William A. Macdonald is a corporate lawyer-turned-consultant with a long history of public service and social engagement.
In his Charles R. Bronfman lecture in 2000, Ken Dryden, the great Canadiens goaltender, compared national games in the United States and Canada. Football, he said, (more so than baseball) requires central control – the opposite of hockey. In hockey, once the puck is dropped, there is chaos. The only choice players have is to do what it takes. The example of Canada’s game has helped to shape Canada.
The Canadian story has always been different from the American – one of evolution, not revolution; persuasion rather than force; and compromise over winning. Its initial English and French connections were gradually weakened, not ruptured. In contrast, the United States was formed and preserved by force. Both the American break from Britain in 1775-83 and the split between North and South in 1861-65 were sudden and violent. Canadian history, in contrast, has always been more political than military.
Since Canada began as a nation – Quebec in 1608 and then Confederation in 1867 – it has had three big achievements. First, despite its difficult geography and challenging history, with its French/English split and proximity to the United States, it has survived, not just as a nation but with one province, Quebec, distinctive in language and religion. Second, Canada has consolidated its territory from the Atlantic to the Pacific and north to the Arctic. Finally, despite divisions of nationality, culture, language, religion and class, it has developed a political and socio-cultural outlook that works. Its one big failure has been with the Indigenous people, although that is now beginning to be addressed.
One simple idea captures the Canadian story: Use words, not force; make railways, not war. It is a story driven by persuasion. Alfred North Whitehead, the great philosopher from Cambridge and Harvard universities, said civilization is the triumph of persuasion over force. One could say Canada is also the triumph of persuasion over force. Today, Western civilization itself is at risk – only the spread of mutual accommodation can save it. There is no other acceptable civilization on hand to replace it.
Canada’s defining narrative began early, with reliance by European traders and settlers on the Indigenous people in a difficult geography. From the beginning, it has put practical considerations ahead of nationalism, ethnic difference, religion, class and ideology – the sources of division in post-Renaissance Europe. Over the years, Canada has extended this tradition of mutual shaping and accommodation. It has not been entirely free of violence, but its primary markers have been a vision of where it wants to be and the reality of what works on the ground. The combination of stability, balance, trusted institutions, asymmetry and accommodation alongside simultaneous equal and special treatment for its citizens has made Canada’s mutual-accommodation ways possible.
Canadians have exhibited a stronger drive toward mutual accommodation than any other country. As a result, Canada has become a different kind of great country for a different kind of world, and is prepared to enter the next stage of world history. Mutual accommodation is not the answer for every problem, but for the next decades, its presence or absence will shape the world. The more it spreads, the better the world will be. If it fails, the outcome could be worse than in the 1914-45 period.
Canadian federalism’s way of governing diversity could provide a stable global path forward beyond nationalism and the nation state. The United States, China and Russia are nuclear-powered, inflexible, force-based nation-states with powerful nationalisms. Their effective reach has shrunk. The West must believe in itself but stop thinking that its ways of doing things will suit every country. China must learn the dangers of overreach and underreach from the mistakes of Western powers – most recently, the United States.
Canada has mostly done what it takes for diverse people to live successfully together. It has found that the more one accommodates the strengths of other individuals, groups or countries, the stronger one becomes. The United States, in contrast, focuses on ideology too much. Ideology divides and excludes too much reality – a bad way forward in today’s world. It would do well to heed Canada’s mutual accommodation ways, where no one size fits all, every outcome is custom made, and you do what it takes to make things work.
The American psychotherapist Erik Erickson said that being an adult was asserting oneself in ways that help others to assert themselves – a tough kind of mutual accommodation. The world needs more adult leaders and followers. The Canada miracle is that it has often had enough of both. The Canadian mystery is why?