Type to search

Political Transformation and Canadian Futures

Fall / Winter 2015 Tête À Tête

Political Transformation and Canadian Futures

Political Transformation and Canadian FuturesGB discusses the recent elections, energy, economics and Aboriginal people with Canada’s top political commentator

GB: What happened in the last Canadian federal election?

AC: The election confirmed that a sizeable portion of the population was fed up with the governing Conservatives – fed up with them mostly in respect of their governing style and their approach to politics. That can often transfer into a desire for change more broadly. But it is still to be determined how much people wanted a change in overall direction versus a change in specific policies versus just a change of faces.

There is a danger for any new government of any stripe of over-reading its mandate. A government may think that it has been given a mandate for sweeping change. In a sense, this may be true for the Liberals, as they ran on a fairly substantive platform, and there were many changes proposed. And yet it is not clear to me that all of the people who voted for the Liberals voted for all of those changes as opposed to just wanting to get rid of the existing government. We will see.

GB: What were the achievements and failures of the last government?

AC: Let me start with the failure, which was the broad absence of vision. Throughout much of the last century, the Conservative party lost elections to the Liberals. This was not healthy for either party. The besetting sin of the Liberals over the years has been their arrogance and sense of entitlement – born to rule and all that – never better symbolized than by the son of a former prime minister becoming party leader. The Conservatives’ besetting sin has always been a sense of insecurity and resentment. They start from the standpoint that “everyone is against us – the media, the bureaucrats, the judges, and so on.” If that is your starting point – and even if it is to some extent true – then a lot of other things are going to follow. In the case of the last government, this meant, first, that it could not really articulate a broad, ideological vision because its members had convinced themselves that no one would vote for them if they did. Second, this meant that the government felt almost obliged to take all kinds of democratic and ethical shortcuts simply to level the playing field – again, because its members perceived that everything was against them. In my view, they became so partisan and so bitter and nasty as a substitute for actual substantive differences with the other parties.

Having articulated few grand, overarching ideas or ideals in respect of what they wanted to do in power, they ended up not doing very much at all. They had an initial flourish with the so-called Accountability Act, when they brought in a number of reforms – some quite useful – coming off of the ethical scandals of the previous Liberal government. But they soon grew wary and retreated into a very closed and secretive style of governing – a very heavy-handed style of government, with few major accomplishments to its name. In short, they did not set out to do much, and they ended up not doing much.

On the positive side, many of their accomplishments consisted of things that they did not do but that another government of a different stripe might well have done. That is fair enough, but it is not much of a basis for boasting. Probably the most substantive thing that they did was to negotiate and, in some cases, complete a wide range of trade agreements. If all of these agreements ever come to fruition, then they will prove to be their biggest lasting legacy. The trade agenda was remarkably ambitious: a free trade agreement with the EU, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the free trade agreements with Japan and South Korea and a host of other countries.

On the fiscal policy side of things, they ran up enormous deficits in the aftermath of the financial crisis – some would say justifiably, but in my view not so much. Where I do give them credit is that they then spent the next several years marching us pretty smartly back into some semblance of balance, and left this new government in reasonably good fiscal shape. Some people might complain that the cupboard is bare, but that, frankly, is not true. Canada is in a relatively strong fiscal position – partly because of activities of governments prior to the Conservative government, like the Chrétien government, but you also have to give the Harper government some credit.

GB: What is next for Canada’s Conservative Party, and how does this compare with the evolution of conservative formations in other countries?

AC: The healthiest thing for all countries is contestable politics, where any given party feels both that it can win power and that it can lose it. Part of Stephen Harper’s ambition was to make the Conservatives permanent contenders for power in a way in which they have not been historically. I do not think that he necessarily succeeded, but history will tell over the long run. Now what the Conservatives have to do for themselves is to discover a broader sense of self-confidence and overarching purpose and ambition. Those two things are very much linked. The Tories have to be in politics for a reason – presumably to do things that other parties will not or cannot do, or to stand for things for which other parties cannot or will not, and to tell the public what they will do when they get back into power. They need to start with that attitude. There is in Canada a genuine, remaining and enduring rationale for a small ‘c’ or large ‘C’ conservative party in the Western tradition. They need to go back to rediscovering those first principles: What are they here for? Well, they believe in a more limited vision of government – perhaps – than do the Liberals. They believe in the rights of the individual. Maybe they are more concerned about the rights of individuals as individuals rather than as members of groups. Indeed, there are some fairly interesting and important dividing lines that remain, but they have to be prepared to show up for these debates and to defend their side rather than constantly telling people: “We don’t really have an ideology. We’re just pragmatists.”

