Book Review

The Elusive Search for a Canadian Greatness

Benjamin L. Woodfinden
June 1, 2019
The future belongs to Canada. And it seems it always will, at least going by the many failed predictions of Canada’s imminent emergence as a praised and respected world-class nation. That’s because it’s not really about Canada in the global community, it’s all about us and our insecurities, writes Benjamin L. Woodfinden. That’s also why Woodfinden expects prodigious commentator, author and former news media magnate Conrad Black’s prescription to transform Canada into a “laboratory” – though a “sensible” one – for great new policies, or at least policies Black thinks are new and great, to go the way of similarly grandiose historical attempts.
Book Review

The Elusive Search for a Canadian Greatness

Benjamin L. Woodfinden
June 1, 2019
The future belongs to Canada. And it seems it always will, at least going by the many failed predictions of Canada’s imminent emergence as a praised and respected world-class nation. That’s because it’s not really about Canada in the global community, it’s all about us and our insecurities, writes Benjamin L. Woodfinden. That’s also why Woodfinden expects prodigious commentator, author and former news media magnate Conrad Black’s prescription to transform Canada into a “laboratory” – though a “sensible” one – for great new policies, or at least policies Black thinks are new and great, to go the way of similarly grandiose historical attempts.
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“This is the destiny, and the vocation, Canada could have, not in the next century, but in the next five years of imaginative government. For over four hundred years Canada has toiled, in the shadows of its potential, and to a grudging or indifferent recognition of a smaller status than it has now achieved the ability to claim in the world…Chipper, patient, and courteous, Canada has waited its turn, having tenaciously pursued an improbable destiny – a splendid nation in the northern section of the new world…Our main chance is in advancing the art of government by applying some new techniques to a field worn down by the plough-horses of convention. The silent unhurried fruitfulness of Canada’s experience is ready to produce for the world a new harvest of better government and a better society.”

There’s a strange and perhaps uniquely Canadian intellectual tradition, going back well over a century, of proclaiming Canada’s arrival on the world stage. From Wilfrid Laurier’s prediction that the 20th century belonged to Canada to books like Michael Byers’ Intent for a Nation and Justin Trudeau’s vacuous post-electoral declaration that “Canada is back,” the Canadian fondness for announcing our arrival oscillates with Canada’s profound and lingering self-doubt about its identity. Announcing our arrival is thus more an inward quest of self-discovery than an external proclamation. Conrad Black’s new book, The Canadian Manifesto: How One Frozen Country can Save the World, is the latest example boldly declaring Canada’s arrival while ultimately raising more questions than answers about our elusive identity.

The Canadian Manifesto has prompted a somewhat muted reaction, but it’s an interesting contribution to the genre from a lucid and original mind unafraid to challenge orthodoxy and entertain heterodoxy. But the book still manifests the uncertainty that seems unalterably fused with what it means to be Canadian. The prescriptions Black offers as the keys to transforming Canada “into a controlled and sensible public policy laboratory” that will “help lead the advanced world to the next stage of its development” are not only areas where Canada is not uniquely positioned to lead, but where Canada seems uniquely unable to offer anything original or positive.

Following a somewhat vague foreword by free speech warrior Jordan Peterson, who calls upon Canadians to get beyond their natural timidity, Black opens his narrative with a concise history of Canada explaining how we got where we are today and why our relatively peaceful development has us uniquely positioned to punch above our weight in the world. “Almost all Canadians, all their conscious lives, are disappointed that Canada is under-recognized in the world,” Black proclaims. When Canada is recognized globally, it is usually for nothing more than the benign buzzwords you’ll hear at any espresso bar: diversity, socialized medicine, humanitarianism, and so on. There’s nothing wrong with these attributes but, as Black wants to show, Canada is remarkable in much more interesting and noteworthy ways, and so it is he who shall “remind Canadians of the peculiar glories of their past.”

The peculiar glory of Canada today is that it is “the only bicultural, transcontinental, parliamentary confederation that has ever existed.” That it has existed in roughly the same way now for over 150 years means that Canadian political institutions are surpassed in seniority only by Great Britain and the United States among larger countries. But unlike the Americans, who went through a brutal civil war to preserve their union, and the British, who had to shed a province (Ireland), Canada proved at once stable and peaceful. The centrality and latent power of this political maturity, a characteristic worn humbly and often without a modicum of self-awareness, are what make this latest proclamation of Canada’s arrival different. As “western liberal democracy has stalled,” Black writes, Canada is finally ready to don its mantle for greatness. Canada isn’t back, it was always quietly here. Now, as other countries wane, Canada is ready to step forward and show “how one frozen country can save the world.”

