Suckered by America

If it keeps buying the myth of U.S. supremacy, Canada will never come into its own.

D oing the Continental: A New Canadian-American Relationship is a useful but somewhat portentous little book that immodestly bills itself as “a new and sensible basis for making decisions and taking steps towards doing our dance with the U.S. differently.” David Dyment assures us: “That a political scientist would write a book that includes himself is understandable … I sought to understand Canada and Quebec by learning French in my twenties and doing a Ph.D. at the Université de Montréal. Writing this book is an attempt to understand that other great dimension of our collective life—the role and place of the U.S.” These insights are passed down, du haut de la chaire, in the last pages of the narrative, not where such hustling of an author’s wares usually appears, in the foreword or the blurbed encomia of friends on the back cover. The ambitions were commendable, but on the evidence, the missions were not accomplished.

Although hackneyed and, as the author rightly states, devalued by the cant and emotionalism of witless Canadian Americophobes and closet annexationists, and a lot of pretty muddled wafflers in between, this is a complicated subject. This book, which frequently represents itself as a decade-long opus of massive research and unprecedented boldness of outlook and thoroughness of analysis, is about 35,000 words—less than two chapters in most serious non-fiction works of history or politics. It is hard for someone who has written books on that scale to believe that this diminutive volume took more than a month to research, write and edit. This is not to say that it is not a good addition to the discussion; it is, but it is not the Damascene revelation of the destiny of the continent that Dyment seems to think he has conferred on us.

He makes three excellent points: the discussion of American-Canadian relations should cease to be polarized between demonizers and sycophants of America; Canada needs a sensible energy program, and this author’s idea of using nuclear energy rather than natural gas in the process of extracting oil from tar sands is, on its face, very sensible; and it is rubbish for Canada simply to refuse to export a drop of water to anyone, ever. These are good and important points, but they are details that do not get to grips with the whole subject of the raison d’être of Canada. The author is correct in implying that uncertainty about that raison d’être is at the base of Canada’s insecurities opposite the United States. He is also correct in his unstated assumption that there is such a raison d’être, but he does not really hint at what it is.

Dyment deserves great credit, as a professed centre-left Canadian of a pretty conventional hue, for seeing that the United States is not an evil country foaming and heaving with covetousness for the pure snow maiden of the North. But he is oddly blinded by the myths of elephantine American strength, exceptionalism and revolutionary vigour.

We must start by knowing the essential political truths about Canada and the United States, deduce a national purpose from that, and then design policy to amplify and achieve it. This book simply nibbles around the edges. The United States began life as a bold confidence trick. The British had skillfully played the balance of power in continental Europe from the rise of the nation-state in the 16th century, enabling them to focus on maritime strength and to build and maintain a greater overseas empire than their continental rivals. This enabled them to remove the French from Canada and assure the security of the American colonists, but British national debt rose from £75 million to £133 million in the Seven Years War (1756–1763). The Americans had almost 40 percent of the population of Great Britain and a higher standard of living; and when the British tried, very clumsily, to get the chief beneficiaries of the removal of the French from Canada to help pay for it, the Americans splendidly improvised the argument that they would not be taxed unless they voted for it themselves (which no sane people ever does unless it has to).

Jefferson began the mighty American propaganda and public relations machine that technology has since enabled to saturate the world, and declared the existence of “inalienable rights and … self-evident truths” that the “sacred Honor” of the Americans required to be defended by force. This was a bit rich coming from a bunch of -slaveholders and money-grubbing Boston lawyers and merchants; the Declaration of Independence was four fifths a Nuremberg-like indictment of that poor old royal nincompoop George III and a blood libel on the American Indian. (Jefferson even wanted to blame George III for the importation of slaves until it was pointed out that his own notorious infatuation with his comelier female slaves would dilute the declaration’s credibility.)

