Nation in progress


Nation in progressMichael Ignatieff, 61, leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, is also an eminent writer. His family memoir, The Russian Album, won the Governor General’s non-fiction award in 1987, and his 1993 novel Scar Tissue was shortlisted for the Booker prize. In 2000, Ignatieff and his wife, Zsuzsanna, retraced the journey his great-grandfather George Monro Grant undertook with Sandford Fleming in 1872. Grant and Fleming were mapping out the railway line that would link Canada from ocean to ocean. Ignatieff’s aim was to see the country through his ancestor’s optimistic eyes and trace how four generations of his prominent family—including his uncle George Parkin Grant, author of Lament for a Nation (1965)—had grappled with the idea of Canada. Grant’s despairing view of Canada’s fate, that the nation was destined to dissolve into the American orbit, has made his book an icon of Canadian nationalism. His nephew’s view of our future, as set out in True Patriot Love (Penguin), is far more confident.

The Canada of the Grants was a small-town nation of modest brick houses with white verandas, Protestant and Catholic churches on wide, leafy streets and the railway station within walking distance. George Parkin Grant’s Lament for a Nation was a cry of grief and rage at its passing. But that Canada is still there. Just go to Richmond, Que., or London, Ont., or Halifax, N.S. There are beautiful streets in each of these towns where this Canada still remains. But there is a palpable sense that time is passing this Canada by.

A new Canada has been built up around it—condominium towers, suburban tract housing, shopping plazas, 16-lane highways and the multicultural bazaar of downtown. This is now our home and native land.

ALSO AT MACLEANS.CA: A review of True Patriot Love

The Canada of the Grants may be slipping away, but their way of thinking about the country still offers enduring lessons. They believed in the country’s future with an enthusiasm that can still inspire. They thought the country was unfinished, that there was a great nation still to be built. They thought that it ought to have a purpose and a meaning. They were romantics.

But there is more to their inheritance than romance.

They also understood the deeper logic of the country.

My great-grandfather and his generation—John A. Macdonald, Sandford Fleming and Donald Smith—were nation builders. They understood that Canada was called into being by an act of choice and that it could only be sustained by continual acts of political faith and willpower.

They understood that the political ties that bound the country together ran east and west but the economic ties that kept Canada going ran north and south. The political task in Canada, these ancestors understood, was to build steel rails and bonds of citizenship from east to west to hold the country together in the face of the economic and geographic ties running north and south. If the east-west links of steel and citizenship were strong enough, then the country could survive and prosper. This remains the logic of Canada to this day. If we want a country to hand on to the next generation, we will have to strengthen those east-west linkages—of citizenship and common life together—to offset the north-south drift that fragments us.

Are the east-west linkages strong enough to sustain us today? We have had free trade with the United States for 20 years, yet we still do not have free trade in labour and capital among Canadian provinces. We still do not maintain a single economic space from ocean to ocean. We still maintain barriers that prevent Canadians from doing business with each other or from pulling up stakes and moving where the work is. Our forefathers would not understand why we lack the will to pull them down.

The ribbon of steel that used to tie us together is almost gone. Now we have the airlines and the bus companies and we pretend to have a national highway. In many places—northern Ontario or the interior of British Columbia—it dwindles down to two-lane blacktop, and the local residents will tell you these narrow sections make our national highway a death trap. We could do better. The Americans completed a four-lane national highway system 50 years ago. We are still awaiting ours.

The Europeans have used high-speed railways to tie Europe together. After 50 years of studies, we are still considering a high-speed rail link to connect Windsor to Quebec City, Vancouver to Calgary and Calgary to Edmonton. If we want to tie Canadians together, if we want to be nation builders, we would start on them right now. Here the 19th-century buccaneers—Fleming, Van Horne, Rogers, John A. himself—offer an example of the political grit and daredevil entrepreneurship that Canada has always called upon when it truly wants to achieve great things.

Those ancestors would look at our incredible panoply of resources in energy and say to us our work of nation building is not yet done.

They would want to know why so much of the oil and gas we produce flows south without even being processed. We ship oil from Alberta and Saskatchewan to the American states while importing large quantities from Venezuela and the Middle East to meet the demand in Ontario, Quebec and the Atlantic provinces. Does this make sense? Why are we one of the few countries that has never created a petroleum reserve to protect our citizens against fluctuations in supply from foreign countries? In the future opening up before us, our children will judge us harshly for having no apparent national energy strategy whatever.

