What is Canada For?

As Canada sits in the crossroads between its peacekeeping past and fighting terror future, Dr. Michael Byers, the Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at the University of British Columbia, breaks down Canada's role in international organizations, the use of military force, human rights and Canada–United States relations.

Dr. Michael Byers holds the Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at the University of British Columbia, where he focuses on the role of international organizations, the use of military force, the law of the sea, human rights and Canada–United States relations. Prior to July 2004, he was a Professor of Law and Director of Canadian Studies at Duke University in North Carolina.

His most recent book is Intent for a Nation: What is Canada for?, a title inspired by conservative philosopher George Grant's influential 1965 work, Lament for a Nation, in which Grant grimly predicted the inevitable absorption of Canada by the United States.

Byers sat down with Adbusters Contributing Editor Deborah Campbell recently to discuss the past, present and future of Canada on the global stage – including how long those Canucks have before the Yanks swallow them alive.

On George Grant's fatalism

This thesis that Canada was destined to lose independence due to very powerful forces, such as economics and global culture, that was part of the accepted thinking through the 1980s and 1990s. We were all going to become this sort of bland, same-thinking, Hollywood-oriented, global community. For Canadians, that made it so much easier to go along with the requests and pressures that were emanating from the us.

But Grant made a fundamental analytic mistake, which is that he assumed that economics is everything. He also assumed that cultures are relatively malleable, not deep-rooted. Those two assumptions, I think, are both wrong, they've been proven wrong. On the economics front, 86 percent of Canada's trade was with the US when Canada said no to the Iraq War. That was a really big ask from George W. Bush at a time when he was phenomenally powerful. And yet, we were able to say no. That flatly contradicts Grant's thesis.

On the cultural front, as we know from social science work like the World Values Survey and some of the work done by people like Michael Adams, Canadians and Americans are actually diverging. This has to do with the fact that not just Canada, but also the US changes. We have institutions that feed into our values, so the existence of universal public health care isn't just an expression of our values – it in turns feeds back into how Canadians think about community.

Grant's thesis seemed to be playing out through the '80s and '90s, partly because of Brian Mulroney's overt pro-Americanism, the negotiation of the FTA in 1988, and then NAFTA in 1994, but also the effects of the relatively benign, charismatic Clinton administration's approach to North American affairs. Then along comes George W. Bush, along comes 9/11, along comes the disaster of the Iraq War, the foolishness of the American torture policy, the rise of the religious right – a whole bunch of things that a lot of people wouldn't or couldn't have anticipated – and all of a sudden Americans are on average moving away from us faster than we would have been moving towards them.

On the bright side

What do we have going for us? We're independent. We've proven that in the case of the Iraq War and missile defence. We're big – second largest country on earth. We're rich – eighth largest economy with only 32 million people. We're peaceful, internally, with an incredibly diverse population and almost no ethnic or religious conflict. These are all fabulous things. We still have a very strong international reputation for moderation and a proactive, progressive, multilateral view of how the world should operate. You add it all up and Canada is, objectively, one of the ten most powerful nations in the world. But you have to be looking at the positive things.

If we were located where South Africa is located, we would know that we are powerful. People would consider us powerful from the outside as well. We suffer, as much as we benefit, from our proximity to the United States. It undermines our self-confidence to be so close to, and seemingly so dependent on, the world's most powerful state – although I do make the argument in my book that the us is just as dependent on Canada as we are on them, particularly when it comes to energy and other resources. So this sense of dependence that we have objectively needs to be qualified.

We're at the point where an epiphany is possible. Certainly for progressive Canadians, our refusals on the Iraq War and missile defence were a big deal. By a combination of circumstances, we ended up with a prime minister who shares nothing of that vision. But Stephen Harper's not going to be around forever, and the growing, crisis-level challenges of our world are only increasing in scale.

On Harper's vision for the nation

The first thing to understand is that Mr. Harper is an economist, so he thinks that economics are of paramount importance. And I'm pretty sure that he buys Grant's thesis, and that there's not really much we can do to avoid it because we are so dependent on the US economically. So the question for Mr. Harper would be how to manage dependency. I really don't think that he's capable of believing that Canada can chart an independent course. Add to that the fact that ideologically he is essentially an American Republican, he wouldn't see a whole lot of downside to going along with the policy decisions of the Bush administration. For him, it's a convenient default position.

