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History Table of Contents
1998 Summer Conference
Summer Conference 1998
Rethinking Canada for the 21st Century

An historic perspective: Canada responding to the challenges
of the new century

Douglas Owram, Vice-President (Academic),
University of Alberta

When I was asked to predict the future my wife laughed.

I was the guy sitting around the table about a year ago with our mutual fund adviser and my wife. I kept saying, no, I have a good feeling about the Asian market. Let’s stay in it.

Fortunately, the two of them outvoted me and we pulled some of our money out. I think that shows my instincts for the future.

Historians are not notoriously good at predicting the future. They’re much better at predicting the past because nobody can go back and check on what they said.

Today, what I want to do is look at the relationship in the broadest historical terms between public policy on the one side and the sense of national identity on the other.

I want to try and bring that historical context forward and to, with some trepidation, project it to the future.

Overall in looking back at the last couple of days of the conference and trying to fit all of this into what’s happened, I’d have to say that I’m more pessimistic than Paul Martin is. In some ways, I’m more pessimistic than when I conceived of this topic which scares me a little.

Also, if there’s a paper I agree with more than any other — or which fits this more — it’s Thomas Courchene’s paper which is also scary.

It’s the first time I’ve ever agreed with Thomas Courchene on anything.

So, two questions to put:

  • What will it mean to be Canadian in the coming decades?
  • What is the primary direction and goal of public policy likely to be in the coming decades?

My intention is to try and link those two things in the belief that public policy shapes the sense of Canadian identity, or at least it has in the past.

Let me start with the second question, the public policy thing, and do one of these quick mega interpretations of the last century.

If you start about a century ago or anytime after Confederation through to the First World War the popular image of the Canadian government’s role is one of laissez faire; sort of the small state, not very involved in people’s lives, that Victorian notion.

But actually the state was in some ways quite interventionist.

First of all in the areas of moral order. At the provincial level and at the federal level there were a whole series of laws and regulations which controlled things like behaviour on the Sabbath; you could not go to a store, you could not go to a movie. Sabbath rules were very strict.

There was, of course, the temperance movement leading into the Prohibition movement in which the state, both at the provincial and eventually at the federal level, regulated the drinking of alcohol and eventually outlawed it in most of Canada.

And, of course, in areas of sexual conduct there was a whole series of regulations around activity, censorship and, of course, divorce was very strictly controlled.

So the state was at the moral level very much involved.

At the economic level it was also involved.

I will not, I promise, give you a history of tariff policy and regurgitate the national policy, something which my students can go glaze over in one second when I start, but sufficient to remind you who’ve had Canadian history of the East-West trade access that was fostered deliberately by government in the late 19th century through the use of tariffs, through subsidization of railway projects, such as the CPR, and others.

The idea is to try to link the country, to promote national development, partly by excluding competition through tariffs [and] partly by subsidizing internal infrastructure.

And that’s a consistent policy in Canadian government, I would argue, from Confederation, that is before the official declaration of the national policy, through to the end of World War I.

So, the CPR, the tariffs and the canal system; you have a state that, while small in Ottawa, nevertheless has a significant role to play in shaping the direction of economic development.

So, phase one: interventionist morally and with this East-West trade access an economic policy.

The second phase comes after World War I and really runs to the 1970s.

And it has two trends:

You see the state pulling back from moral control. It’s an incremental process. The first collapse is in Prohibition, which reaches a peak at the end of World War I. And through the 1920s you see the gradual withdrawal of Prohibition province by province. Then, for the next 30 years a gradually loosening of liquor rules in terms of hours and other things.

Those of you who are as old as me will remember you actually had to sign your name when you went in to buy a bottle of liquor at the LCBO in Ontario not that many years ago. In the final years us students of the ‘60s used to write Napoleon Bonaparte, or something just to see if the civil service ever actually checked who we were. Of course, they didn’t.

Likewise laws around the Sabbath kind of collapsed bit by bit, until Alberta went to Sunday shopping in the 1970s. Ontario was later...sometime in the early ‘90s you went to full-blown Sunday shopping. So that, too, happened.

