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David Polansky: Canadian citizenship is immensely valuable. Our political elites should act like it


A new Canadian holds a flag as she takes part in a citizenship ceremony on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on April 17, 2019. Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press.

The recent revelations concerning foreign interference among Canada’s elected officials have hit like a bomb—at least among those media organs that could be bothered to report on it. It obviously raises critical concerns about national security, as well as questions about the legitimacy of any political party whose members are found to have been compromised.

But perhaps less obviously, it also raises fundamental questions about the value of Canadian citizenship. For, among much else, this foreign interference is an affront to the prerogatives of the citizenry—chiefly their rights and privileges to elect a government that answers to them and not to others.

More broadly still, however, public comments by the present leadership over the years have reflected a denigration of the meaning of citizenship. Between this and the emergence of diaspora politics as a significant phenomenon, one can see how foreign meddling—and potentially treason—might become normalized.

In light of these developments, it is worth reflecting on what Canadian citizenship means and what it might be worth—for not all the answers are intuitive. Fear not, this isn’t going to be a sentimental paean to maple syrup and portaging and flannel clothing. For, the real value is surprisingly material in nature.

Indeed, Canadian citizenship is an asset of extraordinary value. But it is systematically undervalued by Canada’s political elites, at least partly because they themselves, being economically privileged, hold other assets against it: liquidity, foreign property, often multiple passports, and so on. Consequently, they have been able to favour immigration policies that have diluted the value of citizenship (much as issuing new stock dilutes the ownership of existing shareholders), while at the same time insulating themselves from the downsides. They can retreat from overcrowded public spaces via their private cottages, they can avoid public school problems by paying for private schooling, they can pursue private medical options when ER delays in hospitals become interminable, and so on.

But for the average Canadian, the value of citizenship is historically tied to the possibility of a materially abundant life in a high-functioning country within the bounds of a more or less middle-class household income. The dwindling of this possibility is not just a story of economic mismanagement (though it is that too), but also a dilution of the worth of Canadian citizenship—an asset that ensured a high level of equality for as long as it held its value.

Let’s consider this more concretely. Canada is the world’s second-largest country, with approximately two percent of the earth’s surface. Much of it is inhospitable and unable to support large communities, but that still leaves a good deal of land area available relative to a (historically) small population. And yet over 80 percent of the country remains uninhabited. Much of the rest, however, is sublimely beautiful. Within 100 miles of the U.S. border, one can find an oceanic coastline, towering mountains, deep forests, crystalline lakes, sprawling prairies, and other manner of dramatic scenery that sounds like it came out of a travel guide.

Now, as the saying goes, you can’t put a price on beauty, but then one can readily consult the listings for waterfront properties around Muskoka or West Vancouver to at least get an approximation. Of course, for much of Canada’s modern history, going back to the 16th century, surviving a harsh landscape took priority. But for generations now, property ownership in one of the world’s most beautiful countries has been the patrimony for most of its citizens. Yes, some people always had more money than others and thus larger houses, nicer furnishings, and so on, but these advantages were more quantitative than qualitative.

In any case, home ownership as such was not seen as a luxury good, and even the post-1960s influx of new arrivals seemed only to contribute to the country’s economic growth without threatening to diminish the supply of housing stock, such was the capaciousness of Canada. And—equally important—such was the stringency of Canada’s immigration controls, ensuring that a high level of human capital was maintained across demographic changes in both ethnic composition and total numbers. This was particularly important in light of the generous benefits associated with Canada’s welfare state, including health care, maternity (later, parental) leave, unemployment insurance, and social security. For such a system to remain solvent, it was imperative to have an industrious and law-abiding population that consistently paid in more than it took out—especially in a country that was never as wealthy as its southern neighbour.

This represents more or less the truth of Machiavelli’s insight that liberality always depends upon parsimony. In Canada’s case, we would say that the liberality or generosity of its welfare state relied upon the parsimoniousness of its immigration regime. In a wide world of people who might wish to immigrate to Canada, only those expected to contribute to rather than draw on the public fisc were considered, and this approach held even as immigrant populations became increasingly multicultural and multiethnic (with the orientation of origin countries shifting southward and eastward over time).

And housing is only the most pressing of a host of issues impacted by the government’s lack of policy restraint. Canada maintains a primary system of public education from K-12, taxing its residents accordingly. The quality of that education and the nature of student experience is greatly impacted by externalities beyond the reach of any school board. The point is that what was once an assumed feature of life in a well-governed region or municipality (access to decent public education) emerges as a privilege under constrained conditions.

It is only under such conditions that one can understand citizenship as an asset in itself—one that has become depreciated through misguided public policies. And it is only in light of that depreciation that certain underlying inequalities are more starkly revealed. It is not that inequality didn’t previously exist, but as access to such schools and such neighbourhoods is placed under competitive pressure, the privileges that accrue to the rich—allowing them to retain such access under challenging conditions—become more salient as well.

And this dynamic goes both ways: just as the wealthiest Canadian can pay out of pocket for treatment at the Mayo Clinic rather than assume a spot on the interminable waiting list for surgery, so too well-heeled non-Canadians throughout the world have found in Canada, a stable country with an ever-rising real estate market, a congenial place to park their capital. In both cases, wealthy individuals are able to transcend national boundaries to their advantage; and in both cases, the average Canadian loses, priced out of the housing market and stuck relying on dwindling public services.

