Mel Hurtig and the renaissance of economic nationalism
Canadian politicians may find economic nationalism passé. But as a look around the world shows, it is not
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Mel Hurtig, the economic nationalist, is dead. The cause he championed is not.
Hurtig died last week at 84. His passing was generally viewed, if at all, as an end point to an era that is now passé — an era in which Canadians fretted about foreign control of the national economy and elected governments that promised to rectify the situation.
But for better or worse, nationalism is alive and well in the world. In Russia, it expresses itself as a muscular chauvinism. It the United Kingdom, it produced the vote that has ended that country’s membership in the European Union.
In the United States, it has given rise to the xenophobia and nativism that fuels Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.
Hurtig would be horrified by the protofascist nature of much of 21st century nationalism. I doubt, though, that he would be surprised. He recognized the power of this force and in his life tried to steer it along paths that were both democratic and, in the original sense of the word, progressive.
Ironically, one country in which economic nationalism is weaker these days is Canada. The three major political parties have signed onto the orthodoxy of free trade and globalization. If they quibble at all, as the New Democrats occasionally do, it is over the details.
But Canada may be behind the times. Globalization is under attack in the U.S. and Europe. Americans fret about the proposed Trans Pacific Partnership deal and the existing North American Free Trade Agreement. They have come to understand that such trade and investment pacts don’t always work for them.
The entire European Union project is being questioned in France, Italy and the Netherlands. The single European currency is rightly viewed by many of the countries that use it as a Trojan horse.
The Council of Canadians, which Hurtig helped found, didn’t have much luck in Canada when it argued against the proposed Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement with the EU.
But it did have some success in Europe where its agitation helped produce a backlash that may well sink CETA.
The economic nationalism of Hurtig’s time focused on foreign ownership of Canadian industries. As such, it was a project that embraced not only many in the general population but also important sectors of Canadian business.
So it was perfectly logical that Walter Gordon, a prominent Liberal and one of the pillars of Toronto’s financial class, would promote this kind of nationalism. The business nationalists that Gordon represented wanted the country’s economy to be controlled by Canadian, not American, capitalists.
The Liberal government of the day responded. It passed a law to review foreign takeovers. It passed another to give Canadian-owned companies an edge in the booming oilfields.
But the great successes of economic nationalism occurred just as Canadian business was beginning to change its mind. The new business view, articulated in a 1985 royal commission report, recommended that the government do an about turn and embrace free trade with the U.S.
Canadian business interests promoting the new view calculated, correctly, that they could make more money selling successful firms to American buyers than they could if foreign ownership were limited.
In the years that followed, iconic Canadian businesses, ranging from the Hudson’s Bay Co. to Inco and Stelco were sold to foreigners.
Today, there is little support for economic nationalism among Canadian business. Conversely, there is little desire among the general population to protect Canadian firms that ultimately don’t want protection.
Still, this does not mean the urge for autonomy has disappeared completely from the country. If economic nationalism means economic democracy then the spirit of Mel Hurtig arguably lives on among those who want a fairer shake for the middle and working classes.
It also lives on among those who don’t want the laws of the land overturned by foreign business in the name of free trade.
Most of all, it persists because we live in world that is wearying of the globalized economy. This is one area where the usually deft Justin Trudeau Liberals are missing the boat.
Canadians want trade. They want to be open to the world. But they also want to be protected from economic chaos and run their own show. They want to be masters in their own home.
This article originally appeared in the Toronto Star.