I'll give you the three most obvious examples. One, Harper's long-standing position on climate change, which he has recently altered – ostensibly – because he's finally realized the political reality that lots of Canadians are beginning to care a great deal about climate change, and that it has become hard to deny at a scientific level, especially for an Arctic country like Canada. But Stephen Harper as a policy wonk has always doubted the reality of human-caused climate change, and has resisted any effort to deal with it, especially in a multilateral manner involving any international organizations. In that respect, he shares an awful lot with key members of the Bush administration.

The second example concerns the use of the military abroad, and what Mr. Harper has sought to do with the Canadian forces – his absolutely gung-ho support for the counter-insurgency mission in Afghanistan, his public criticism of Jean Chrétien's government for not sending troops to Iraq in 2003. This is a man who believes that foreign policy at a primary level involves shooting people overseas. He's not a peacekeeper. He's not a diplomat. He shares the tough-guy position of the Bush admin, in the belief that the way you exert influence is by exerting military power.

I guess the final issue that stands out is Mr. Harper's aggressive policies on the Middle East, such as his comment that Israel's response to Hezbollah's abduction of an Israeli soldier last summer was "measured." And his refusal to back down from that, even after eight Canadian citizens were killed in the bombings. That was staggering for me, because the Middle East was one of the important areas in which Canada had traditionally and successfully steered a different course, all the way back to 1956 and the Suez Crisis. That was Lester Pearson and Canadian diplomacy's greatest moment, using middle-road, pro-active diplomacy and the imaginative construction of solutions – in that instance, the pioneering of un peacekeeping. That's what we did. That's why we have the reputation we have. There was no need for Mr. Harper to make that comment, and to side unequivocally with the Israeli Defense Forces last summer. Even within Israel there was a lot of public discomfort with what the IDF was doing, but you would never have suspected the slightest doubt in the Canadian government. We've seen similar things happen with the issue of funding the Palestinian Authority or the listing of Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. And as a result of this, the Harper government is essentially writing Canada out of the script in the search for Mid-East peace. We don't matter anymore.

The Bush administration's greatest failing, I think, is missing the importance of soft power. Mr. Harper makes the exact same mistake, but it's magnified ten-fold by the fact that Canada relies much more on soft power than the US. It's the one thing that has really made us matter in the past. The combination of our size, our location, our resources, with a very sophisticated use of soft power – that's what enabled us historically to "punch above our weight." The Harper government doesn't get that. It's our most treasured asset, and it takes decades to build it up and only months to waste it away.

I have serious problem with the Harper government in terms of foreign policy, and yet, at the same time, I'm encouraged, because I don't think that Mr. Harper's decisions are obtaining much in the way of support from Canadians. I don't think that his decisions on climate change, on Afghanistan, on the Middle East, and a host of other foreign policy areas are actually working in domestic politics. That suggests to me that he is out of sync with where Canadians are today. We're in a sort of temporary zone of displacement as we give the neocons half a try in Canada and then move back into something that's more mainstream. That's not so much the result of any political success on Mr. Harper's part, it's mostly the fault of the Liberal Party, having let itself run out of steam and out of ideas.

On North American continental integration

Those who favour increased integration between Canada, the us and to a lesser degree Mexico have realized that transparency is an impediment to their efforts, and that the traditional route of negotiating treaties – which then must be ratified, in the us including the consent of the senate – is not the optimal way forward. They've realized that neither the Canadian nor the American public is ready for increased integration right now.

There's an awful lot of concern in the us about the loss of jobs or control over decision-making that could result from the pooling of powers at a transnational level. Certainly in Canada, there's a great deal of unease among many about how integrated we've already become. On top of this, we're currently dealing with an immensely unpopular American administration, making it very tough to sell further integration at a public level to Canadians.

So, the clever people who manage these things have taken the effort underground, and are doing it on the basis of regulatory convergence – not legislation, but simply the alignment of regulatory practices, with regards to things like food safety, railroad standards, the licensing of drugs, the regulation of securities. What we're seeing increasingly is the use of transnational committees of unelected bureaucrats who are modifying existing regulations or adopting new ones so as to promote what they would call efficiency. For instance, on the issue of pesticide residues on food, Canada has actually weakened some of our regulations to bring our rules in line with those of the US.