And, of course, legislation around sexual order diminished, until the dramatic break with it in 1968 when Trudeau said the state has no place in the bedrooms of the nation.

There was a general withdrawal from moral control through this period.

Economically, you have a shift from an emphasis on a nationalist economic policy with East-West linkage to issues of social equity and economic management.

I will not get into this history. It’s a long one, but let me throw out a few Acts just as a reminder. The Bank of Canada’s creation in 1933, the beginning of old age pensions goes back to 1927 with subsequent revisions forward; unemployment insurance, 1940; the baby bonus 1945. After the war you have equalization payments, medicare and a whole series of other measures, all of which are focussed at the issues of a safety net, a redistribution of income and a protection of the weaker members of society.

Along with this goes a tremendous faith in Keynesian economics. It’s not that the state fully used Keynesian economics, but they had a faith in it even if they didn’t use it.

And it got to the point where sort of the notion was that economic theory was now over. It had been completed, people understood economics...they just had to look to Keynes. Not that anyone could actually understand Keynes, for that matter, but it was a theory.

This led, because of the requirements of macro-economic management [and] because of the tremendous enlarged programs, to the phenomenal growth of government through the ‘50s and ‘60s. The civil service just kept expanding at a tremendous rate.

One thing that struck, I might say as an aside, as we were talking about the future of the younger generation [was that] for my generation, that is people who were baby boomers [and] went to university in the ‘60s, if I look back on my cohorts, most of us, in one way or another, went into the public or near-public sector. We went into universities, or government or health care or something like that.

I don’t think that’s going to the future for my daughter. The private sector is where the growth continues now. In the ‘60s and ‘70s it was the public sector.

The point is big government went with this era.

The whole thing began to peter out and lose direction through the ‘70s and into the ‘80s. We’ve talked a lot about deficits, of course, as the issue behind this. I think one of the underrated things that we’ll look on 20 years from now as we begin to write the histories of this and say is [did] the inflation of the ‘70s undermine much of confidence in what was going on.

You had, if you’ll remember, stagflation; that is low growth, high inflation. That can’t happen, according to Keynesian economics; it can’t happen in a successfully managed economy. Yet, it did.

So, then you move into phase three.

We haven’t defined phase three yet, because it’s still going on. I would call it, maybe, the gospel of market wealth; the notion that you have to rely on capitalism to build overall wealth and that will give you the room to then apply social change.

As I say, it’s still evolving. But it has certain characteristics. We’ve heard much about these at the conference the last few days. Internationalization of markets is one; NAFTA, of course, being the Canadian version of that; a shift from the emphasis on social redistribution of wealth to fiscal integrity and overall wealth creation.

The issues of social control, interestingly, are more ambiguous. I’m not quite sure whether the state’s moving back into an interventionist stage, or not. In some ways, for example, tobacco replicates Prohibition of a century ago — the crusade against tobacco.

Sexual conduct issues are an issue of concern, but in a different way. It’s really not now what you do, but it’s the issue of consent and defining consent and making sure harassment and other things are removed. It’s still there, but it’s there in [a] different form.

But, as others have said, the most striking public policy trend in the industrialized world in this most recent phase is this movement of powers, especially of national powers, downward and upward.

We’ve mentioned it in NAFTA but, of course, the most striking example is the European Union. We have other examples in minor ways in the World Court, the aggressive role of the United Nations in various activities and so on.

I want you to keep that kind of transfer of powers in issue, because what I’d like to do now is move to the second question, which is national identity and again go through these phases and try to show the links between them.

Back a century ago again.

Phase one. There’s no doubt, Canada was a British nation; not in the sense that we were a colony, although there was aspects of being a colony. But in terms of the national psyche, in terms of the official rhetoric, in terms of the fact that majority of the population was Anglo-Celtic in background.

This had some advantages. First of all, it gave Canadians a young Dominion, clear roots in a culture with a long history, with a sense of values and so on. You could trace yourself back to the Magna Carta, the Common Law, the Parliamentary tradition, the glories of Sir Francis Drake, for that matter, were all part of the Canadian heritage.

