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Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier standing in automobile in Red Deer, Alberta, 1910. Canada’s three greatest visionary leaders – Samuel de Champlain, John A. Macdonald and Wilfrid Laurier – each combined vision, practical boldness and an ability to work and get along with a wide range of diverse people.

Great countries get the leadership they need just when they need it the most. Exactly why that happens is both a mystery and a miracle. If it keeps happening, as it has so far for Canada, the result is a kind of magic – the magic of creatively overcoming challenges and limits that look almost impossible.

In its relatively short history, Canada has had eight leaders of special vision, not all of them chosen at the ballot box.

Six governing visionaries

What can we learn from the personalities and events that shaped the way we do things in our country? Canada's defining narrative began early, with the reliance, amid a difficult geography, of European traders and settlers on aboriginal people. Over the centuries, the nation that has emerged has continued – in fact, extended – this tradition of mutual shaping and accommodation. Canada has not been entirely free of violence, but its primary markers have been a blend of vision and of what works on the ground. In this way, it has been a great country unlike any other in history.

Canada's three greatest visionary leaders – Samuel de Champlain, John A. Macdonald and Wilfrid Laurier – each combined vision, practical boldness and an ability to work and get along with a wide range of diverse people. Two other politicians, Robert Baldwin and Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine, showed that political and social reform could be achieved by non-violent means. William Lyon Mackenzie King, Canada's longest-serving prime minister, was the skillful consolidator of their achievements. Consolidation can be as vital as initiation, although it requires a different type of vision, boldness and patience.

Today all these leaders would recognize that many of their visions are embedded in the fabric of modern Canada.

Champlain wanted a new kind of society – one in which aboriginals and Europeans could live together in amity and with mutual respect. Individualism underlies the American dream – the right to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" for every citizen that is reflected in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. The Canadian dream comes from someone remembered as an explorer but who arrived here as a soldier more than familiar with the horrors of war.

Champlain had many dreams – among them the colonization of New France, which he succeeded in doing, and finding a passage to China, which did not exist. The greatest of them was humanity and peace. In North America, Champlain became a political leader and statesman who, through his ability to get along with different people, was able to convert his dreams into reality.

Canada's dream includes individual desires for freedom, material advance and happiness, just as America's includes wishes for a better, fairer and more equal and open society. But the initial aspirations of these two countries were and remain distinct. "And that," as U.S. poet Robert Frost put it in another context, "has made all the difference."

Macdonald's vision was national – for a transcontinental country in the northern half of North America. This country had to accommodate people of French and English heritage, of Catholic and Protestant faith. It had to be ready to stand up to the United States and to build a sound economy. Macdonald remains the country's greatest builder, striving for a nation of "one people, great in territory, great in enterprise, great in credit, great in capital." He got three big things right: Confederation, a transcontinental railway and containment of American expansionism. He also got English-French politics mostly right, although the execution of Louis Riel aggravated the political challenges from western Canada and francophone Quebec. Finally, when the country needed a looser federation than Macdonald sought, his Confederation allowed it.

Macdonald found, in his partnership with George-Étienne Cartier, a way forward on the Quebec political front that others followed. This was endured for more than 100 years. And he recognized how fundamental mutual respect was to mutual accommodation: "Treat them as a nation, and they will act as a free people generally do – generously," he said of French-speaking Canadians. "Call them a faction and they become factious."

In a private letter just before the inauguration of what he called "the confederate government" on July 1, 1867, Macdonald described what he felt had been achieved: "By the exercise of common sense and a limited amount of the patriotism which goes by the name of self-interest, I have no doubt the Union will be good for the Country's weal." And so it has turned out.

Confederation was a first. No previous colonials had written their own constitution. It set in motion a coast-to-coast country that has survived and thrived. Canada also has emerged as one of the better places to live and, because of its achievements in mutual accommodation, one of history's truly remarkable countries. And because of the potential importance of this idea to the world right now, Canada has vastly more runway ahead than it has used so far.

The visions of its founders have shaped Canadian society in ways that have been mutually reinforcing. Champlain's desire for a diverse and peaceable society remains a dominant, if not yet fully realized. For example, much remains to be done in mutual accommodation with the First Nations and, now, in finding a way to cope with anxieties about extreme Muslim groups, fed in part by a fearful neighbour and its hyped-up media.

As well, the belief of Baldwin and LaFontaine in reform through non-violent means has become the Canadian way, while Macdonald's vision has led to the quality of life that Canadians enjoy, and Laurier's political model of accommodation has, for the most part, been followed. Together these visions have made Canada great and a country of unexpected magic.

Two cultural visionaries

Mutual accommodation involves two fundamentals. One is effective two-way communication. The other requires a belief that a shared and meaningful order exists at the heart of things. Geography creates one kind of communication problem – it helps to explain why western Canadians feel alienated from Ottawa and Toronto, and why midwestern Americans disdain Washington and New York. But breaking away from history can result in much bigger and deeper communication challenges than holding on to it. The U.S. Civil War lasted for just four years but the aftermath still persists, and contributes to our neighbour's current political turmoil.

