Justin Trudeau’s Big Idea: Ideas (and history) don’t matter

Mark Milke
March 22, 2016
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau gave an interview to the New York Times in December that deserved far more attention than it got. “There is no core identity, no mainstream in Canada,” Trudeau said, adding that Canada is the world’s first “post-national state”. Is that what Canadians will be celebrating when the country turns 150 next year? Mark Milke hopes not, for he contends that a country without a national identity is a country without a future. Trudeau seems not to have noticed, but he may have framed the next big debate between progressives and conservatives.

Justin Trudeau’s Big Idea: Ideas (and history) don’t matter

Mark Milke
March 22, 2016
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau gave an interview to the New York Times in December that deserved far more attention than it got. “There is no core identity, no mainstream in Canada,” Trudeau said, adding that Canada is the world’s first “post-national state”. Is that what Canadians will be celebrating when the country turns 150 next year? Mark Milke hopes not, for he contends that a country without a national identity is a country without a future. Trudeau seems not to have noticed, but he may have framed the next big debate between progressives and conservatives.
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Odd as it may sound, one of the more pernicious ideas to arise in the post-Cold War world is the notion that ideas themselves do not matter. From identity politics – your ethnicity, skin colour and gender matter more than the content of your brain – to the popular academic theories that assume people are more influenced by “structures” than by their own character or lack thereof, ideas have been downgraded as responsible for much of anything.

In the wake of the Brussels attacks, the notion that human action is little influenced by ideas but more by surface characteristics or some institutional structures in society should now be so obviously an error as to be almost unremarkable. The problem though is that insubstantial opinion is held by none other than Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Consider Trudeau as a perfect and dangerous example of this errant and contradictory claim – the notion ideas don’t matter is itself an idea – which arrived late last year. In a December profile on Canada’s newest prime minister, the New York Times Magazine recounts Trudeau II’s thoughts on the country he now leads: “There is no core identity, no mainstream in Canada,’’ he said. “There are shared values — openness, respect, compassion, willingness to work hard, to be there for each other, to search for equality and justice. Those qualities are what make us the first post-national state.”

The philosopher princeling

Trudeau’s latter musings—openness, respect, compassion, hard work, equality and justice—can be categorized as standard fare progressive political rhetoric. Such bromides flow from liberal tongues much the way a conservative might refer to a “rising tide lifting all boats” or how a hard-left orator will defend “public” health care and “public education” (though they actually mean “government-delivered, by-only-government-unions”, but I digress).

In other words, the language is expected, banal and boring. In addition, Trudeau’s enunciation of what it means to be Canadian contains the usual whiff of progressive hubris about moral one-upmanship: “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the most compassionate of them all?” Problem: Except that progressive thought, with its fundamental belief men and women are perfectible through ever-more government organization, has done at least as much injury to the human species through over-the-top intervention in the last century (eugenics, anti-free enterprise policy which injured prosperity created poverty) as the occasional good that came from mundane and commendable impulses to thwart other, seemingly intractable problems that could indeed be partly ameliorated through limited government interventions.

This not very self-aware conceit aside, Trudeau’s December comment should also be picked through for another reason: The prime minister’s claim Canada has no “mainstream” was quickly contradicted – by himself – when he listed our “shared values.” That’s another way of saying that we all have something in common, that there is a dominant view, i.e., a “mainstream.”

There are two other problems with the Prime Minister’s Manhattan musings: For one, the prime minister is wrong on the history, no “core identity” and all that; second, Trudeau II is most disconcerting when he is dangerously unaware of the minimum unity necessary for any country to survive as a functioning entity lest it crack up into a broken, dysfunctional set of competing tribal clans.

Milke - Inset 2

First, the historical error: Canada does have an identity and one would think Trudeau, himself the biological product of French and English coupling, would be aware of it. Canada, as with other nations, is a fusion of battles and ideas and political compromises, mostly, though not exclusively, between the English and the French.

