Two ideas: Canada is magic, and that magic has conjured up one of history's truly transformational ways in which to do things better.
How is Canada magic? I once told magician Jeff McBride that magic would not be magic if it really were magic. He agreed and added that all creativity involves overcoming limits.
Canada's magic results from the way it has overcome the limits of geography and history in its relations first with France and Britain and then with the United States. These stories create our magic. In the current challenging times for Canada and the world, we need to understand them and use them to advantage.
Unfortunately, Canada is still an unknown country – for example, it has a shared story, but no one really knows what that story is. It is high time Canadians had a national conversation about it.
At the dawn of this century, we began a new moment in history. Good moments are often followed by bad stretches, and the Western world enjoyed a positive stretch after 1945. It ended on Sept. 11, 2001, and in the years since we have faced the post-2008 economic and financial crises, the geopolitical challenges of Vladimir Putin's Russia, and Islamic State terrorism in the Middle East. The postwar inclusive global order is becoming less global and less inclusive.
What story do Canadians share? Throughout their history, they have exhibited a stronger drive toward mutual accommodation than any other country – especially in comparison with the United States, which is currently paralyzed by divisions. Mutual accommodation – the shared Canadian story – is crucial to Canada today and to all the world.
Here are some fundamental ideas to spark the much-needed national conversation. When considered together, they put Canada and mutual accommodation at the centre of the next stage in world history.
The troubled global order, the weak global economy and the challenge of fostering economic growth in Canada while returning to live within our means will require resilience and adaptability. To help us along the way, usable history will become very important – the shared and individual stories that bind us together as a nation.
Canada's story is not marked by dramatic events, but the strength of our separate stories makes a powerful shared narrative. After 150 years of consolidating our coast-to-coast country since Confederation, Canada has reached a point where its stories mutually reinforce one another.
In its challenging history, Canada has found it necessary to put what works ahead of nationalism, ethnic difference, religion, class and ideology.
Canada's shared narrative is defined by its achievements in mutual accommodation and its socio-cultural bent. Canada has got one of the great governance lessons of history right – the necessity of mutual accommodation for a good and decent life. Accomplishing this goal makes Canada not just a good country but a great country.
Great countries (like great leaders) make many mistakes, including big ones, but they get the most important things right. The most significant piece of unfinished mutual accommodation in Canada is its relationship with the First Nations.
Three clear examples
The challenges the country faces make it important to involve Canadians in a conversation about Canada's shared and separate narratives.
Historically, the choices made by leaders and followers have entrenched the Canadian mutual accommodation story. Three of the big stories focus on Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine and Robert Baldwin in 1848; the election and re-election of Sir Wilfrid Laurier from 1896 to 1908; and the role played by Sir Arthur Currie and his Canadian Army in the defeat of Germany. Some historians consider Currie the Allies' greatest general.
The vision of LaFontaine and Baldwin manifested itself in 1848. They led the only reform movement in the Western world that tumultuous year to prevail as a responsible government and never lose its democracy. The francophone Catholic LaFontaine in Lower Canada needed the strength of the anglophone Protestant Baldwin from Upper Canada to overcome the anti-reform position of the Quebec clergy. Baldwin, in turn, needed the strength of LaFontaine to combat the anti-reform power of the Family Compact.
Both these leaders were able to work together successfully at a time when differences of religion and nationality were intense. When LaFontaine lost his Quebec seat, and Baldwin lost his in Ontario, each ran successfully in the other's province, despite these deep divisions. This accommodation showed, 20 years before Confederation, that a shared public purpose pursued through compromise could trump nationality and religion with Canadian voters.
The idea of restraint is also a striking element in this story. LaFontaine stood down the anti-reform mob in Montreal by asserting that reform would prevail without recourse to violence – a century before Mahatma Gandhi championed non-violence in India, Nelson Mandela in South Africa, and Martin Luther King in the U.S.
As for Laurier, his vision was political – to achieve peace, prosperity and public purpose through compro-
mise and accommodation. He said that the 20th century would belong to Canada – and in many ways, that proved true, in the relative goodness of life available in Canada to ordinary people. It became true primarily because Canada followed the Laurier vision of public achievements through compromise and restraint. The very election of Laurier, a francophone Catholic from Quebec, as prime minister only 30 years after Confederation is but one example.
This approach was so powerful and suited to Canada that it kept the federal Liberal Party in office three out of every four years over the following century. The less flexible (instinctively either/or, win/lose) Canadian leaders have been either restrained in their actual behaviour or, along with their party, made to pay the price of not being restrained. The federal Liberal Party is still paying a price, three decades later, for Pierre Trudeau's unilateralism and his initial lack of restraint on both the Constitution and the National Energy Program. The Conservative Party similarly paid a six-decade price in Quebec for Robert Borden's inability to find the conscription compromise needed in the First World War.
