Common Ground by Justin Trudeau
Canada’s Odyssey: A Country Based on Incomplete Conquests by Peter H. Russell
Could It Happen Here?: Canada in the Age of Trump and Brexit by Michael Adams
Maximum Canada: Why 35 Million Canadians Are Not Enough by Doug Saunders
Common Ground by Justin Trudeau. HarperCollins, 343 pp., CAN$19.99 (paper, 2014) Canada’s Odyssey: A Country Based on Incomplete Conquests by Peter H. Russell. University of Toronto Press, 535 pp., $39.95 Could It Happen Here?: Canada in the Age of Trump and Brexit by Michael Adams. Simon and Schuster, 178 pp., $24.00 Maximum Canada: Why 35 Million Canadians Are Not Enough by Doug Saunders. Knopf Canada, 249 pp., $20.95
A cover of The Economist in 2003 featured a moose—that universally recognized symbol of Canada—wearing sunglasses. Inside, the magazine extolled Canada’s new sophistication: its openness, even then, to legalizing gay marriage and decriminalizing marijuana; its cosmopolitan cities (Toronto would soon become the most diverse metropolis in the world, with over half of its residents foreign-born); and its growing international cultural clout. It was another thirteen years before Canada received such coverage again. In October 2016, shortly before Donald Trump’s election, the iconography was reversed. Instead of a symbol of Canada wearing an accessory identified with America, the cover featured a quintessential symbol of America— the Statue of Liberty—brandishing a hockey stick. The accompanying headline read “Liberty Moves North: Canada’s Example to the World.”
The sunglasses-bedecked moose suggests that Canada had, in 2003, finally shed its fabled stodginess—V. S. Pritchett once jibed that Canadians drink tea as a stimulant, while the English consume it as a sedative. Thirteen years later, Canada, with its wholehearted embrace of multiculturalism and multilateralism, seemed to have become the destination for those seeking better opportunities.
There is much talk these days about the “Canadian example,” at least in certain quarters: Barack Obama hailed the country as a polestar for the democratic world. (Trump might loath it for the same reason.) How is it that Canada has avoided the xenophobia and isolationism that now trouble the US and European democracies? It’s not that Canada has no tradition of robust right-wing populist movements. The gun-supporting, science-questioning Reform Party became the official opposition to the governing Liberals in the 1990s. After it merged with the old Progressive Conservatives to form the Conservative Party, it held power under Prime Minister Stephen Harper from 2006 to 2015. The white workingclass voters who form a large part of Trump’s base also form a considerable part of the Canadian electorate. Yet polls show that 80 percent of Canadians value immigration. In fact, those Canadians who most strongly describe themselves as patriotic are also the most supportive of immigration and multiculturalism; in America the opposite is true. And approval of multiculturalism at home is matched by support for multilateralism abroad: a 2014 public-opinion analysis concluded that Canadians remain resolute “liberal internationalists”: believers in strong international institutions, especially the UN, and robust global governance regimes, particularly trade and environmental treaties.1
No wonder that Bono, for instance, insists that “the world needs more Canada.” But does Canada, in its openness to multiculturalism and multilateralism, immigration and globalization, have anything to teach the world? It might seem just lucky to be shielded by its geographical location from the flows of migrants that roil American and European politics. “We have the luxury,” Canada’s immigration minister Ahmed Hussen admits, “of being surrounded by oceans on three sides, and then by the US border.” Its success, though, has a deeper basis as well: Canada’s longstanding regional rivalries and economic history have helped encourage support of immigration and global trade to a degree not seen in much of the developed world.
In the fall of 2014, as he was preparing to topple Stephen Harper and bring his Liberals to power, Justin Trudeau published Common Ground to give Canadians a sense of his life and thinking. The world knows Canada’s prime minister—the son of Pierre Trudeau, prime minister nearly uninterruptedly from 1968 to 1984—as a man who personally welcomed Syrian refugees with free winter coats at the Toronto airport while Trump was turning them away, and who charmed the Davos crowd that Trump left cold. He has boosted immigration levels and fought hard to preserve NAFTA. A charismatic fortysix-year-old snowboarder and boxer, Trudeau winsomely cuddles pandas and balances babies in the palm of his hand; he has appeared on the covers of Rolling Stone as well as a Marvel superhero comic book. He is the coolest of Canadians, he is the moose sporting sunglasses. But what, exactly, is Trudeau’s connection with the hockey stick in the crook of Liberty’s arm— with the idea of Canada as a port in the storm of international right-wing populism?
