Continental Divide

Analyzing the many strains of Canadian economic nationalism.

There was a time not so long ago when being a Canadian victim of U.S. domination was all the rage. In the glorious 1960s and the not-so–glorious early ’70s, Canada was young, hip and irreverent; Canadian nationalism was at its height; and American imperialism was at yet another post-war peak (nadir?). In these heady days, a generation of Canadians was taught that Canada was a colony or, at the very least, a dependency of the United States, and that Canadians should fight for their country.

Many heeded the call, and, in retrospect, Canadians became interested in themselves in a way that they have rarely been—nationalist policies were pushed, commissions created, Canadian studies programs launched, CanCon regulations imposed. It was actually popular to be a member of something called the Committee for an Independent Canada. (Full disclosure: born in 1970, I missed all this fun.) Much of the fury against American domination happened on university campuses, where young, white, middle class people in particular took up the clarion call. English-speaking universities became hotbeds of Canadian nationalism, both popular and academic.

Alas, scholarly indignation and political crusading eventually moved on. What was once an academic pursuit full of righteous indignation and activist passion gave way to other fields of subaltern study, politico-scholarly trends and inquiries of injustice. Nowadays, environmental studies, indigenous studies and international development studies are in vogue. Canadianists can, I suppose, take some solace in that they are not the only ones for whom the vicissitudes of intellectual fashion no longer blow in their direction; whole disciplines of the humanities are threatened, both by shifting intellectual trends and neoliberal agendas.

For those who still study Canada, however, there exists also a wistfulness, a melancholy and a sense of loss. The country never seemed quite as alive as when it faced such mortal threats, both real and perceived.

Nevertheless, long after this nationalist outburst, an important school of Canadian political economy continued to portray the country and its people as either victims or collaborators of an American capitalist imperialism that had bought and sold sweet, young Canada. When it first appeared around the time of Canada’s Centennial love-in, there was unquestionably something to this idea, with evidence both prima facie and otherwise. Great post-war waves of American direct investment meant that Canadian manufacturing, including the automotive, consumer products and chemical sectors, were majority U.S.-owned, as were much of the oil, gas, mining and smelting industries.

Culturally, English-speaking Canada was little more than a northern extension of the U.S. market. Something had to be done to rescue Canada from its seemingly inevitable fate, as nationalist hero Walter Gordon claimed in his 1966 book, A Choice for Canada: Independence or Colonial Status? Many Canadians were fired up, and even Pierre Trudeau’s Liberal government started to enact measures to “save” the country from foreign domination.

Enabling this outrage was a constellation of scholars who eventually called their movement the “New Canadian Political Economy” (NCPE). These academics dusted off Harold Innis’s pessimistic staples theory—that Canada was damned to underdevelopment because of its dependency upon the extraction of staples goods—tarted it up with some Third World “dependency theory” intellectual imports, and voilà! Canada was, in one of the more famous turns of phrase from the period, “the richest underdeveloped nation in the world.” By the 1970s and ’80s it was a die-hard article of faith in many circles, academic or popular, that Canada was dependent, a satellite and sycophant of the United States and its capitalists.

Paul Kellogg, a political scientist at Athabaska University by way of small-town Ontario, has clearly had enough of this long-standing narrative. In his view, for far too long, Canadians (or at least, those interested in Canadian political economy) have been duped by a series of false prophets peddling bad medicine. Reading Escape from the Staple Trap: Canadian Political Economy and Left Nationalism, it is easy to imagine Kellogg as Jack Nicholson’s Joker, racing through the annual meetings of the Canadian Political Science Association yelling “this town needs an enema!”—an unrepentant, swashbuckling slayer of social science shibboleths.

In the crosshairs of Kellogg’s critique are scholars he broadly terms “left nationalists.” He sees their movement as having three phases. First, the “classic” late 1960s and early ’70s moment, marked by the dependency-laden condemnations of Canada’s U.S.-domination by scholars such as Mel Watkins and Kari Levitt. Kellogg seems to have a particular animus against the Waffle here. Then, the “free trade” moment, a 1980s and early ’90s nationalist outburst over economic ties with the United States led by luminaries such as Maude Barlow. Finally, a third moment, sparked by the Canadian Dimension’s editorial call for a “national resistance” that emerged in the early 21st-century context of anti-globalization. Kellogg’s argument connects these phases together as a philosophical whole, linking Canadian denunciations of U.S. domination/dependency, Canada’s peripheral or semi-peripheral status, and its place in the global South/North over four decades of NCPE thought.

And then he starts to demolish. Chapter by chapter, Kellogg systematically dismantles many of the long-standing conventions of the NCPE. The school’s dependency view of Canada as a peripheral state in the world economic system, or its comparison of Canada to countries in the global South such as Mexico, are dismissed as unrealistic, ahistorical and based on poor methodology. More recent critiques of Canada as a victim of American direct investment, or a “hollowing out” of corporate Canada, are assailed with an array of economic data that suggest that Canadian firms are the real takeover artists, and that hollowing out is a media-generated myth. Kellogg even gamely challenges the idea that contemporary Canada is addicted to oil, suffers from resource dependency or could fall prey to Dutch disease. There is much going on in this book, and Kellogg utilizes an immense arsenal of statistics and data, theories and approaches pulled from a vast array of sources to launch his attacks, from Statistics Canada to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development to Immanuel Wallerstein’s world systems theory.

Much of Kellogg’s evidentiary assault is well placed. Take the NCPE’s argument about Canada’s lack of manufacturing; the country’s alleged deindustrialization at the hands of the United States. A very Canadian analogy will illustrate: in the 1980s, anyone who was in a hockey pool understood one oft-invoked rule—no one could pick Wayne Gretzky. Because of his sheer dominance, whoever got the first pick would choose Gretzky and automatically win, therefore no Gretzky.

