“Thank God for Canada.” So ran the bumptious headline of a New York Times column by Nicholas Kristof on Thursday. Every so often Canada gets a mighty hornblow from some big-time American journal. This was a corker. Canada, the column crowed, is “emerging as a moral leader of the free world.”
The timing of the piece was a tad awkward. The same morning it was published – speaking of morals – this newspaper reported that the Prime Minister’s Office attempted to press then-justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould to intervene in the corruption prosecution of the Montreal firm SNC-Lavalin. She declined to do so.
Recall the fury triggered when FBI director James Comey said that he was told by U.S. President Donald Trump to go easy on Michael Flynn, his former national security adviser who was under investigation. The Ottawa story appears to have similarities.
In saying how Canada is God’s great gift to humanity, Mr. Kristof cited how Canadian leaders have stood up to Saudi Arabia, China and Venezuela; how Canada has taken in refugees that others haven’t; how Canada has hewed to high internationalist principles while others turn to nationalism and nativism.
The Times columnist was speaking in the present tense, however, and it’s easy to look good when your main moral frame of comparison is Donald J. Trump. But in fact, Canada’s do-gooder reputation hasn’t changed much over time. Throughout its history, it has been respected for its success and, comparatively speaking, its high moral standing.
But that’s not to say Canadians are entitled to any sense of smugness or moral superiority. What Mr. Kristof doesn’t get into is the story behind the success – and how it has more to do with luck than anything else.
Canada is one of the most successful countries because it’s one of the most fortunate countries. Its success was largely preordained. It was dealt a great hand, and it didn’t screw it up.
One starts, of course, with the blessings of geography: its vault of natural resources, its breadth, its beauty, its being situated on the shoulders of the United States.
Consider then the incredibly propitious circumstances of Canada’s upbringing and development: raised, protected, economically nurtured first by Great Britain, the dominant power of one era, and then by the United States, the paramount power of the next. For political systems, what better models of democracy to build from than those examples? It is a far cry from the autocratic penury bequeathed to Russia, the world’s other land mass of comparable size.
Moderation has always been a staple of the Canadian way. Much of that attribute was handed down also – from the culture of the Indigenous peoples and the United Empire Loyalists.
To be considered also is that it’s easier to be seen as a moral leader when your population does not have the components of race and colour that confronted the United States. It’s easier when you’re not tasked with the military burden of securing the free world’s peace and security. On its border, Canada had an economic protector, a military protector, a dynamic creative culture.
The fortuitous circumstances were there to be taken advantage of, and Canadians have done so, admirably. But its comparative advantages are often overlooked. What other large nation has enjoyed such providence?
In our own backyard, we benefited from great strokes of fortune in our confrontations with Quebec secessionists. The Canadian union was saved by a sliver in the 1995 referendum. Had less than 1 per cent of the vote gone the other way, there could have been blood in the streets and very possibly a permanent rupture of the federation. The luck was there as well prior to the 1980 referendum, when the Joe Clark government stunningly collapsed, thereby allowing the return of a Quebecker of great stature in Pierre Trudeau to guide the federalist forces against René Lévesque.
All this is not to diminish Canada’s accomplishments, its good values, or the sound judgment of its people. But from the outset, benevolent circumstance lit the path. You get the sense Canadians, modest as we are, have at least a sense of this. We’ll leave the boasting about our country to the New York Times.