Couchiching Online
nav button nav button nav button nav button nav button nav button

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

The Reluctant Trinity

By Anthony DePalma

What kind of North America do Canadians want?

The question sounds like the opening of a Rick Mercer skit on This Hour has 22 Minutes, where Rick might go to New York’s Times Square and ask distracted Americans what kind of North America they think Canadians want? One with four doors the Americans might answer. Or they’d say ‘Don’t Canadians already have Celine and Molson’s? Do they want American Idol too?’

Let’s be honest, if certain Canadians could draw a blue print for the kind of North America they want, they would come up with a plan that was a take off of that famous New Yorker magazine cover showing Canada prominently in the foreground with the US and Mexico dismissively outlined as “out there.”

But most Canadians I know, being less assertively individualistic than we Americans – according to research – would reject such gross inequalities. Instead, they would devise a plan that looked like a perfect triangle, with three equal parts of the trinity…a grand confederation from sea to sea to sea to sea in which each unit, small or large, populous or less so, would carry equal weight.

In this Canadian version of a continental trinity, democracy would be robust but individual rights of both citizens and especially corporations would be governed by a sense of community. Immigration policy would be liberal and foreign policy based on constructive engagement.

Is this ever likely to happen? No more so than that Mexico’s ideal version of a North American trinity – with the peso supreme and Mexican telenovelas on every satellite television channel – would come to pass, although with current trends, our southern neighbors’ dreams of reconquering the Western United States economically and socially are coming surprisingly close to being realized.

The new American continent is a reluctant trinity and it is likely to remain that for quite some time. It will assume its eventual form in pretty much the same way that events have given it shape so far. A political elite in all three nations has decided which initiatives can be successfully introduced, which reforms can be achieved, which debates can eb won. And then they set about to do so, without great regard for public concerns or the way in which the individual pieces fit together to form a new North America.

In this way, Nafta was passed in all three countries as a trade deal, without public debate on the more significant social issues of what the trade deal would bring to pass. Such questions were deflected here in Canada, they were not recognized by the principal actors in the United States, and they were never allowed to be raised in Mexico. There never was more than a tacit acknowledgement that intensifying economic integration might create social and cultural competition among the three nations, and that such competition would lead to widescale disruption. It took the visit of newly elected President Fox of Mexico in September of 2001 to initiate a public discussion of where North America is likely to be in 40 years, and then that discussion was effectively snuffed out by the catastrophe of 9/11.

I have always tended to discount conspiracy theories, and I do not believe that the United States government has any grand design to surreptitiously conquer North America. The planners and policy makers in Washington have time and again shown themselves to be just as clueless about the long-term impact of their actions as anyone else.

But outside of the White House and the State Department, an elite corps of academics and policy wonks is thinking 40 or 50 years out and asking what kind of North America we would ideally want, while figuring out an effective way of getting there. Again, this thinking is being done without much public input, and I fear that the end result will be the presentation of another set of fully hatched recommendations without a natural constituency of border states or like minded local officials. Its effectiveness thus reduced, along with its chances of success, the planning will simply pave the way for more ad hoc actions in all three capitals.

There are lessons to be learned in Europe. The European Union was formed over the course of 50 years and was kept moving through that long gestation by concerns over interstate security. The sorrowful vistas of the many veterans’ cemeteries or reports of farm children being injured by unexploded bombs left over from the world wars were disturbing reminders of the reasons for a European Union.

Having achieved the economic union they desired, the nations of the European Union have now turned to the inescapable political and social aspects of union. They too are asking ‘what kind of continent do we want?’ They have not come up with definitive answers but the debate is far more open and lively than anything we have seen thus far in North America.

How could we do the same here in North America, where the very concept of sharing a common continent is hazy at best? Conferences like this are a critical part, of course, and I was encouraged to know that sales in Canada made my book on North America a best seller here. But let me focus here, since we are in Canada, on the things I think that Canadians specifically will have to do to ensure that this arrangement we’re blundering into bears more of a resemblance to their ideal blueprint than mere accident.

The lessons from Europe are obvious: sacrifice and compromise are the keys. Of course, the situation is different – there is a balance of power there than does not and will not exist here. That’s reality. So too is the reality that our North America borders need not be fortified militarily against each other but can exist as fine lines between our nations, binding them together as effectively as keeping them apart.

Reality means delineating those areas where notions of sovereignty need to be updated – such as national security and environmental protection – and identifying those aspects of our continental society that need to be, and realistically can be, protected and preserved, like culture. But even then, we must be mindful of the impact of technology and respond accordingly.

We should be on guard against falling back into old patterns so that we are arguing over old issues while the rest of the world is speeding past us. The big issue today in Mexico is not Nafta but the thousands of manufacturing jobs that have been lost to China. And just the other day Reuters announced that it was moving its core operations from England and New York to India. These are the new challenges, and the new reality.

I don’t believe political union is inevitable. There simply aren’t enough positive reasons for it to be pushed forward by any of our three nations. Monetary union doesn’t make sense either. I don’t think anything is necessarily inevitable except that our three nations will be drawn together more closely, on all counts, in the years to come. But so will most nations of the world ruled by democratic regimes and incorporating acceptance of free trade and open commerce.

Without needing to protect ourselves from each other, as in Europe, we don’t have to act with the same urgency, and that will provide space for us to explore, to experiment and perhaps to move in different directions. Look at how far apart we’ve grown over issues like Cuba, the use of marijuana, and the legality of gay marriages. We stood side by side in Afghanistan, but took different positions on Iraq. Do such moves have consequences? Of course they do. But the continental relationship continues. It is a matter of setting priorities and deciding how much a position is worth to us, each of us.

We’re in for a period of difficult realities here in North America. American power, and the prolonged reaction to the atrocities of 9/11, will distort the continental relationship, and harden positions on such policies as security and intelligence gathering.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. I’ve heard and read of this period being described as being as fractured beyond repair. Surely that is an overstatement. What about the intense clashes between Kennedy and Deifenbaker, or the personal animosity between Nixon and Trudeau? Castro? Vietnam?

There is a fine line between us, in all senses and meaning of that term. There may be only a fine line of distinction between American and Canadian culture, but it is a distinction nonetheless. And we can continue to take pride in the fact that it takes no more than a fine line to separate our two countries, a line over which goods and services can pass with increasing sophistication and control.

Washington’s focus will continue to be security and the war on terror, and that will bring certain expectations. Those expectations will form the measure of our relationship during this difficult period. But I cannot foresee those expectations dissolving the bonds between us – that would go against our own best interests and, I think, against our mutual interests as well.