Over time, the lack of transparency and democracy involved in this form of governance will undermine the distinction between Canada and the us. As it happens, on both sides of the border, the Security and Prosperity Partnership [SPP] is attracting the attention of activist groups who have been very successful in the past at putting a stop to efforts like this. The same kind of groups that mobilized against the Multilateral Agreement on Investment in the late 1990s and stopped it dead in its tracks, despite the wishes of all of the governments of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. That's phenomenal.

On how Canadians see themselves

In terms of values, I think universal public health care really says a lot. And universal health care in a way that's distinct from most other countries that have public health care systems, in that it has been coupled with a prohibition on private health care. Which is brilliant, because it means that the wealthy and influential people in the country have a vested interest in supporting the system. And Canadians are very firmly attached to it. Even those politicians that want to dismantle and undermine the system have to talk as if they support the system. It is something that we've internalized.


On the level of stereotypical, iconic Canadianisms, peacekeeping is the same way. It actually meant something to Canadian identity that our men and women went between opposing forces in blue helmets to try to stabilize a situation and ensure that ceasefires could continue. It was something that we could do. It didn't involve being a big, strong, militaristic country – it involved not having enemies and trying to do good. We don't do very much of that anymore. Less than 100 Canadian soldiers are in UN peacekeeping forces at a time when the UN is busier than it has ever been.

Then there's the concern that we have – even if it is hypocritical – for the environment. We're hypocritical because we don't realize our individual impacts on it, but we do think of ourselves as a people who are somehow connected to the wilderness. To be Canadian in the eyes of so many around the world is to be with nature. Whether or not that's real, it's part of what we think. Look at the fact that Pierre Trudeau could get so much political mileage out of photos of him in a canoe.

There's also a powerful hunger in this country for Canada to fulfill an Arctic destiny. The vast majority of us have never been to the Arctic and will never go to the Arctic. But we care about it, because we think of ourselves, quite properly, as an Arctic country. I mean, 40 percent of the second largest country on earth is Arctic. And yet, at a policy level, we do very little there. The amount of money that we invest in the Arctic would be laughed at by any other serious country as a gross under-investment given the potential rewards – not just economic, but also in terms of self-awareness. You see Russia overtly asserting itself as a great polar country, as part of this deliberate maintenance of mythology. Russian politicians get this. Canadian politicians will periodically talk the talk for a few months, but end up doing very little.

On being the most foreign-owned of any developed nation

Part of the explanation of what's gone on is the globalization of business, the rise of the transnational corporation and the reduction of trade and investment barriers around the world. And people will tell you, "Look, we can't do anything about it. We have no choice, this is all about globalization." To a small degree, they are right. But the fact of globalization doesn't mean that we have an absence of policy choices. The thing that makes me angry is how, when Brian Mulroney dismantled the Foreign Investment Review Agency, we were left with a situation in which no foreign investment was questioned or impeded by our national government anymore.

The only country that comes anywhere close is the United Kingdom – Thatcherite and Blairite Britain. Of course, they are under very different circumstances. They don't have the vast natural resources that this country has. They are deeply integrated into the EU, so they're part of a larger economic and political space that isn't dominated by any single country like a united North America would be. And they are one of the powerhouses. But when you look at other developed countries like Japan, or France, or Germany, or even the United States, there is far more regulation and scrutiny and, from time to time, prohibition of foreign investments.

In the case of the scuttled deal for DP World to manage us ports, I think the concerns about national security were largely misplaced, but the fact that a Middle Eastern company was prohibited from acquiring an important part of the American transportation infrastructure was a reflection of the willingness of even the United States, even under a right-wing administration, to take national interest into account. The same thing happens elsewhere: you can't buy an important part of the infrastructure in France or Germany or Japan as a foreign majority owner, you just can't. This doesn't mean you can't have competition, or you can't have foreign investment, it's just limited and controlled in some way.

