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andrew steele

For some Canadians, the Turks and Caicos Islands are the potential 11 th province or 4 th territory.

The chain of small islands south of the Bahamas is a British Overseas Territory of about 36,000 people engaged in offshore banking, tourism, fishing and small-scale agriculture. Residents enjoy a modest but decent standard of living on average, and the weather is spectacular.

A recent corruption investigation led the British cabinet to revoke TCI's quasi-independence and directly administer the territory through the governor.

This is leading to charges of renewed colonialization from the accused ministers and widespread relief from many residents.

But the biggest unexpected consequence may be another round of examination of Canadian union with this small island chain.

First, a little history.

The idea of annexing Turks and Caicos goes back at least to Robert Borden, who raised the idea at Imperial Conference only to be rebuffed by the mercurial David Lloyd George, the British Prime Minister.

An NDP MP revived the idea in the early 1970s and its been brought forward as a private-members bill in every decade since.

The closest this idea came to reality was the mid-1980s.

The politics of TCI partially revolves around the relationship with Britain, with one party pressing for distance and the other less so. The independence party won office in 1978 and prepared the ground to leave the British realm. An election was held in 1982 that was a virtual referendum on independence, but the pro-independence government was defeated. The new anti-independence regime cast about for how to structure the territory in the aftermath and sent a serious offer to Canada to discuss joining.

The offer could not have come at a less convenient time for Canada, as the free-trade agreement was dominating the time of those who might have entertained such a notion. Instead, the idea was politely ignored. The same cool reaction has been Ottawa's stance since.

The corruption scandal and resulting pause provides Turks and Caicos Islanders a chance to take their history in a dramtic new direction. There is widespread public belief that the status quo is not working and a desire for radical change.

Joining Canada would certainly be a change.

The benefits for TCI residents would be immediate, immense and positive. Transfer payments to this new "have-not" province would boost services from health to education to roads. Defence would not be placed on the narrow tax base of TCI alone (a major factor in its lingering status as a British Overseas Territory.) Local elites would have the control of provincial automony with influence in a larger national pool.

But the upside for Canadians takes more unpacking.

Obviously, Canadians are immediately attracted to the dream of a warm Canadian province to visit in the winter. Same currency. No customs. Retirement in a warm place with quality service under the Canada Health Act. A post-911 United States makes it difficult for snowbirds to stay longer than six months resident. Language barriers make many Latin American destinations hard to settle in.

TCI could offer a safe, predictable retirement and vacation destination for Canadians. It is also one that keeps snowbird dollars in our national economy.

But Turks and Caicos would be an uneasy bedfellow for Canadians in some ways. Its residents are typically more socially conservative than the Canadian consensus, for instance firmly against gay marriage or pornography. It would admit another unilingual Anglophone province, something that may raise misgivings in Quebec.

"Immigration" was cited in the past as a potential problem. There is the potential for wide-spread internal movement of these 36,000 new Canadians to the 10 original provinces in search of economic opportunity. While it's something to monitor, the increased services supported by transfer payments would moderate this trend, as might a winter spent in Winnipeg.

Tourism is a bigger deal. There might be a very serious shift in how Canadians overall spend their leisure dollars, with more flowing to TCI and fewer to Banff or Peggy's Cove.

Banking is perhaps the gravest challenge. TCI is an offshore banking centre, what was formerly called a "tax haven." This is a place with a very low tax regime that allows large pools of capital to form, encouraging large investments and economic growth locally and internationally. However, offshore banking centres often have a bad reputation for lax regulation, even money laundering.

It would be very difficult to get TCI to join Canada without maintaining some elements of that low tax regime, as financial services is almost one-third of their GDP. This would likely require either a consciously two-tier banking regime that would create a real pressure on Toronto and Montreal based financial institutions to seek lower tax regimes in the new province.

The real challenge of pursuing this annexation would not be these public policy issues. The challenge would be to Canadian identity.

"Canada" is a difficult concept to define at the best of times. Two official languages and bi-culturalism makes Canada almost impossible to simplify down to a unified essence. The massive influx of New Canadians since the Second World War has put paid to past myths of Evangeline and Mounties defending sod huts on the Prairie and Farley Mowat eating mice in the Arctic.

We are a primarily suburban nation, tooling around in cars to jobs in the service industry, and yet our national myths are about Louis Riel and James Wolfe and lumberjacks; experiences that are completely foreign to the lives of almost everyone in our country.

The admission of a new, tropical, 90-per-cent black Caribbean island chain might finally unshackle Canada from its uneasy history of ice hockey and the Plains of Abraham, and instead root Canadian identity where it can thrive: in values, shared ambitions and the dream of working together to build a better life.

Canada is a nation primarily of immigrants, and the children of immigrants. That shared experience of joining together with strangers to build a better future is what makes Canada real, not the shibboleths of the past. Our shared experience is not the meetings of politicians in 1867, but the incredible risk our parents or grandparents took of leaving everything they new to find somewhere better, and the need to keep that dream alive and growing and thriving for our own children.

Expanding Canada past a geographic anchor of "the stuff north of the United States" would release Canada from that psychic trap of being the Northern cousin, the cold place, the other part of North America, and reorient the national conception into something more self-reliant.

We would be the nation of promise of a better tomorrow, built on a joining together of peoples. A nation of tolerance and diversity, that draws strength from difference. We would be able to embrace our risk taking, instead of being "not America."

We might have to pay transfer payments for the privilege, but being out of the trap of defining ourselves constantly against the Americans is worth just about anything.

The promise of Turks and Caicos is not of warm beaches, but of a new mirror in which to see ourselves. Or at least somewhere warm to think about these things.