We are living in unprecedented times. Although the death toll from the COVID-19 virus remains low by the standards of historical plagues – and particularly low in parts of Canada – the government response spanning dozens of countries has been like nothing seen before. A large swath of humanity is facing some form of government-enforced lockdown, told to keep to themselves and stay at home as the main means of battling a potentially deadly virus. Surveillance of individuals, largely using technology not even invented 15 years ago, is of a kind previously contemplated only in dystopian futuristic novels and academic papers.
Even if this virus is beaten back within a month or two, and even if the death toll proves milder than most models predict (which so far it appears it will), the novel coronavirus will have wrought profound changes to our lives, changes that go beyond immediate health concerns.
We are already witnessing in real time disruptions and changes to the economy and society at large that could mark a historical inflection point. The government-led response to the pandemic has been so unusual and profound that politics itself is likely to change at all levels, ranging from what we expect of municipal services to the way superpowers manoeuvre and, perhaps, clash for regional and global dominance. In future decades, the “post-coronavirus era” (or some cleverer, catchier variant) is likely to be a term employed in the same way successive generations referred to the post-WWII era, one that denotes a paradigm shift in world affairs.
What cannot be said with confidence though is what this new era will look like and how Canada will fare in it. Anything is possible. We are caught up in something akin to the fog of war and the first draft of our future history is only beginning to be written.
One camp, however, is already organizing to do just that: progressives and socialists. They were quick to recognize the opportunities lying amidst the wreckage of the economic shutdown, the new powers exercised by governments and, not least, the meekness with which voting publics accepted it all. From climate change to taxation to what we eat and how we live, they believe now is their time to strike and advance aspects of their agenda that to date have been rejected by the public as too extreme, costly or plain unappealing.
Examples abound in Canada and abroad. Left-wing economist and Toronto Star columnist Jim Stanford argued that we need “to develop and advance a progressive vision for a massive, public-led reconstruction agenda.” Local tenant activists in Toronto launched a campaign declaring, “Tenants keep your rent, landlords keep your distance”. In B.C., the government happily obliged, enacting a total ban on all evictions, not just ones that might be triggered due to job loss during the current crisis.
If hard leftists have their way, however, there won’t be so many ways to enjoy all that money we save from not paying rent. The radical animal rights group PETA is implying that not eating meat would reduce our risk of COVID-19 infection. “PETA has long warned about the health risks associated with eating meat,” the group declared in a recent article that almost seemed the group was suggesting the virus came from a North American burger joint.
On the economic front, meanwhile, the pandemic has revived calls for some form of universal basic income. None other than Pope Francis weighed in on this decidedly earthly subject in his Easter Sunday address. Here in Canada, federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh has been at the forefront of these voices, posting to social media that the government needs to be “sending $2,000 with an additional $250 per child directly to all Canadians (Universal Basic Income).” While it seems everyone across the political spectrum agrees on providing temporary government support to those affected, those calling for a universal income don’t seem to want it to be temporary.
What’s most interesting about the above examples is that they’re things these sources would have been pushing even without COVID-19. Those who always wished to expand the state now have a convenient and superficially plausible pretext to rehash their ideology. They are not proposing sunset clauses for these ideas or a wind-down when the virus is eradicated. Instead, they want to seize the moment to permanently remake the economy and the citizen’s relationship with the state.
Some of the loudest voices for seizing the moment and turning crisis into opportunity have been climate alarmists. The CBC in early April interviewed one such voice in environmental author Tom Rand. The reporter served up a leading question ready-made for climate activists: “Are there any lessons to take from governmental responses to coronavirus that could be applied to climate?”
Rand’s response was telling. “When you can articulate a risk appropriately, people will make a sacrifice for the common good,” he replied. “Humans are fundamentally caring and decent. No one wants to unleash destabilizing forces that bring economic ruin. Only a sociopath would deny the need to address climate risk, just as only a sociopath wouldn’t endorse behaviours like physical isolation that reduce coronavirus risk.”
Imposing widespread restrictions on human activity in the name of fighting climate change is not a new idea. It has been advocated by many prominent voices, including Naomi Klein, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Greta Thunberg. “This is much more like a wartime effort than it is anything one can imagine in a peacetime economy,” Elizabeth May said last September, during the federal election campaign.
