Our Canada

Canada: Beyond Grudges, Grievances, and Disunity
Donald J. Savoie
McGill-Queen’s University Press
329 pp.

Not Here: Why American Democracy is Eroding and How Canada Can Protect Itself
Rob Goodman
Simon & Schuster Canada
260 pp.

As I write this, the US Supreme Court is hearing arguments on whether a president enjoys unqualified and perpetual immunity for any act committed while in office, and the court’s conservative majority seems perfectly willing to entertain the prospect that the chief executive shall be so above the law it would be within his power to, say, execute any Supreme Court Justice whose decisions he didn’t like. This is an odd thing for any country to be considering, much less one founded on the principle that it didn’t want an emperor, and it is only one sign of the extremes that are now thinkable in the United States.

When Trump was elected in 2016, the worry in Canada was what he might do to upend an established international order and whether Canada might be sideswiped by an America First economic policy. Eight years later, those technocratic concerns have been superseded by something more existential. If Trump is re-elected, what will it mean for Canada to be nestled against a military and economic superpower newly contemptuous of democratic niceties, as though we woke up to discover we share an undefended border with the People’s Republic of China?

Even if Trump is not elected, the MAGA movement will not disappear. If anything, it will be even more inflamed. What will it mean for Canada to be adjacent to an America riven internally and armed to the teeth?

How we preserve Canada in the face of the gigantism of the US and our own internal divisions is the central question of Canadian culture and politics. What is it about our curious, unlikely, unwieldy political arrangement that makes it, for all its faults, a good place to live, a place you want to live? On global metrics of pretty much everything from standard of living to freedom of expression, Canada is a geography and a jurisdiction that scores right at the top. The people who live in Canada are exceedingly fortunate.

And the one thing they all complain about – the government – is the key to their good fortune. There are plenty of resource-rich countries that aren’t Canada. What Canada guarantees to the world and to its citizens is political stability, even if it is built on a volcanic English-French fault line. Political tempers flare, governments come and go, but the nation endures as a peaceable dominion that manages to accommodate its political differences. The country’s prosperity derives from that stability.

Rob Goodman and Daniel J. Savoie tackle the same questions – what makes Canada the country that it is, what should we work to preserve, and what should we try to change? – but in completely different ways. Thoughtful and compellingly argued, both books have been deservedly short listed for the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing.

Savoie barely mentions Trump. He doesn’t consider the rise of populism or its sharp scratch on the political seismograph. As a distinguished professor of Public Administration and Governance at the Université de Moncton, he’s interested in the machinery of government, not so much the partisan arena or the politicians who oversee the ministries of the public service. Goodman is a younger professor of Politics and Public Administration at Toronto Metropolitan University. Trump and the MAGA movement loom throughout his book. His core concern is how Canada can insulate itself from the fever that in the US has produced Marjorie Taylor Greene, Matt Gaetz, laws banning “divisive concepts” in schools, and anti-democratic measures that impede certain types of Americans from voting. He used to be a speechwriter in the US Congress, and it shows. Lyrically written, his book is a polemic, and a persuasive one. I would vote for anyone who delivered a speech like this.

Savoie draws on a lifetime of study, along with his experience working in government, to deliver a clinical assessment of Canada as it is. Given the structural fissures and entrenched animosities he describes, it’s a wonder Canada works at all, much less as well as it does. The book is a detailed catalogue of Canadian complaints, to the point that the true triumph of the country looks to be its ability to function despite its frictions and resentments. While Red and Blue America seem ever more incommensurable antagonists, Canada is an ongoing exercise in managing grievance.

To be a Canadian, Savoie suggests, is to be victimized, either by history or by the political apparatus, or both. Savoie is Acadian, so his list of the aggrieved starts with the expulsion of the Acadians from their land and homes by the British crown in the 1750s – an act of political violence that scarred an entire people, just as the Scottish were scarred by the Highland Clearances and the Irish by the Potato Famine. Quebec, needless to say, sees itself as victimized by English Canada. The Maritimes were victimized by a political and economic union that all but ensured their impoverishment relative to Ontario and Quebec, and the West by a political structure rigged to deprive it of its rightful clout in confederation. Even Ontario and its business interests – in large measure the coddled son in the Canadian family, whose wishes always come first – see themselves as victimized, first by the predations of the American colossus, and second by a federal government that too often fails to do the bidding of Ontario and its business classes, preoccupied as Ottawa is with balancing the interests and demands of the country’s constituent regions.

And of course the original sin of Canada, the disgrace at the heart of the nation, every bit as unforgiveable as the American sin of slavery, is its victimization of its original peoples.