As Carl Berger put it in his 1970 book, it gave us a sense of power to be involved with the biggest Empire in the world.

It also had a very practical meaning for Canadians on the North American continent. It was the counter-weight to the American fault. This is familiar to anyone who’s done Canadian history. It gave us a sense of identity that made us different than the Americans, but equally important in the 19th century it gave us a military power that would protect us as the Americans went through their various expansionist phases. And, therefore, we did not suffer the removal of territory in the same way that Mexico did with Texas or California.

But, there were prices to be paid.

First of all, of course, French-Canadians could not easily be incorporated into the Brittanic Empire. Various writers in favour of the British Empire liked to try to find ways to talk about the Norman invasion and how we were all one, but it didn’t ring true. It was a British tradition and French Canada was being left out.

Secondly, as we grew and as we became more aware of ourselves as Canadians the simple fact was the centre of this culture, this British culture, would always be some place else. It’s not [that] the British were hanging on to power. They were actually very good at transferring power as we wanted it. It was usually us saying, we don’t want it because we can’t figure out what to do with it and can’t resolve our Constitutional issues around it.

That’s actually recent history, as well as distant history.

But the simple fact is it would always mean that London would be the centre of our identity. And that was increasingly unacceptable to Canadians.

And then, of course, the price began to show in the Boer War initially, but especially in World War I. The cost of being British was fighting in Europe. The cost of being British was the strain on national unity around the conscription crisis in 1917.

And so by the 1920s phase one is coming to an end. There’s a residue that lasts for a long time in the hearts of many people, but we move into phase two.

And phase two, from the 1920s I would say to the early 1960s — but let’s for fun make it 1967 — is the phase of the quest for Canadian nationalism.

Harold Innis made one of those famous quotes that’s used over and over again in a 1949 speech to a British university.

He said: Canada has moved from colony to nation to colony.

The question I always put to my students is: we know the first colony was British and the second colony is this fear of Americanization. When we’re we a nation?

My students always look back at me in a sort of puzzled way.

The answer is we can’t actually find a date when we were a nation. I’m tempted to pick some January day when nobody noticed this or something.

The point I’m trying make, nonetheless, is that the goal of this period, for about 40 some years, was clearly the development of independence and a national sense of being a Canadian.

You see this in everything from the creation of the CBC through to the creation of a new flag. You see it in cultural effervescence and the celebration of the Group of Seven. You see it in the creation of an infrastructure like the Canada Council. You see it in the historical writings and, for example, the colonies and nations school which became prevalent after World War II.

It was hoped Canada could create a sense of independence nationhood in this period.

Now, it had advantages. First of all, it seemed "a natural;" a natural progress from colony to nation. And it seemed to fit well, especially with our experiences both in World War I and World War II where we were playing a larger part on the world stage.

And, most importantly, it promised an identity — if we could find it — that would encompass all Canadians, not just Anglo-Celtic Canadians.

As Donald Creighton used to like to remind us every couple of weeks, it did not differentiate us from the United States very clearly and it therefore opened us to vulnerability from south of the border and accultural assimilation.

Secondly, there was still an element of French-Canadian nationalists who said basically, this is very nice, but it doesn’t fulfill our aspirations; our aspirations are somewhat different than a new flag and taking the Royal mail box symbols off. We want an independent nation.

That continued to be a moving target that the federal government could never quite resolve. And, of course, for some Canadians — English Canadians, in particular — there was a sense of abandonment.

We saw this very clearly during the flag debate. For older Canadians, that new flag was a betrayal of what they saw as a patriotic issue, the Red Ensign or the Union Jack. And it may have seemed anachronistic to those who were younger at the time; nevertheless it was a real loss to them at the time.

Finally, I think too much of this quest, looking at it historically, tended to be negative; tended to be saying, we’re not British. We’re not sure what we are, but we’re not British. And that, of course, was a residue of the colonial era.

