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Taylor Vallée: One of Canada’s most prolific artists just died. Chances are you’ve never heard of him

Commentary

On November 15, Karl Tremblay, one of Canada’s most prolific singer/songwriters, died at the age of 47 after a battle with cancer. The tragedy of his untimely death was palpable, and the outpouring of tributes came from around the world. Everywhere, that is, except from English Canada, where Tremblay is largely unknown. 

This is not because he was a low-key, behind-the-scenes type of figure. No, Karl Tremblay was the frontman of the Quebec folk-rock band Les Cowboys Fringants, who have sold out arenas both at home and around the world. His beautifully warm voice has been entertaining crowds since 1995. Their break-out album Break Syndical (2002) established them as the band of an entire generation, introducing millennials to a reinvented version of traditional French Canadian folk music. Les Cowboys’ unique lyrics are at once ironic, melancholic, and comedic. Most well-known among them are “Plus Rien,” a song about the man-made demise of humanity, “Marine marchande,” a tale of an impoverished man who leaves his wife for a better life at sea, and “L’Amerique pleure,” examining the tears of an American trucker from the perspective of a driver’s rear-view mirror. If you tuned into Netflix’s recent docuseries on the Tour de France, you saw Groupama-FDJ belting out Tremblay’s song “Les étoiles filantes” as they celebrated their hard-fought victory on stage 18. And while in Argentina this past summer, I met a Swiss couple who described Tremblay as the best live performer they had ever seen, after having watched Les Cowboys headline Switzerland’s largest music festival in 2019.

All of this has made Tremblay and his Cowboys the top-streamed Québécois band, ahead of Charlotte Cardin. And yet, they are entirely unknown to Canadians who live outside of Quebec. They’ve never won a JUNO and have failed to permeate the English-Canadian music scene. This is difficult to comprehend if you’ve seen the viral videos of Tremblay singing his final concert on the Plains of Abraham in Québec City this past summer in front of 90,000 fans. While a Swiss couple in Argentina immediately connected Karl Tremblay with Canada, my family in Hamilton, Ontario, couldn’t name a single song, and neither could I until I moved to Québec eight years ago. This is the two solitudes

The case of Tremblay and Les Cowboys Fringants captures the extent to which English Canada adopts a (North) American culture while Québec has built something entirely distinct, with its own network of talented artists and creators. The irony is that English Canadians wouldn’t look twice at the most well-known faces in Quebec if they were walking down Yonge Street. There appears to be no correlation between the level of popularity that an artist achieves in La Belle Province and their ability to connect with the rest of Canada. Language is an obvious reason for this. Céline Dion had to produce music in English to reach global superstar status. But the extent to which an artist like Tremblay can be wildly popular in Québec and around the world while remaining completely unknown in English Canada demonstrates just how impenetrable our two solitudes are. 

Tremblay and Les Cowboys Fringants are hardly a unique example of this. Québec film director Xavier Dolan’s masterpiece film Mommy was an immediate hit in Québec and on the international stage, and yet Dolan didn’t seem to be known to English Canada until he directed Adele’s viral music video for her hit song “Hello.” And it’s not difficult to understand why. While Mommy came out in 2014, it was only added to Netflix, where it could be streamed with English subtitles, in March of 2023—a full 9 years after its release. Up until recently, the two solitudes meant that French content was for French audiences and English content for English. As streaming becomes the dominant way that Canadians consume content, perhaps the two solitudes will finally overcome the one-inch barrier that is a subtitle and experience a turning point.

But music is a different medium from television and films. One cannot listen to music with subtitles. And if Karl Tremblay and Les Cowboys Fringants are any example, it is safe to say that the people of our two solitudes do not have an interest in reaching across the barrier and experiencing the best it has to offer. I consider myself a lucky minority who gets the best of both our Canadian worlds. Tremblay and Les Cowboys Fringants have been foundational to my Québécitude, as I integrated into Quebec society. I am not embarrassed to admit that as of July 2023, I had listened to 5,000 minutes of Les Cowboys, learning quips and phrases that helped me navigate life here, all while thinking about how I would have never discovered them if I had not uprooted myself from English Canada and moved across the border. It is a shame that most Canadians will never experience the Québec culture that the rest of the francosphere is not only consuming but celebrating. 

