The bumper sticker I often saw at the time of the 1995 Quebec referendum on sovereignty is still in circulation. It reads, ‘My Canada includes Quebec.’ A generous sentiment, I think, and likely destined to fail. The French and English alike are weary of the status quo, by which I mean protracted rounds of federal-provincial wrangling, followed by solutions that don’t solve anything. They may one day conclude that separation is perhaps after all for the best. Nothing personal: it’s just that the time has come to try something a bit different.
The problem with the bumper sticker is that, decent though its outlook is, it doesn’t really describe the Canada in which most Canadians live. In what manners precisely does Your Canada include Quebec? The bumper sticker does not represent the social experiences of millions of Canadians who cannot name a Quebecois singer (Sorry, Celine Dion does not count), a Francophone author, or a Quebec provincial holiday. Anglophone Canadians complain of having French ‘crammed down their throat’ in school. Then there’s the political Canada, a motley parliament fadged together by means of the federal election. I wrote an article for ASH magazine at the time of the 1997 election in which I wrote the following:
…after reviewing the research data, Lucien Bouchard’s claim that ‘Canada is not a real country’ was beginning to make some sense to me. I’d thought it a ridiculous statement at first, but my discoveries got me wondering. The first surprise was a 1994 Maclean’s/CTV poll suggesting that only about 1/3 of Newfoundlanders think of themselves as ‘Canadian.’ Even the Quebec referendum yielded a higher number: just over 50%. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the West considers itself a nation apart, and if one doesn’t trust anecdotal evidence, there’s the 1997 election to consider. This election carved the political landscape into competing regional chunks, leaving Ottawa to pursue one of the few policies for which there seems to be a national consensus: decentralization. As the next referendum approaches, I try to imagine appropriate regional slogans for the inevitable bumper stickers. Here’s one: My Canada includes Bay Street, Parliament Hill, and parts of Montreal, notwithstanding. Here a brief newspaper quotation, there a statistic: together considered, the data suggest less a nation recreating itself for the next century than a conflict over who should get what, and more important, who shouldn’t. The national mood, perhaps not fully explained by the term ‘regionalism,’ seems to be rooted in an understanding that, in a world of diminishing expectations, looking out for Number One is only a good idea.
I wrote that paragraph less than two years ago, and so it would be premature to conclude it’s withstood the test of time. I’ll say instead it has withstood my suspicion that I was perhaps too pessimistic. Years ago, in preparation for some articles on contemporary Canadian politics that I was writing, I read several dozen books, dozens of articles, and scores of government documents. I read the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI), and those glossy publications of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). I read the Prime Minister’s after-dinner speeches, and the reports issued following the blue-ribbon trade missions of which we heard so much. I read Fraser Institute and C.D. Howe books. I read United Nations reports, from UNICEF to a publication called Transnational Corporations. I went through Statistics Canada data. I even consulted Royal Commission documents, Commons debates, Hansard, and on and on and on and on. Now, I’m not boring you with this list to establish my expertise and thus to place what I’m about to say beyond question. I want only to assert that all of these folks, working for the IMF and the World Bank and so on, have a pretty clear idea about what Canada includes. It would perhaps fit on a bumper sticker, too: “My Canada includes underexploited health and education markets.” I was trying to answer a very precise question in my research, What is this thing called Globalization into which we are rushing? After two years of effort I got a well-documented answer, too. Your political and economic leaders regard Canada as an ‘economy’ which needs to be made more ‘efficient.’ Globalization is a new name for laissez-faire capitalism. Theirs is one view of Canada, and the bumper stickers pose another. The problem for the Unity folks is that the bumper-sticker crowd isn’t running the country, the people Up There are. Don’t bother reading books about that; consider your experience and judge for yourself whether or not it’s so.
Here is a description of My Canada from Ontario’s 905 region, infamous as the Heartland of the 1995 Common Sense Revolution. This is where Mike Harris’s Progressive Conservative party won a decisive victory on a platform which pretty much ignored Quebec altogether. It was probably a wise strategy, but in any case I’m not interested here in politics. Remember, I am describing Canada as it really is, not as the My Canada folks wish it to be, or think it to be.