In the 1960s a new definition began to emerge. It evolved out of Lester Pearson and some of the internationalism that came around in the post-War years and what Diefenbaker liked to call the Pearsonalities around External Affairs; that is that cadre of civil servants who were very bright, very intelligent and very national. It evolved out of Pierre Trudeau and some his thinking around nationalist issues and intellectuals like Ramsay Cook, who became very much linked into this.

And it was a kind of functionalist definition of what Canada was. Basically, in the ‘60s, more and more government policy and government rhetoric, as well as intellectual rhetoric, said that Canada deserved respect and loyalty not as a repository of a particular ethnic culture, not because of emotion at all, but because the state was just, humane and efficient in meeting needs.

It’s no accident that this came at the time of the greatest growth of government. The articulation of this statement by both Cook and Trudeau comes almost simultaneous with the creation of medicare. Something that Maude Barlow instinctively senses when she tries to resist some of the dismantling of this notion later.

The advantage of this?

First of all it’s an explicit challenge to any sort of ethnic tribalism or nationalism in Quebec. It’s saying, that’s ridiculous, it’s old-fashioned, it’s antiquated. And that, of course, [is] Trudeau’s position all the way through. Let’s have a rational state, was his comment.

As well, it had another advantage. It accommodated well to a diversifying ethnic base. After World War II, of course, you had new waves of immigration from Italians first of all, then Hungarians after 1956 and beginning in the ‘60s immigration really begins to open as the laws change. And this kind of statement about an efficient, humane, non-ethnic society fits well with that kind of trend.

So, once again identity fits national policy. Something we have seen previously in the creation of an infrastructure around national identity, previously the East-West trade links with Metropolis in London.

The disadvantage, of course, and one that Trudeau had to struggle with; one that never got fully resolved, was it doesn’t exactly pull at the heart strings.

In fact, the whole idea is not to pull at the heart strings. Trudeau didn’t like to pull at the heart strings. He liked to talk about a rationalist state.

But, the trouble is — if you go that Kennedy phrase, "ask not what your country can do for you" — you can’t put that kind of question in this kind of framework.

In fact, it’s almost asking the opposite: you judge your country by what it delivers you.

And if it doesn’t deliver enough to you, well what’s the implication; that you walk away from it?

In a strange way in the 1960s and ‘70s, a question was put that was part of a debate between Goldwin Smith and George Grant back in the 19th century, when Goldwin Smith argued we should join the United States because it was more prosperous. George Grant, who was principal of Queen’s [University] at the time, said that we would change our country like an old coat is inconceivable.

In a way that dilemma is what happens in this functionalist notion.

And these disadvantages became explicit as public policy shifted away from a growing state to an issue of deficit fighting and market dependency.

I think the impact was immediate. I think it had an impact on the last referendum, not because of the endless back and forth between Quebec nationalists and the federal government about whether there was an overall net gain or loss in the transfer payments, but because what the federal government could not promise down the road was a continuously expanding state that would continually give you new programs.

It could not promise that anymore, because it didn’t have that capacity. I think it has had a tremendous impact on the political parties.

We have the most extreme regionalization in Canadian political history at least since the 1930s and maybe in all of history.

Just to remind you, in 1997 the last federal election, no federal party gained a majority vote in a majority of provinces.

The Liberals did in four provinces, the reform in three, the PCs in two and, of course, the Bloc in one. So we have an extremely regionalized system right now, which I think reflects the lack of a national sense of direction; a sense that we don’t quite know where the relationship between public policy and national identity fit.

So, at the end of the 20th century we face two immediate challenges:

  • One: if functionalism was ever sufficient, it’s an increasingly difficult card to play. I don’t think we can use it as the definition of Canadianism in the future.
  • Two: in general terms the relevance of federal policy to the sense of national identity I think is weaker than it has been in the last 100 years.

And I know that’s an extreme statement.

That’s where I can’t share Paul Martin’s optimism, because I’m not quite sure what the role of the federal government is in this evolving state.