This was all a magnificent blind for what was effectively tax evasion; Washington was implacable in keeping a largely unpaid and untrained army in the field for over seven years, and Benjamin Franklin achieved one of the greatest feats of diplomatic history by inducing France (which was almost bankrupt and whose Estates General had not met since it was dismissed by the young Richelieu in 1614) to enter the war on behalf of revolution, colonial secessionism and legislative democracy. Without that intervention, the Americans would not have won and the French king and queen would probably have kept their thrones and heads. Madison and Hamilton wrote the new country a fine constitution, whose institutional clauses have been misshapen and whose Bill of Rights guaranties of due process and access to impartial justice have been shredded, although freedoms of speech and association have flourished. The American founders were remarkable men, although not more so than contemporary analogues such as Chatham, Burke, Fox, Pitt, Wellington, Napoleon, Frederick the Great, Catherine the Great, Maria Theresa and Metternich.

The citizens of the new nation did not have appreciably more individual liberty than they had before the revolution, nor than the citizens of the mother country possessed; and the United States was stunted by the incongruous moral cancer of slavery, a problem that was deferred by President Jackson’s threat to hang his vice-president and suppress South Carolina by force if it tried to secede, accompanied by his promise to protect slavery in the South and Southwest. (The Canadian Liberals emulated this formula by promising to make Confederation work for French Canadians while strenuously opposing the separation of Quebec.) Jackson’s arrangements, prolonged by Henry Clay’s compromises, maintained the Union until the free states—led by the incomparable Abraham Lincoln—were sufficiently strong, by a narrow margin (although the North had four fifths of the free citizens of America), to suppress the slave-holding states in a horrible war that killed 620,000 people, wounded half a million others and laid waste a quarter of the country, in a population smaller than Canada’s today. The inexorable rise of America since has astounded the world, until 20 years ago; but its exceptionalism is essentially made of scale and bravura.

The United States, despite claiming to be the light of the world, did not lift a finger to extend democracy elsewhere and from its founding to the Normandy landings 161 years later, democracy remained confined to the English–speaking Caucasian areas, Switzerland and parts of Scandinavia, and the Netherlands and France when liberated. When American strategic planners recognized the Cold War challenge from the USSR, they billed it as a struggle between totalitarian communism and the Free World, although that then included dictatorships in Korea, Spain, Portugal, Iran and most of Latin America. Democracy triumphed, thanks to America, but the United States is not today one of the world’s better functioning democracies.

Canada was scattered Scots and Acadians, the Québécois abandoned when the French departed in 1763, United Empire Loyalists who fled the American Revolution, a string of motley groups along a railway built from the vision of John A. Macdonald and, eventually, the failed Dominion of Newfoundland. It was proclaimed a country after the Union emerged victorious in the U.S. Civil War and the British subordinated Canadian interests to American in such matters as the Alaska Boundary (the unfavourable resolution of which Dyment blames on inept Canadian negotiators rather than a sellout by Britain), because the British rightly saw that they might need the Americans to bail them out against post-Bismarckian Germany.

This author makes a great deal out of American “manifest destiny.” The phrase originated with editor John L. O’Sullivan in July 1845; it applied to the American right to Texas and later to the Oregon dispute. It was rarely applied to Canada and was never official policy. Some jingoistic American comments are cited here, but the Grand Army of the Republic of Grant and Sherman could have taken Canada in three days and there would not have been anything Britain could or would have done about it. The mythos, bluster and vulgarity of America can be annoying, but the Scots, Irish, Poles and Koreans would envy us our continental arrangements.

Canada had as its raison d’être first the British connection, but that has frayed. There was a brief stab at the virtues of biculturalism but few Canadians, French or English, buy it as a reason for a country. And then there was an implausible effort to imply that the country’s vocation was to have more generous social programs than the Americans. In fact, there is only one reason for Canada: a better competitive society to live in than the United States. If we cannot do that, we should extract a payoff from the Americans for the treasure house of our resources and close the deal.