There’s no doubt that we need less solitude and less polarization in our world right now, especially amongst our fellow Canadians and neighbours. The lyrics of Tremblay and Les Cowboys in their song “Ici-bas” call on us to stay hopeful despite it all: “Tant que mes yeux s’ouvriront/Je chercherai dans l’horizon/La brèche qui s’ouvre sur mes décombres/La lueur dans les jours plus sombres/Tant que mes pieds marcheront/J’avancerai comme un con/Avec l’espoir dans chaque pas/Et ce jusqu’à mon dernier souffle/Ici-bas

(Translation: As long as my eyes are open/I’ll search for the horizon/The crack in my rubble/The light in my darkest days/As long as my feet walk/I’ll walk like a fool/With hope in every step/Until my last breath/Here in this world)

Do yourself a favour and spend some time listening to Canada’s very own Karl Tremblay and Les Cowboys Fringants. Don’t let language or subtitles keep you from discovering the brilliance that is the Québec artistic scene—something that is fêted around the world.

And rest in peace, Karl. This English Canadian thanks you. 

Brian Lee Crowley: Canada is becoming irrelevant on the global stage—and that’s bad news for America

Commentary

On November 14, the Macdonald-Laurier Institute (MLI) launched a new Washington-based initiative: the Center for North American Prosperity and Security or CNAPS (pronounced, ‘synapse’). As a part of the launch event, co-hosted with the Hudson Institute, MLI’s Managing Director, Brian Lee Crowley, delivered remarks outlining the desperate need for an honest, adult conversation between the U.S. and Canada, particularly on national security and energy policy. Brian’s speech is reproduced below with MLI’s permission. 

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am here, as the head of Canada’s most prominent national public policy think tank, to say to you that it is time for a new era in Canada-U.S. relations, one that is no longer based on comfortable myths we repeat to each other endlessly about eternal friendship, shared history, and undefended borders. Foreign policy is founded on interests, not vague sentiments. And America’s attitude toward Canada fails to serve your interests in two ways. 

First, your unfamiliarity with and complacency about Canada expose you to risks here in the North American heartland that you are managing poorly. You can only fix this by seeing Canada as it really is.

Second, that same lack of awareness about Canada blinds you to how Canada can be the solution to some of America’s most pressing problems, but also that Canada will not solve those problems unprompted. You have to speak up. 

In the short time I have available to me I want to give one example of each of these ways in which America is failing to act on its interests with respect to Canada.

Canada’s declining national security is a continental threat

I mentioned that American complacency with respect to Canada is exposing you to risks here in our shared North American heartland. These risks are not primarily economic but revolve around national security.

The last decade has seen a dawning realization here in Washington of the dangers posed by a resurgent China heading a group of authoritarian revisionists that includes Russia and Iran. These countries chafe under a rules-based international order that thwarts their will and imposes moral, diplomatic, economic, and military penalties on violators, such as Russia following its invasion of Ukraine. They long for a return to unrestrained Hobbesian Great Power competition.

The United States has risen impressively, if slowly, to this challenge. It has provided notable levels of support to Ukraine. It has spearheaded and embraced innovative arrangements, such as the “Quad” (India, Japan, Australia, and the United States) and AUKUS (Australia, United Kingdom, and the United States) in the Indo-Pacific, and bilateral defence cooperation agreements and NATO expansion to deter Russian aggression in Europe. Moreover, it has become the world’s largest oil producer and LNG exporter, providing a lifeline to a Europe compelled to reduce its reliance on Russian gas.  

Canada, in marked contrast, is fast becoming an honourary Third World country from a national security point of view. This is due, at least in part, to a benign neglect of Canada by Washington, thereby encouraging the belief in Ottawa that Canada can embrace China and indulge in domestic diaspora politics with impunity.