If you’re already feeling pangs of patriotic fervor, hold off for a moment. Black’s summation of Canada’s history is solid, and central to his argument is that understanding where we have come from is the key to understanding where we are going, so much so that the first section is entitled “The Past Reveals the Future.” At the centre of Black’s historical narrative is the conflict that essentially forged modern Canada, whose largely peaceful resolution indeed makes Canada remarkable and lies at the core of Confederation: the conflict between English and French Canada.

Black is not wrong to point out that building a country on an (eventually) consensual union between two previously warring and still at times antagonistic peoples is a remarkable historical achievement and not something that should be brushed aside. But if you gave The Canadian Manifesto to an alien who knew nothing about Earthlings, he or she might well report to their home planet that Canada’s borders had never extended much beyond Upper and Lower Canada. He or she would, in other words, dutifully repeat what others have dubbed the “Laurentian Thesis.”

Western Canada is, of course, younger than the original provinces at Confederation in 1867. But given its immense growth in population and productivity – both in absolute and relative terms – the West is no longer a junior partner in Confederation, even though our country is still largely structured in a way that would suggest as much. Perhaps more significantly, Western Canada is increasingly becoming a new political axis. Canada’s history may be centred in the Centre, as it were, but its future is almost certainly shifting westward.

This shift complicates Black’s narrative. Reading the Canadian Manifesto, one might think that Canada had experienced its own Francis Fukuyama-esque end-of-history moment late in the 20th century, largely consigning regional and cultural conflicts to the past. With these old conflicts resolved peacefully, Canada is now ready to claim its long-awaited global role. But as many Westerners will tell you, it is a mistake to think that the English-French fault-line is the only one threatening to demolish our political and societal structures. It is a further mistake to see English Canada as a unified or homogeneous group, as Black appears to. A century ago, this was excusable, but it makes no sense now. Canadian politics has always been dominated by regional divides. There are more regions today than at Confederation, and all but Quebec are English-speaking, meaning that English Canadians should no longer be regarded as one group.

Moreover, our divides are more than linguistic. Black spends a scant few pages chastising the approach taken by the current government and the courts towards Indigenous peoples, a group largely ignored in the book. He rightly worries about the long-term effects arising from current approaches to self-government and reconciliation but ignores a much larger challenge that this poses to his quest for greatness. First Nations represent a third group that must be accounted for in any national project. Yet many of them see Canada’s history not as a cause worth celebrating, but as a blight to be ashamed of, and have little interest in Canada as it is presently constructed.

If Canada’s future lies westward – or at least if the West is to be more influential in shaping Canada’s future – then the perennial conflict and contestation of our Confederation may not be over, it may just be entering a new stage. Black briefly references the current chatter of secession and agrees that “Alberta is being so grossly short-changed,” but does not seem to grasp the long-term significance of the westward shift. Canada’s future is indeed determined by the past. But it is a mistake to think our future is our past, and further to see Canadian history as nothing more than a conflict between English and French Canada. Canada always has been and is likely to remain a multiregional as much as or even more than it is a multicultural nation. Even if our regional conflicts remain unlikely ever to result in bloodshed, this does not mean they are over.

Although Canada remains an unfinished product, Black is right to say being the world’s only bicultural, transcontinental, parliamentary confederation – one that’s peaceful and has proven staying power – is something to be celebrated. But the Canadian Manifesto isn’t just a celebration of where we have come from, it’s a call to greatness on the road to where we could be going. To transform Canada into a shining “laboratory” on a hill, Black offers 19 prescriptions. Were they to be implemented, however, these prescriptions would hardly turn Canada into the global engine of public policy. They would leave it much as it is right now, mired in indistinguishable mediocrity.

Canada as “sensible laboratory”: an eccentric public policy vision more likely to blow up in the experimenter's face.
Canada as “sensible laboratory”: an eccentric public policy vision more likely to blow up in the experimenter's face.

Some of Black’s proposals are perfectly sensible and are likely to excite conservatives. Identifying teachers’ unions as the main barrier to education reform, rebuilding the Canadian military and opening up Canadian healthcare to provide options and stimulate investment are three important examples. On the other hand, they are not even slightly original, and Black should be aware that they have a history of both failing and crushing their proponents. Worse, running throughout Black’s various economic prescriptions is the decidedly non-conservative theme of public sector-private sector cooperation, or Blair/Clinton style “Third Way” proposals that involve public and private cooperation. This includes calls for the partial nationalization of the Canadian auto industry, massive infrastructure and resource projects, a national service program, and transformations of the National Film Board and CBC into global cultural icons.

On all these projects, the state and the market can work together to produce world-class results, or so goes the plan. But it’s a poor historian, or at least a highly selective one, who thinks Canada is ready to act as a model for public-private partnerships or large infrastructure projects, or that government ownership of the means of production results in anything but stagnation, poor productivity, massive financial losses and political patronage. Iconic Canadian companies like Bombardier or, dare we say, SNC-Lavalin, are well-known around the world, but hardly for the right reasons. If Canada is a pioneer of anything, it is as a pioneer of regional cronyism, with one region figuring prominently.