GB: What are the particular strengths and weaknesses of the new Prime Minister (Trudeau), and those of the new government more broadly?

AC: I mentioned that the Liberals’ besetting sin is arrogance and entitlement. Some would say that this is bred into the Prime Minister by virtue of his parentage and upbringing. On the positive side – and I mean this quite sincerely – he has a remarkable reservoir of self-assurance. In politics that is gold, because people can read insecurity and they can read whether you do not have what it takes. We have seen this self-assurance in some of his early decisions. If you are self-confident and this underpins your comportment and habits, then you are going to be more willing to be humble around others. Maybe it is all an act, but it is a nice act. To defer to others, to be willing to delegate authority, and to be willing to surround yourself with people who are apparently smarter than you – all of these are signs of self-assurance.

At his best, the Prime Minister has a graciousness and an ability to make someone else feel important – rather than always having to bring everything back to himself. A lot of these things are essentially the flipside of Harper’s insecurity. Even though Harper is objectively by far the more substantive person – smarter, more knowledgeable on issues – insecurity and lack of grace were always his character flaws. Of course, where Trudeau gets into trouble – and perhaps this is by virtue of coming from an intellectual father – is that every now and then he feels the need to reach for the profound. When he tries to come off as a deep thinker, even his best advocates would admit that he is not really an intellectual philosopher king. He is a guy with pretty good political judgement – not infallible, but pretty good, in the broad strokes. He obviously has a very strong personal touch. Where he and his team have already got themselves into trouble is that they are a little given to the lovely symbolic gesture and policy pronouncements, without necessarily having thought through all of the practical implications of implementation.

GB: He has considerable energy as well, no?

AC: Enormous energy and enormous personal warmth – yes. I remember seeing a video in the summer of last year of him at the gay pride parade in Toronto. This was a large gathering of people and Trudeau was bounding down the street – literally running back and forth, and from side to side on the street to hug people. Certainly we have discovered that this is the most huggy government that we have ever seen in our lives – for good or ill. I remember thinking at the time that this was going to be a different election, because you could not imagine either Stephen Harper or even Tom Mulcair – both very substantive people – having that kind of warmth and spontaneity and openness. In the end, clearly a large section of the public was looking for something in all of that symbolism.

GB: What do you make of the government’s commitment to take in up to 50,000 Syrian refugees? How has the government handled it thus far?

AC: Many people, including myself, would say that Canada was obliged, morally, to do something to help in this enormous humanitarian disaster – even if we can only provide a small sliver of the solution to the overall problem. Every little bit helps, and we are helping to set an example for other countries. It is in the DNA of Canadians – many, not all – and this is part of why we exist as a country, as a nation of immigrants and refugees, or descendants thereof. So this was the right thing to do on its merits. There was a need during the election campaign to say: “We are going to do more than the other parties.” The Liberals made promises then that they did not necessarily think through in terms of the practical achievability of getting 25,000 refugees into Canada, at government expense, by the end of 2015. People told them at the time that this was unrealistic, but there was credit to be won from the section of the public that was looking for this kind of gesture.

In the grand scheme of history, is anyone going to care whether the government got 25,000 refugees into Canada by December 31st or instead by February 28th or whenever (within reason)? No, but we should not let the government off scot-free either. The undertaking helped the Liberals in the election – especially in the election within the election; that is, in the really important contest not between them and the Conservatives, but between them and the New Democratic Party (NDP). This was one of those issues that allowed them to say that “we are about real change, and the NDP are too cautious and too moderate.” The Liberals therefore deserve to be held to account for this undertaking.

GB: You are on record as saying that Canada should have a population of about 100 million at some point – a theme covered by GB since 2010, and a theme of interest to 21CQ. Do you still subscribe to such a future?

