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Use words, not force. Make railways, not war. These overly simple ideas capture a national story – the Canadian one – that differs from those of most other countries.

Canada's story has increasingly been driven by persuasion. The American story has more often been shaped by war and violence: the Revolutionary War, Civil War, Indian wars, Mexican wars, lynching and 300 million guns in private hands.

These differences in how to go about things and how to make a good society are huge. They come from the fact that the histories of the two countries are so dissimilar, as are the choices each has made along the way. Over the years the differences have been the source of both strength and weakness.

The United States has been great when it comes to freedom and science – the most transformative forces for doing things in a better way since the Renaissance. There is still more to do but science and freedom now face limits because the U.S. lacks mutual accommodation, which is the key to a satisfactory way forward.

So, while the U.S. remains unmatched, it is now less indispensable because so much is inherently beyond its reach. The world today is different and needs a different kind of country, which means Canada's special task is to help advance mutual accommodation outside as well as within its borders.

Since its beginnings – first Quebec in 1608 and then Confederation in 1867 – Canada has had three very big achievements. First, it has survived – not just as a nation but as one that includes the distinctive province of Quebec. Second, it made itself coast-to-coast. Finally, despite its divisions of nationality, culture, language, religion and class, it has developed a political and socio-cultural outlook that works.

All these achievements have been based on mutual accommodation. Today's Canada is the product of its capacity for mutual accommodation and a belief in an underlying shared order.

But how well is this historical fact understood as we prepare for the 150th anniversary of Confederation in 2017?

Seven key ideas

The Canadian Narrative Project is a collaboration with Bill Innes, who has spent his career in the global oil industry in Canada, Europe, Japan and the United States. He and I are not historian wannabes who think we have a better grasp of Canadian history than others. The purpose of the project is very simple: to get Canadians talking about whether Canada has a shared story; whether that story is indeed mutual accommodation and whether understanding that story will strengthen us for the future.

At the heart of the project is the notion that, in many ways, Canada is still "the unknown country" that inspired the famous 1942 book with that title written by Bruce Hutchison, the late journalist and political commentator.

That idea is one of seven that shape the notion of Canada as the product of mutual accommodation. The second is the concept of "usable history," which stems a piece in The New Yorker by U.S. historian William Pfaff soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Newly emerged Russia's problem, he said, was that it had no usable history – which comes from what has worked to get a country through something hard in its past. Interestingly, after the 9/11 terror attacks, Mayor Rudy Giuliani found New York's usable history in what Londoners did during the Second World War to endure the Blitz.

Third, the central idea that shared stories are the stuff of usable history – a vital source of strength or of weakness – comes from many diverse places.

The four remaining ideas are more original and therefore may be less familiar:

  • Mutual accommodation as a formal term. While Canadians instinctively understand it as a practical way to go about much of their business, it has not been expressed previously in two simple words. Amid everything that is going on in the world today, this idea becomes ever more central, not only for Canada but for other nations too.
  • The likelihood that Canada will have another “Sir John A. Macdonald moment” – which will demand achievements that seem completely improbable and require much boldness and patience. The first such moment was Sir John A.’s bold and improbable decision to build a railway that would make this country coast to coast and able to withstand American expansionism.
  • Globally, we are at another very difficult moment of change in history (as in 1815, 1914, 1945, or 2001). Moments in history come when the momentum and direction of the dominant forces that have overcome everything standing in their way start to weaken, the counterforces become stronger, and the path forward is once again uncertain.
  • Greatness is important for countries and for leaders. Although great leaders and great countries make many mistakes – some of them big ones – they get the most important things right. Sir Wilfrid Laurier and Canada became great by getting mutual accommodation right. Canada will always be Laurier’s country, unless it chooses to abandon its mutual accommodation ways or reaches an impasse where they no longer work.

As for shared stories, they can strengthen the courage needed to support bold action and confront hard challenges. These two ideas – courage and shared stories – lie behind the Canadian Narrative Project.

Mr. Innes sees Canada's mutual accommodation story as a crucial advantage at home and abroad, an idea central to what we have achieved.

I, in turn, foresee several decades of challenge ahead on the scale of what happened internationally after 1910.

We will get the policies we need to survive and thrive only if we find the story that captures where Canadians are now and how they see things – and if we put what we find to good use. This national conversation is key to everything else before us.

Global implications

Mutual accommodation is the opposite of what is happening in the United States. This great nation is being undermined by extreme emphasis on individual rights at the expense of society, on divisions among different groups, and on the never-ending struggle between good and evil. The global order now faces serious risks of destabilization and disruption. Mutual accommodation looks more and more to be the crucial ingredient needed for the survival of the best of our world as we know it.

