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Opinion Brian Crowley on inherited institutions: ‘Canadians don’t always understand what we have’

In a six-week series of interviews, Canadians with a variety of experiences discuss the major challenges our country is facing and how best to address them. This instalment deals with renewing our democratic institutions.

Brian Crowley, managing director of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, was interviewed on Sept. 5 by Adam Kahane, chairman, North America, of Reos Partners.

Kahane: What energizes you these days about Canada?

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Crowley: Canada is a lucky country. People often say it's because we have a vast endowment of natural resources, but that can't explain our success as a society. I can name 50 countries around the world with fantastic natural resource endowments that are hellholes you would never want to live in. So that's not what makes this a great society.

We have a different endowment that is much more important than natural resources: the institutions and behaviours that we originally inherited from the British and have evolved to become our own. These include a well-functioning democracy, the rule of law, non-corrupt judges and police, a reasonable regulatory and taxation burden, well-functioning social services, a well-developed work ethic, enforcement of contracts and respect for private property. Canada is not a place where we are victims of a predatory state.

David Hume, whom I regard as one of the great thinkers about human society, said that all truly civilized societies are based on three fundamental principles: the stability of property, its transference by consent and the keeping of promises. Those things sound simple, but most societies are incapable of achieving them.

Kahane: Is this endowment at risk?

Crowley: Canadians don't always understand what we have. I'm constantly battling a narrative that is popular in some quarters that Canada is a terrible place, that we're racist or we're destroying the environment. I'm not saying that our history is without blemish or that there aren't things that we can do to improve. But you can only think that Canada is a bad place that must be torn apart and reconstructed if you have never left here and seen what other people live and work with. As the song says, "You don't know what you've got till it's gone." I worry that people sometimes want to undermine our institutions without understanding what these have achieved for us.

I've taken it as a personal mission to say, let's appreciate what we have and understand the great success that it's conferred on us. To pick a concrete example, even though it costs $20 a barrel to produce oil in Saudi Arabia and perhaps $80 a barrel to produce it in Canada's oil sands, the world's oil producers are beating down the doors to invest in the oil sands. It's because those natural resources are nested inside our endowment of institutions that investors can have confidence in the security of their investment.

Kahane: What is the role of government in ensuring Canada's future?

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Crowley: For me, government is not the solution for everything, and that's true socially and culturally just as much as it is economically. I think that freedom is the indispensable condition of successful societies. I'm a big believer in a society that leaves room for experimentation, for initiative in every field, something that government is far better at shutting down than encouraging. Today, we need to recover our ability to take initiative. There is an important role for government, but there are limits to what government can do.

It's a question of balance. It's not always bad for governments to tax and always good for people to spend. The challenge is that when we get the balance between collective provision and individual choice out of whack, we start to undermine the institutions that have enabled us to be successful.

Possible Canadas is a project created by Reos Partners, the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation and a diverse coalition of philanthropic and community organizations. For longer versions of these interviews, or to join the conversation, visit possiblecanadas.ca

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