I‘ve been asked why, as a Canadian, I don’t talk more about Canadian issues on this blog. My answer is that, in the global scheme of things, what happens in Canada has relatively little impact, and if we’re going to save the world and stuff, we need to bring about change in the areas that do have the greatest impact. Also, other than the weather, Canada is a land of moderation, not extremes — we change gradually and there isn’t a great deal of internal conflict. Even the separatist sentiment in Western Canada and in QuÈbec is quite easy to understand and sympathize with, although so far even the separatists have been willing to compromise, so our strange and wonderful country continues to hang together. We’re just not very newsworthy. These days perhaps that’s a good thing.
What might be useful, though, would be to give non-Canadians a quick birds’-eye view of the current state of Canada, insofar as it impacts our relationship with other countries, and our contribution to solving the global crises we all face today.
So herewith, a biased and over-simplified crash course in Canadian politics and economics, with a smattering of history and geography to the extent it explains who we are.
Canada has about 32 million people, about 10% of that of the US, living in a country that has about 10% of the inhabitable and arable land of the US, although our total area is larger. Canadian population, like US population, is growing at third world rates (doubling every 60 years), due entirely to its open immigration policy. Over 95% of Canadians live on 5% of its land (see coloured strips on map above), mostly adjacent to the US. Canada is one of the most urbanized countries in the world, with 40% of the population living in the Big 3 census metropolitan areas (Toronto, MontrÈal, Vancouver), 60% living in the 15 metropolitan areas, and 80% living in ‘urban’ areas (over 500 people per square mile). All Canada’s growth is urban, and 90% of it is in the Big 3 census metropolitan areas. If you extrapolate, the combined population of Canada’s Big 3 cities will grow from 12 million people today to 40 million people by 2060. Population pressure on the precious agricultural land around the Big 3 cities is massive.
While Canadians are more urbanized than Americans, almost every Canadian lives within an hour’s drive of vast stretches of wilderness (to the North) and within an hour of the US border (to the South). I believe that’s a defining characteristic of the Canadian psyche. I reported earlier on the drastic differences between Canadian and American values this produces. Just yesterday a survey confirmed that 75% of Canadians believe “George Bush knowingly lied to Americans about his reasons for invading Iraq” and that Canada was right not to support the invasion. Last week another survey suggested that if Canadians could vote in this year’s US election only 16% would vote for Bush.
For over half a century, the unique political cultures of Canada’s five regions have remained almost unchanged. The political party that most closely aligns itself to those diverse cultures generally wins elections. In Western Canada, other than in Alberta, the population is closely split between Western reformers, who are generally socially and economically conservative and libertarian, and labour supporters, who are generally socially and economically liberal. Western elections are therefore often more acrimonious than elsewhere in Canada, and centrist parties are generally unelectable. Western reform sentiment has elected Social Credit, Reform, and Alliance governments provincially. Westerners flip-flop from these governments to NDP (New Democratic Party) governments, which have strong labour and nationalization tendencies. Westerners are notorious for not re-electing provincial governments, which tends to prevent excesses in either direction from prevailing for more than a few years. Natural resource industries — mining, forestry, and agriculture — still drive much of the Western economy, and since these commodities are often exported raw, at ever-decreasing prices, the economies of BC, Saskatchewan and Manitoba have floundered for years. This is despite massive infusions of foreign and Eastern Canadian money, brought by retirees attracted by Vancouver’s moderate Seattle-like climate. For some reason, the tourism potential of the West has never been effectively exploited.
The Western political schizophrenia is not present in Alberta, which is essentially a one-party Western reform province. Alberta’s economy has thrived on its natural wealth (oil & gas), and many Albertans don’t see why that wealth should be shared with ‘Easterners’. There is a strong Western separatist sentiment in Alberta, driven by economic parochialism and the sense of isolation from power.
Southern Ontario and Southern QuÈbec have 40% and 25% of Canada’s population respectively, and almost all of Canada’s manufacturing and financial industry, so the feelings of powerlessness of the rest of Canada (federally, their votes don’t really count) is understandable. Paradoxically, the 25% in Southern QuÈbec feel a similar powerlessness relative to the majority in ‘English Canada’ (a purely abstract concept, but one that’s effective for whipping up QuÈbec nationalist sentiment). Southern Ontario is politically centrist, although both federally and provincially it has supported three different parties as each party has established itself closest to the centre. Two thirds of Ontario’s voters live in four metropolitan areas, so there is also some alienation in the rest of the province.