The fact that all those born in Canada enjoy the privileged status of citizenship—and it is a privilege, insofar as no one deserves to be born in one place over another—makes many uncomfortable. Downplaying its significance has lately become a habit to which elites especially are prone. Nonetheless, the government of Canada is obligated as a matter of legitimacy to uphold the rights and interests of actual Canadians over those of the rest of the human race. And doing so is in its way an egalitarian measure—for it ensures that the associated benefits are enjoyed by all of its citizens, not just the wealthiest. Some might still call this unfair, but it’s a lot fairer than the alternatives.

J.D.M. Stewart: I believe in Canada. You should too, Class of 2024


Paddler Gus Vanboxtel celebrates Canada Day on the waters of Bass Lake in central Ontario, July 1, 2021. Fred Thornhill/The Canadian Press.

J.D.M. Stewart taught high school history, among other subjects, for thirty years in Montreal, Panama City, and Toronto. This is the graduation address he would give to his students if the opportunity presented itself. 

Students, parents and guardians, fellow teachers. Thank you so much for giving me the opportunity to address you, the graduating class of 2024. It is a special privilege for me to speak today as I move on from teaching after thirty years. I cannot think of a greater honour than to be able to be here with you.

It may not come as a surprise that in my final opportunity to be with you I want to talk mostly about one thing: Canada. You have heard me say in the classroom that Wilfrid Laurier, our first francophone prime minister, once said “Canada has been the inspiration of my life.” That has been a guiding principle for me throughout my career as a teacher—and actually before it as well.

Let me tell you why.

There has been a sentiment lurking about during your years in school positing the idea that Canada is a country not worth celebrating; that Canada should feel embarrassed by its history; that Canada is a country without an identity. I know one young person who said last year that she was afraid to wear her “Canada” t-shirt on July 1 for fear of being ridiculed. I felt this was a sad consequence for a country that has been the envy of the world.

Now, I know where some of this is coming from. Our prime minister has apologized repeatedly for numerous mistakes in Canadian history. It comes from media coverage of the reckless tearing down of statues of the country’s first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, without checking the facts. It comes from those who say we should play down our military history and give it less attention in the classroom; and it comes from the crowd of people who feel that the only way forward for Canada is to find all of the things at which Canada has failed. This view is not the Canada that is celebrated in the world.

Take what happened last year in our own Parliament. Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Union, spoke to a joint session of the House of Commons and Senate. Here is what she said:

Tens of thousands [Canadians] lost their lives in the trenches of Belgium, in the heat of Sicily and on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day…The united democracies freed us from dictatorship. Thus, we owe our democracy also to you, the people of Canada. And we will be forever grateful for the sacrifice your parents and grandparents made, and for the invaluable gift of freedom.

That is high praise. Dr. von der Leyen gets it. She also reminded us that “You, the people of Canada, have built this country as a community that is open to all, beyond ethnicity, language or religion. A true community of values.”

I believe in Canada the way the president of the EU does. My view is not that different from Wilfrid Laurier’s, in fact. You have learned during your years at school that there have been moments in Canadian history that we wish had been different. That is perfectly normal and understandable. But Laurier said, “We cannot unmake the history of the past.” Then, I feel like he was speaking directly to you, Class of 2024, even though he spoke the following words in 1902:

“As to the history of the future, I hope it will continue to be what it is today, that is prosperity, cordiality, good fellowship, and goodwill amongst those whose privilege it is to be inhabitants of this good land of Canada.”

Of course, it will only be that way if you all play your part.

Enough about Canada—at least for now. I know that you are moving into a challenging world. One in which there is misinformation and disinformation; worries about owning a home one day; climate change; war. This is a difficult moment for everyone. But there are some universal truths that will stand you in good stead while you continue your education. When I dealt with many of you who worried about your marks, I always counselled that as hard as it may be to hear, the marks you get in high school will not mean anything in the future. What is more important is to be a good person. Do your colleagues want to work with you on a team? Do you smile when interacting with people? Are you respectful? Do you use their names in conversation? I even have a note card from a student who graduated a few years back who told me how important this lesson was.

I also encourage you to speak up with confidence. Use your voice. Speak up when you hear something inappropriate. Speak up when you disagree. Many of you, I know, have felt it is better to be silent than to offer your opinion for fear of being judged. That is not the kind of society we want. If there are no debates on issues of the day, how will we make a better country? Listen to others and ask others to listen to you. Seek common ground. That may sound difficult, but the more you try to find common ground, the more others will, too.

I want to conclude by circling back to Canada. Some years ago there was a well-known British Columbia journalist named Bruce Hutchison. Very famous in his day. In 1942 he wrote a book called The Unknown Country, where he said, “No one knows my country, neither the stranger nor its own sons.” You have a great future ahead of you and many of you will travel. But make part of that travel discovering what Canada is about. This country is vast and the only way for all of us to understand each other better is to meet with people from different parts of this great Dominion. When Laurier went to western Canada for the first time he said upon his return, “I left home a Canadian to the core. I return ten times more a Canadian.” Maybe you will feel the same way.

In the end, all of this is up to you. You are the agent of your own success. You will decide how to spend your time. Each of you can make your own difference in your own community, in your own chosen profession. Canada actually relies on all of you to continue working to make it the best country it can be. And knowing something about how we got here is essential. You may not know this, but the motto of the Order of Canada, the country’s highest civilian honour, is Desiderantes Meliorem Patriam: They Desire a Better Country.

In my final words to you as a teacher, I urge you to be part of the national project that is Canada. Make it a better country.