AC: I do. I am not wedded to any particular number, but the significance of that number to me is that it was thrown around at the beginning of 20th century. The beginning of the 20th century was a time of enormous confidence and ambition in the country. You can see it in a lot of the writing at the time. Stephen Leacock, for example, was a huge proponent of large population growth and greater Canada ambition. So too was Sir Wilfrid Laurier, the prime minister of the day. There is, of course, a famous declaration made by Laurier in a speech that many school children learned when I was a kid – namely, that the 20th century would be the century of Canada – or words to that effect. People remember that.

They forget the lines that came right afterwards in that same speech, where Laurier said that, within the lives of some of you who are here today, this country will have 40 or 60 or 100 million people. I am paraphrasing. But people cheered. So that was very much in the air at the time. That sense of ambition and optimism and hope for the future of the country was also at a time of predictions of very high population relative to where they were. This was a country with a population at the time of some five million at the start of the last century. The move to 100 million would be a significant leap. But the country was taking in, proportionately speaking, enormous numbers of people – that is, three or four hundred thousand yearly into a population of five million. Of course, that did not last. WW1 put an end to it.

I think that political parties should have a raison d’être, an individual should have a raison d’être, and so too should countries. For New World or settler countries like Canada, this population dynamic is part of what they are. If people are going to come and join a country, they are not going to do so only to be Canadian – whatever that meant or means. They think that a country stands for something in the world, or wishes to achieve something in the world.

People have a right to live where they wish to live during this short time that they have on Earth. When you really get into the weeds of trying to analyze why the people who are already on a piece of land or in a country should have a right to prevent others from coming, it is actually very hard to defend.

I have a quasi-libertarian view of immigration. To the extent feasible, people have a right to live where they wish to live during this short time that they have on Earth. When you really get into the weeds of trying to analyze why the people who are already on a piece of land or in a country should have a right to prevent others from coming, it is actually very hard to defend. You can certainly defend a social contract – that is, that we have to subscribe to certain rules and agree to obey the laws and all those things. However, if people say, “Yes, I buy that and I would like to sign on to that social contract,” is it then fair to say that we are not going to let them in by virtue of their birthplace?

My views have moderated in the post-9/11 era of macro-terrorism – that is, where just a few people with the intent and the technology of mass death can inflict hitherto unforeseen types of carnage. Security evidently becomes that much more of an issue. This imposes certain new practicalities in respect of who and how many people you can admit into the country, or certainly how rapidly you can take them in. Beyond that, I do not think that there is any kind of natural limit to the number of people that we can have in Canada. I remember seeing one calculation to the effect that we could put 400 million people into only the warmest 10 percent of Canada. This would still leave us with a population density roughly equivalent to that of the Netherlands.

We are not going to see that many people in Canada anytime soon, but at doable rates of intake, if sustained over a long period of time, by the middle of this century we could have 70 or 80 million people. Given the declining populations in some of our comparative countries and democracies, that could lift us into the top three or four among the major developed countries. As a final point on this matter, a population of 100 million people would change the way in which we perceive ourselves. Even today we talk about ourselves as a small country. We are not a small country. At 36 million people, we are one of the larger democracies on Earth. We are just small compared to the US. Maybe if the gap were narrowed from roughly 10 to one, as it is now, to, say, four or five to one, we would think of ourselves in slightly larger terms and get over some of our insecurities and hang-ups.

GB: Are there economic benefits to a large population?

AC: There are. I do not want to overstate them. There is much research that shows that trade that happens within a country is, even today, of a different quality than trade between countries. Obviously, I am a free trader, but even free trade across borders does not get you quite the same intensity of trade as you can have within a single country. To the extent that this holds true, there are economies of scale benefits. However, when people talk about it in terms of the contribution that immigrants are making to the economy, I always bristle, because if immigrants themselves are not reaping the benefit of that contribution, then they are getting ripped off. For the most part, then, beyond those economies of scale arguments, whatever benefit people are contributing ought to be coming back to them in the form of higher incomes.

But let me also say this: Canada could be a very prosperous county with seven million people, and it could be a very prosperous country with 400 million. There is no kind of natural order. There are so many other intervening factors.

GB: If Canada had 15 million by the middle of this century, would it still be prosperous?