The reasonable middle-ground Canadian’s impulse at the time may well have been to laugh off these calls to action. But to downplay them now is to guarantee progressives have the last laugh.
There needs to be a viable alternative presented to the public. It must go beyond specific policies, although those will certainly play a role. To have any hope of success, the alternative will need to be a vision of Canada itself, one of a united nation that crafts its values and determines its policies with the wellbeing and strength of its citizens as the primary objective.
Canada had a missed opportunity to do this in 2017, the year we celebrated the 150th anniversary of our nation’s formal creation. Any meaningful talk of a Canadian identity, however, consisted of regurgitating platitudes about how “diversity is our strength” and that we are the country of hockey and Tim Hortons. The occasion lacked discussion about keeping Canada secure and prosperous for the next 150 years.
The opposite, in fact, for Canada 150 brought forth perhaps the first widespread denunciations of Canada itself. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau used what should have been an entirely celebratory Canada Day speech to highlight the negative. “While many of us celebrate Canada 150, others do not,” he intoned. “As a society, we must acknowledge and apologize for past wrongs, and chart a path forward.” So why hold celebrations at all?
At the time of Canada 150, the nation was already facing existential threats that risked eroding our sovereignty, national identity, and standing in the world. But these were issues that crept up on us slowly. They were not vividly felt in the daily lives of regular Canadians. To suggest our foundations were at risk of crumbling would have seemed foolish. That has all of a sudden changed.
Now, as COVID-19 rages, it is a more viable argument. Canadians are asking foundational questions: Will the economy evaporate? Is the food supply chain secure? Do we rely too much on other countries for vital goods? Do border and immigration policies actually serve our interests? The Canadian public want to have these conversations and may be open to fresh ideas that don’t adhere to previous assumptions.
This suggests there’s an opening for an alternative to the Liberal-progressive vision of ever-greater government control, ever-weaker borders and ever-eroding personal freedoms. It is the case for Canada as a united country with a strong national identity. It would start by attacking the left’s abstract issues as luxuries Canada can’t afford now that more basic concerns are at the front of the line. Instead, Canada needs solutions that put Canada and Canadians first – before global agendas and special interests.
Legitimate economic concerns underscore why Canada’s natural resources sector is a blessing to be celebrated. This is an economic and security advantage that countries without such a bounty of resources can only dream of. We also have the Canadian talent and largely home-grown technology to make the most of them, exporting our energy and energy-producing technology worldwide and supporting our own prosperity from coast to coast.
When it comes to trade, the alternative would advocate a mindset that free trade agreements will work for us only insofar as they are with similar-minded, pro-free-market countries and only apply to imports that do not undermine domestic production of vital goods. As countries argue over the shipment of medical supplies and worry about food security, it has become clear how the global supply chain is in and of itself a national security concern. What if the current chilly relationship between an increasing number of the world’s countries and China degenerates into a cold war or even erupts into a hot war? What Canadian supplies will be threatened? At that point, our Liberal government’s river of platitudes about the Chinese regime’s cooperativeness, transparency and good faith will count for naught.
Free-market mantras carried the most force when the world functioned under the postwar rules set by the United States and its allies. Now that China is slowly rewriting these rules, Canada must adjust accordingly. We will need to enact policies that identify those goods and services that are needed for the survival of the economy and enact protective measures, including tariffs, against foreign goods that threaten our vital domestic markets.
As for China, it is no understatement to say that the rising global power is a threat to our way of life and the future of our nation. The Chinese oligarchy wishes to buy or steal the natural resources, land, strategic businesses and intellectual property of Western countries out from under us. Canada is most certainly included in this. The leadership elite in Beijing are ruthless but often clear-headed Communist authoritarians who are shamelessly but methodically working to bring the world more under their influence and away from that of the United States.
It has become obvious to everyone except blind apologists that China lied about the coronavirus and tried to cover it up. A condensed list along with brief descriptions of China’s misinformation can be read in this article. It is a lengthy article. Canadians had already grown increasingly skeptical of China in the past few years, according to pollsters. Now they are even more so. With the right federal Conservative leader, backed by key premiers, the next federal election could perhaps even be framed as a referendum on China, on whether we want to be their servants or to break free.