Our contribution to joint continental defence, via NORAD, is dilapidated while Russian and Chinese advances in hypersonic weapons systems are making North America vulnerable. After the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Canada announced it would spend CAD$4.9 billion over six years to improve our capabilities but progress is glacial. The will to buy desperately needed new weapons systems is lacking, hence the more than a decade it took us to decide to purchase F-35 fighters. When the leaders of Japan and Germany came and begged Canada to make more of its abundant energy resources available, they were sent away empty-handed.

Canada’s military spending is two-thirds of NATO’s target of 2 percent of GDP, and a fraction of the United States’ 3.48 percent. Our prime minister has privately told NATO leaders he has no intention of meeting the target; in fact, the latest spending review by Ottawa has singled out defence for further cuts. Canada’s top soldier, Gen. Wayne Eyre, lamented recently he doubts our capacity to lead a mooted mission to Haiti, our military being already stretched thin by its modest contribution to Ukraine and leadership of the NATO mission in Latvia. One of our top defence experts at MLI, Richard Shimooka, wrote recently

…political decisions have simultaneously over-deployed the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) while neglecting to invest in its capabilities. This has upset the fragile sustainment system, leaving its actual operational capability in tatters. The military has become a token force abroad and is even unlikely to be able to provide for Canada’s own defence in the near future. (emphasis added)

This is the view, not of some attention-seeking but poorly-informed junior congressman, but the sober assessment of one of Canada’s most distinguished defence analysts.

Compare this to the renewed commitment of Australia and the U.K. under AUKUS to buy nuclear submarines, embrace unprecedented levels of technological and command cooperation, and to increase significantly their military spending in consequence. Canada’s response to these shifts has been tepid, slow, and condescending. 

Once upon a time, Canada’s absence might have been explained by the political sensitivities of being seen as too close to the U.S. and the need to manage the independence movement in Quebec. Those traditional explanations are now taking a back seat to revelations of the extent of China’s penetration of Canada’s institutions at every level, including the political parties.

Canada’s security services have been sounding the alarm on China’s growing interference and nefarious activities for decades; indifference and hostility were official Ottawa’s response. Recently leaked intelligence assessments that Chinese Communist Party United Front operatives worked actively to influence the results of elections at every level have finally caused the public to take notice of the CCP’s clandestine activities. 

Canada is now so compromised that Canada’s intelligence-sharing allies, particularly in the “Five Eyes” alliance, quietly wonder if it is safe to share sensitive information with Canada, and I am here to tell you that they are right to have these doubts. 

I could go on, but the second half of today’s event is dedicated to a session where our top China expert, Charles Burton, will discuss with Hudson’s Miles Yu the China problem and its significance in the Canada-U.S. relationship.

To close off this first part of my remarks, let me just say that job one for America is rallying the liberal democracies against the depredations of China-led authoritarians. Yet Washington faces the real possibility that its northern neighbour won’t just fail to shoulder its share of the load, but that its institutions may be so compromised as to be unable to act in the interests of the West. It is time for America to start doing its part to arrest Canada’s slow-motion defection by reversing the neglect, complacency, and dismissiveness that helped to create it. As Prime Minister Justin Trudeau likes to say, better is always possible. But better on the Canada-U.S. front will only happen if both sides get more business-like and demanding in this relationship. 

It is to encourage this adult discussion that my think tank, the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, is here today at the invitation of the Hudson Institute, to launch our new U.S. operation, the Center for North American Prosperity and Security, or CNAPS (“synapse”). Before I go on to the second half of my talk, where I look at how Canada can be the solution to some of America’s problems, let me open a small parenthesis here and tell you a bit about my Institute: 

Now I mentioned at the outset of my talk that there were two things going on in the Canada-U.S. relationship that required U.S. attention but aren’t getting it. I talked about ways in which Canada was engaging in a slow-motion defection from the Western democratic alliance, a policy of which America seems barely aware.