In general historical terms, one can reference pre-1759 history of French Canada or the decisive victory of the English over the French on the Plains of Abraham in that year. Then there is the inflow of United Empire Loyalists at, and after, the American Revolution; the 1840 Act of Union that united the colonies of Upper and Lower Canada into the Province of Canada; 1867 and Confederation; or even the 1982 Constitution – courtesy of the first Prime Minister Trudeau and willing premiers of the day, and which recognized the English and French dominance of British North America and enshrined both languages into the constitution.

Canada’s founding British ideals

Now ponder the ideas that bound Canada together – which were chiefly born in Westminster and environs. As an example, the members of the Constitutional Association of Quebec, formed in 1834, and which historian Michel Ducharme categorizes as “one of the modern pillars of the defence of liberty” in its day, were fully versed in their British-inspired rights: “Freedom for our persons, opinions, property and industry…are the common rights of British Subjects”, asserted that early Quebec association.

Following on such an understanding, early Canadian statesmen conceived of Canada’s core identity in much the same way. William Lawrence, speaking the House of Assembly in pre-Confederation debates in March 1867, remarked that. “We are a free people, prosperous beyond doubt, advancing cautiously in wealth, under the protection of our good old flag….Under the British Constitution we have far more freedom than any other country on the face of the earth.”

Or consider a former Liberal prime minister, then opposition leader, Wilfrid Laurier, in an 1894 speech. In it, he attacked the Conservative government of the day and its protectionist policies. In so doing, Laurier referenced a list of freedoms which he thought were self-evident and which the Tory government should not injure. The list is a recitation of the essential, classic freedoms that any self-respecting classic liberal would hold dear and which came from across the Atlantic Ocean: “The good Saxon word, freedom; freedom in every sense of the term, freedom of speech, freedom of action, freedom in religious life and civil life and last but not least, freedom in commercial life.”

All of the foregoing bears witness to a constant core Canadian identity – one that valued freedom based on classic British understandings and interpretations of liberalism, and which in fact triumphed over other approaches. It was preferred to the non-liberal, mercantilist, and top-down clerical, nobility and monarchical reality evident in France before 1789 (a sorry state not much improved by the ensuing revolution which ripped up the social fabric of France instead of reforming it, as Edmund Burke observed).

It was that classic liberal approach, today often called small-c conservative, that served as the dominant Canadian approach to its institutions – reform not revolution – and to daily life; freedom to associate, speak, create, and to be entrepreneurial; favouring home and hearth over the incessant politics of European coffee houses and wild-eyed continental fanaticisms.

One can mention all such historical developments which informed and fused modern Canada, any and all of which embarrass the Trudeau II notion that Canada has no core identity, a statement of profound historical ignorance.

A “post-national state” fantasy

This is where the most egregious part of Prime Minister Trudeau’s thinking on Canadian nationhood emerges and should be attacked: that Canada lacks a core identity today and thus is the “first post-national state.”

We should hope not and because there are only two types of nation-states that exist. Neither version is Trudeau’s emptied-of-content, idea-free, post-modern state fantasy. Instead, nation-states exist and are unified based on either civic nationalism or ethnic nationalism.

The first variety, civic nationalism, is what most people in western democracies like the United States, Canada, United Kingdom and France recognize: Almost anyone once admitted to our countries and regardless of race, creed or colour, and providing they are not a criminal or terrorist, can become a citizen.

The other type of nation-state is based in ethnicity, or sometimes creed. So Japan rarely allows anyone who is not ethnically Japanese to become a Japanese citizen. That’s ethnic nationalism. Another variety of this is where religion and state are intertwined. One would have to be a Muslim, for example, to become a citizen of Saudi Arabia.

Most Westerners and certainly most Canadians disdain ethnic and religious nationalism; we see it as too limiting for the type of nation in which we wish to live.

But the reason we see such nationalism as constricted and discriminatory is for precisely the opposite reason of what Trudeau assumes: That Canada has been emptied of all content, of all ideas and is now a free-for-all potpourri of cultures and ideas, none superior to any other.

Actually, the reason countries like the United States, France, Great Britain and Canada “work” is not because we are based on a narrow tribal ethnic identity, nor because we live in a relativistic vacuum (despite the efforts of some politicians, philosophers and tribalists to take us there), but because all these nations either at the beginning, or early in their development, cottoned on to the notion of a grand idea.