I live on the outskirts of Fort Erie, Ontario where I work as a writer. I’m writing a collection of stories set in a town that doesn’t look too “Canadian,” because we’ve all learned there’s a small market for that sort of thing. Some would regard me as part of the Culture Industry. Let’s talk, then, about culture. In Kingston I used to watch Canadian television and listen to Canadian radio because, unless one paid for cable, Canadian is about all you got. (As a consequence, most of those who can pay for cable do.) In Fort Erie there is only American television, and American radio dominates. Cable is not available in the rural area in which I live. Furthermore, Fort Erie – a city of 27,000 – has no movie theatre and no bookstores. The nearest stores offering these goods are in Buffalo. On the Canadian side I can easily find Canadian papers, full of American content and American spelling, and American books, magazines, rental videos, and music. I once found Canadian movies in the ‘foreign’ section of Jumbo Video, but the foreign section was long ago sacrificed to make room for a sprawling Disney section. I doubt you’re surprised; this is how Canadians are routinely treated by their fellow citizens. In other fields, science and technology for instances, it’s much the same. Canadian taxpayers subsidize education, but the notion of keeping Canadians here with good jobs is quite beyond. America offers the work and reaps the ample rewards of an investment paid for here. Then Canadians buy back the products of that investment at a handsome price. Don’t be surprised; it’s a very old matter which goes by the term Empire. Did you know that two of the original three Hollywood studios were established by expatriate Canadians? Not only does Canada let the Americans manage ‘their’ culture for profit; they supply the managers, at Canada’s expense. Sociologists call this a Brain Drain, which if you pay attention to metaphors makes you think back to NAFTA and all the glorious talk about the free flow of information and goods. Glorious talk aside, most people in the Culture Industry are unable to make a living in Canada, so many look in the States. Or, like me, they find work of another sort. Fort Erie’s prime real estate is American-owned, and the maintenance of these summer ‘cottages’ – far bigger than the houses local Canadians own – involves the labour of several workers. I am one of those workers.
These are the basic facts of Canada as I encounter them daily. It is a US-dominated country in which the Americans own the resources but hire the locals to keep things looking spiffy. When you get home from work you can eat American food, wear American clothes, and watch American entertainment. As for Quebec food, clothes, and entertainment, most people here would ask What the hell are those? 905 Canada doesn’t really include Quebec at all; indeed, it hardly even includes Canada. In 1998 there’s less political and economic substance to Confederation than even a decade ago, and the trend seems to me to be gaining momentum. Conrad Black owns most Canadian newspapers and lives in New York city, the centre of his universe; yesterday I read in his National Post a discussion of Thomas Courchene’s proposal that we establish a North American currency, the US dollar. Well, why not? Courchene, a Queen’s University economist, has on his side the facts that 80% of Canada’s exports go to the US and that Canadian society has undergone a decade-long project of social and economic ‘harmonization‘ with the States. The Canadian nationalists have bumper stickers backed up by Good Vibrations. I am not mocking them. I am merely pointing out that the North American Free Trade Agreement formalized Canada’s status as a milch-cow. The principal function of the federal government today is not ‘unity’; it is to make sure nothing gets between the bucket and the teat. Free Trade is about noble-sounding matters like National Treatment, Most Favoured Nation, and the elimination of non-tariff trade barriers. The goal, largely accomplished, is to get rid of socialist, interventionist government, and replace it with something that makes for a more efficient milking. The IMF now scrutinizes budgets – ’surveillance,’ the IMF people call it – and makes its displeasure felt if the fed gets out of line. So far Finance Minister Paul Martin has been a willing subject, and punishment has therefore been unnecessary. In public, federal leaders belong to the ‘My Canada includes Quebec’ club, and they’ve certainly handed out the goodies, but in private they are more of the school which believes ‘My Canada includes privatization, downsizing, and competition.’ You have to admit, it has a nice practical sound to it. Furthermore, it has practical results.
Confederation, I can’t help but notice, has the word federation in it. A federation gives one a federal government. And what does federal mean? Here is the definition offered by Chamber’s 20th Century Dictionary: “pertaining to or consisting of a treaty or covenant.” It’s an interesting definition, I think. A covenant has a distinct feeling about it; one imagines God and Moses breaking bread, while the lion and lamb frolic together in the distance. Covenants are mutual agreements that place the participants’ needs and interests foremost. Treaties are something altogether else. The word makes me think either of the many broken promises of Canada in their relations with indigenous people, or else it brings to mind those horrendous documents produced by the victors at the conclusion of a war. Germany was humiliated not by its defeat in WWI, but rather by the peace established in the Treaty of Versailles. Indeed, to my mind the word treaty conjures the words ‘lies,’ and ‘deceit’. Someone invariably has, or achieves, a position of dominance where treaties are involved. Someone is usually screwed over. (Just ask Simon Reisman, the embittered Canadian negotiator of NAFTA who admitted Canada got screwed by the American government.) Where there are treaties and covenants, there must be people or agencies to keep them. This is one function of Canada’s federal government, to enforce agreements. I don’t know about you, but I myself have an opinion on whether Canada’s leaders are of the covenant-making or cynical treaty-making variety. The so-called New Economy arrived attended by the unmistakable feeling that Canada had lost a contest, and now must pay. The Federal government has downsized itself out of business and no longer does anything noticeable except hoard taxes and EI surpluses while telling citizens to pay more and learn to live with less. Public health care funding? Education? Social Welfare? Sorry, not anymore. It’s up to the provinces now, who in turn are dumping responsibilities and costs onto the municipalities, without giving them the resources. Perhaps by the time you read this, the municipalities will have entrusted health care ‘market’ to the efficient workings of American Health Maintenance Organizations, or HMOs. Government isn’t so inefficient after all. It’s Getting the Job Done.