AC: That is an interesting question. We have never been up against such a prospect of dramatic depopulation. But this comes up in discussions in the context of the possible secession of Quebec. I have a million arguments against Quebec separating, but I do not doubt for one second that, as a population of over eight million people, Quebec could still be a very prosperous country. A declining population brings its own set of problems because everything has been built up for a larger population. You have to make significant adjustments. Of course, I would rather have the problem of growth than the problem of decline or depopulation. I do not wish to say that I am neutral on these things: I would clearly like to see the country grow.

GB: Will Canada survive the entire 21st century as a country?

AC: We talk about ourselves as a young country, but in many respects we are a very old country. We have arguably been continuously in some sort of political existence for 500 years – that is, in terms of the European model of nation-statehood. Of course, in our most recent form, we have been in existence in the same constitutional order for nearly 150 years. The specific thing that has been an existential threat to Canada for the last 50 years is the prospect of separation by Quebec. This is, as I say, a distinct existential threat. People who believe that you can just watch a huge chunk – one-sixth of the territory – of the country be ripped out of the middle of it, jurisdictionally speaking, and that the country would be able to survive are fooling themselves. They have not thought this through carefully. Once you destroy the basis of the existing constitutional order, everything will be up for grabs. It would be very hard to hold together what would be left.

No one likes to say that the separatist threat has been eliminated, and certainly I am not saying that. Nonetheless, separatism was not always with us and there is nothing inevitable about its endurance. Quebec nationalism, for its part, will always be with us – as far as I can tell. But nationalism does not have to mean separatism. The hopeful trend, in recent years, has been that while Quebec nationalism has been alive and well as ever, Quebecers themselves have been separating that idea from separatism proper. They are coming to the realization that there is no necessity for separation – and that, by the way, it would be extremely difficult to engineer successfully.

In my view, separation could only ever happen by unilateral declaration of independence. Canada is not, constitutionally speaking, a wedding of two parties, but rather a union of provinces and peoples, and of various other things. So if you try to get into the process of negotiating, it would go nowhere. One of the few people who really understood this on the separatist side was Jacques Parizeau, which is why his plans were always predicated on a unilateral declaration of independence. As he was good enough to inform us in the years since the 1995 referendum – he never said it prior to the referendum – whatever he might have said publicly about negotiating, his plan was always to try to go for a very speedy unilateral declaration of independence. That would be the only way to engineer separation. And I believe that any such attempt would fail and result in chaos.

We have learned much since that referendum from the testimony of some of the people involved: how ill-prepared anyone was for this. If we had ever come close to a separation scenario, it would have been a terrible, terrible situation in Quebec that, I think, ultimately would have collapsed. Fortunately, we are not having to run that experiment for the foreseeable future. But yes, if the situation ever were to arise, there would be such a rupture of the constitutional order, of the rule of law, and in political legitimacy, that it would result in be a very nasty state of affairs for Quebec and indeed the country as a whole. And if the separatists did succeed in the end, then, again, I do not think that you would be able to hold together the pieces of what remained.

GB: Why does Canada have so few great companies?

AC: I do not know whether that is true or not.

GB: Can you name the great or world-beating companies in Canada today?

AC: Barrick Gold, for example.

GB: Anything outside of the mining sector – even if the mining sector also has far fewer great names than in the past?

AC: Of course, we do not know what the future companies are going to be. What I know is that Canada is among the most prosperous countries on the face of the Earth. I make that point because you imply that our prosperity is tied to having ‘great companies.’ I do not know whether that is true or not. I am not sure that this is something in which we need to invest a lot of thought. What you want is an economic order that encourages and demands that everyone within it be thinking constantly about productivity – that is, that everyone is facing the proper competitive demands upon which a market economy depends. Everyone in such an economy needs to be asking themselves: “How can I beat my competitors? How can I produce high-quality products at low cost?” Companies succeed and fail on the basis of this logic. Why, instead, do so many chief executives of Canadian companies – particularly large Canadian companies – have as their first instinct to say: “How can the government help me out of my troubles? How can the government fix trade policy or competition policy or subsidies or tax policy to help me out?” – rather than to say: “How can I just succeed or fail on the basis of my ability to make a great product at a price that people are willing to pay?” That to me is the foundation of prosperity. This is the kind of economic order that we need, instead of being hung up on whether we have national champions. Do we have companies that are world-beaters? That will come – and they can be small companies. I do not care whether there are 100,000 companies with 10 people in each of them that are doing all of those things, or whether they emerge as four or five great companies. This is irrelevant.