For 125 years following Canada’s Confederation in 1867, the Liberal and Progressive Conservative (PC) parties alternated in power. The winning party was usually the one that occupied the political centre, and hence won Ontario’s huge bloc of seats. This led to the two parties being sometimes indistinguishable, and in some cases actually led to minority governments, with the left-leaning NDP holding the balance of power. These minority governments, and the work of the NDP and its predecessor the CCF, are largely responsible for introducing the European-style social safety net that so starkly differentiates Canada’s broad, single-tier health, education and welfare support system from the US systems.
In 1992, that Liberal/PC balance of power was shattered when PC Prime Minister Mulroney attempted to coerce Canadians into accepting a ‘constitutional reform’ package that was in fact a thinly-disguised massive, permanent transfer of political power from the federal to the provincial governments. Mulroney attempted to appeal to both Western and QuÈbec separatists with this measure, and to appeal to parochial interests across the country. Provincial governments, the beneficiaries of the power shift, signed on and encouraged voters to support the accord in a national referendum, and Mulroney warned opponents that if it was defeated, QuÈbecois would see this as a rejection of their need for ‘sovereignty’ and vote to separate from Canada. Voters were enraged by this attempt to blackmail them, weaken the federal government, and plunge the country into an unnecessary constitutional crisis, and soundly defeated the accord in the referendum (ironically, QuÈbec and the West were most strongly opposed). Mulroney was forced out in disgrace, the PC party lost almost every seat in the next election, and the party has never recovered.
QuÈbec is a world unto itself, a completely different culture and a separate ‘nation’ in the real sense of the word. Since it recovered from a horrific period of economic underdevelopment and self-imposed isolation in the early 20th century, QuÈbec has shown itself to be Canada’s most progressive province, socially and economically. Like the West, QuÈbec is also split into two equal factions. The centrists prevail in much of MontrÈal, a wonderfully cosmopolitan city but one which has struggled economically because of the hesitation of American and Ontario-based businesses to invest in a province that constantly threatens to separate. The city really doesn’t get a fair shake. QuÈbec nationalists prevail in much of the rest of QuÈbec — socially and economically left-of-centre like the NDP, but determined to take QuÈbec out of Canada or at least renegotiate confederation as an ‘economic union’ of two ‘distinct societies’. My personal belief is that QuÈbec separation (although currently at a low ebb in popularity) is inevitable. Equally inevitable is that QuÈbecois will find separation doesn’t make things any better, and that the rest of Canada will find it doesn’t really change anything. The ‘border crossings’ and separate currency will then disappear, and the only remnants will be the wasted cost and residual disgruntlement. You don’t change (or protect) a language or culture by flag-waving, regulation and issuing your own stamps.
The biggest danger with QuÈbec separation is that Canada’s First Nations people, many of whom live in the sparsely-populated and resource-rich Northern 80% of QuÈbec, also feel outnumbered and disadvantaged relative to the rest of QuÈbecois, and have a strong constitutional argument that they could secede from a separate QuÈbec if QuÈbec secedes from the rest of Canada. Things could get very messy. Balkan States of Canada messy.
Last but not least, Canada’s Atlantic provinces are qualified ‘Progressive Conservatives’ — socially conservative but economically liberal. With the fishing industry in shambles, unemployment and poverty in the Atlantic Provinces are high, and they appreciate the Canadian ‘social safety net’ — universal, egalitarian health care, unemployment insurance, welfare and affordable one-class education. And unlike the West-coasters, Atlantic Canadians
Roll up this politics to the federal level and you get a perpetual advantage for the centrist Liberal Party. Here’s how it works (population in millions):
(NB: The chart above shows how regional political sentiment translates proportionally into seats in Parliament. Many people in each region support the other parties, of course, but not in sufficient numbers to win many seats. Canada, like the US, does not have proportional representation in elections).
You may have heard (if you live near the Canadian border) that the PC and Alliance/Reform parties recently merged into a new Conservative party. The merged parties are racked by internal dissension, because they have very different political philosophies. The Progressive Conservative party, which was traditionally centrist (hence the name ‘progressive’ in the title), and socially liberal, is based in the East. The Alliance/Reform party, which is libertarian and socially conservative, is based in the West. When they agreed to merge, many of the leading PCs bolted, since they knew they would be outnumbered by the Western Reform members. Next week the merged party will select its new leader, who opinion polls say will be — surprise — the old Western Reform/Alliance leader. Shackled to the socially-conservative policies of Reform, the new Conservative Party is doomed in the East, and hence federally unelectable. The Liberals must be rejoicing.