It is possible we do this because we do not take ourselves seriously enough. My uncle George argued, like so many thinkers in the 1960s, that Canada was a mere branch plant of the United States. We are such captives of these worn-out clichés of dependency that we fail to grasp our new-found strength. We haven’t noticed that times have changed and so have the terms of trade with our neighbour. Nowadays, we export more oil to the United States than Saudi Arabia does. If energy is power, then we ought to have plenty of it. We have cards to play at the table of nations, and if we play the energy card with determination, we can build a country that commands respect—the respect that comes from being not just a good neighbour but a powerful one, too.

These are not the only questions the ancestors would be asking.

We are one of the greatest producers of hydroelectric power in the world. Quebec’s Quiet Revolution was paid for by its hydro. Why does so much of our hydro flow north to south rather than east to west? Why are the alternative energy sectors of our country—wind, solar and ocean power—crying out for more east-west grid capacity? Why can’t we build energy corridors to move Manitoba power to Ontario, Ontario nuclear power to Quebec and the power from the Lower Churchill to Central and Atlantic Canada? Why can’t we develop a strategic vision of how to do this and then stick with it, over decades, until we have the national energy grid system we need?

These are the crucial issues of energy security, national independence and national unity that a Fleming, a Grant, a John A. Macdonald or a Laurier would have seen as clear as day. We might be tempted to tell them that energy flows north to south because it flows to market. That’s the logic of money. But they would have waved this away with an impatient gesture. They would have told us the country wouldn’t exist at all if the logic of money had determined our destiny. We’d be Americans.

So the question that they asked and answered, in their fashion, demands an answer in our time: what exactly is being Canadian worth to us, in dollars and cents? How much are we prepared to invest to keep our country in one piece?

Ocean to Ocean—a Mare usque ad Mare—encapsulated the national vision of the railway age. Our ancestors would be asking us: what is the national vision of our age?

The opening up of the Northwest Passage, once our frozen inland waterway, is an opportunity for Canada to develop a new frontier. Again, we do not appreciate the power we actually possess. As an Arctic nation, we are the sovereigns of a considerable portion of the world’s refrigeration system. The future of the planet’s weather depends on how we, along with other Arctic nations, stabilize this system and guarantee its future health for the benefit of the world.

It is true we are a difficult country to govern, as Laurier said. Caution and compromise are properly the essence of our politics. Our union is fragile. But it is equally true, as these 19th-century voices remind us, that we wouldn’t exist at all if we hadn’t also been a nation of gamblers and daredevils, the kind of people who don’t take no for an answer. The ambition of our ancestors should be inspiring us to equal them in daring today and tomorrow.

As ministers of the cloth, school principals and professors—as the public intellectuals of their time—the Grants took it upon themselves to pose, and then to answer, the central question facing the country of their day.

For my great-grandfather’s generation, the question was whether the Canada he grew up in, the five British colonies grouped along the St. Lawrence, could take possession of the West and transform itself into a continental nation-state. The answer, given after the journey in Ocean to Ocean, was yes.

For my grandfather’s generation, the question was whether Canada could emancipate itself from the British Empire and achieve national independence. The answer, given at the Somme, at Vimy and at Passchendaele, was yes.

For my uncle’s generation, the question was whether Canada, having emancipated itself from the British Empire, could now survive as an independent state within the American Empire. The right answer—though not the one he gave—is yes.

The tradition of which I am part is an affirmation of Canadian possibility. But it is also a tradition that issues a challenge to the future. It asks the fourth generation to pose, in our turn, the key question about our country that we must answer.

The Grants understood that the question about Canada is what place it can make for itself in a world of empires. Today the challenge is how Canada maintains its sovereignty and identity in the vortex of a globalization that is beyond the control of a single empire.

The globalization the Grants understood was a benign creation of empire. My great-grandfather was never frightened by the pace of change or the violence of world events because he believed that the world was ordered by the flag, the navy and the crown. When Britain’s imperial era came to an end, Canada shaped an identity in the shadow of American power.

My uncle George did his thinking in the imperial high noon of American power and believed that American rule would be eternal. In fact, no empire’s rule is eternal, and we are living the end of that American noon hour. Over the past 50 years, the world’s centre of gravity has shifted away from the North Atlantic, where it rested as Canada grew into nationhood, and has moved east to the Pacific and the Indian oceans.