We do not know what the future companies are going to be. What I know is that Canada is among the most prosperous countries on the face of the Earth. I make that point because you imply that our prosperity is tied to having ‘great companies.’ I do not know whether that is true or not.

GB: Do you still believe that government has no role at all in picking winners?

AC: Yes. Either a company is economic or it is not. Either companies can make products that we want to buy and sell them for more than it costs to make them, or they cannot. If they are economic, they do not need a subsidy – that is, they do not need a helping hand, and they do not need to be picked as a winner. If they are not economic, then they should not get any subsidy – all the more reason. To me, the whole argument about whether governments can pick winners – though they manifestly cannot – is not relevant because, even if they could, all they would be doing is replicating the functions of a capital market. I see no reason to prefer the judgements of planners investing other people’s money over the judgements of people investing their own money and taking their own risks.

GB: What if the result of this dynamic is very few great companies?

AC: I do not care. Go back to The Wealth of Nations. The measure of how well an economy is doing is the livelihood – the standard of living of its people – not how much gold is in the king’s treasury, or how many great companies we have. We will develop great companies insofar as they deserve to be great.

GB: Is it not ahistorical to say that the government has not been involved in most countries where certain companies are leading?

AC: For good or ill. It is not passivity for governments not to pick winners – it is the functioning of a market economy. Let me make this prediction: virtually all of the jobs and all of the growth, over the next 10 to 50 years, will come from companies and industries that do not exist today – indeed, from companies and industries about which we are in many cases not even thinking today. So cast your mind back 10 or 20 years, and conduct that experiment about how many – quote-unquote – great companies, Canadian or non-Canadian, did not even exist or were very much smaller than they are now. Or conversely, think of the companies that were big and enormous and considered great some 20, 30 or 40 years ago that are no longer with us. The only constant in all of these things is dynamic change. No one is able and should try to predict. But that is the basis of any of these planning exercises – the ability to predict the future, of which no one is capable, neither in the private sector nor in the public sector.

So it is not passivity for the government not to get involved – rather, it is a question of how best to allocate capital in a market economy on the basis of people’s bets about what kinds of goods and services other people are going to be wanting to purchase in the future. I would certainly say that you want to spread those bets out as widely as you possibly can.

Consider Israel: The notable thing about Israel – to my way of thinking – is the disproportionately large number of start-ups in that country. There are more start-ups in a given year in Israel than in all of Europe combined. Israel has a very entrepreneurial economy. How many of those start-ups each year become – quote-unquote – great companies in the future? I have no idea. But I certainly have a strong inkling that the Petri dish of Israeli entrepreneurship is much more likely to produce ‘winners’ in the future than some carefully marshalled exercise in which someone goes out and collects a lot of data and filters it through all of the right channels, people have a lot of meetings, and then you try and decide – centrally, collectively – which of those companies should be backed.

For all of these exercises around picking winners, what is the market failure that you are trying to correct? If there is a market failure, why not just correct it, rather than trying to supplant or duplicate it? If you want to make an argument that there are failures in the Canadian capital market of some kind, I am all ears. But I would like to see that argued in terms of the process breakdown – not just in the context of an absence of so-called great Canadian companies.

GB: What do you think about the state of venture capital markets in Canada?

AC: In speaking with many people about this, I often come away with the impression that there is not so much a shortage of venture capital in Canada as there is a shortage of worthwhile investments. What makes me despair is when I see the venture capital industry demanding more government funding. That is an odd interpretation of venture capital – symptomatic, in my view, of the Canadian corporate sector’s reflexive putting-of-the-hand-out toward the government sector.

GB: What do you see as the future of the energy sector and energy companies in Canada over the next 10 years?

