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Steve Lafleur: It’s time to stop importing American debates, Canada. We’ve got our own country to run

Commentary

For the love of God, stop uncritically importing American political debates

Well, it’s here. 2024. U.S. election year. Which means that, regrettably, we’re going to be talking a lot more about Donald Trump—whether it’s because his legal troubles get the better of him, or he finds his way back into the White House. Maybe both. It’s almost too depressing to contemplate, but here we are. 

This has wide-ranging implications for Canada, and the world at large. The world will be watching—particularly America’s adversaries. Canada, Europe, and our allies need contingency plans in case America turns its back on the world.

I’m not here to talk about the geopolitical implications of letting Vladimir Putin walk through Europe, or the prospect of our closest ally potentially tearing itself apart over a geriatric nepo baby with a severe allergy to the law. I’m getting off track here.

Let’s try this again. Canadians will be rightly fixated on the American election. Who can blame us? But our cultural commonalities with the United States often make it tempting to uncritically import American debate. We’ll need to try even harder than usual to avoid that. No good comes of it. 

Canada is, in many respects, a collection of bi-national regional political cultures overlayed by a loose national culture. Vancouver is basically Seattle with Canadian characteristics, for instance. We often have as much in common with our regional neighbours south of the border as we do with Canadians on the other side of the country. 

With a population largely strewn across the American border, an economy oriented towards southern exports, and a media ecosystem filled with American content, it’s easy to forget that Canada is its own country with distinct challenges, opportunities, and history. There isn’t always an off-the-shelf American policy solution that we can just slap a maple leaf on.

This may seem painfully obvious, but Canadian politicians have a long history of seemingly forgetting which side of the border we’re on. And it’s not getting any better. Whether it’s Danielle Smith fawning over Ron DeSantis or Justin Trudeau conflating Pierre Poilievre and Donald Trump, all indications are that our political class wants to keep cosplaying American politics. 

Canadians should demand better. We deserve our own policy debates focused on actual Canadian issues. It’s up to us to ask for it.

Take immigration, for instance. It’s hard to think of two immigration systems as different as Canada’s and the United States’. Canada has very high levels of legal immigration focused on highly skilled immigrants. Our biggest immigration problem is that we haven’t built enough houses to accommodate people. By contrast, America has relatively low levels of legal immigration, but a porous southern border that people cross through for a chance to pick crops or clean hotel rooms. 

Canada has high but selective immigration; America has low but chaotic immigration. It’s understandable that irregular crossing sucks up a lot of the political oxygen stateside, but it’s a relatively niche topic here. Frankly, temporary foreign workers are a bigger political challenge in Canada than illegal immigration (specifically, housing them). Different countries, different issues.

Let’s take another thorny example: diversity. Canada is a far more multicultural country than the United States. While large American cities like New York or even Houston have very diverse populations, there are vast swaths of the country that are largely white and Black, with a smattering of Latinos. This has an enormous impact on discussions of diversity—particularly when it comes to religion. If you encounter Muslims on a regular basis, it’s hard to fearmonger about them. There’s a reason why the “Muslim ban” happened in America, not Canada. 

The fact that diversity in Canada looks different than in the United States isn’t merely a statistical curiosity. It has implications for some of the cultural debates that are increasingly monopolizing our political discourse. 

Take the term BIPOC, for instance. It’s a term often used in American progressive circles that has managed to seep through the border. BIPOC—Black, Indigenous, People of Color—is a very specific American term. Note the order of the terms. Slavery was America’s greatest sin. Racial segregation persisted until the 1960s. Discrimination continues to this day. Of course, the historical treatment of American Indigenous People wasn’t much better. But sharing an acronym isn’t entirely unreasonable. 

In Canada, it’s not reasonable. The frequency, severity, and persistence of mistreatment of Indigenous Peoples is Canada’s most shameful legacy. Lumping Indigenous issues in with broader racial issues in Canada isn’t just silly, but insulting. Reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples is one of the most important tasks facing the country. Indigenous issues deserve a more prominent role than the second letter of an acronym. 

Finally, there’s guns. A lot of them if you’re on the American side, but not so much here (unless you’re talking about farm rifles). Canada’s cities, contrary to the rhetoric, are much safer than American cities. The fact that we don’t have yahoos walking around with semi-automatic weapons probably helps. Nevertheless, firearms policy gets a surprising amount of oxygen on both sides of the political spectrum, even if it isn’t kitchen table talk. Conservatives take up gun rights issues to appease rural elements of their base, and Liberals use guns as a wedge issue. Despite the very different realities of firearms policy in Canada and America, sometimes it sounds like our politicians live a few hundred miles south. That isn’t to say there isn’t room for debate about firearms policy. But Canadian politicians should not make policy decisions based on American news stories, nor should they adopt gun rights rhetoric. Uncritically importing American gun debates isn’t going to make our policies smarter. It will almost certainly make them dumber.

Look, I’m not trying to dump on Americans here. For all its faults, America is one of the greatest countries on earth. They’ve led the peaceful post-war international order since the end of the Second World War. I desperately want America to continue doing so. But America is a unique country with a very different political, social, and historical context. Uncritically echoing American talking points doesn’t enrich our political discourse. Quite the opposite. We can, and should, think for ourselves. 

