s in Blindern, an area easily reachable by tram with detached houses so lovely in an understated way that I feel I’m in a kind of domestic heaven.
Really, I have another of my “turns.” I walked through Blindern in a drift of autumn leaves feeling emotionally carbonated — no, it’s an actual numinous northern moment — which does not happen to me at York University or anywhere near it. There are suburbs, and there are suburbs.
Similarly, Oslo had Toronto’s waterfront — blocked off by an expressway, ratty and ugly. It’s fixing it. It’s burying parts of its expressway. The new opera house is an impressively massive white iceberg sloping into the fjord. There’s a clutch of skyscrapers — known accurately but not fondly as “The Barcode” — but it doesn’t block the harbour. In Oslo, they’re getting it right.
Good idea: Write crime fiction
Norway frightens me because I have read its novels. Nordic Noir is huge at the moment, and rightfully so. The journalist Mark Lawson, who is hosting a BBC radio series on European detective fiction, not only says that the genre offers tourism in prose form, but that it is predictive. “It is a magnifying glass that frequently reveals the fingerprints of history before they become visible to politicians or journalists.”
He’s right. The late Stieg Larsson, whose first novel, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, was originally titled Men Who Hate Women, guided us around Stockholm’s killing grounds and reminded us that smart brave women like Lisbeth Salander can scarcely survive in this world. Jo Nesbo is the Norwegian novelist whose Harry Hole (Hoo-la) detective series introduced me to Oslo.
Just as it’s a bad idea to see the 1973 Julie Christie movie Don’t Look Now before you go to Venice — you will spend your days expecting to be stabbed by people in little red coats — it’s a bad idea to read Nesbo before you go to Oslo. His hero is an alcoholic loner who ferrets around in the most fetid areas of the city, places that would have slipped past me had I not read Nesbo. Blood stands out on the grey pavements of Oslo, which is far enough north that the sun on the Earth’s curve this time of year is all the more blinding for being short-lived and low.
There’s no stigma to writing thrillers in Scandinavia, Nesbo explained to the Guardian’s John Crace. “Many Scandinavian writers who had made their name in literary fiction felt they wanted to have a go at the crime novel to show they could compete with the best. If Salman Rushdie had been Norwegian, he would definitely have written at least one thriller.”
As for prefiguring events, Nesbo’s 2000 novel The Redbreast was about neo-Nazis in Oslo. And then came the 2011 Oslo bombing and the slaughter on Utoya island by a Muslim-hating Nazi-admiring madman.
Speaking of Nazis, Norway’s greatest literary work is a huge 2009 novel/memoir by Karl Ove Knausgaard, the Nordic Proust. Its unfortunate title of Min Kamp (My Struggle) makes it awkward to read in airports so I read it before I left, 430 pages of the unedited moments of a depressive’s rural adolescence, which is fine. But there are five more volumes, which is not.
The critic Louis Menand says Min Kamp is about “the adventure of the ordinary steadily retreating” toward meaninglessness. I enjoyed Min Kamp, especially the weirdly compelling 150-page sequence about housecleaning, but have more than 3,000 pages left to read (the full Knausgaard is not yet in English).
I don’t doubt its genius. Yet Proust loved beauty and Knausgaard doesn’t encounter it much. Min Kamp is a hard road. I cannot square this with the gentle Norway I meet. It’s a puzzle.
Good idea: Take the train
You are spoiled for choice if you want to travel around Oslo without using your legs, so untrue of Toronto. There are plenty of cyclists but it’s not the bike haven Copenhagen is, perhaps because the cold here can be cutting.
There are buses, trams, trains, domestic ferries and international ferries. I spent a lot of time hanging around stations pondering which form of transit I was in the mood for. A train, then a touch of tram? A ferry, or should I just sit at the Cafe Renzo jamming blueberry cakes into my mouth and watching teenage boys posing on two stone breasts by the sculptor Louise Bourgeois with the nipples facing inland?
Good idea: Be rational
Since Harper’s appearance in politics, Canadians have been imbibing the American idea that feelings are more important than thoughts, that “truthiness” — what you feel in your gut — wins out. The Norwegians don’t do this.
The reason is rooted in Norwegian history, says Prof. Lie. “We are a small country” — funny, the Danes phrased it this way too — “but we are quite loud about climate change, the Nobels, about our tradition of peace. We are a very open society and we travel a lot.”
Peacefully splitting from Sweden in 1905, Norway has Canadian-type industries: fish, timber, water and electricity. When European companies wanted a taste in 1910, Norway stubbornly insisted on “concession laws” stating that waterfalls dammed for electricity by corporations should be returned to the nation after 80 years.
The European Union was most unhappy with this long-retained 1907 regulation, which was not in the spirit of European sharing. But this is the Norwegian way: self-determination. Why can’t Canada do the same now?
Norwegian oil regulator Rolf Wiborgtold The Tyee’s Anderson exasperatedly, “Protecting the future of Canadian nature and human life, looking out for local residents, providing jobs and wealth to Canada. It can all be done, that’s what we are doing here. But you’ve got to stop thinking like a loser!”
