‘K1A’ — the insider epicentre

Ottawa is still buzzing over the government’s decision to make the long-form census voluntary. At least some of Ottawa’s more, uh, introverted insiders are.

I just can’t convince myself it’s an important issue, compared to billions of dollars’ worth of fighter planes, border security, the crumbling of Parliament and a host of other things it has chased out of the editorial pages. It seems so … so … what is the phrase? How about “K1A”?

I endorse this suggestion because it captures the situation, it is very Canadian and comes from my boss at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, Brian Lee Crowley. Put those considerations in any order you like. But here’s the explanation.

As Brian pointed out on the MLI blog yesterday, Americans have a vivid and highly appropriate metaphor for this sort of flap: they call it “Inside the Beltway” talk. But what’s the Canadian equivalent? I’ve heard “North of the Queensway” as a proposed alternative in Ottawa and I’ve used it myself. But I’ve never liked it because there’s too much north of the Queensway from shopping centres to residential neighbourhoods that isn’t governmental or government-obsessed.

OK, there’s a lot of stuff inside the Washington, D.C. beltway too. But that term has stuck, and when you’re inside the beltway it is hard to shake the feeling that everything around you that isn’t part of the government or supping at the public trough is selling or renting things to people who work for the government or desperately seeking subsidies. Not here.

While we were discussing the matter, Brian e-mailed an observation that became the core of his blog post: “When I was in the UK studying, I heard a talk by a very senior civil servant who, instead of using the ‘Whitehall’ language to describe British government preoccupations, called them ‘SW1 problems’, SW1 being the postal code that covers much of the government machinery in London. ‘SW1 problems’ were by definition ‘insider insider’, the things that preoccupied grey mandarins and fed the conversations in the pubs around government offices, but had no resonance in Balham or Birkenhead or Bristol.” And our equivalent, he went on to suggest, is K1A.

To adopt this term would not just be in keeping with Canada’s heritage, given how much of our political machinery and culture, both good and bad, comes from Britain. It’s also easy to remember: just think “Keeping 1t Absurd”. And it’s extremely precise. Not only are all postal codes beginning K1A federal government offices, it is also the only postal code to cross a provincial boundary so as to include those parts of the bureaucracy located for “two solitudes” reasons in Gatineau (née Hull). And only the bureaucracy; all residential and business postal codes there start with J.

As one online commentator with too much time on his hands observes, “the use of K1A for all government offices in Ottawa-Gatineau means a department can be moved between Ontario and Québec without changing its postal code.” So can an issue. Conveniently bypassing everyone and everything normal in the country in the process.

Talk about two solitudes. I don’t deny that sometimes a “K1A issue” actually matters to the country if not to its inhabitants, including which new fighter planes to buy and in what quantities. Clearly some of my obsessions with parliamentary operations, procedure and staffing are “K1A” or, worse, restricted to the postal code between my ears. But there are other things about which you could not get a conversation going with ordinary Canadians (one commentator called the census flap “the world’s most boring political scandal,” while going on to devote an entire column to it) and yet we who haunt K1A not only discuss them, we know their acronyms and flaunt them.

I can say this because I have one foot in K1A and if you go up that leg, you reach the pocket with my wallet in it. I make my living commenting on K1A stuff. But at least I feel some sort of unease at how often the preoccupations of those of us who think we speak for Canada, and certainly speak about it, fail utterly to connect with the people who live in the place.

It should convince us there’s something wrong with the way we discuss things even when there isn’t something wrong with what we’re discussing. Instead, so insular are our chattering classes that we didn’t even have a proper term for the disconnect. I wish I had coined “K1A” but at least I can adopt and push it.

Admit it. It has that special ring. I mean, is this census flap totally “K1A” or what?

[First published in The Ottawa Citizen]

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