Canada, in Savoie’s telling of it, is a quilt of injustice. But crucially the country is also aware of this. It is a place with a conscience, a nation forever trying to make amends. Guilt may never erase the wrongs committed, but it is better than not feeling guilty at all. Savoie points out that Canada has apologized for the internment of Japanese Canadians (1988), for the Chinese Head Tax (2006), for turning away Jewish refugees in 1939 (2018), for the treatment of Italian Canadians (2021), for the prejudice against the LGBTQ2 community (2017), for the expulsion of the Acadians (2003). And of course the nation continues to apologize for the atrocities done to Indigenous peoples. On Canada Day in 2021, in the wake of the discovery of children’s gravesites at residential schools, flags flew at half-mast on what was supposed to be a day of national celebration. The US, by comparison, has apologized for almost nothing.

The subtitle of Goodman’s book is “Why American Democracy is Eroding and How Canada Can Protect Itself,” but this is not strictly accurate. He doesn’t explain why American democracy is eroding. He simply accepts that it is. His real focus is on how Canada should respond – how to ensure that the extremism currently raging in the US doesn’t take root here.

Both he and Savoie recognize that compromise is the chief political mechanism of the Canadian federation, which makes for a dominion of interminable negotiation – incessant bickering in pursuit of accommodation. It may be infuriating, but it works. It’s when the bickering breaks down that the real trouble begins. Goodman believes that in the US, at least one side of the political divide no longer has any interest in accommodation. It just wants to rule, and to rule in the name of the Real America.

The idea that there is a Real America casts anyone who is not part of it as un-American, and therefore politically illegitimate. It is a rationale that disenfranchises dissent and permits a minority to rule, which is what makes it anti-democratic. What makes it authoritarian is the use of state power and state violence to enforce its anti-democratic order.

Goodman argues that it will be difficult for that type of thinking to establish itself in Canada because we have done away with the notion that there is a Real People who rightfully should govern. There was such a thing once, certainly in the Upper Canada of pre-confederation, where a gentry of Protestant landowners held sway, arrogant in their confidence that they simply mattered more than Catholics, immigrants, French Canadians and Aboriginal peoples. But in the post-war years, Goodman contends, Canada reinvented itself as a multinational, multiethnic democracy that makes the idea of a Real Canada “structurally implausible.”

(The US attempt to reinvent itself in the post-war years, through desegregation and the Civil Rights Act, was not a rejection of the notion of a founding people, but an attempt to extend its embrace to everyone, most specifically to Black Americans, or at least to everyone who accepted capitalism into their hearts and free enterprise as their saviour. People who declare themselves socialists – Bernie Sanders, for example – renounce their citizenship as “real Americans.”)

Goodman’s prescription is for Canadians to be vividly aware of what makes Canada different from the US. “Our most potent weapon against antidemocratic ideas … is our ability to stigmatize them as ‘alien.’” But what happens when what were once accepted as the virtues of a place – the aspects that make it somewhere you want to live – are no longer seen as virtues, because they impose duties and responsibilities, which are seen as anathema to “freedom”? Goodman assumes that Canadians thank fortune and history that Canada is not the US, but there are many Canadians who resent the fact that Canada is not the US. (For that matter, there some Canadians in the ranks of the freedom convoys who resent the fact that Canada is not the Confederacy.)

And though Goodman is correct that this country rejected a narrative of the Real Canada based on race or historical precedence, what if a narrative of the Real Canadians is being forged right in front of our eyes in the melting pot of fury against the perceived injustice that is the federal government? In this populist narrative, Real Canadians don’t split urban-rural. Race doesn’t matter. Region doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if you’re a recent immigrant or if your family has been here for generations. The Real Canadians are the ones who are politically furious at money being forcibly extorted from them by a wasteful, misguided and illiberal state. It’s bad enough there are unjust taxes, just look at what those taxes are being spent on.

To these Real Canadians, anyone not outraged by this state of affairs is a member of the Laurentian elite – people like Mark Carney and Chrystia Freeland. Trust Canada to come up with a form of populism where everyone puts their differences aside to focus their anger on the one thing they all have in common. Extremism through compromise.

If this is what is happening, it may set Canada against itself. Because in addition to the ceaseless search for compromise, Savoie points out that what makes Canada work is federal spending power. The British North America Act prohibited the federal government from enacting the sort of social programs essential to making the country secure, prosperous and content. So the federal government simply muscled its way into provincial jurisdictions with money. With federal spending power comes federal authority in almost every aspect of Canadian life. Which is exactly the thing that fires the angry energies of an ascendant far-right populism.

Grievance remains the motor engine of Canadian politics.

The Hill Times, May 6, 2024