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Janet Bufton: There’s no getting around politics


This publication is fond of running stories asserting that Canada is in the doldrums. To many, Canada seems broken. 

Rather than despair, we should listen to Paul Wells: “We must all abandon hope for a brighter past. The question is what any government can do next.”

As the resident misfit libertarian, I am contractually obligated to say something about that “government” part. But I think that Wells characteristically puts his finger on something important. 

I’d amend it to this: We must abandon all hope of a past that could give us an easy solution now. The question is, “What’s next?”. When answering that question, there’s no getting around politics. 

What is politics?

When a normal person says “politics”, they mean partisan politics—campaigning for offices, donating to or joining a party, standing for election—or pressure campaigns targeting politicians. Unburdened as I am by concerns about normality, I want to expand our idea of politics. 

Not everything is political—in fact, in our frustration at what feels like a broken system, we too often stick politics where it doesn’t belong. But non-political social and community activities form the backdrop for our politics. 

Identifying a community problem and trying to solve it, either individually or as part of a group, doesn’t just address that problem. Individuals and groups trying to solve social problems demonstrates that those problems can be addressed. People learn about the problems their communities face, and they’re armed with skills for tackling those problems. Addressing community problems also builds community and social capital.

Taking a slightly different approach: having hard conversations about important topics and facing when we might be wrong isn’t just good for us as individuals. It affects how public opinion is formed because we and the people we talk to are part of “the public.”

These activities don’t have to be purposefully political to change how we think about social problems, how to prioritize them, and how to solve them. And thinking about, prioritizing, and imagining solutions to social problems seems to be where Canadian politics is coming up short. When people look to their political leaders for what to do next, and political leaders are looking at opinion polls for direction…well. It’s not surprising if it doesn’t go anywhere. 

In the U.S., politicians are compensating for a lack of direction with a culture war. We don’t have to take that path. Nor do we need a new vision to get behind, and we shouldn’t want one. We need solutions to problems. We need to better judge when politics might help and when politics needs to get out of the way.

There’s a big problem

Here is where I meet my contractual obligation: I don’t think we can expect any government to change substantially unless Canadians are willing to put demands for specific goals and accountability for achieving them ahead of their disdain for the other side. 

Libertarians believe that governments do the things they do badly. The libertarian solution to unsatisfactory governments is to replace as many of the actions taken by the government with voluntary solutions as possible. But while it’s uncontroversial to say governments aren’t doing the things Canadians want, the usual conclusion is that the governments need more capacity, not fewer responsibilities.

We live in a liberal democracy. If libertarians want responsibilities taken away from the government, we have to convince people that responsibilities should be taken away from the government. 

Michael Munger, an economist at Duke University (and repeat candidate for government offices), argues that not just libertarians but all people who want the government to work differently face the same problem. The laws and institutions we have exist because people have either pushed for those laws and institutions or are used to them as they are. It’s easier to get everyone to agree that things generally aren’t working well than to agree about reform. For any particular change, some people will show up to defend the part that works well for them. The sum of that opposition makes change hard. Change only happens if people who want change are as motivated as people against it. 

The idea that change means motivating a lot of people or changing lots of minds, rather than just convincing a few politicians, feels overwhelming. But things have been worse than they are now, and people made them better. Big, overwhelming problems are made of small parts. 

Start with small solutions

It’s the fact that some of the most basic problems aren’t being solved that makes everything feel so broken. Regardless of whether you’re skeptical of government overall, we should be skeptical about whether governments are the only appropriate tools for solving basic problems.

People who exercise their civic muscles by tackling the problems they see in society are more fit for the political action necessary for a working democracy. The urbanist Jane Jacobs wrote, “When humble people, doing lowly work, are not solving problems, nobody is apt to solve humble problems.” Jacobs observed that people who get involved in their community can become fixtures for more community action, potentially creating a virtuous cycle of participation—and public accountability. 

Jacobs herself famously lead community opposition to city-level development that would have bulldozed what people wanted for their own neighbourhoods. But in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jacobs also talks about “humble people” solving other problems. For example, English-speaking parents organizing to help the children of immigrant parents with English-language homework—an initiative Jacobs’ sister-in-law travelled around the city to help spread. In our own time, community fridges come from ordinary people trying to make sure everyone has enough food. YIMBY groups are a new political force working to change the politics around home building. 

Ordinary people can and do address the basic problems facing society. 

To join them, we can start small. Join a Jane’s Walk in your city to learn more about your neighbourhood. Look for volunteer opportunities at your library or food bank. Does your street participate in a neighbourhood yard sale (could it)? Contact the organizers of projects that exist in other cities that you wish could exist where you live. 

Get curious about one thing you disagree with and find someone who believes it to help you understand. If you’ve got a point of view you don’t see represented, learn to write an op-ed—and write one! Don’t take things working well for granted. Things that are working well could probably also use your help.

And here’s something anyone can do: when you see someone trying something that you don’t think will work, don’t berate it or tear it down. Try to appreciate good intentions and that people are trying. We need more people trying.

Brokenness feels big. These things feel small. But they flex important social muscles that are weak, maybe especially weak since the pandemic. They prepare us for when we will need to be even stronger than before. 

Ryan Manucha: Interprovincial trade illuminates Canadian history (and the extra beer in the trunk)


The Hub is proud to be partnering with the Donner Prize, which will be announced on May 18. We’ll be running excerpts from the shortlisted books all week and you can also listen to Hub Dialogues episodes with all the nominees. Click here to view the shortlist and get caught up on Canada’s best public policy books.

