Canada is a fact, but it is also an act. It exists thanks to the choices made by those who came before us. And the hope for a tomorrow of increasing peace, order, good government and prosperity depends on the choices we make today.
That millions of people across the globe want to come here is not because this country possesses some immutably positive characteristics. Canada and Canadians have been exceptionally lucky when it comes to geography and our neighbours, but generations before us chose wisely when it comes to politics, laws and economic and social policies. Those choices have made all the difference.
It seems hard to believe, but a little over a century ago, Argentina was a kind of Canadian twin: an enormous new country, with vast resources, a booming population thanks to immigration, and high living standards. Its course was set for a bright future.
Instead, Argentina ended up with populism, socialism, political breakdown, dictatorship, violence and misery. It was bad luck, but it was also bad choices. Through much of the 20th century, Argentina’s leaders spent decades shifting their country, bit by bit, onto history’s off-ramp.
Canada chose differently, and ended up in a different place. But every country, even Canada, always has an Argentina on its menu of potential tomorrows.
Or consider the story of South Korea. In the 1950s, it was one of the world’s poorest countries. It wasn’t a democracy. It was light-years behind Canada in every way.
But little by little, South Korea made choices that moved the needle in the right direction. Over the last half-century, it has been Argentina in reverse – going from poverty and dictatorship to prosperity, development and democracy. Today, South Korea’s living standards are at about the same level as Japan’s. Its people are among the planet’s most educated; the percentage of South Korean young adults with a post-secondary degree is the highest in the world.
And even Canada’s future wasn’t always bright. The country, as everyone knows, was built on immigration. But what we forget is that there were periods, in the 19th and the early 20th centuries, when, even as large numbers of people came to Canada, larger numbers left. Canada was also a land of emigration.
Once upon a time, this country’s main border challenge was not people crossing from the United States. It instead involved persuading Canadians to stop moving south.
In 1930, after the last great wave of Canadian emigration, one in 10 Canadians was living in the United States. The sheer size of the exodus had such a long tail that, until the 1960s, the U.S. Census Bureau counted more U.S. residents born in Canada than in all of the countries of Latin America combined.
Today, Canada is one of the world’s most successful societies. It isn’t perfect, but we enjoy high levels of personal freedom, democracy, the rule of law in a constitutional order, levels of economic inequality that is lower than the United States, but a level of economic and social mobility that is higher, among the world’s top living standards and longest lives – life expectancy is about four years longer than Americans.
A lot of what Canada got right it shares with other successful societies, from the rule of law to a free-market economy, universal health care and steadily increasing levels of education. But earlier generations of Canadians also figured out how to compromise so that different people – people with profound disagreements – could live together in peace.
Another place that Canada might have been is Northern Ireland. A few different choices would have put us there. For much of our history, this country was marked by what was then understood as a racial conflict, between the two solitudes of English and French, Protestant and Catholic.
Until a generation ago, July 1 was called Dominion Day. It celebrated an act – the forging of disparate and disputing provinces, religions and ethnic groups into a single Confederation.
The only problem with renaming it Canada Day is that it suggests the day is not about remembering an historical act, but instead celebrating a settled fact – Canada. Our country’s existence is surely a fact worth giving thanks for. But Canada’s future, and its success, is never a given. It can only be written with active verbs.