The Liberals are having problems of their own. With a dynasty that has prevailed for most of the past half-century, the Liberals have gotten sloppy in managing the civil service, and a group of insider criminals has been siphoning off federal funds, using, to the government’s embarrassment, advertising agencies connected to the Liberal Party, and some Crown Corporations, to carry out the fraud. By global, or even large corporation standards, it’s a small fraud, barely material, but the fact that it went on undetected for a decade has shocked the Liberals themselves, and got many voters wondering if one party in power for too many years isn’t a bad idea.
But as the above table shows, the disenchanted Liberal voters haven’t anyone else near the centre to vote for. So despite the media feeding frenzy surrounding this scandal (the Canadian media haven’t had much domestic politics to talk about for over a decade), the Liberals continue to outpoll the merged Conservative party 46-31%. Illogically, the media are suggesting that this could produce a minority government, with the separatist Bloc QuÈbecois holding the balance of power. Although the numbers don’t add up, last night the BQ leader said he would be prepared to support the Conservatives rather than the Liberals in such a situation. The proud old Progressive Conservatives, who a generation ago occupied the political centre and won a majority government by doing so, must be groaning — nothing could be more suicidal for this new and unacceptably (in the East anyway) right-of-centre Conservative Party, than to associate themselves with a party dedicated to the break-up of the country. The new Liberal Party leader and Prime Minister Paul Martin is even more popular than his three-term predecessor, Jean ChrÈtien (One thing we now have in common with our American neighbours is that both our national leaders were appointed, not elected, to their posts).
Canada’s economy is structurally weak, and one consequence has been, up until Bush’s staggering US deficits changed everything, a weak Canadian dollar, which dropped steadily from above parity in the mid-20th century to US$0.61, but has rebounded in the last year to US$0.75. A number of factors contribute to Canada’s pervasive economic weakness:
Despite these structural weaknesses, Canada has some unique advantages relative to the US, and in fact relative to most countries in the world:
It’s been said that the cold climate ‘defines’ Canada. And in fact, a popular Canadian folk song is called Mon Pays, C’est l’Hiver (my country is winter). But while geography and place are important determinants of culture, I think this is overblown. The climate where 95% of Canadians live is indistinguishable from that of neighbouring American states. What does impact our culture is the isolation of our five population clusters from each other. That means trade and travel tend to be North-South rather than East-West, keeping the five clusters politically and culturally distinct and blurring cultural definition between Canada and the US. Because Canadians basically fear the US, there is a remarkably strong belief in Canadian federalism and the need for a strong federal government, driven more by insecurity than by patriotism. Canadian ‘cultural industries’ are carefully protected and have flourished as a result. And the sense of regional isolation makes Canadians on the whole more interested in being part of the world community and more curious about other cultures.
Historically, Canadian immigration and relocation have always been East-West. Surprisingly few Canadians move here from the US and surprisingly few Canadians opt to move to the US. Until a century ago, migration was relentlessly from East to West (UK/Europe to Canada, and Eastern to Western Canada). Now the flow is West to East (Asia to Canada, both East and West). Our global focus is the result, and historically Canada has been quick and generous in its participation in disaster relief and peacekeeping efforts, and in the two World Wars when they embroiled the families of many Canadians. Since WW2, Canadians, like Western Europeans, have been pacifists, believing that providing humanitarian aid and education is a more reliable way to establish global peace and democracy than outside political intervention. And Canada’s borders are indefensible — we know that if Americans really want our water, timber and oil they can seize them militarily, and our borders are so vast we cannot hope to keep terrorists, or even determined refugees, out. Our defence strategy is therefore one of compromise and placation. We work very hard to make sure no one is very angry at us. As the weakest kid in the schoolyard, we use our wit, humour, compassion and generosity to keep the bullies at bay. Although anything could change in an instant, so far it has worked well.
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The Only Life We Know
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Healing From Ourselves
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Nothing Needs to Happen
Nothing to Say About This
What I Wanted to Believe
A Continuous Reassemblage of Meaning
No Choice But to Misbehave
What's Apparently Happening
A Different Kind of Animal
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Nothing On Offer Here
Even Simpler and More Hopeless Than That
What Happens in Vagus
We Have No Choice
Never Comfortable in the Skin of Self
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All There Is, Is This
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A Canadian Sorry (Satire)
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Your Self: An Owner's Manual (Satire)
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