Norway was populated by small farmers and businesses without no huge inherited wealth class or big business as in Germany or the U.K. Fairness was thus part of tradition, with everyone having an equal say.
“If I said to you, parroting the American slogan, ‘What’s good for business is good for Norway,’ what would people say?” I asked Lie.
He laughed. “People would say it’s obviously ridiculous.”
Norway is an extremely self-confident nation, but this is built on a base of government, unions and business sitting down at the same table as equals, and talking freely. “The quickest route to losing an election,” Lie says, “is to promote business or organized labour interests alone. It would be tasteless and illegitimate.”
I keep making comparisons with the Harperite American style that Canada is emulating. Lie shrugs. “It’s so different. Climate, abortion, Sarah Palin, and domestic issues like family values, obesity, big cars,” Lie says. “It’s not nice to make fun of people. So most Norwegians feel a great distance from the Americans.”
Good Idea: Be compassionate
The 21-year prison sentence given to mass murderer Anders Breivik struck me as distinctly undercooked. I complained (not out loud, of course) that my Oslo hotel room was smaller than Breivik’s three-room cell, and it was.
He killed 77 people in a manner of extreme hideousness, he shot the wounded in the water, he tormented those he was about to kill. But we know all that. Although I feel confident he will never be released, was 21 years enough?
Jo Nesbo has said, quite calmly: “It was a one-off natural disaster perpetrated by an individual that couldn’t have been predicted. It was not an important political event rooted in the foundations of our society.”
Prof. Claes: “We have a subculture on the right that we haven’t taken seriously enough. But on balance, there is an individual explanation.”
Prof. Lie: “We learned that we have to improve our response time.”
I take their point. Breivik was a friendless freak who was lucky enough to get a gun. Any serial killer attacking a gym, a classroom, an island, will kill more people than in an open space. That doesn’t make him more significant than any other murderer. Why should Norway change itself to bend to the Breiviks?
When I press Lie, he says Norwegians “have a lower level of aggression in public debate.” The police report pointed out deficiencies that will be repaired, he said.
He then begins to talk about a 1994 murder case in Trondheim in which a young girl was found tortured to death and naked in the snow. To an astonishing degree, the circumstances mirrored the killing of tiny Jamie Bulger by two young boys in Liverpool in 1993. A British tabloid reporter came to interview him about the case. Lie recalls that there were very few details released to the public and very little press interest.
“She became upset with me,” Lie recalls, bemused. She could not understand why Norwegians weren’t obsessed with the case. But, he explains, they simply felt that police and social services would deal with the case appropriately, so there was nothing more to say.
I wrestle with this. The murdered girl’s mother and brother have since encountered her killers in town, to their shock and revulsion. Yet the mother concludes, “The system we have in Norway is still best.”
I remain as bewildered as the British reporter, because in Canada “the system” is poor. The local police are out of control, the RCMP is a nest for scandal and social services are exhausted. “We have faith in our institutions,” Lie explains. What’s that like, I wonder.
But my anger at Breivik’s sentence is tempered by his hilarious complaints this month about the brutality meted out to him in his three-room cell. His prison pen is too bendy! It’s “an almost indescribable manifestation of sadism.” He lacks adequate moisturizer! His coffee is cold! The butter on his bread is skimpy!
I change my mind. Every aspect of Breivik’s existence is clearly a torment to him. May it long continue.
Good ideas: In summary
So my tour of the Northern European nations that Harper so despised has ended. These countries were splendid. Harper was, and is, flat-out wrong. There are dozens of good ideas here for Canadians to emulate. “I love Canada,” Rolf Wiborg has said. “I love Canadians. It’s a fantastic country. But in my opinion it’s totally mismanaged, and by design.”
To sum up: Be disrespectful like Brits. Have a bit of a laugh. Be gorgeous like Danes. Get some exercise. Be tough like Norwegians. Get rich but remain humble. These are words to live by.
1 Level trams. Like our trams coming in 2014, they’re absolutely level with the road, so you step into the tram the way you step into your bedroom. There’s a psychological level of comfort in not having to climb on.
2 Clas Ohlson. It’s a Swedish hardware store chain, the Canadian Tire of Oslo, but unlike them, clean, elegant and beautifully organized by white numbers on black borders. The font is 1970s. It has retro-appeal.
3 Black. I used to find black sinister. Now that I’ve seen black gabled pantile roofs on square houses in Bygdoy, wide black wooden picture frames and black trim, I love it. Black is the signature shade of Oslo and it works.
4 Viking shapes. The curve of the Viking longboat prow is the signature shape of Norway. Why don’t I see more canoe prows in Canadian decor and architecture? It beckons, it’s instantly recognizable.
5 Cafe Christiania. If you sit in this grand circular restaurant beside the Royal Palace above Karl Johans gate (the main drag) you can see where Jo Nesbo sets his best murders. The owner has a doll collection that is not as creepy as it sounds.