December 13, 2019

Change in Canada could signal problems for the elephant

We are living in a time of paradigm shifts. The meltdown of the Soviet Empire, the unfolding economic potential of Europe and Japan, are all changes in areas of the world with which Americans are habitually preoccupied. However, we may need to pay equal attention to events unfolding in important areas where our policy-makers are less accustomed to concern.

One of these areas is our friendly neighbor and most important trading partner, Canada. Its former prime minister once compared Canada to a mouse beside the U.S. elephant. Today, the American “elephant” should be paying attention to the Canadian “mouse.” It just might become … “mice.”

Imagine a country larger than the United States in geographic area, but having a population of only 26 million. Further, most of these people live in a belt less than 150 miles wide, extending along a 3,000-mile border with a powerful neighbor. They are strongly regional, which compounds the effect of their unique, linear demography; and they are multi-cultural and multi-lingual. This description fits Canada.

She is divided into four parts: poor Atlantic Provinces; francophone Quebec; rich and industrial Ontario and agricultural Prairie Provinces; and resource-rich British Columbia on the west coast. None of these provinces or regions is particularly homogenous and their economic and political interests differ markedly.

Americans have always assumed that Canada’s politics are dull. A few of us may have noted the squabble between Canada’s Federal Government and the Francophone Province of Quebec in the 1970s. We remember that this matter was ended by a referendum on separation for Quebec in 1980, which favored the status quo by a 60-40 percent margin. It was won for federalism by former Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau (1968-1979 and 1980-1984), a charismatic and brilliant Francophone intellectual and legalist who sought to convert Canada’s informal, multi-cultural, provincial structure into a system governed by the letter of law.

To effect this orderly shift to legalistic and structured bilingualism and federalism, Trudeau forced accords among Canada’s powerful and diverse provinces, calling for a stronger federal system and a required national bilingual reform.

The instrument of this change was called the Official Languages Act of 1969, and it wa strengthened by the Constitution Act of 1982, which repatriated Canada’s Constitution from Britain and strengthened its federal provisions. Both of these definitive legal measures were enacted over Quebec’s protest. Quebec did not sign either document. It did not want bilingualism or a written Bill of Rights. The Quebecois had wanted a special status within a looser Canadian structrue. Now they want their independence.

A strong economy in Quebec made it easier to support independence during the 1980s, whereas the province’s shaky economy in the 1970s was then a strong deterrent to separatist support. Today, Quebec’s leaders face a rising tide of pro-separatist support in their political polls. Where the 1980 referendum failed to support separation by a 60-40 margin, today’s polls suggest that Quebecois favor separate status by at least the same margin. In achieving his dream of a defined federalism and bilingualism, Trudeau had unwittingly unleashed the forces of Canadian provincial autonomy.

The codification of the provincial-federal relationship cost flexibility and informality, which had sustained the confederal system. It disrupted the delicate and uncodified balances, which had long held the disparate provinces together. The Nemesis analogy seems peculiarly appropriate to Canada’s dramatic change, first to the wished-for legalistic federalism under Trudeau and back to the abhorred extreme of provincialism.

The reversal to provincialism in Canada dates from the collapse of the Meech Lake Accord, which was an effort to satisfy Quebec by naming it a distinct society within Canada. The Accord attempted to appease Quebec after Trudeau had forced upon it the Constitution Act of 1982. Federal services in Anglophone Canada were to be bilingual. The remaining provinces, as a tradeoff, were separately awarded much increased authority and autonomy, at the expense of the Federal Government. However, these tradeoffs were given prematurely, for the deal failed from lack of unanimous provincial support in 1990. Two provinces refused to recognize Quebec’s special status.

Rebuffed, the Province of Quebec was left with two options: a radically redefined Canadian Federation, one far less integrated than even today, or independence, probably within some sort of economic and monetary union with the remaining provinces. However, the forces of provincialism are by no means limited to Quebec. This phenomenon is also abetted by the almost unprecedented loss of influence suffered by Canada’s present federal government, headed by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. His approval ratings have plummeted to less than 20 percent, driven down by scandal, popular rejection of tax increases and perception of ineffective leadership.

Decreased popularity is not limited to Mulroney’s Progressive Conservative Party. The opposition Liberal Party has also lost popular appeal through uninspired leadership. Provincial powers, and new provincial political parties, are filling the vacuum thus created.

Economics is also pushing Canada toward provincialism. The Trade Pact with the U.S. and demography favor realigned trade patterns, away from dominant Ontario, and the old East-West axis, toward North-South trade with the U.S. This shift will benefit the Canadian West and the new and efficient industries of Quebec. The older, formerly subsidized, and less efficient, “rust belt” industries of Ontario are left at a disadvantage. Previously the Canadian economy ha revolved around the raw materials production of the rest of the provinces, relative to the manufacturing and financial powers of Ontario. The North American Free Trade Agreement will change this significantly.

Canada seems destined to become a province-dominated nation. But there will remain a very distinct national identity needed to satisfy basic values which are shared by her peoples and provinces. These will include a social safety net which is more inclusive than that of the United States and few of the legal problems which are now prevalent in the U.S., such as gun control, restraint in the area of First Amendment rights (pornography), limits to litigation (unsuccessful Canadian plaintiffs must pay the costs of many successful defendants). There is also a strong belief in the rights of all citizens to medical care, embodied by non-optional socialized medicine in all of the provinces.

Change in Canada will also present complications and costs. The possible separation of Quebec will precipitate particular problems. How will the huge national debt of Canada (in excess of that of the U.S., on a per capita basis) be divided? How will interconnected resources, such as hydro-electric grids, be managed? Would Quebec remain in a currency union, and if so, how and to what extent? How might Quebec’s foreign and defense policies fit into a North American framework?

In the long view, say by the year 2000, what changes might we expect in Canada? Her economic structure will be part of a greater continental market. The bonds of Canadian identity will rest on her provinces’ cultural, legal and philosophical bases. Economic and cultural forces will erode differences with the United States, especially in adjoining regions of the two countries with shared affinities. Such may be the case of the Maritimes and New England; the Prairie Provinces and the Dakotas and Montana; and the Cascade Region, Washington, Oregon and British Columbia.

Change may also be driven by forces outside of the bilateral relationship, and might include world trade, future military threats, and environmental problems. Resource considerations may also affect the U.S.-Canadian relationship. One example, water, is a scarce commodity in the U.S. west. Its abundance in or near Canada will have significance at some point in the future, possibly in the context of a continental water plan, consonant with a continental economy. Such visionary proposals have not sat well with Canada in the past, but in the future’s rapidly changing contexts, the tradeoffs may be both different and more attractive.

Dr. Curtin Winsor Jr. has been a director for the Donner Canadian Foundation of Toronto, one of the largest endowed philanthropic foundations in Canada, since 1963. He also served in the Reagan administration as the U.S. ambassador to Costa Rica from 1983-1985.

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