Canada did have its own break in history, but it was not abrupt. Rather, it was more a moving on while also holding on. Its English and French connections have remained, though they have gradually became less relevant over the years. The American rupture between North and South was sudden, violent and destructive, followed by subsequent not always happy reconnections, Canada's recent existential crisis concerning Quebec was peaceful and lasted for decades. These differences have produced distinctive communication, institutional and socio-cultural results in both countries.

It's no accident, perhaps, that Canada's two greatest non-political visionaries in the mid-20th century, Northrop Frye and Marshall McLuhan, both addressed communication issues. Each came partly out of the mid-20th century world of the University of Toronto, a world that had been greatly influenced by Harold Innis, a pioneering theorist in economics, communications and the media.

They, like him, had a Canadian, as distinct from an American, sense of a fundamental shared order at the heart of things. Between them they captured better than anyone else the nature of the transformational communication and identity changes of the post-1945 era. McLuhan grasped the scale and scope of the incipient revolution of modern communications technology, along with some of its socio-cultural implications. For him, the medium was the message, and, because the technology was global, the world had become a global village. Frye grasped the reality that culture is fundamental and that all culture is local in expression. Although culture is shaped by the medium, it is not the medium. For Frye, culture and nationality come from a shared order, and all literature has the same anatomy. The global village is also a globe of villages.

The successful or unsuccessful reconciliation of the global village with the globe of villages is what the next decades in the world will largely be about. For Frye, the world of the imagination (inner) is the only place of unlimited individual freedom, unlike the physical (outer) world of limits and possibilities. The shared structure of all imaginative literature is what makes us human.

The Americans, more than any other society, have a never-ending drive for outer freedom in search of new possibilities with the fewest possible limits. Frye argued that free individual responses, rather than manipulated responses, would produce genuine and sustainable human cohesion. He saw the media as too often a world of manipulated mass response, leaving less space for individual reflective response – and, I would add, for real mutual accommodation that lasts.

The U.S. media may be a particular problem for Canadian culture. But as Frye famously said, the problem was even greater for American culture. Culture for Frye was not simply high culture: It was the characteristic response of individuals and groups to what they find before them. While Canadians seem to lean toward "underlying unity and order," many Americans prefer the "struggle between good and evil until the final moment of victory or judgment."

What a difference a border makes

Alarmingly, the drive toward irresolvable divisions (the endless struggle between good and evil) produces a world of slippery slopes and apocalyptic dangers. It makes democratic politics and mutual accommodation much more difficult to achieve. Today, there is more internal political turmoil in the U.S. than at any time since the Civil War. In an era of terrorism, it is important for Canadians, living next to a fearful country, to keep their cool and hang on to mutual accommodation as still the best way to go – even when it does not work quickly or well and even when it fails.

Canada used its first 150 years to consolidate the initially thin coast-to-coast thread that made the country improbable into one that was strong and viable. It withstood the centrifugal forces within and the external expansionist instincts of the United States from without. It survived the global convulsions of two world wars and a great depression. Now, as it is tries to cope with the world's latest challenges, it has the "usable history" – proven tactics for getting through difficult situations – that it needs to move forward. Canada must now use it or lose it.

Not surprisingly, narratives have emerged from the many challenges, successes and failures in this vast country, home to diverse peoples from many parts of the world. These stories, however, have rarely been national stories. More commonly they are regional and local stories of everyday life – from First Nations, the Québécois, western Canada, the North, immigrants and francophone Canadians outside Quebec. Only Ontario, particularly since 1945, has consistently regarded Canada in a more national way. Now, as Ontario finds itself in a Canada that no longer works all that well for its economy, this outlook may also change. What is certain is that many more shared and separate stories will emerge from what Canada and the rest of the world are experiencing right now.

Canada's glue is still its unknown shared narrative. Its future lies in a return to the boldness that created Canada in 1864-67. Canada enters this new era with an exceptional range of strengths. Paradoxically, these same strengths will make Canada more vulnerable than ever to those who want what it possesses. They may also make Canadians more anxious. Our best defence will be twofold: to articulate our stories in order to understand who we are and what we stand for; and to discuss what Canada should do to seize the opportunities and minimize the risks that accompany good fortune. We could well now be entering a second Sir John A. Macdonald moment of huge challenge in our history – so-called because it will call again for boldness in pursuit of the improbable.

William A. Macdonald is president of W.A. Macdonald Associates Inc., which consults on government relations and economic policy, and has an extensive record of public service. To bolster his campaign to hold a nationwide conversation about the state and nature of the country, he and associate William R.K. Innes have created The Canadian Narrative Project, with assistance from Trent University. For more about the venture – and to see Mr. Macdonald's essay, Canada: Still the Unknown Country, please visit

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