Resistance in the Canadian west, resurgent nationalism in Québec, a nationwide conversation about the fate of Indigenous peoples, questions about debt and the costs of large infrastructure projects, and the challenge of open and free trade with the United States.
One might wonder whether we are discussing present day Canada, the 1980s, or yet the 1880s.
All these issues are weaved tightly into Canada’s national fabric. If some recede in the public discourse for the better part of a generation, their eventual return ought to be assured. On the other hand, Canadians have proven quite inconsistent in the solutions they envisage and their willingness to face these challenges. Secured by a triumphalist narrative and bruised by political daring, Canadians now seem less likely to disrupt the status quo than ever before.
It is easy to see the country in its present form as the natural state of things; tempting, too, to imagine that the pact and promises of 1867 were bound to work out as they did. Within two decades of Confederation, the dominion’s future as an eclectic assemblage of provinces spread thinly along the northern border of the United States was far from certain. No one knew whether it would survive.
In the 1880s, First Nations and Métis people resisted federal power and white settlers. Nova Scotians again considered exiting the dominion. French Canadians left Québec by the hundreds of thousands. The execution of Louis Riel raised English-French tensions to levels seldom seen before. Canadians despaired of this federative arrangement. Incensed with rising debt and taxes coupled with economic reversals, many embraced calls for imperial federation or annexation to the U.S. Others simply emigrated to the “Land of the Free.”
By then, facing the impossibility of free trade with the U.S., John A. Macdonald’s government gambled by erecting a tariff wall. When coupled with western development, the tariff seemed the surest way of protecting Canada’s small economy and preserving Confederation, even with its costs. Macdonald defended the tariff as a condition of Canadian nationhood through his last election campaign. This too was a bold project for the struggling dominion.
Predictably, in the twentieth century, the most imaginative responses to the challenges facing the country emerged in times of crisis. We need only look at the transformative effect of the First World War or at the political options borne by the Great Depression. But this search for better straits also occurred in less dire circumstances. In the quiet conservatism of George Grant’s “Lament for a Nation”, for instance, Canadians might have found a national project that did not so easily surrender to American technological modernity.
A generation later, in the last federal contest of any great consequence, the election of 1988, the first-past-the-post system resulted in a complete rejection of Grant’s hopes. We could plausibly interpret the outcome, even now, as the triumph of neoliberalism over nationhood, although Canadians had in fact sought to harness American economic power, on their own terms, for more than a century prior.
Whatever we might think of Brian Mulroney, he was the last prime minister to offer reforms of any consequence and to imagine a country substantially different from the one we have inherited, generation to generation.
But, bruised as we have been by the Meech Lake and Charlottetown debates, the major parties have come to see constitutional change as a third rail. Our descent into the mundane reached new depths with the levelling of public debate during the Harper years. The bright promises of 2005-2006 opened upon the least imaginative and most cynical Canadian government since the 1950s.
It is not merely fear and disenchantment that lead us. National development now means little: there is no East to inspire and guide us, no North to explore, no West to develop, no South to run to.
Then there is our contentment. For many years, on July 1, we were lulled by our venerable prime minister’s assurances that Canada was still the best country in which to live. We have witnessed the collapse of the Québec sovereignty movement. We have recognized the prudent economic stewardship of leaders in Ottawa. At last, in the age of “America First”, we have patted ourselves on the back. We still contend with “every twitch and grunt”, but Trumpism has yet to thrive north of the border. In this there has been unwarranted self-congratulations.
Fearful of extensive reform and content with the status quo, we may be facing a problem of imagination that leads us to accept political mediocrity with equanimity. It will take much more than the debates and compromises of a minority parliament to shake us out of this apathy.
But what is so wrong with the incrementalism that has given us relative comfort and spared us Trump? In the absence of original leadership, have we not had good caretakers? In a country that is alert and engaged, that tends to its moral duties to all at home and abroad, citizens can certainly avoid the hand-wringing that leads to desperate and radical change.
On the other hand, we should not wait for such circumstances as those of the 1880s, or yet the Great Depression, to imagine a brighter present and future. A host of issues old and new have explosive potential: the need for clean energies; the status of religious minorities in Québec and linguistic minorities elsewhere; the pressing need to honour commitments to Indigenous people; the challenges and opportunities of new technologies; the increasing influence of China and the rise of global populism; and the threat of climate change, to name a few.
Though this should be a matter of concern to all Canadians, as we share the same institutions, solutions may not have the nation as their frame of reference—or they may significantly complicate the nation as we know it. Unfortunately, it is even less certain whether the country has in its politics the intellectual vigour that will preclude hasty and regrettable decisions when urgency demands action.
Such a country as Canada should not seem confined or confining. But who now is capable of dreaming big?
Patrick Lacroix is a historian of American religion, immigration, and Canada–U.S. relations. He currently teaches at Acadia University and Mount Saint Vincent University.