Excerpt from Booze, Cigarettes, and Constitutional Dust-Ups: Canada’s Quest for Interprovincial Free Trade by Ryan Manucha

Ryan Manucha is a scholar of interprovincial trade law. A graduate of Harvard Law, he has written extensively on the topic of Canada’s economic union for the nation’s leading think tanks and published works in outlets such as The Globe and Mail and CBC Radio. He was recently commissioned to provide policy analysis to a provincial government.

Like the story of Canada itself, the nation’s internal trade tale is still being written. Each segment of the narrative threads together the chronicle of a maturing economic union. As pre-confederation Canada transformed from Europe’s backyard garden to an independent state hungry for political autonomy and economic growth, it moved to shuck its insular colonial fiefdoms in favour of domestic integration. Gone are the days of border inspectors stationed at Coteau-du-Lac, Quebec, who monitored the passage of goods between Upper and Lower Canada flowing along the St Lawrence River.Gordon Blake, Customs Administration in Canada: An Essay in Tariff Technology (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1957).

Canadian internal commerce is now primarily governed by the rules-based order provided by the Canadian Free Trade Agreement, which supplements the nation’s section 121 “free trade” clause found in the Constitution Act, 1867. But has Canada truly left provincialism behind? There may have been no border services tower at the New Brunswick-Quebec border. Yet nearly 150 years after confederation, the Supreme Court endorsed the detainment and penalties inflicted upon Gerard Comeau by RCMP officers on account of the surplus beer he’d bought back from a liquor store located on the other side of a provincial frontier.

Focusing solely on Comeau’s legal defeat, without considering internal trade’s full account, one might falsely surmise that the Canadian project of domestic trade liberalization is in the same place as it started; that interprovincial trade barriers plague the nation just as they did the colonies of British North America. Such a conclusion, however, would ignore significant jurisprudential and political developments. Inside of one hundred years, the Supreme Court of Canada has gradually added strength to the constitution’s section 121 free trade clause. It went from an obscure paragraph meant to address those prehistoric interprovincial tariffs and customs duties to one that can now strike down modern non-tariff barriers. Section 121’s role in Canada’s legal landscape has dynamically expanded, rather than stagnate in scope. It would not be surprising if, over the next one hundred years, the nation’s highest court were to endow in section 121 even more power.

Canada’s internal trade story is a never-ending project of cross-country integration. The newest chapter of the saga is headlined by the rise of collaborative federalism, manifested in highly technical consensus-based exercises in regulatory reconciliation under the CFTA’s RCT process. Looking ahead, internal trade-barrier resolution will chiefly come from the exhaustive work of subject matter experts who are tasked with ironing out a litany of differing jurisdictional rules—on topics ranging from truck weight allowances to drug scheduling protocols—at the sustained encouragement of elected political officials.

The story of internal trade offers a means to introspect about our institutional foundations, and it also allows us to consider how Canada conceived of a national identity and its place in the world. The constitution’s internal free trade clause of 1867 was itself birthed after successive blows by foreign lawmakers seeking to protect their own interests. A loss of imperial preferences with Britain in the 1840s, followed by the termination of free trade privileges with the United States in the 1860s, forced pre-confederation Canada to look inward in order to realize grand notions of nationhood. Both shocks were at the fore of drafters’ minds as they composed a constituting document that included an internal free trade clause. National identity and internal free trade collided once again during the attempt to modify Canada’s fundamental essence following patriation in 1982. The Charlottetown Accord was an effort to redefine the Canadian state through constitutional reform, and contemplated changes to section 121 were slated to reinvigorate the economic union. These proposed modifications to the internal trade provision were an expression of a new national character.

Subsequent recourse to a domestic trade agreement in 1995 after the accord’s failure manifests the quintessentially Canadian characteristics of compromise and acceptance of diversity. Opting for an internal trade compact, rather than constitutional change, brokered a middle ground between the pursuit of national objectives on the one hand, and the sanctity of provincial autonomy on the other. It also happened to coincide with an era of popularity and salience for international trade agreements amongst Canada’s political establishment (not to mention the doctrines of neoliberalism floating through the halls of Canada’s governments and the pages of think tank memoranda).

The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed the fragility and vulnerability of globalized supply chains, and the renewed importance of national unity. For instance, Canadian health officials were left scrambling when the Trump administration invoked the Defense Production Act, blocking the export of crucially important N95 masks manufactured by 3M in the United States, and when the Biden administration refused to allow for the early export of US-manufactured vaccines. In many ways Canadians responded to this self-preserving isolationism and filled the voids left by foreign trading partners, just as we did when the United States abandoned the Reciprocity Treaty in 1866 and when Britain did away with favourable imperial trading preferences in 1846. As just one of many examples, Alberta sent vital medical supplies to Ontario, British Columbia, and Quebec during some of the darkest days of the COVID-19 pandemic.“Alberta to Send PPE to Ontario, Quebec and BC,” CTV News Edmonton, 11 April 2022,

The most recent chapter of the country’s interprovincial trade story, with the CFTA’s growing primacy and collaborative model for resolving disharmonious regulations through institutionalized government-to-government negotiations, reveals that classic Canadian capacity for compromise. It balances economic unity with provincial and territorial autonomy. This acceptance of diversity has also paved the way for the many regional trade agreements that may play an increasing role in liberalizing internal trade in the years to come. There is room for a more progressive and inclusive internal trade agenda, and this may also be a part of the next chapter in the nation’s internal trade tale. Institutionalizing the participation of Indigenous peoples in Canada has been discussed in the context of international trade policy, but has not yet seeped into the conversations about interprovincial trade.

Far from a dull topic, interprovincial trade shines a spotlight revealing the history, personalities, and direction of this country. At the very least, it offers a cautionary tale about bringing back one too many lagers in the trunk of your car from your neighbouring province.