 In fact, Washington’s ambassador in Ottawa has recently been defending the current Canadian government’s shameful and indefensible levels of defence spending. This gives comfort to those happy to see Canada inching out of America’s orbit and frustrates those of us pressing Ottawa to live up to its vital commitments to its democratic friends and allies in an increasingly dark and dangerous world. If America’s representative to Canada doesn’t see a problem but merely repeats the Trudeau government’s talking points, it makes it doubly hard to shake Ottawa out of its dogmatic slumbers.

The importance of oil and gas

But I also promised to talk about the ways in which Canada can, often unbeknownst to America, be the solution to some of its most troubling problems. I’ve only got time for one, so let’s talk energy.

Energy is the lifeblood of our economies, and therefore of our security. By a combination of good luck and capitalist ingenuity, North America is perhaps the most energy-secure continent of all. Many of Canada’s biggest energy companies—such as Enbridge, TC Energy, Cenovus, and Cameco—are truly North American companies, and are betting on our nations continuing to grow and prosper together.  

What many Americans do not realize is the extent to which U.S. energy independence is based on interdependence between our two countries. Canada may leave much to be desired in terms of defence spending and telling friend from adversary on the international stage, but when it comes to our joint energy security, Canada makes an outsized contribution and could do even more.   

The two-way energy trade between Canada and the United States hit a new record last year, reaching $190 billion (USD), almost triple what it was in 2020 in the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic, and beating the last high water mark of $178 billion in 2008. 

Most of this trade—over 80 percent of it—flows from Canada to the United States, primarily in the form of crude oil, but with significant natural gas and electricity exports as well. 

The shale revolution changed the American and global energy landscape. You went from the world’s largest importer to the world’s largest producer of oil and a net exporter. You added an entire Saudi Arabia’s worth of production to your tallies. This was undeniably good for the world and good for consumers, and we do not credit cheap American shale enough with the economic growth and low inflation the world enjoyed throughout most of the 2010s until Russia invaded Ukraine. 

As vital as the shale oil revolution has been for American energy security, however, it does not and cannot change the fact that not all barrels of oil are created equal. For example, the U.S. produces virtually no heavy oil, yet many of this country’s refineries, especially on the Gulf Coast, were set up to refine that kind of oil, and some refined products require heavy oil feedstock. Most of the heavy oil that supplies these refineries comes from Canada, and cannot be replaced by shale oil. That explains both why Canada is far and away the largest exporter of oil to America, AND why America can thank Canada for the fact that it is now a net exporter of oil.

But the shale revolution also created difficulties for Canada. We were used to you wanting every drop that we could produce and never bothered to build any export capacity beyond North America. To this day, and until the Trans Mountain expansion pipeline to the West Coast comes online in a few months, about 96 percent of our oil exports go to the United States. Your main response to the flood of new shale oil was to reduce your oil imports from authoritarian states, while Canada’s share has grown. Today, over 60 percent of your oil imports—about a quarter of your total consumption—come from Canada. About 4.5 million barrels a day: more than twice as much as Mexico, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Colombia combined.

And the volume of oil you need from Canada may well need to grow. Just as shale oil production grew swiftly, it looks like it may decline quickly too. Even if technology prolongs the shale revolution, you still have the problem that shale oil cannot supply a major part of your refining sector. 

All of that gives a special significance to the fact that Canada’s oilsands represent the world’s third-largest reserves, and have hundreds of years of production ahead of them at current rates of decline. Regardless of what happens with shale, American energy independence cannot be threatened so long as it is understood to be North American energy independence. 

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, right, and Canada’s Foreign Minister Melanie Joly walk together after a group photo session during the Group of 7 Foreign Ministers meetings at the Iikura Guest House Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2023, in Tokyo. Eugene Hoshiko, Pool/AP Photo.

Can you be environmentally responsible and still rely on Canadian oil? Absolutely. ALL heavy oil production, including Canada’s, emits a lot of GHGs. Canada’s largest oil companies are working together to achieve net zero by 2050, however, and have credible plans, based on a projected $75-billion investment in carbon capture, nuclear energy, and other strategies, to achieve it. 

