Canada: The functional country (and not just by default)

At a time in which it seems the world has gone completely mad, the Canada Day holiday stands as a chance to take the day off and catch our breath amid the insanity.

Our two main international cultural reference points (apologies to France) seem completely unmoored. To the south, an orange-skinned, short-fingered grifter is the Republican candidate for president, a spectre who doesn’t so much fan the embers of hate, fear and resentment of non-whites, Muslims and women, as douse them with kerosene and break out the flamethrower.

Across the ocean, David Cameron has single-handedly brought the United Kingdom and the European Union to the brink of destruction. Future barroom fights won’t start over who the greatest British Prime Minister was (experts are divided between Lord Palmerston and Pitt the Elder), but over whether Cameron is the worst British PM or the worst democratic leader in world history.

Given this chaos, it’s weird to realize that Canada – the country without an identity, home of the perpetual constitutional crisis – is currently one of the most functional, well-run and cohesive countries in the world. And it’s not just because everyone else is busy scoring own goals. We have much to be thankful for.

It feels unCanadian to say, but our leaders have, from time to time, shown a bit of wisdom. It’s hard to overstate how lucky Canadians, Mexicans and Americans are that back in the heady, post-Cold War days of the 1990s, our governments explicitly rejected EU-style institutions in favour of the more limited North American Free Trade Agreement. They intuitively understood that nationalism and a desire for democratic politics would make such an arrangement untenable in North America. Now, tragically, it looks like Europe is facing this same reality.

Our democracy is also in pretty good shape. Prudent banking regulation helped us avoid the worst of the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, and thanks in part to opposition pressure on a minority Conservative government to open the fiscal taps, we avoided the crippling austerity that has plagued Europe.

As xenophobia engulfs Europe and much of the United States, we’re also fortunate that we set up our political system to skew pro-immigration. It’s not by chance that the Conservative party had to reject the Reform wing’s more xenophobic elements to gain power; that voters smacked down the Conservatives’ blatantly racist anti-Muslim “barbaric cultural practices” snitch line in the last election; and that this anti-Muslim attitude was attacked so passionately at the Conservatives’ own recent convention. Though our relative isolation makes it very hard for Canada to be swamped by huge numbers of refugees, this shouldn’t detract from multiculturalism’s policy success.

Confederation itself, with its equalization and transfer payments, ensures that Canadians roughly share the fruits and burdens of our labours. Even Quebec separatism is off the front burner, thanks partly to successive governments’ conscious attention Quebecers’ demands.

Not to get too rose-colored, but all this is democracy in action. These things don’t just happen; we built this system. And it’s working.

Finally, there’s the much-maligned Canadian identity. For all of the talk that we’re merely hockey-mad non-Americans, Canadian identity is both deep and durable. Waking up to the Brexit results brought me back to the failed 1995 Quebec referendum. Like the Remain campaign, the Canadian No forces emphasized the scary economic consequences of Quebec separation. As with the Remain campaign, this campaign of fear wasn’t enough.

However, unlike the Remain campaign, the No forces were able – at the very end – to shift into another gear and appeal to Quebecers’ sense of Canadian nationalism. In Britain, there is relatively little European nationalism to which Remain could appeal.

Experts disagree on why No triumphed in 1995, but the fact that the No side could appeal to Canadian nationalism revealed a base level of Canadianness in all provinces and territories that glues us together. Debates about what it means to be Canadian are healthy and normal, but we shouldn’t doubt for an instant that Canadianness is real and mighty.

Of course, Canada is far from being a paradise. Our treatment of Canada’s indigenous population is a disgrace and ongoing humanitarian disaster. We’re not doing enough on climate change. Economic prosperity isn’t shared as widely as it should be. There remains much to do to build a better, more just Canada. But we’ve been doing it for 149 years, and we’ll continue to do so. As they used to say south of the border, the state of the union is strong.

Happy Canada Day.

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