In Canada, what's striking is just how much has been sold, how much of our economy is now controlled by corporate head offices outside of Canada, and how little concern there seems to be about this. In the book, I note that over half of manufacturing in Canada is foreign-owned, more than three times higher than any other developed nation. This has ramifications for how susceptible our manufacturing industry is to fluctuations offshore. A large transnational corporation – often us-based – has no loyalty whatsoever to Canadian workers or communities in which their operations take place. If they get a better deal tomorrow, they'll be gone. I happen to think that there are certain relationships that deserve a degree of assurance and commitment.

On millionaires & morality

We're not just trying to make money, after all. We're trying to raise the next generation. We're trying to improve the world, in whatever ways we might be able to do that. This is one of the central arguments of the book, that a country is not just about money. We have the luxury of being one of the richest countries on Earth, largely because of our size and our natural resources and some things we've done to create a highly functional polity. We're at the point where the country should not be about turning more millionaires into billionaires. I mean, having millionaires is a good thing because it means that the economy is functioning; having billionaires might not be such a good thing because it indicates a certain level of inequality and profiteering. So I'm not concerned with making millionaires richer, I'm concerned with people living in communities where they feel safe and where they are well-educated and informed and they can actually pursue interests and ambitions that aren't just economic. That for whatever reason, any Canadian child can get a good education. That for whatever reason, anyone who has a serious mental illness has a roof over their head.

I'm not promoting socialism here. I have nothing against having lots of millionaires. I do believe in a meritocracy, but I believe in a caring and compassionate meritocracy. And I think that Canadians in general have historically been pretty good at that. If you look at Tommy Douglas' five majority governments in Saskatchewan,† it wasn't about creating socialism, it was about treating people fairly. I think that kind of thinking is reflected traditionally across the Canadian spectrum, and is part of what motivated Canadian foreign policy, because if you take that attitude at home, by extension you have to take it abroad. You can't not care about foreigners if one of your defining values at home is caring about your neighbours. You can't draw artificial lines around citizens and non-citizens.

We haven't realized this the last couple of decades, but we've become a powerful country. This is the sting in the tail of our whole complacency problem. If we were complacent and impotent, well, I could excuse everyone. But to be complacent and potentially powerful at a time when humanity is facing so many massive problems, it's worse than complacency, it's morally irresponsible. To not actually try to exercise that power to do good is a moral problem. It's a moral problem that most people on this planet don't find themselves in. We do, and our denial is contributing to the fact that we are morally delinquent as a country.

On returning to Canada

I don't see Canada through rose-tinted glasses. We have some really big problems here. I take my students to Vancouver's Downtown Eastside‡ to give them a real kick in the behind. Let's not be moralistic about this country. Canadians do have a tendency to moralize. It annoys the hell out of people in other countries. I don't want people to think I'm one of these moralizing Canadians. The shameful way that we treated our indigenous peoples rivals just about everywhere else. The thing that shocked me most, though, was the increase in the number of homeless people – by an order of magnitude – from the time I went away to the time I came back. You see that sort of thing, if you've been away.

I came back here with my eyes wide open. I had a very comfortable job with total job security, and could have hung out at the Duke faculty sports club for the next 30 years. I was a full professor, and I took a 30 percent salary cut to come back to Canada – because economics is not everything. Some of it was personal, in that I had young children that I wanted to grow up in a different place. But part of it was that life is not about hanging out at the side of the pool. At least in my view, if you want to have an engaged life experience, part of what's involved is actually making a difference. I get enormous satisfaction out of encouraging – sometimes successfully – what I regard as positive shifts in policy. It just happens to be my skill set. For me, this was a place that had phenomenal potential, where I thought that I could not only get some traction, but also an enormous amount of satisfaction – because, on a visceral level, this is my country. And it's as easy as that.

†1944-1961. Douglas led the first socialist government in North America and introduced universal public health care to Canada. In 2004, Canadians voted him "The Greatest Canadian" of all time in a nationally televised contest.

‡Canada's poorest neighbourhood, noted for open drug use and prostitution.

Michael Byers most recent book – Intent for a Nation: What Is Canada For? – is published by Douglas & McIntyre.

_Deborah Campbell teaches literary nonfiction at the University of British Columbia and writes on global affairs for leading international publications.