The action items on the China file are many. Barring Huawei from the coming 5G system. Exiting the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which is advancing China’s plan to remake global finance on its own terms. Prohibiting Chinese state-owned enterprises from making purchases in Canada, and repurchasing those over which they have gained control, among them several major oil and natural gas producers. Recognizing democratic Taiwan on the world stage. (Taiwan’s defence against the coronavirus has been among the world’s finest, and its mistreatment by the World Health Organization, among others, was outrageous and withheld critical information that could have saved lives in many countries.) Scaling back the reliance our universities and research facilities have on Chinese foreign student enrolment and funding from Chinese-affiliated bodies. Exposing, scaling back and, where necessary, expelling the “Confucius Institutes”.
It is not just China that Canada needs to back away from, though. We need to shed the entire “post-national-state” agenda. This agenda is very dear to Trudeau. It was exemplified when he famously told The New York Times Magazine that “there is no core identity, no mainstream in Canada” and that Canada is “the first post-national state”. He is far from the lead author of this, though.
Trudeau is only a follower of a mood that has been allowed to fester across Canadian society for quite some time. It has thoroughly infected the federal government and can be seen almost daily in the federal Health Minister’s increasingly bizarre defences of the Chinese regime – as when she dismissed a reporter who had referenced the official U.S. intelligence assessment of China’s dishonesty concerning the Wuhan virus as “feeding conspiracy theories”. Old habits die hard; indeed, they may be incurable.
The post-national state is a lazy and poorly thought-out agenda that argues that because Canadian society is not homogeneous in a racial, ethnic and religious sense, we have no unifying culture and instead must let the values of other countries and cultures determine Canada’s actions. It is rarely put in such clear terms, for any objective reader can then see it is a gigantic non-sequitur.
More important, it is a drive towards national suicide by cultural relativism. The sad irony is that, aside from being ruinous to the tens of millions of good-faith Canadians who continue to believe in this country, the agenda is most unfair to the many new immigrants who come to Canada from all corners of the world because of their vision of a strong Canada that is superior to the troubled lands they are escaping.
Accordingly, the post-COVID-19 era calls out for a political leader advocating a Canada that is finally defined by what it is, rather than what it is not. This includes an acknowledgement that freedom, family, national security, economic prosperity and the natural resources sector are all integral to a successful nation.
Progressivism, the post-national state and identity politics do not foster national unity. They splinter us into ever-smaller groups fixated not on “justice” as claimed but on selfish and essentially petty concerns. This leaves us most open to exploitation by outside interests, whether it is China or foreign-funded activists who wish to destroy our resource-producing and exporting sector.
The key to articulating a national identity is to highlight how our similarities matter more than our differences. A strong Canada-first agenda is the most inclusive agenda possible. It is the opposite of divisive; it is unifying. Anybody who agrees with its fundamental tenets, from any walk of life, is welcome to join and share in the positive vision, its liberating way of thinking and its many concrete benefits. There is a place at the table for everyone.
We will also need to pivot in our approach to borders and immigration. We can no longer be signatory to international agreements that undermine our exclusive right to set the rules for who enters our country and how and when they do it. The worst part of the Roxham Road illegal border crossings is not so much the relatively modest volume of people, but the fact that these are self-selected individuals who are crossing at the time and place of their choosing. We have no say in it, which was never how refugee policy was supposed to work.
We are living in an age of acceleration, where concerns that seemed mild and far away only months or even weeks ago have suddenly become urgent. While the coronavirus may be beaten back within a short while, the problems it has exposed will not. Standing still is not an option for anyone, least of all conservatives, for it is guaranteed that progressives will not.
Canada mustn’t return to the same naïve progressivist path it stumbled along for the past few years. There is a case for Canada to be made – now. It is the case for an inclusive national identity that rallies people around a strong nation, one that forges policies for the benefit of its own people and their wellbeing.
Anthony Furey is a national columnist for the Sun chain of newspapers.