canada map
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
have figured out how to run a good tourism industry.

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):

Liberal PC Reform NDP BQ Total
Alberta 3 3
Rest of West 3 3 6
S. Ontario 12 12
S. QuÈbec 4 4 8
Atlantic 3 3
Total 16 3 6 3 4 32

(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:

  • Over-reliance on the draw-down and export of non-renewable raw resources to drive the economy, especially in Western Canada
  • The unequal North American competitive playing field created by Canada’s egalitarian social safety net (which requires taxes 10-15 points higher than comparable US rates)
  • Differences in the Canadian work ethic compared to the US, producing lower ‘productivity’ in Canada than in the US:
    • Canadians’ aversion to having both parents working unless absolutely necessary (so voluntary labour force participation rate in Canada is lower than in the US)
    • Canadians’ aversion to working excessive hours or two jobs unless absolutely necessary (so average work week is lower, minimum wage is higher, and average entry-level salary is higher in Canada than in the US)
  • Overwhelming foreign ownership and control of almost every Canadian industry (70% of businesses generating over $50 million in revenue are foreign owned; in the resource industries it’s even higher), leading to ‘resource starvation’ of Canadian subsidiaries, low investment in R&D and training, inefficiencies from management neglect, environmental damage and owner indifference, high turnover rates etc.)
  • Poor management of public enterprises compared to Europe, due to the North American stigma of such jobs and the lower salaries paid relative to comparable ‘private sector’ jobs
  • Recent decline in the quality of the education system, due to poor management and the challenge of dealing with a student body of which less than 50% has either English or French as their first language
  • Lax environmental laws, stewardship and conservation programs, resulting in absurdly low prices for natural resources, and hence massive waste of those resources

Despite these structural weaknesses, Canada has some unique advantages relative to the US, and in fact relative to most countries in the world:

  • We’re the most innovative people on the planet: Canadians win a disproportionate share of Nobel and other prizes, and produce a disproportionate share of the world’s medical technologies, software, and non-trivial patents
  • We’re the most entrepreneurial people on the planet: The proportion of the Canadian labour force employed in entrepreneurial businesses is almost 20 points higher than any other country except the Scandinavian countries
  • We excel in the burgeoning entertainment industry: Canadians produce over twice the proportion of successful actors (especially comedians), film-makers, musicians, directors, producers, and writers as the US, UK or Europe
  • If we can learn to manage it properly, we could generate ten times the jobs from tourism (especially eco-tourism) that we currently generate from the low-employment, environmentally-degrading forestry, mining, farming and oil & gas industries
  • Because of the social safety net and our egalitarian and caring culture, Canada has a low crime rate and a low rate for most diseases
  • We have a huge proportion of the world’s fresh water supply (though admittedly we don’t have the resources, or currently the will, to prevent it being stolen, or sold at basement prices to exporters)

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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  1. Mike says:

    Succinct, yet informative. I’ve learned something new today. Thanks.

  2. Susan says:

    “which requires taxes 10-15 points higher than comparable US rates”This was not true when I looked up there recently while I was unemployed (I have family in Toronto, so I was looking at all my options). The tax rates were definitely lower for middle class Ontarians, including federal and state tax, than California. The sales tax was higher, but that’s more than offset by lower medical costs. Also, I agree on the lax environmental rules. When I lived in Victoria I was shocked at how in bed with the timber industry the government was. Frankly, it was worse than the situation in California with the redwoods. It didn’t seem that there was any active, aggressive environmental group raising a fuss, either. I found nothing similar to the Sierra Club in political clout (the Sierra Club is responsible for the founding of most national parks in California alone). Just some fringe activists who lacked credibility. I also didn’t see environmental issues even raised in the media by any party during the provincial elections that happened when I lived there. I’m very worried about the future of BC’s forests for that reason.

  3. Nice job Dave…it felt like I was reading an Economist piece!Susan on March 24, the Concil of the Haida Nation is going before the Supreme Court of Canada to argue that they have Aboriginal title over their traditional territory on Haida Gwaii (the Queen Charlotte Islands) and that specifically, this means that the provincial government does not have the authority to transfer huge chunks of public land to forest companies through the current nforestry tenure scheme. If they win (and don’t underestimate them), it will create a massive ground shift in the way foresty is done in BC, with the potential that local economies and value added operations may experience a very large window of opportunity.More here.

  4. catnmus says:

    I just have to comment on the weather thing. Sure 95% of Canadians live in a climate much like that of SOME Americans. Buffalo? Minneapolis? North Dakota? These are the very DEFINITION of winter to many Americans. And you’re north of all that! :-)

  5. Conor says:

    As an American,if Canada ever becomes another state of the U.S.A.,I’m moving to Pitcairn.

  6. Dave Pollard says:

    Susan: Fair enough — I should have said ‘other than California’. I’ve compared tax rates with people from other states, and also read what The Economist said about apples-to-apples comparisons, and that’s where the 10-15% number came from.Chris & Susan: One of the reasons I left Victoria was the awful experience of driving up to Long Beach on the West Coast of the Island, and seeing mile after mile of roadside clearcut forest. I pulled over and cried. Hope the Haida give ’em hell. Catnmus: The climate in S.Ontario is quite comparable to NYC’s (a little colder, but the same amount of snow). Vancouver rarely gets below 32C, like Seattle. S.Quebec is the exception, it gets a LOT of snow and Minneapolis-like temperatures in winter. I grew up in Winnipeg and went to university in Ottawa, so I take your point. But for most Canadians, winter’s not much different from what a lot of Americans go through.

  7. Rob Paterson says:

    DaveI think that you must be the Isaac Asimov of our time – do you ever sleep? How do you keep publishing such quality in such quantity?This is best review of Canada that I have yet seen anywhereThanksRob

  8. David Jones says:

    I disagree with the suggestion that Canada is no-account on the global playing field. No, Canada is not a “force” for change as the militarists us that term and think, and no, it is not an “engine” as the industrialists imagine things must be to be of consequence. Canada is a critical player in global unfolding – and it does that by the practice of sensitive intervention – just enough when necessary, and not at all when not at all says a great deal more than doing anything. You want the measure of Canada, throw out the military-industrial measures.

  9. Dave – I work with a Canadian and I will be sure to pass this invaluable info. on to them, most of which they probably never even realised.

  10. Phil says:

    Great informative article. I have always lived within 100 miles of the Canadian border (Toledo, Seattle) and never knew this stuff.You forgot to mention that Canada is the only mooselimb country in the Americas.

  11. Alexandre says:

    “You don’t change (or protect) a language or culture by flag-waving, regulation and issuing your own stamps.”This is true, you do it by having an sovereign legal court system independent of the supreme court of Canada that dismantle every significant Quebec law at every turn.

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