And this may be especially true, because if a historian steps back and looks at the nation state and you look at everything from the European Union through the Hong Kong, one-nation, two-systems policy, through the world courts, through a number of other activities, what you see is a weakening of the national role in favour of transnational and local roles.

That’s nothing new. We’ve heard that in a number of other talks, but given that the stress on the federal government to give away power — either to international bodies or to local bodies — is tremendous. And if they don’t have a clear role defined for themselves about what they’re going to do, the desire to give away or the temptation to give away to satisfy other needs will be greater.

So, this raises complex possibilities.

On the positive side. If we are moving into a world of transnational states, Canada is an internationalist nation. It has been moving in that direction since World War II and it is well positioned in some ways on the international stage.

Two: multiculturalism, a policy first enunciated in the 1970s with lack of clarity but evolving into something significant over the next few years, positions us well in a global world. It’s a statement that Canada is not an ethnic term. It is a statement that Canada can be something that involves all people and can that can reach out into an international community.

Three: if we weaken this kind of national sovereignty idea, policy accommodation in a number of areas becomes simpler. For example, if we aren’t as concerned about the issue of national sovereignty, or what it means, or where power resides, then it might be easier to give some self-government to the natives. That sounds confusing in terms of power control, but may fit the evolving trend of a looser system of national states. It may even lead down the road to asymmetrical federalism, although I must admit personally I still find asymmetrical federalism tricky. Maybe that’s just my Western roots coming out.

But, there are all sorts of positive possibilities.

On the negative side is the United States. I don’t mean that as a reflection on the Americans. I simply mean if there’s one nation in the whole Western world that’s not likely to let go of the traditional concept of nationalism, it’s going to be the Americans.

After all, the creation of their nation was one of the defining moments of the modern nation state. And as a great power and as a patriotic power, they are not likely to give up their own institutions to transnational bodies. They’ve already shown that in a number of ways. Whether again to use the World Court example, or others, they are very reluctant to let go of autonomy.

So, how can we move to start letting go of powers, when we have next to us a huge country that is going to be thinking in terms of traditional national state terms.

Once again, we may just be creating a power vacuum that will lead us southward into increasing American influence. Of course, that’s a debate that’s been going on ever since we won the War of 1812, but I won’t go on with that.

Most importantly, we come back to my main point and my final point.

Does the federal government have a sufficient role in this future? Is there a danger that it will become so weak that in a sense centrifugal forces will take over and we’ll gradually disintegrate?

We can’t keep handing downward and upward and expect to compete with transnational and local forces for public attention, unless we have some clearly defined role for the federal government.

A recent poll — and I don’t have it in front of me, so I’m doing this from memory — I remember reading a recent poll done in the last 18 months in which Canadians were surveyed about their governments and what government they had thought of first when they thought of government. In nine out of 10 provinces, they thought first of their provincial government. Only one province, Ontario, of course, thought of the federal government first.

So, you have an indication that in much of Canada the federal government’s already fairly remote [and people are] uncertain what it does. The impact upon the lives of most Canadians is much in the direct roles of education and health, which are provincial jurisdictions.

So, there’s a challenge for the federal government.

First of all, Paul Martin is right in one sense. They’ve got to have the fiscal room to move. If they can’t clean up their fiscal act, then everything else is toast.

But, I’m not sure that’s sufficient. I think they’ve done a good job of that. I think they’re moving in the right direction. But simply having piles of money to throw around won’t solve the problem of the role of the federal government.

What they need to do is articulate some national policy goals that both reflect public desires, but also can capture the public imagination.

In a way, the last broad philosophic goal that was set out by the federal government — aside from national unity, which is almost a truism — is multiculturalism. And that was 20 years ago.

So, it’s been 20 years since they really launched on a major initiative in which they’ve said, here’s what we see as our role, promotion of this as a basic Canadian value.

It might be in the area of education, but there are obvious Constitutional barriers there. It might be in the area of research and development. Everybody has talked about the fact that Canada is not spending on research. It would be a very interesting statement if the federal government decided to try to make us a high tech nation and put public policy behind that for a period of time.