So, now that we’re in the backstretch of the white-knuckle ride to the 2024 election, Canadians need to be especially on guard against allowing the increasingly poisonous American political discourse to pollute our debates. By all means, tune in to the most bewildering show on earth. But, please, remember that we’re just viewers. We’ve got our own country to run. Let’s try to focus on that.

Antony Anderson: Happy Birthday Sir John A. Macdonald—warts and all

Commentary

Canadians’ ignorance of our own history is a pervasive and regrettable problem. The Hub is pleased to play a small part in attempting to turn this tide by presenting a weekly column from author and historian Antony Anderson on the week that was in Canadian history.

January 10 or 11, 1815: Sir John A. Macdonald’s birthday

“It may be said without any exaggeration whatever that the life of Sir John Macdonald, from the date he entered Parliament, is the history of Canada.”

Wilfrid Laurier, House of Commons, June 8, 1891

Here’s a radical thought in this day and age: I remain in awe of this country. Here’s another radical thought: I remain in awe of Macdonald’s work and even the man himself. I see all his flaws and his failings. They’re right out there. Some are appalling. They reflect the larger tapestry of the world that shaped him. However, I was never looking for a saint in my search through history to understand this country, so, like I say, I remain in awe.  

He was born in Glasgow, Scotland in 1815 though we’re not sure of the day, possibly the 10th of January (as noted in a birth registry), possibly the 11th of January (as recorded by his father). It seems right that Canada’s first prime minister should be born somewhere else, a permanent note to the collective self that we Canadians have all, at some point, come from away. So in his birth, Macdonald is the embodiment of one of our defining ideas: we are the immigrant nation ever remade, and he is the immigrant so central to that remaking.  

When I think of Macdonald, I imagine the five-year-old boy, standing on the swaying deck of a crowded passenger ship, staring out at the endless ocean of fears and dreams, enduring six weeks at sea, his safe arrival hanging by thin threads, the captain, the crew, the weather. He was on that ship because his father, a failed shopkeeper, had run out of chances at home and decided to gamble on a remote cluster of scattered, disconnected British colonies with little in common and much to divide them. The family reached Quebec City and then embarked on another hazardous journey by river to Kingston in what was then Upper Canada—really a Scottish outpost. The tragic irony in this epic narrative is that these waves of desperate newcomers striving for more justice and hope were generating such a terrible injustice for the Indigenous nations they displaced.  

Macdonald’s parents gave their only surviving son the best education they could afford, and surely he was the fulfillment of all their wild dreams. He became a lawyer, established his own practice, made a name, and made his money in land deals and railway investments. He went into politics, swayed the crowds with his humour and savvy, and kept winning elections. Leaving behind local politics for the larger canvas of nation-building, he revealed that he could combine the visionary and the pragmatic. 

With friends and foes, he displayed a vulnerable human touch perhaps because his life was marked by so much heartbreak: a younger brother struck and somehow killed by a possibly drunken servant; a frail, bedridden first wife who succumbed to her many maladies after 14 years; a first son who died after 13 months; a daughter born in his second marriage, profoundly disabled who remained essentially a child her whole life. His second wife recalled him in his old age lovingly rummaging through the daughter’s box of toys, lost in his memories. His alcoholism at times overwhelmed him. 

Macdonald was of course caught up in some of the hateful thinking of his time, as we ourselves are caught up in our own. He said absolutely appalling things about the Chinese living in Canada at the time. He expected, indeed, hoped Indigenous Peoples would become good British subjects because he thought that was the best thing to be. He was, however, able to transcend some of this conventional thinking, perhaps most brilliantly with the central fact of Canadian politics. 

Macdonald came from a small, conquered nation that had endured invasion and imperialism and which then pivoted to co-exist and eventually flourish within a union of other kingdoms. Biographer Richard Gwyn has argued that this frame of view equipped Macdonald to better understand the demands and anxieties emanating from another conquered nation, Quebec. To appreciate Macdonald’s triumph on this point, one only has to behold George Brown, an influential newspaper editor, a father of Confederation, and a self-assured and virulent anti-French bigot. Even when he was arguing for the right reform, Brown’s pious stridency was toxic to the greater good. Hence Macdonald’s wise quip that Canadians preferred him drunk to George Brown sober. 

Confederation wasn’t Macdonald’s idea or even his great passion at first, but he grasped its potential, joined the incoming tide, and became a dominant creative force at the constitutional conferences that took place between 1864 and 1866, where he dug into the details and is thought to have authored most of the resolutions. The paper trail is frustratingly thin so we will never know the real extent of his contributions or the exaggerations. I suspect some of his greatest work was done informally, off-stage, where he used his formidable gifts of persuasion to shape essential compromises.

Then, as prime minister, he worked political magic to maintain the tenuous confederation of solitudes against improbable odds, anchored in his accommodations and tolerance with Quebec. In so doing, he laid the foundation for this, one of the world’s oldest and most inclusive democracies. Thanks to Macdonald’s work with Quebec, the common ground in this country has always become more and more expansive. That was his gift to us. 

As to his crimes or sins or limitations (however you wish to frame them), which were shared by the vast majority of his contemporaries, and which, no question, inflicted terrible harm and cultural devastation for the Indigenous peoples on this land, it is for the current generation of Canadians and no doubt the next to heal and reconcile that ongoing personal and communal anguish. Macdonald and his Canada could only see as far as they could. The same applies to us.