There are three kinds of stories: the "how" (the manner of journey), the "where" (the journey's destination), and the "what" (specific events that happen along the way). Mutual accommodation is a how story – a way of doing politics and social living. Science is another great how story – the whats (the discoveries) and the wheres (the specific investigation goals) take place within the science way of doing things. In the years since the Renaissance, science has changed the world by the way it approaches knowledge and technology. Freedom, human rights, the rule of law, and democracy have also changed the world.

Mutual accommodation is not itself a memorable event, although it can make possible uniquely remarkable events. It has changed Canada. It has not yet changed the world. But Europe's postwar successes have come from the continent's growing capacity for mutual accommodation. Europe's current risks stem from those places where it has fallen short. With the right will, however, mutual accommodation can change the world – just as freedom and science have changed everything.

Canada's mutual accommodation story began when Samuel de Champlain arrived at Quebec in 1608. He came with a vision for a new nation based on co-operation between the aboriginal inhabitants and the incoming French settlers. Once Canada became a nation through Confederation in 1867, it spent its first 150 years consolidating its northern half of the North American continent into a viable country – again through mutual accommodation between the provinces and the federal government, French and English, Protestant and Catholic, Quebec and the rest of Canada, and settlers and immigrants, though with the glaring omission of the First Nations. Much achieved. More to be done.

The next 100 years will likely be dominated by serious threats to the world's economic and geopolitical order and stability – a world in which Canada's rare combination of physical bounty, socio-political understanding, and living in a good neighbourhood, could make a significant contribution. The time has come for Canadians to begin talking about their shared history and how to use it purposefully in the years ahead for the benefit of Canada and the world. As the late Quebec premier Robert Bourassa put it, Canada is for its citizens "one of the world's rare and privileged countries in terms of peace, justice, liberty and standard of living."

To date, Canada's focus has been on its own internal development – on making things work – and on coping with the United States. Its development has taken place largely separated from events outside North America. The focus in the future, however, will be more external and will extend far beyond this continent. Canada is moving from being a largely disconnected part of the world to being deeply interconnected. This change will make it a very different country, and its mutual accommodation strength will increasingly need to be deployed abroad.

Canada has the water, food, space, minerals, resources, and the political, economic, societal, and cultural ways that are in short supply for the rest of the world. These diverse advantages carry both opportunity and risk. If Canada is to seize the opportunities and avoid the risks, it should quickly get on with a national conversation about the shared and separate stories of its different peoples and regions – about how it got where it is, how to envisage its future and how to seize its place in the world.

The goal is to look inward

In some senses, Canada is still an unknown country – unknown to itself as well as to others. It needs to hold national conversations about many important issues. Above all, it needs to talk about whether its mutual-accommodation narrative captures how most Canadians feel about the country.

If it is to succeed, the Canadian Narrative Project must spur Canadians to think about when mutual accommodation has worked in the past and how in the future it may help us both at home and abroad. For example, what if it were used to manage the fallout from all the current anxiety over extremists claiming links to Islam? If we articulate our narrative well and deepen our understanding of its power – and of the costs where it has yet to work – it will continue to help us and others in the future. Values, stories, ideas, dreams, purposes and choices together shape individuals, societies and civilizations. Vision – the sense of what can be and what should be – lures and drives them all.

As the great Canadian critic and thinker Northrop Frye said, identities are always about who you aspire to be, not who you are now. Moving toward some vision of the future for Canada and the world – the two now go hand-in-hand – is really what the project is all about.

Central to all identities – as individuals, organizations, societies or countries – is how our particular culture shapes us to respond to what is put in front of us. We must understand both ourselves and others and the effect we have on each other. In his book, The Duel, historian John Lukacs tells the story of the 80-day struggle between Churchill and Hitler immediately following the fall of France. Although many others contributed to the ultimate defeat of Hitler, Churchill won this particular round because he understood Hitler better than Hitler understood himself.

So it is with mutual accommodation. It works best when each side understands the other side very well. It's essential to know what the opposing group wants before you can come to a deal that can last, and how best to respond if a deal does not initially prove possible.

The big questions for those who think a national conversation about Canada's mutual accommodation story is worth pursuing include these points:

  • Does the mutually accommodation Canada I have described feel like the Canada you live in?
  • If it doesn’t, what does the Canada you live in feel like to you?
  • Do you have an alternate shared story – in addition to or instead of mutual accommodation? What is it? What are your reasons?
  • Do you agree with the thought that usable history comes from shared stories and separate stories, and how they may strengthen or weaken one another? If not, why not?

It's time now to get the conversation started.

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 for a 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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