It might be in cultural policy to go to the question that was asked of the Ambassador last night. It might be in the ability to try and make Canada a true cultural centre in which the radios and films and music and stuff are something that Canadians are known for around the world. And that’s key. It’s not enough to draw barriers and have our little groups singing to each other because we can’t hear anybody else. We’ve got to be competitive on the international stage.

But, it can work.

The point is whatever the policy and I don’t know what it is, it cannot be a sideshow. It cannot be a minor minister standing up one day in the House of Commons and saying, I’m announcing a new policy and they’re moving on to the next business.

It’s got to be like the national policy, or like the search for national’s got to be a whole string of policies around a deep and so basic that it captures the Canadian imagination.

That’s what the federal government is about. That’s what it does, whatever this package of policies is.

If this does not happen, then my fear is not there’ll be some giant climax, but rather a gradual disintegration of the Canadian state.

I guess I’m enough of an old-fashioned Ontario-born nationalist to regret that. I would like to see the federal government define a role that makes us feel we have a common national policy that reinforces our national identity.

That’s been the Canadian tradition. I hope that’s the Canadian future.


Are transnational governments inevitable or could there be a swing back from it, a reaction against?

I think, yes, to both. I don’t mean that facetiously. I think there will be some reaction and some resistence.

I think much of the localism we often see, the fierce localism, is in a way people trying to find an identity within a global world because they look to local communities, they look to ethnic roots, they look to language, something that can give them something that in a way insulates their culture from this vast hegemony of a kind of world culture.

But, I don’t know. In this sense I’m almost a determinist. I think we’re moving in this direction.

There’s always the possibility of some huge exogenous shock, a Chinese-American war that drives both countries back into a nationalist shell and takes others back into armed camps, or something like that.

But outside of that kind of unpredicted cataclysm, I think the trend is down the road to trans-nationalism. And I think it’s going to be hard for us. It may move with bumps and stuff, but I think we’re moving in that direction.

*     *     *

What do you see in terms of a national policy and how do we articulate and ensure it is broad enough to survive the changeover in regimes between governments?

I think the last point is vital. The national policy, to give you an example, went from Macdonald to Laurier with hardly a blip. And those kind of transitions have to survive. It has to be deep enough and rooted enough, otherwise it won’t mean anything.

So, it can’t be purely a Liberal Party or something. It has to be something that appeals to the public imagination.

On the second part, which is what should it be and how should it work, that’s what I thought you guys were all about. That’s what Couchiching does, isn’t it? So, I figure somebody out there has the idea [and] they’ll take it back to Ottawa and we’ll hear about it next month.

I don’t know. In all seriousness I wonder about [it]. Culture has an appeal, but it’s a huge and difficult row to hoe. It has the appeal of having an emotional component. It has the appeal of kind of doing some things where we have some real talent in Canada if we could promote it and push it along.

My university side says we have tremendous potential on the R and D side, if we just did what other nations did, which is actually spent some money on it.

But, whether you can create a national vision around R and D I don’t know. It sounds very Canadian some how.

*     *     *

Why do we need the federal government to define what a Canadian is? Shouldn’t it be the other way around, that the government should reflect what the people are?

Let me defend myself. What you do, in part, I suppose, internally for policy solutions is [it is] the one national institution that has the kind of power and impact across the country.

I don’t disagree with what you’re saying.

From a historian’s point of view from the 1960s on Canadian history has fragmented. One of the reasons we don’t have a good history in the schools is [that] we don’t have a good history. We don’t have a national consensus on what our historical synthesis is.

We have gone into limited identities to the extent where we emphasize regional, class, gender and other types of history. So, if we don’t know what we are, it’s very hard for us — that is the people — to come forward and define what we think of as important.

I think, therefore, we’re looking for some way of articulating that. Maybe it isn’t the government. Maybe it’s some other institution. Maybe that goes back to the cultural issue.

But we have been a fairly fragmented people for the last while. Maybe we’ve always been a fragmented people. And, therefore, it makes it harder to have it well up from underneath.