Common Ground, like most campaign manifestos, refers repeatedly to its author’s “vision” concerning his country. Yet as one reads the book, the word “vision” comes to resemble the harmonica in a Robert Klein comedy routine, which Klein repeatedly raises to his lips and then—just as you think he’s about to play a few bars and show us what it sounds like—lowers again to start tapping his toes or snapping his fingers.
“My vision for this country,” Trudeau writes, “is very much shaped by my experiences and the influences upon me.” And what might that vision be? He doesn’t say, moving on immediately to a meditation on his childhood. Or: “The audience . . . engaged . . . in a great discussion about our shared vision for our kids and our country.” Terrific—could he say a little more about that vision? But no, he’s now on to a description of the immigrant community in his parliamentary constituency.
Trudeau’s vision, one starts to realize, is not for the country, but of it. It’s the vision not of a leader, but of a lover. Nothing else can quite compare with what excites his ardor. Canada is “perhaps the only country on earth that is strong because of our differences, not despite them,” he gushes. It’s the world’s “first post-national state.” There is “no mainstream in Canada.” These starry-eyed utterances diminish the way in which cultural differences strengthen many other countries. They also ignore the fact that Canadian employers often favor job applicants with Canadian work experience, educational credentials, and language skills over candidates with abundant skills and experience acquired in other countries, thus helping to perpetuate an economic, if not a cultural, mainstream that can be difficult for some immigrants to break into.
So it’s not surprising that Trudeau believes, as he said in 2017, that “my role . . . is to . . . govern in such a way that [Canada would be] a positive example in the world.” And yet in the same breath, he quietly cautions that it’s not his place to “lecture another country on how they choose to govern themselves.” We Canadians, the Vancouver writer George Woodcock once said, “pride ourselves on our ironic modesty.” Trudeau clearly takes pride in Canada’s shining beacon, and the fact that he holds it. But how, specifically, can other nations follow and perhaps join him? Modesty prevents him from saying.
And so we must look elsewhere. The political scientist Peter Russell, author of Canada’s Odyssey: A Country Based on Incomplete Conquests, is known for his sensitive and searching work on Canada’s indigenous communities, whom he aptly describes as possessing the joint status of colonies and nations. European settlers, Russell writes, colonized Canada’s native peoples in every sense of that word. They stole their wealth, attempted to assimilate them, and broke down their social structures. They left a horrendous legacy that, to this day, includes Indian reserves without potable water and, since 1980, at least 1,100 murdered or missing Aboriginal women. Yet despite that long experience of colonization, Canada’s indigenous peoples also remain “nations” in every sense of the word: linguistically, ethnically, culturally, and (on reserves) territorially distinct. Canada’s failed attempts to assimilate its first nations, Russell argues, left Canadians with a rueful lesson in the value of difference and the plight of the persecuted: a lesson, he believes, that helps account for the country’s current openness to immigrants and refugees. Brutally colonized but enduring as full-fledged nations, indigenous Canadians are one of the two “incomplete conquests” of Russell’s title. The other is Quebec, the second-largest of Canada’s ten provinces and the only one with a majority French-speaking population. Quebec too, as Russell says, constitutes its own linguistically and territorially distinct nation within Canada. Accordingly, its governments have over the years demanded special powers over immigration, culture, the judiciary, social policy, and foreign policy that would be denied to the other nine English-speaking provinces, and even, on a couple of occasions, attempted to secede from the country altogether. But unlike Canada’s indigenous communities, French-majority Quebec—a society that itself originated in European settlement—was never colonized by Canada’s English-speaking majority. Precisely because it ultimately accepted Quebec’s distinctiveness,
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau posing with airport staff as they await the first planeload of Syrian refugees, Toronto, December 11, 2015