But friends tell friends the truth, and I have to tell you that Canadians have noticed that, although you limited Canadian oil imports when President Biden revoked the Keystone XL pipeline’s permit, you recently eased sanctions on Venezuelan oil. Venezuela too produces heavy oil, but its oil production process is literally the dirtiest in the world. And while you thumbed your nose, allegedly on environmental grounds, at Canadian oil, you were quick to embrace oil from one of Latin America’s most odious dictatorships when prices started to rise at the pump and there wasn’t much room left to draw down your strategic oil reserves. 

This mistake will have to be fixed eventually, and when it is, one of the challenges we will have to confront is how to rebuild confidence among North American pipeline companies that cross-border infrastructure will never again be treated as a political football for short-term gain. 

Next, let’s talk natural gas. The shale revolution not only increased oil, but natural gas production as well, and enabled you to become the world’s top exporter of LNG. We hope to finally join the ranks of global LNG exporters in 2025 when the LNG Canada project in Kitimat, BC is finished.

While your production growth has been impressive, here too your success has been underpinned by Canada. The United States still has net imports of about 5 billion cubic feet of Canadian natural gas per day. This is just shy of the amount Germany used to import from Russia through Nordstream 1. This has helped keep your domestic prices reasonable and provided an important domestic supply backstop as more of your own production is shipped abroad.

Energy and global security

Of course, Canada’s energy potential isn’t only of significance to the U.S. I’ve already mentioned that the heads of the governments of both Japan and Germany were in Canada recently pleading with Ottawa to make its plentiful energy available to them. They were sent away empty-handed. Yet the geo-strategic significance of Canada’s energy can hardly be overstated, and not just for America. 

I met not too long ago with the Taiwanese minister of trade on a visit to Taipei and I asked him if he had considered how Canada could contribute to lessening Taiwan’s number one vulnerability. What is our biggest vulnerability, he asked? Why, the fact that so much of its energy comes in ships that must travel from the Middle East, through the Straits of Hormuz, under the shadow of Iranian missiles, pass through pirate-infested waters and the choke point of the Straits of Malacca and then through the recently militarized South China Sea that is increasingly dominated by China. 

Oil and natural gas from Canada, by contrast, would come straight across the North Pacific under the protection of the U.S. fleet. Something analogous could be said about Canadian energy headed to Japan, Europe, and elsewhere. Autocratic regimes from Russia to the Middle East profit both strategically and economically from Western dependence on their oil and gas, yet America and its allies do too little to press Canada to make available the vast energy resources it controls, resources which could change the energy balance of power worldwide. 

Canada-U.S. energy interdependence

I don’t have time to delve into the vital transborder electricity market, where again American consumption floats on a Canadian buffer that will not survive unless we consciously cultivate it. I will, however, look for a moment at nuclear. Nuclear energy is undergoing a renaissance and offers great promise to enhance energy security while lowering GHG emissions. The United States is already the world’s largest producer of nuclear power, while Canada is sixth. Advances in nuclear technology, with fourth-generation reactors, promise to unleash even more potential, with new applications beyond on-grid power generation that can aid in decarbonizing industrial activities or energizing remote mine sites and communities.  

Canada and the United States have a huge opportunity to be leaders of this renaissance, not only because they are incumbents, but because nuclear is still controversial in many parts of Europe and Australia, and we can assume market share while they dither. Here again Canada is or can be the solution to some of America’s challenges. 

Canada is the second largest exporter of uranium and hosts the world’s richest (highest grade) uranium reserves. Unlike many other critical minerals, the extraction and processing of uranium fuel is being done wholly in North America. Although many Western nations have relied on cheap Russian-enriched uranium, the United States is actively working to enhance its enrichment capacity here. Canadian uranium is the feedstock and Canadian companies, capital, and technical know-how are going to be indispensable to this effort.