AC: No one knows, and I certainly do not. It will be what it will be. All I would say is that we have benefited enormously from our energy and resource wealth. This is, of course, notwithstanding the consistent decry of people saying, “ Oh, isn’t it terrible that we are so dependent on resource wealth?” and constant efforts to interfere with the energy sector in order to reapportion things to other sectors that someone somewhere thinks are more befitting a nation of our exalted rank. There is in Canada what the former OECD economist David Henderson called techno-aesthetic intuition, which holds that mere resource extraction is somehow demeaning, and that what we really should be involved in is, say, designing aircraft or other ventures – to which Canada has already thrown billions of dollars and has usually come away losing money.

We had a lovely ride up with resource prices over the last 10 to 15 years. You cannot take this away from us. We lost some of it. That wealth was wealth created. People invested a good chunk of it privately. The notion that it all has to be invested through some large government state fund is, in my view, delusional. People are just as capable of investing it themselves. It does not mean that it has been squandered. But one cost to that certainly is that you have a certain degree of volatility when you are on the wrong side of the resource cycle. Albertans seem to have done just fine over the decades, and Canada has done well more generally. In the next five or 10 years, then, to the extent that anyone can predict these things, if we are going to be in more of a down cycle in terms of commodities, I really see nothing to be done in terms of redistributing wealth away from the resource sector than would have been the case when it was on the rise.

Let me also add that one of the foundation stones of our prosperity over recent decades has been the flexible exchange rate; or, more precisely, the political consensus that the exchange rate should remain flexible. We have seen quite remarkable swings in the exchange rate – largely in tune with the commodity cycle – going from 62 cents US in recent memory up to US$1.05, and back down to where it is now, around 70 cents. That has certainly imposed certain strains on the economy, but these are nothing like what they would be if we tried to fix the exchange rate and make everything else adjust around it. The Europeans are, unfortunately, an instructive example of the opposite dynamic – showing us how bad an idea fixed exchange rates or common currencies are. In Canada’s case, the flexible exchange rate has done two things. When oil prices were rising, it helped to spread the wealth. In other words, the wealth was not just concentrated, as some people claimed, in the resource-producing sectors, but indeed all of us across the country gained from the much higher purchasing power of the Canadian dollar. Similarly, when the oil price declines, the exchange rate helps to spread the pain.

GB: Will Canada’s pipeline bottlenecks have an effect on its energy future?

AC: Yes and no. People in the oil sector will say that, one way or another, the oil is going to get to market. If it will not be by pipeline, then it will be by rail or truck or some other mode. Quite an enormous amount has already been shipped by modes other than pipelines. Obviously, if it is more cost-efficient to do it by pipeline, then you would like to have that opportunity. That is clearly an enormous issue, then, to be managed in the years and decades to come. It may be less imperative when oil prices are down as far as they are today – and if they will continue to decline – but in the longer term you want to be able to build pipelines when it is safe and cost-effective to do so. We clearly have some work to do domestically and internationally in finding a pipeline approval process that people view as legitimate. In my view, we have quite a good process in the National Energy Board (NEB). However, the last government did some damage in terms of the reality or the perception that they were not going to give the NEB the type of independence that it needed to be a true arbiter and guardian of the various interests and concerns that might arise around pipelines – particularly those concerning the environment and Aboriginal rights.

Once these concerns are addressed, of course, there will always be a certain segment of society for which nothing in the process can be sufficient. That segment will be vehemently opposed to pipelines in and of themselves – even if this involves ignoring due process of law and democratic elections.

GB: What about the length of time that it is taking Canada to build pipelines?

AC: There is no alternative to doing the leg work in terms of the process to address legitimate concerns around pipelines. Having said this, once these concerns are addressed, there is no alternative to sucking up our nerve and getting the pipelines built. We absolutely cannot ignore legitimate environmental and Aboriginal concerns. But if we feel that we have found a fair process and properly met those concerns, then I do not think that we can be intimidated by people or groups for whom no process is good enough.

GB: What is your sense of Aboriginal futures in Canada over the next 10 to 20 years? Is there a clear policy agenda? Is there a clear end-game?