My view, if you care to know and haven’t figured it out already, is that Canada is governed not by politicians, but by the lying makers of treaties. They screwed over the Indians, and now they’re busy screwing over Canadians. Behind it all are the financial markets, which in turn are governed by gamblers and robber barons. This form of governance goes on in the open and is sanctioned by the laws. There’s no need to introduce gnosticism, masonry, or a secret world conspiracy into the discussion. Anyone familiar with mercantilism will understand what the global economy is really all about. It’s about rigging the systems of trade and production and reaping the profits. There’s no place for east-west nation-building in a north-south trade regime. No one’s business interests are served by the break-up of Canada, but on the other hand the statist measures required by fiscal federalism (a term which covers federal-provincial cost- and tax-sharing arrangements) are out of fashion. Even if they weren’t, what more has the federal government left to offer Quebec? The answer, of course, is sovereignty. All of these – free trade, decentralization, downsizing, separatism – are centrifugal. They make a flight from the federal centre perhaps inevitable and certainly reasonable. As cynical as this sounds, confederation was a matter of expedience and self-interest. The provinces were in it for the goodies as much as for anything else. Well, Ottawa isn’t in the goodies business anymore. They have the international investor to please, and we know how the international investor loves austerity – not his own of course, but others’. The investors are doing nicely with the help of government, but the rest of us will have to take care of ourselves. The technical term for taking care of oneself, by the way, is independence.
Professor Courchene welcomes the new, decentralized, globally-competitive Canada. You could even say it was his idea. He’s a booster of the unimpeded free market and believes that the nation-state is, alas, obsolete. One man’s opinion, you may say, but Courchene is one of the most influential policy experts in Canada. He has literally written the book, at Ontario’s request, on intergovernmental relations. His approach to separatism is to render it redundant by turning Canada into a loosely-affiliated group of independent economies. The argument is, Make every province actually independent, both economically and politically, and you undercut the separatist cause of independence in law. That is the argument. It overlooks the fact that nationalism is at least as much about the symbols of nationhood as it is about the substance. Jacques Parizeau, I presume, wanted to be the Prime Minister of Quebec. Pomp and circumstance, Oui; Distinct Society, Non. The title ‘Premier of For-All-Intents-and-Purposes-Independent Quebec’ apparently did not interest him. Nonetheless, appeasement has a certain logic, and by a happy coincidence its decentralizing tendencies satisfied the conditions of the North American Free Trade Agreement as well. Under Courchene’s plan, which was adopted by Ottawa, the independent states of Canada would be governed by an agreement on internal trade (AIT). The unimpeded flow of goods, information, and capital would be the primary social and economic goals of Courchene’s, and Ottawa’s, Canada. This plan was published under the title Renewing the Federation.
Having endured a good lot of acronyms and barbarous phrases, are you ready for plain English? All the sound and fury about ‘renewing the federation’ arrives at this: empty the store, and maybe folks will stop trying to rob it. In other words, the only politically safe government in the 1990s – indeed the only good government – is thought to be no government at all. Ottawa will continue to collect incomes and to hand them over to bankers, bondholders, and Bombardier, but not much else will transpire directly between the feds and citizens. Most activists on the left have yet to grasp what this means for their infamous defence of an interventionist federal government. The fed is no longer in the business of social programs, but it is nonetheless busy. Ottawa’s Canada includes acronyms like the Non-Accelerating-Inflation Rate of Unemployment (NAIRU), the World Trade Organization (WTO), and the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI). Or, in plain English, the private economic interests of investors. It makes me wonder are there any good reasons today not to separate?
Needless to say, each Canadian sees the country differently. For some – those who derive the bulk of their income from investments, for instance – a decentralized, American-styled, free-market, individualistic Canada is an exciting, opportunity-filled prospect. I have expressed my suspicions, but I acknowledge also the attractiveness for many of the competing views. I could be wrong about the political system and about the leaders. I could be wrong about globalization. Most of all, I could be wrong about the future of Canada and Quebec. Regarding my assertion that Canada is ‘US-dominated,’ one could hardly think this a novel claim. Much of what I have stated is old and obvious. Some of it, such as the relevance of the IMF to Canadian politics, wants clarification and substance. Do I believe that Canada is under attack from malignant outside forces? No, I believe rather that Canada is open for business. I do not think that Canada is unique in the world, that it is somehow special, set apart from the other nations. The Canadian way of life is not invulnerable, and yet the threats are domestic. If anything brings Canada down, it will be the notions that democracy is a spectator sport, that citizenship is a piece of paper, that ordinary people are powerless, and that in any case ‘Canadianess’ magically shields one from the disasters which descend upon lesser nations. It is possible, even probable, that Quebec will one day leave Canada. It is possible that Canada as you know it will cease to exist. Perhaps it already has. My Canada, you see, includes these possibilities. [-November 1998.]