“It is time for America to start doing its part to arrest Canada’s slow-motion defection.”

With all this interdependence on the energy front, naturally there is vulnerability too. America needs Canada to be your most reliable supplier of energy. But there are headwinds from Ottawa’s direction ahead that risk tripping up the unwary.  

First among these is the federal government’s proposed emissions cap. Ottawa plans to single out the Canadian oil and gas sector for extraordinarily rough treatment, requiring them to cut their emissions by an eye-watering 42 percent below 2019 levels by 2030. 

Although the oil and gas industry has invested heavily in emissions reductions, and GHG intensity per barrel fell by a fifth between 2009 and 2020, there is no way to meet this new target without cutting production. S&P Global has calculated that 1.3 million barrels a day in output will need to be slashed. Because 96 percent of Canadian oil exports currently go to the United States, pretty much the entire amount will have to come out of American supplies. 

The second is the federal government’s proposed Clean Electricity Regulations, the net result of which will be that we will produce less electricity but consume much more of it. It is hard to see how we can continue to export 60 TWh a year to the United States under such circumstances, and I hardly need to spell out to this audience what the likely effects will be on American electricity consumers.   

All of us here today have a shared goal of ensuring that Canada is a reliable supplier of all forms of energy to the United States. It is a cornerstone of our mutual prosperity, stability, and independence from autocratic regimes who do not share our interests. I urge you to pay attention to what Canada is doing on the energy front and to be much more vocal in ensuring that Ottawa’s decisions take full account of their impacts on North American energy security. Because I assure you that is the furthest thing from Ottawa’s mind at the moment, and I fear the consequences for us both.

To conclude, ladies and gentlemen, that, in a nutshell, is why we believe both Canada AND America need my institute’s new Center for North American Prosperity and Security here in Washington. For good or ill, our national interests are deeply intertwined, but America is too preoccupied with domestic politics and global crises to think strategically about how our shared national interests can be pursued together, whether on defence, national security, the Arctic, energy, critical minerals, intellectual property, pharmaceutical and other health care policies or a host of other issues. 

The importance of partnership

Ottawa, on the other hand, finds that American neglect and inattention give it licence to make decisions that affect us all, driven by transactional and transitory domestic political considerations rather than the strategic advantages that can ensure North America continues to be the envy of the world and the bulwark of liberal democracies everywhere.

It has long been the view of my institute that if you want to change the world for the better, you must not only have a better idea, but you have to attract the attention of policymakers, opinion leaders, and voters to that idea. We work tirelessly to make bad public policy unacceptable in Ottawa, but it has now become clear to us that poor policy in Ottawa is often aided and abetted by Washington’s complacency and unwarranted presumption of knowledge about us. Better policy in Ottawa surprisingly often goes hand-in-hand with a Washington more mindful of the potential of our shared continent and willing to speak up about what America needs from the partnership. 

This is no plea for the U.S. to bully Canada. On the contrary, as a former Canadian foreign minister of the Liberal persuasion said to me recently:

“Countries don’t have friends, they have interests. If you want a friend, get a dog. My belief has always been that Canada succeeds as a middle power by being useful…If we are no longer useful in a strategic sense, then we don’t have a lot to offer other than our resources.”

At this point, we seem to take pride in our inability to talk with key global powers, preferring to wag our moralistic finger and lecture others. That, combined with our chronic failure to meet our defence capability requirements makes us of little importance in DC politics.

We at MLI, and now at CNAPS, believe this to be profoundly true. If Canada wants to have real influence in the world, if we want to have our needs met, we have to be useful to the countries that matter, and the United States matters more to us than the rest of the world put together. Being honest with each other and truthful about what we really need is no dilution of our sovereignty, but the condition for both of us to realize our national interests. 

Washington and Ottawa now have a conduit that will fearlessly tell both sides what the other needs, and why, to ensure our shared continent remains a beacon of security and prosperity to the world. That is our promise to you. It is our deepest hope and fondest wish that Canada-U.S. relations will never be the same again.

Thank you.