If democracy falters in the US, where would that leave Canada? Can democracy thrive here if the US becomes an autocracy, or falls apart into warring blue and red states?
Riveting testimony in the January 6 committee hearings has shredded complacent assumptions that the US will always protect Canada from externally imposed authoritarianism. Russia and China project dictatorial power as much as ever, but have much less ability to influence events in Canada than an autocratic US would, since our economies and cultures are so embedded.
It is now beyond doubt that former US President Donald Trump attempted a coup to stay in power. If he or one of his cronies wins in 2024, does anyone imagine he would ever give up power?
Canada has had it easier than most countries. Geography has prevented millions of refugees from demanding entry at the border. Miles of ocean on three coasts and the United States to the south insulated Canada from credible threats of invasion—Hitler, Imperial Japan and Stalin were way over there.
Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping run aggressive dictatorships today, but Canadians still feel protected by the US All that could change if Trump wins again.
Canada has always had a big protector. Many Canadians have died in overseas wars, far from our soil, but we have not faced large-scale invasion since the War of 1812. First, we were protected by Britain, once the world’s greatest power. When Nazi Germany conquered continental Europe in 1940, Canada switched allegiance to the US in a defence-sharing agreement.
Geographic isolation is good, so long as the US is a friend. But if it becomes a full-on dictatorship and tries to bully Canada into submission, then the world’s longest undefended border becomes a severe liability.
There are strong indications Trump hopes to regain power in the 2024 election. He wouldn’t need the most votes. Trump won the 2016 election because he won the Electoral College, even though his national ballot total fell almost three million votes behind Hillary Clinton’s. Trump came very close to winning the Electoral College again in 2020, despite trailing Joe Biden by seven million votes. Trump’s political resurrection is a real danger.
Canada would lack defences against an autocratic US government because we have so integrated our economy, media and military forces into theirs. What can we do before 2025 to lessen Canada’s vulnerability to coercion from Trump’s second coming?
Historically, Canadians overcame plenty of domestic anti-democratic advocates.
We face some today. Current American impulses for autocracy have significant support here. The “Freedom Convoy” showed that Canada has an emboldened group of far-right activists, some of whom would likely be fifth columnists if Canada resists Trump or his surrogate.
The threat is not military invasion, like that of Russia in Ukraine. Our economic vulnerability and mindset are the problem. Remember how in the pandemic’s early days, Trump’s government banned the export of critical medical supplies, including masks? Or how Canadians lagged in getting their first jabs, because we no longer made vaccines like we did before Connaught Labs was privatized and sold to a foreign corporation? We need to again make many critical things in Canada, like we used to.
Instead of standing alone against an autocratic US, Canada would have to seek out and forge stronger ties with democratic countries.
In January, political science professor Thomas Homer-Dixon wrote a widely circulated article for the Globe and Mail on the likelihood of the US succumbing to autocracy. He asked what Canada should do, and proposed the creation of a parliamentary committee to hold hearings on the prospect. That would be a good start, but we need far wider research and discussion about how to make Canada as independent as possible from the US in all ways.
Can democracy live on here if dictatorship fully wins the day south of the border? The biggest obstacle is what’s in our heads. It is ingrained among Canadians that the United States is our greatest friend and will always champion democracy. That can no longer be taken for granted. Can we pivot to seeing the US as our biggest potential threat?
Gordon Laxer is a political economist and professor emeritus at the University of Alberta.
This article originally appeared in the Toronto Star.