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72nd Annual Summer Conference, August 7–10, 2003

What kind of North America do Canadians want?

By Anthony Westell

Speaking notes.

To begin, I have no idea what kind of North America Canadians want , and I doubt that most Canadians know, beyond the broadest generalities – Peace, Order, Good Government, Life, Liberty and Happiness – and the real thing and not just the pursuit.

But I do know what I think they are going to get. And that’s union with the United States, in one form or another, and within the next quarter century – by which time I shall no longer be available to kick around if events prove me wrong.

One more cautionary note: This is obviously not the best time to make this case, but all things shall pass, even George W. Bush next year, with any luck.

I think political union is the future for several reasons:

It will be the logical outcome of a trend clear in history. Ever since the Europeans first arrived, North America has been moving toward unification in one political state. First, hundreds of native nations were collapsed into a score of colonies. Next, the colonies were gathered into three nation states.

Why should this trend continue ? Because it has been driven, principally, by the competition for resources, power and profits, and has been made possible by new technologies – firearms to overcome the aboriginals; railroads and telegraphs to link the colonies and create markets for industrialization, and now the electronic networks of post-industrialism.

The tide of technology is still flooding, and in a capitalist economy, when technology offers a way for capital to earn a higher return, business must seize the opportunity – or give way to competitors who do.

Continental unification is already far advanced, and not only in economic terms. Think of defence, entertainment, professional sports, media of information and ideas.

But economic integration alone urges us toward political integration. In Canada, as in other Western democracies, the elected government both regulates the capitalist economic sector and redistributes the wealth it produces – making us social democracies, even the US.

No major party proposes to change the system – to full-blooded capitalism or outright socialism. So the only significant difference between mainstream parties, certainly in Canada, is how much to regulate and how much to redistribute. The voters make that choice, and hold the government they elect responsible for the economic and social outcomes.

The idea that two or three national states can regulate the same contintental economy is hardly practicable. There will have to be one regulator, one political authority, and if we want to play a part in that authority we shall have to seek some form of political power-sharing. The alternative would be to leave management of the economy to the US.

A political union could take many forms, and it will depend largely on what the United States will eventually accept. It may be that it will take some calamity – another Great Depression, perhaps, or terrorist onslaughts requiring a drastic tightening of continental borders, or an environmental collapse – to move the U.S. to accept some modification of its perfect union. Or it could be that the disaster will strike Canada, forcing us to seek membership of the union on any terms.

We may beome the Scotland of the United States, part of the union but with differences, and a distinct Canadian identity, as the Scots have retained their national brand.

Incidentally, I first heard the idea of Canada as the Scotland of the U.S. from my colleague at the Literary Review of Canada, Mark Lovewell, and when I used it in a book last year I gave him credit. No doubt by coincidence, Michael Bliss has since advanced the notion in the National Post, and it is worth examining.

But I offer the idea mainly as an example of the bold, creative thinking about the future we ought to be doing. What I fear is that we shall repeat the mistake of the 1960’s and 70’s when we wasted vast amounts of political time and energy denying reality. In those years, government after government, Conservative and Liberal, struggled and failed to reduce the rate at which business was integrating the Canadian and U.S. economies.

Finally, we gave up and negotiated free trade.

Many people now think that free trade sprang like a thunderbolt from Brian Mulroney’s forehead and ended a golden age of nationalism. In reality, we moved toward free trade over a decade. The media paid little attention because the fashionable idea of the times was nationalism, not continentalism. We are still obsessed with sovereignty when in reality it is disappearing before our eyes.

In 1975, the Economic Council of Canada recommended free trade as a way of forcing Canadian business to be more competitive. A Senate committee followed suit in 1980 after a seven year study. Joe Clark’s government, in 1979, proposed a national debate on the issue.

And here is something that will surprise many people; the Trudeau government actually proposed free trade with the US in some industrial sectors, but was turned down. And Trudeau appointed the royal commission that endorsed free trade and moved Mulroney to action.

In Canada-US economic relations, we face again now, I suggest, the famous Thee Options outlined by Mitchell Sharp when he was External Affairs minister in 1972: Do nothing and see what happens; deliberately seek closer integration; or seek by various measures to lessen over the years our dependence on the US market.

The Cabinet chose the Third Option, and it was widely popular. The trouble is that it utterly failed to reduce the rate at which cross-border trade was growing, and the economic integration and dependence which flows from that. Don’t take my word for it. Both Sharp and Trudeau admitted the failure in their memoirs.

Do we have again to go through again years of denying the reality of what is happening before our eyes ? Far better, surely, to choose Option Two and seek to deliberately the form of union that will best suit our needs.

After all, would a union in which we retain a distinct identity be so terrible ? We’ve been assuring the Quebeçois for years that it’s quite O.K.