Today, we're not going to talk about Donald Trump.
Yes, Canadians have reason to be obsessing over every twitch and tweet from the new President. His prime rhetorical targets are the American-built global economic order and the American-led system of free trade; as a highly trade-dependent country, most of whose trade is with the United States, that puts Canadian jobs and prosperity squarely in the bull's-eye. Yes, NAFTA is probably doomed. Yes, the rules of the World Trade Organization may be under threat. Yes, the Trudeau government is right to be calmly panicking.
But while Canada's fortunes are closely linked to the U.S., in the long run this country's fate mostly comes down to our own choices, not those made in Washington. Canada's economic health, and its exceptionally high level of peace, order and good government, were not handed to us by a foreign power. Our successful society is the sum of 150 years' worth of decisions by Canadian political leaders, thinkers, entrepreneurs and, above all, average citizens. This is one of the world's richest and most successful societies because of a century and a half of mostly good choices. Our choices.
Consider that, a little over a century ago, Canada and Argentina were seen as twins, progressing rapidly down parallel tracks. Both were young countries blessed with vast territory and natural resources. Both were attracting waves of immigrants and foreign investment. Both had rising standards of living.
Today, the two have vast geography in common, but the similarities end there. That's because, for much of the 20th century, Argentina was seriously misgoverned. Its citizens and its leaders made a lot of really bad policy choices. As a result, even though Argentina has more people than Canada, the Canadian economy is three times larger, and the average Canadian is far wealthier.
Argentina ended up like Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront, reminiscing about how he could have been a contender. And Canada ended up as a world leader in wealth, health and quality of life. It comes down to choices.
How can Canada continue to be a contender?
Education: The root of every country's wealth is the skills and productivity of its people. The U.S. invented the idea of mass university education but, today, young Canadians are more likely to go on to university or college than their American peers. And when it comes to primary and secondary education, international tests show young Canadians' math, science and reading skills outperforming those of students in most developed countries.
However, in recent years, the results achieved by young Canadians on measures of learning, such as the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), have been slipping.
What can Ottawa and the provinces do to strengthen the education system, and further improve its outcomes? The long-term prosperity of Canada depends on it.
Health: Canadians live three years longer than Americans. Yet thanks to public health insurance, Canadians and their governments spend only 10 per cent of our gross domestic product on medical care each year, compared with 16.6 per cent in the U.S.
But other countries have outcomes as good or better than Canada – at lower cost. For example, Australia spends just 9 per cent of GDP on health care. If Canada spent that little, we'd be saving more than $20-billion a year.
Democracy: American democracy is marred by the twin evils of gerrymandering of electoral districts and billions of dollars of influence-seeking donations, hungrily siphoned up by both parties.
Canada, in contrast, has low federal donation limits, similar rules in most provinces, and no gerrymandering, thanks to electoral maps drawn by impartial electoral commissions.
We are miles ahead of our southern neighbour. But Canada can do more to ensure the strength and legitimacy of democracy, including stricter rules – the Trudeau government took an important step on this score on Friday – and lower donation limits, at all levels.
But many European countries have even lower violent-crime rates. What can Canada do to make our mostly safe streets even safer? How can we rethink our prison system, so that offenders, many of whom have mental health and addiction issues, get treatment and education and become less likely to reoffend? What can we do to improve the respect that citizens have for the law, and ensure that police officers always return that respect to the citizens they serve?
Middle-class incomes: This is the hardest nut to crack. The sense of stagnation and in some cases decline in American middle-class incomes is partly what brought Mr. Trump to power. What can Canada do to get our economy's lagging productivity rising faster, and to ensure that most of the returns end up in the form of steadily rising incomes for average Canadians?
All things considered, Canada is fortunate to find itself next to the world's largest and most dynamic economy. But Canada's prosperity, though improved by American proximity and the efficiencies of trade, is not determined by it. Just look at Mexico. It also borders the U.S., but it has long been a less developed country. Its internal politics have not delivered Canada's peace, order and good government.
If the new President ends the American Century by undermining the U.S.-built system of free and rules-based trade, that will not be a good thing for Canada. But no matter what policies Washington pursues, tomorrow the sun will still come up east of Newfoundland and set west of Vancouver Island. We can't control that any more than we can who governs Washington.
But the kind of Canada the sun shines on? That's up to us.