Canada is not only unremarkable when it comes to major infrastructure projects, it is remarkably bad at getting such projects completed. Starting with critical early projects like the Canadian Pacific Railway, several canals and the CNR, followed by roads, pipelines, and airports in later generations. As a historian, Black must be aware of this recurring weakness in Canada’s affairs, and it is curious that he accords it no weight in his policy cavalcade. To this day, Canada lacks a multi-lane divided highway running from one end to the other, a distinction that in all of western Europe is shared only by Austria. From the Trans Mountain and Energy East pipelines to Muskrat Falls, if future Canadian governments want to embark on such ambitious projects, fundamental reforms are needed. But this isn’t an area where Canada can take the lead; rather, it’s an area where Canada has a lot of catching up to do.

The nation’s long history of costly near-failures with major infrastructure projects — beginning with the CPR — might have given a more circumspect writer pause.

If Canada were to be capable of global greatness, then the bare minimum we should expect from our government would be a serviceable military. Yet our armed forces have fallen into a state of shameful disrepair. If Canada is ever to play an independent role on the world stage, it must be able to project power and join other nations in doing so. While Black acknowledges this and calls for a rebuilding of our military, including the oddball demand that our soldiers be “kitted out in far more attractive uniforms,” his sensible laboratory offers no path for accomplishing such a project, nor awareness of the political problems that would hinder any future government animated by the kind of ambitions that Black desires.

The reader can evaluate Black’s prescriptions individually. Taken as a whole, they raise a much broader question about what something resembling Canadian greatness would actually look like. Our bicultural, transcontinental confederation is a unique accomplishment, but Black’s set of prescriptions would, instead of building something distinctly Canadian, turn us into another unremarkable social democracy. We would become the very sort of bland and benign society that Black rejects at the start. Of course we should aspire to create a more prosperous and fairer society, but there is nothing uniquely Canadian about this. If Canada’s future lies in becoming a society in which the state controls, directly or indirectly, large sectors of the economy, then we are far more likely to stagnate and stall than to thrive and lead. This suggests a future in which social democratic policies offer security and comfort, but nothing resembling greatness nor any reason to strive for greatness. We will end up mediocre, poorer, and over-governed.

People generally do not want to live in laboratories. They are not attached to and do not find meaning in such an environment. Many seethe in the role of guinea pigs and resent being acted upon rather than free to act. Instead, the vast majority of people are attached to communities. These attachments are only meaningful when they are “thick,” moving beyond the superficial and speaking to the everyday values, customs and sentiments of a community. Canada does not lack in these attachments but, like the makeup of our country, they are not easily synthesized in a homogeneous national project. They and, relatedly, Canada’s distinctiveness, which should be essential to our greatness, cannot be reduced to public policy prescriptions.

Curiously if not stunningly, a concept of freedom or liberty is also absent from Black’s account of what Canadian greatness should look like. Black seems uninterested in making liberty a defining aspect of Canadian greatness, and at times even drifts into collectivist tendencies with his calls for grand unifying projects under the guidance of a wise and benevolent state.

Anyone who has travelled from coast to coast (and perhaps to the third coast) knows how different and diverse Canada’s peoples are. Our greatness indeed comes from the pluralism that Black puts at the heart of the Canadian achievement. This means it may always have to remain localized. Our country will work best when it steers clear of large uniform projects and respects localized solutions to localized problems, which may not be generalizable elsewhere. This principle of governance is a distinctly Canadian form of subsidiarity, allowing decision-making to occur at the most localized competent authority. This could form the core of a distinct and great nation, but it’s nearly the opposite of what Black prescribes. It depends on maintaining freedom for individual and communities. And, admittedly, it will make Canadian governance messy, with the conflict between centralization and localism, universality and particularity remaining ongoing challenges going to the very nature of Confederation.

Canadian political institutions are indeed something we should be proud of, but true Canadian greatness remains elusive. Canada’s future is far from settled, and a westward shift is something to be welcomed, not feared. Clearly, any policy prescriptions aimed at Canadian greatness must acknowledge this signal fact, one which will inevitably lead to new conflicts and challenges. Canadian greatness, if it is to be achieved, cannot rest on the Canada of its first 150 years but must be based on what Canada will end up becoming over the next 150 years. It is unfortunate that The Canadian Manifesto, while admirable in some ways, fails to account adequately for this most salient of developments.

Benjamin L. Woodfinden is a Doctoral student in Political Science at McGill University in Montréal. He has been published in The National Interest, The American Conservative, Maclean’s, Real Clear Policy, and the Washington Examiner. Follow him on Twitter.

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