Americans arguably arrived there first: Their 1776 Declaration of Independence enjoins all Americans to think of themselves as possessing a right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Those are ideas, not ethnicities, skin colours or religious categories.

That America, as with any nation composed of human beings, often fell short of its own ideals and founding idea, does not take away from the fact that the American Republic was founded upon an idea: Freedom as a birthright. That idea is what eventually allowed that nation-state to expand citizenship to blacks, women, and immigrants (albeit the latter are still required to arrive legally, as they are in any nation-state).

Likewise, after 1789, however imperfectly the French Revolution brought it off, the French idea for the nation-state is that all are meant to adhere to, respect and protect liberty, fraternity and equality.

The United Kingdom and Canada also valued ideas: They are of the sort enunciated by Laurier and others: classical liberal freedoms, assumed responsibilities in tandem, and constitutional government, as the foundation for our nation states.

Canadian And British Flags 20120919

As with the United States, that not all races or creeds were initially admitted into Great Britain or Canada, or permitted to become citizens, does not change the fact that ideals and ideas were and are the basis for our political self-organization. That is wholly unlike the ethnic basis that founded much of Europe, still is the case today in Japan, and is applied religiously in much of the Arab and Muslim world.

That attachment to an idea, and a sensibly grounded one at that, is at the heart of our core identity as Canadians. It is something modern, progressives such as Trudeau forget, or deliberately omit, at their – and our – peril.

It is precisely because most Western countries do not ground their citizenship and systems of government on ethnicity or religious adherence that care must be taken to preserve the founding civic ideals and ideas – be they French, American or British-Canadian.

Put differently, the fundamental unity in nation-states such as Canada result not from an absence of belief, the absence of unifying ideas, from a void inside our heads. If that were true, there would exist no agreement on constitutional and political organizational fundamentals such as freedom of expression, religion, association, and property, or one-person, one-vote elections, or the necessity for rule of law, or the American separation of powers, or the British-Canadian model of accountable government.

Absent such fundamental unity, absent such agreement on those basics, the nation-state that is Canada, or France, or America, would be akin to an atomic explosion, spreading destruction outward.

And the atomic analogy is apt. Akin to what occurs when the nucleus of an atom splits into two, when nations suffer an internal severe crisis of belief in what should constitute a core unity for who they are and the basis for their institutions, a nation-state splits apart and the result is anarchical dysfunction at best, or civil war at worst: See France in 1789, Spain in the 1930s, Yugoslavia in the 1990s and the American Civil War in the 19th century where disagreement on the basics from the South – no state shall secede and men are indeed equal – was an example of a disagreement over the fundamentals of the nation-state.

Canada’s actual identity

The last federal government made some effort to remind Canadians of their core identity. It rewrote the national citizenship guide to emphasize the links to our founding British and French ideals and tried to circumscribe new tribalism of the sort that has arisen in the post- Cold War world. It also made symbolic gestures like reattaching the word Royal to the Canadian Air Force and Navy, and wallpapering government offices with portraits of the Queen.

The new government’s response, in both actions (removing the Queen’s portrait in Stephane Dion’s Foreign Affairs office) and now words (Trudeau’s empty notion that ideas count for nothing) is a significant hint that progressive opponents of history and the pragmatic classical liberal ideas handed down from Great Britain seem determined to detach Canada’s future from its past. This is factually wrong, ill-advised and a menace to social cohesion.

This is not an argument for extreme nationalism. These are assertions of remembering and reasserting Canada’s historical core identity. That would serve to both reinforce civil society and the functional need for a basic unity. Of note, arguments over this matter may soon replace size-and-role-of-government as the deepest philosophical divide between conservatives and progressives.

Canada has a core identity. While it is often taken for granted, overlooked, ignored, and wrongly blamed for this or that historical ill, it is based on ideas and institutions. It was developed, nourished and tended by classic British liberals in Canada who, one should point out, put modern content-free “liberals” to shame. This is especially evident when modern progressives, with no actual connection to useful historic liberalism, dangerously claim Canada is an idea-free “post-national state”.


Mark Milke is a Calgary author.


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Lead image: Reuters / Chris Wattie

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