AC: I am concerned. There are reasons for hope, but there are also reasons to be very concerned. The great reason for hope is that there is a tendency for any group of human beings, over time, to find ways to improve their lot. It takes a great deal of bad policy and many misaligned social trends to overcome this basic tendency. There is much evidence to the effect that more and more Aboriginal people are going to university, and that more and more are starting new businesses. And yet there is much poor policy to overcome, as well as many terrible legacies. There are two orders of such things: one deals with the really overt not just neglect, but mistreatment of Aboriginal people through institutions like the residential schools. There is no doubt that Canada has some atonement and repair work to do. No one in Canada should deny or discount the legacy of this maltreatment in terms of damage to individual and collective lives. There is also an unfortunate policy legacy stemming from an attempt to try to recreate some imagined indigenous world prior to European contact; or an attempt to retreat to some modernized, futuristic vision of that pre-contact world – much of it involving a return to the land, to supposed native forms, to uniquely native forms of government, and to uniquely native forms of economic arrangement, located on the reserves.

To the extent that this is the policy agenda – and it seems to only be so for a minority of activists, albeit a very powerful minority – then it will lead nowhere. There are some very, very smart people who have some very dangerous ideas in terms of native sovereignty and a quasi-separatist agenda. This, again, will lead nowhere. In between those two extremes, there is another well-meaning trend, which you cannot simply wish it away, even if there may be too much emphasis placed on it – and this involves native land and resource claims, and the idea that this is how Aboriginal people in Canada are going to get ahead. While you cannot deny people what is rightfully theirs, if you are at the same time investing your entire economic future in the idea of claiming wealth rather than creating it – and I am evidently not saying that everyone is – then there is a danger in some of this thinking leading to the belief that simply establishing legal title will mean the end of your problems. This is mistaken.

There needs to be more emphasis on how to get the economic fundamentals right for Aboriginal people – both on-reserve and off. But let us focus on the on-reserve reality for now. How do we create economic structures that are going to allow people on those reserves to create wealth? As much as many people want to emphasize the uniqueness of the Aboriginal experience, I am one of those who says that there are certain fundamentals that apply in all countries at all times. There are certain basics of economic organization that, if neglected, will not allow you to get very far. These are also ultimately linked to governance issues. But until and unless you have a local economic base of wealth creation that you can tax to fund your local government, then you are not going to have the proper democratic institutions. Self-government, as you know, is intimately connected, as it has been in other societies, to the right to tax. That is when people really start to demand a say in their own government. Conversely, as long as we have native governments that are fundamentally organized around grants from the federal government, they are never going to be fully democratic.

GB: Do you see a future for the Indian Act?

AC: In the long term, no. Everyone agrees that it has to go.

GB: Do you think so?

AC: Absolutely. But no one can agree on what you replace it with, and how you get from A to B.

GB: Why does Canada not have its own professional hockey league?

AC: That is an interesting question. This is tied up with the whole history of our relationship with the US. You might say that we colonized large sections of the US with our game. As a result, there are kids in Boston, Chicago and Detroit growing up and dreaming of playing for their local professional hockey team alongside a bunch of Canadians. Even to this day, most of the players on most of the teams remain Canadian.

GB: But Canadians are not the decision-makers in the league, correct?

AC: That is right. We made the decision to throw in our lot with the Americans, and everyone has become a lot wealthier as a consequence. The players are making much larger salaries than they could ever make if they were just in a Canadian league. So, for good or ill, that decision was made decades ago. I am not sure that many people regret it. There are, of course, certain downsides to it.

GB: Why could Canada not have, say, a basketball league or baseball league of its own?

AC: We could, but it just would not be on the same scale as the American ones. The pull of population in the US is enormous. If we had a much larger population, then the pull, of course, would not be as significant. But that ratio is not going to change significantly for some time. This reality is built into the nature of our historical relationship with this much larger republic to the south.

GB: What is the mandate of the federal government or other forces in Canadian society to build east-west against the gravity of north-south?

AC: I do not agree that there is such an east-west building mandate. The reason to have Canada, in my view, is to do the things that Canada can do in the world for its own citizens and for the rest of the world. This is implicitly – for me, at least – a universalist project. I do not believe that the raison d’être of the country is to be unique and different and obsessed with all the ways in which it can distinct. The ultimate raison d’être of countries like ours is to try to be the best exemplar of certain universal ideas and ideals.


Andrew Coyne is a leading Canadian political columnist with the National Post, and also a member of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s At Issue panel on The National.


You Might Also Enjoy This in GB