Leaders with the right followers, and followers with the right leaders, can do great things. Both came together for Canada in the final years of that war – a coming-of-age moment for the country. At Vimy Ridge in April, 1917, Currie first led his Canadian Corps to victory – making it the only army on the Western Front to capture a fortified ridge. During the Hundred Days offensive in September and October, 1918, the Corps outflanked the Germans, leading to their only real defeats in the war at the Drocourt-Quéant Line and the Canal du Nord – both key to ending the conflict.
In advance of Vimy Ridge, Currie decided to make his battle plan (but not the date) available to every soldier. As the battle unfolded, he wanted them all to understand what was going on and be able to operate without direction, if needed. No other country was socio-culturally flexible enough to do that. Even today, few chief executives would take that kind of risk.
Together these strong and proud visions have made Canada a great country, and the choices that made these achievements possible have made it a magic country. But much remains to be done in bringing the First Nations into full participation in our unique mutual-accommodation story. The words "cultural genocide" used by Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin in her lecture in Toronto on May 28 drew headlines and, in the week since, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada has issued its recommendations. This report will now take its place alongside others that have shaped our history – Durham, Rowell-Sirois, and Bilingualism and Biculturalism – all of them milestones in mutual accommodation.
Resource development and education are the urgent issues for First Nations. Canada has lost much of the past decade in economic development because the federal and Alberta governments, along with natural-resource industries, ignored the opportunity they had to work with First Nations. As for Ottawa's stalled Education Bill, the best way forward is to move beyond politics by making the program optional. That would enable those aboriginal communities anxious to educate their young people to do so.
Four ways to be better
Since the Middle Ages, the Western world has tried to make things better in four powerful ways: through freedom, science and compassion, as well as mutual accommodation.
Freedom and science (which includes education and technology) represent the power of either/or and have been the dominant drivers. Compassion and mutual accommodation – the power of both/and – have been much less influential. Amid all the global tensions today, it is crucial that these four basic qualities act more in unison. Otherwise, the future will become hellish again, as it was from 1914 to 1945.
Journalist Martin Wolf wrote recently in the Financial Times that "we are doomed to co-operate." That does not mean, of course, that we will. Zbigniew Brzezinski, a U.S. national security adviser when Jimmy Carter was president, believes mutual accommodation is the only way forward for both China and the United States. He may be right, but only time will tell.
On the foreign-policy front, Canada should be working the compromise side, doing the independent thinking about the world and what is going on, and seeking the relationships that could make it a useful player. No other country is better positioned to be helpful in a world that desperately needs magic that can creatively overcome limits.
Canada is not a mistake-free zone. Magicians are human – and so are the citizens of this magic country. Canadians have work to do, but little sense of what it entails right now, let alone for the future. For example, since the 2008 financial crisis, they have been suffering from moral smugness and economic complacency. Canada has run annual current-account deficits of some $55-billion – money borrowed to sustain consumption, not to build Canada or enhance its ability to create lasting jobs.
The current account deficit is already starting to rise again because of the oil-price collapse, despite a lower Canadian dollar and a stronger U.S. economy.
The next federal government will face a Canadian economy that demands a major set of structural and macro-economic policy shifts. The oil collapse is a huge shock to an economy that has been living on credit while its growth and supply-side competiveness have declined.
Reining in the excess consumer demand, running federal deficits a bit longer to finance public infrastructure and pro-capital-creation tax policies, and focusing on a stronger supply-side performance are essential if Canada is to address the current economic challenges. Capital Economics, a London-based consultancy, recently reported that, in 2013 and 2014, Canada and U.S. growth rates were about the same – in the 2.4 per cent range. For 2015 and 2016, however, it predicts U.S. growth rates of 3.3 per cent and 2.8 per cent, respectively, and for Canada, 2 per cent and 1 per cent, respectively.
The upcoming federal election will determine when and how this reality will be addressed. Canada's medium and longer-term prospects continue to look strong. What will happen in the short term looks problematic.
I have three suggestions to get us back on track. First, we must once again learn to live within our means. Second, we must urgently address mutual accommodation with First Nations. And third, we must immediately focus our foreign policy on long-term and strategic goals in our interest. Only then will we be ready for the transformational changes that are sure to come.
Canada's mutual accommodation drive gives us hope. No other single idea, if taken on board globally, could do more to change the world in a positive way in the decades ahead.
William A. Macdonald is a former senior partner at the Toronto law firm McMillan, and has an extensive record of public service. To bolster his campaign, unveiled today, to hold a national 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 www.canadiandifference.ca