But we can do it. Dyment is correct that free trade did not really change things, but it helped psychologically: we could do it and not be absorbed as had been predicted by many, including the American negotiator, Clayton Yeutter. And the correlation of forces has changed. With China and India—almost 40 percent of the world’s population—having become countries of aggressive economic growth, Canada’s status as a resource-based economy benefits from a seller’s market and has become a position of strength. This author does not seem to have noticed that the percentage of Canadian exports bought by the United States is in decline and has already diminished by about a sixth.

And the United States, having pursued an inspired foreign policy from Lend-Lease through the war and the containment of the USSR, has suddenly succumbed to a binge of unprecedented public policy stupidity: outsourcing 40 million low-skill jobs while admitting 15 million illegal unskilled workers, borrowing trillions from China and Japan to buy goods from China and Japan, destabilizing their currency with $800 billion annual current account deficits, plunging into an abyss of public sector debt while Canada racked up surpluses and issuing trillions of dollars of worthless real estate–backed debt that Wall Street certified to be investment grade. The great United States became a Ponzi scheme itself, and the present president, whom Dyment idealizes rather effusively, is the most incompetent holder of that office since James Buchanan, who brought on the Civil War. Dyment also labours rather tediously the importance of the Congress. Prominent legislators do tend to be important in democratic countries, whether the executive sits in the legislature, as in the parliamentary system, or not.

This author, leftist though he is, is too dazzled by America as it is now. The U.S. is large and important and generally benign and magnificent in many ways, but down at the heel and very fallible and nothing Canada cannot deal with. Europe has become a dyspeptic, withering talking shop; Russia is a gangster-state basket case; Japan a diligent, geriatric luxury goods factory; and China and India each have 900 million peasants who live as they did 3,000 years ago. The correlation of forces has changed and Dyment should not be mouthing John Diefenbaker’s platitudes about Canada being a middle power. It is one of the ten or twelve most important of the 194 countries in the world, and should be making its own proposals for reforming some of the tattered international institutions Canada helped found, such as the United Nations, NATO and the International Monetary Fund. It is not enough to write, as Dyment does, that “Canada is not a mouse.” Of course it is not, and only a few Canadians, of left or right, think it is.

Dyment also takes the Quebec independentist threat too seriously. They could never get near 50 percent in a referendum vote without a trick question that implied exchanging embassies with the world while retaining the Canadian dollar and equalization and transfer payments, eating the cake while keeping it whole in front of them. Quebec is debt ridden and has demographically shrunk as part of Canada and unless we completely mismanage that relationship, it is not going anywhere. The secession problem has been resolved by Canadian goodwill, Quebec pecuniary realism and tireless, patient effort.

Dyment is correct in saying that Mexico will be no use to us. That poor country has been reduced to civil war because the Americans, instead of cracking down on middle-class drug use (rather than just rounding up and imprisoning millions of black and Hispanic drug offenders) or using their immense military to seal the borders without impeding commerce and legitimate tourism, demand reduction of supply at source and interdiction in transit. Mexico, nearly a third world country to begin with, has been almost completely immobilized in a desperate internecine struggle as a result, but you would not know it from this book.

Dyment is right to require a bit of grandeur from Canada. I do not believe his claim that the United States seriously offered to pay for the Avro Arrow jet fighter development (cancelled in 1959), as he repeats several times. But I agree that we should have built the plane, preferably in prearranged cooperation with another country, such as the United Kingdom, since the manufacturer was, as the author never mentions, a British company. Taking the Bomarc missile instead and then refusing to take its warheads completed the ludicrous fiasco. And we should have taken joint control of Chrysler with Fiat—still should, as I have written elsewhere, and as Jim Coutts advocated when he was Pierre Trudeau’s principal secretary 30 years ago. Dyment is correct that we must have a national policy for energy, although not one modelled on the Trudeau-Lalonde initiative of 1980, and a national water policy. Free markets work for economic development but not necessarily for national strategic interests, as Dyment rightly says.

This is a good book as far as it goes, but it starts from an obsolete premise—that Canada is overwhelmed by the unlimited power and panache of America—and it reads as if the author is introducing Franklin D. Roosevelt to give his “won’t stand idly by” speech at Kingston in 1938 and does not really go very far.