These are the shifts in the tectonic plates that will define Canada’s place in the world and its very identity. The question now is how Canada finds a new place in a world where it can no longer count on any imperial partner or protector, a world in which, as a consequence, Canada must look to itself to guarantee its sovereignty and the integrity of its way of life.

If the 21st century does not necessarily belong to America, then we owe it to ourselves to move out beyond North America and seek opportunities elsewhere, wherever we can find them. We owe it to ourselves to find other partners to build the kind of international order we need, with effective international law, responsible international development assistance and a fair world trading system. We cannot wait for the Americans or the Chinese. We should form our own coalitions of the willing—with European states and with developing democracies—and we should not be afraid to lead. This requires confidence in ourselves, but we should remember those ancestors of ours who fought for a Canadian place at the imperial gatherings that decided how the world would be ordered. We can surely do the same. The emerging world order of the 21st century is ours to shape and, to the degree that we play our part in shaping it, we can feel at home in it.

What Uncle George did understand was that no national identity, not even of great nations, is secure and beyond challenge in a world of unregulated and uncontrolled globalization. Canada’s problem is not unique. Canada shares the same problem with larger nations, maintaining the integrity of its identity and citizenship in a globalizing economy that hammers away at the capacity of national institutions to deliver citizens control of their culture and their economy.

This is a world where decisions about who gets work and who doesn’t, who prospers and who goes hungry, are made not by governments directly, but by the forces of a market that no single government or empire either controls or fully understands.

But government does still matter. Countries with good government can master globalization; countries with bad government will be its victims. George Grant’s mistake was to abandon faith in ordinary politics and the capacity of his fellow citizens to shape their lives through free institutions. No country may be fully sovereign over its identity, but well-governed countries are more sovereign than others, more capable of mastering change and preserving the vital core of traditions, beliefs and values that give a people their identity. Well-governed countries maintain peace, order and good government at home. They punish crime; they hold their citizens accountable for basic standards of conduct. These successful countries run immigration programs that attract entrepreneurial and able people from around the world to become citizens. Bipartisan political consensus guarantees steady national investment in education and training, in science and technology, in infrastructure, and in the public goods that draw citizens together and help to make them productive. These successful countries knock down the barriers—of red tape, regulation and monopoly—that divide citizens, confer unfair advantages or prevent people from working together.

None of these successful countries is foolish enough to believe that it is a finished creation. They all take their promises of equality, fairness and justice seriously, which means that their leaders know that there are still promises to keep. These countries don’t protect their markets against global competition; they invest in their own people’s vision and enterprise so they can gain footholds in other people’s markets. Above all, these successful countries keep their governments honest and accountable. Trust in government, faith in the people who are elected, belief that public policy can actually improve people’s lives—these are the emotions that sustain the citizenship of successful societies.

Such societies are successful not just because they are prosperous and free, but because their citizens share a sense that they know where they came from and know where they are headed in the future. They are hopeful. They believe in themselves. They believe in the capacity of their people to do great things. They are patriots.

Patriotism—enduring, impatient, non-ironic belief in the promise of the land you love—is the single greatest asset of successful societies. Successful societies struggle with their deficiencies and overcome them through collective efforts of will and sacrifice. Patriotism is the sentiment that makes a people demand reform, change and improvement in their country; patriotism is the source of the impatience and anger that makes abuses intolerable, injustice unacceptable and complacency a delusion.

It is this sentiment that makes us want to be one people. It is this shared feeling that allows us to rise above our differences—English and French, Aboriginal, Métis, Inuit, immigrants from every land—and makes a complex unity of us all.

This unity, never certain, never to be taken for granted, always a work in progress, has meaning for us, but it also offers an example to others. Canadians know as much as anyone about living together across the gulf of great differences; we know how to compromise with each other and yet maintain what is essential; we know how to live with the differences that cannot be overcome. We have some experience in respecting the rights of individuals and yet also protecting the collectivities of language and culture that give individuality meaning. We know something, too, about a national pride that is ironic, modest, self-deprecating yet also robust. We know the difference between true patriot love and false, between love that always respects the truth of who we are, however painful, and the love that devours the truth and replaces it with lies. Most of all, we know—as some other nations do not—that the question of who we are is never settled and that we rise to our best when we allow ourselves to imagine ourselves anew.

From True Patriot Love by Michael Ignatieff. Copyright © Michael Ignatieff, 2009. Reprinted with permission of Penguin Group (Canada).

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