Well, since the Second World War, the auto sector has been the Wayne Gretzky of Canadian manufacturing. And some of the scholars of the NCPE did to the auto sector what hockey poolies did to Gretzky—they removed it and him from the equation. They justified taking the dominant auto trade out of Canadian manufacturing because it was mostly American owned and largely constituted cross-border intra-firm trade. This statistical sleight of hand made it look as though Canadian manufacturing was more meagre than was actually the case from the 1970s to the ’90s, despite the immense growth of the massive southern Ontario automotive cluster in that period.

This, as Kellogg points out, is nonsense. Leaving automotive out makes a mockery of any analysis of Canadian manufacturing. Even if the Detroit Three assemblers “shouldn’t count,” what about the myriad of tool and die makers, parts manufacturers and supporting industries in steel or plastics? What about the Japanese assemblers? What about Magna, likely Canada’s last remaining major international high-tech manufacturer? In this instance, the critique is absolutely spot on.

Similarly, Kellogg correctly shows that there has been a vibrant, acquisitive and deeply capitalist class in Canada throughout this period that renders silly the idea of Canada’s capitalists as simply American compradors. Here, Kellogg demonstrates his historical materialist bona fides, getting straight to the heart of what he sees as one of the greatest weaknesses of the neo-nationalists’ criticisms: Canada has its own capitalists and, to Kellogg, they are clearly very comfortable in their role as members of a core, advanced capitalist country.

To his credit, on this issue Kellogg does show that this idea has been around for some time, one of his better attempts to provide nuance in addressing “the nationalist left,” which was indeed diverse and was but one element in a broader New Left in this period.

Of course, although many of Kellogg’s accusations hit the mark, he has the luxury of attacking positions first postulated decades ago. Times have changed, and in places the book seems to be fighting battles well past their best-before date; some of his targets have moved on in their political and philosophical leanings as well. Moreover, Kellogg never tackles the idea that perhaps the NCPE’s economic critiques ultimately made some impact.

For instance, in the 1970s, many left nationalists called for more Canadian control of the oil patch, prompting the creation of Petro-Canada and other nationalist measures. Today, despite the industry’s trials and tribulations, the oil sector boasts a healthy Canadian presence. And even if some of their evidence is fuzzy or not completely convincing, there is no question that the neo-Innisians got much right in the broad strokes. As any critic of the elite one percent will tell you, Kari Levitt’s condemnation of corporate domination still rings true, even if she mostly focused on U.S. multinationals. Moreover, Kellogg himself admits that on issues such as class, gender and race, the NCPE “has made an enormous contribution to several generations’ attempts to conceptualize the Canadian -experience.”

Despite Kellogg’s legitimate beefs with the NCPE, the book has some notable flaws. Curiously, given its subject and title, Kellogg never fully engages the work of political economist and bureaucrat W.A. Mackintosh, himself the subject of an excellent recent biography. In the interwar period, Mackintosh functionalized and distinguished Innis’s staples approach by arguing that there could be “good” and “bad” staples, depending on the transportation, financial and communication linkages each staple bequeathed (he used wheat as an example in contrast to Innis’s fur-trade focus) and that there was, in fact, an “escape” from the staples trap, long before the arrival of the “new” Canadian political economists. And, for all the emphasis on evidence, Kellogg hangs much of his critique of the post-2000 third phase of left nationalism on a few fire-breathing editorials from the Canadian Dimension, which is a bit thin and stretches almost to the breaking point his broad left-nationalist framework.

In places, the book is idiosyncratic and personalized. It starts and ends with an anecdotal comparison of Detroit’s and Toronto’s respective garbage collection policies, intended to explain fundamental differences in Canada and the United States, and also to act as a teaser for Kellogg’s forthcoming second volume, which will expound on his thesis of “parasitic militarism.”

But Detroit-Toronto is a wholly unrealistic comparison. Both are Great Lakes cities, but one is the most racially and economically stratified one-industry town the United States may ever see, the other is an immigrant-fuelled, dramatically diverse, national centre of culture and business. The book’s conclusion also descends into something of a rant, where Kellogg goes after a grab bag of targets, from Barlow to the “Own the Podium” Olympic funding program.

All the same, there is a clear and fundamental contribution underlying Escape from the Staple Trap. Kellogg’s book has done a great service in illuminating a great, yet largely unremarked upon, trend of post-war Canadian history: the emergence of two distinct and competing groups of (English-speaking) Canadian nationalists.

The first includes a great many Canadians of the pre–free trade generation who worried about what would happen to Canada with economic integration. These “nationalist-nationalists” identify with the 1960s/Centennial/Trudeau period, and demand national solutions for Canadian economic and political problems. As Kellogg points out, after their defeat during the debates over the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement and then the North American Free Trade Agreement, many in this group morphed into “internationalist–nationalists”—anti-globalization critics such as Barlow or Naomi Klein who are “glocal”—certainly nationalistically Canadian, but simultaneously just as connected with global movements that challenge neoliberalism.

The other group, which Kellogg implicitly recognizes, I would call “continentalist-nationalists,” people such as Brian Mulroney or Simon Reisman, who argued that the best way to build Canada is through continentalism. Today, there is a generation of Canadians, namely the millennials, who are whether they realize it or not in that camp. They are happy partaking in a North American culture/economy/mindset, and exalt in their Canadianness when the national hockey teams win gold at the Olympics. But one should not expect them to want to nationalize industries or watch Canadian television or movies for the sake of supporting what is homegrown. To them, Canada certainly exists as a distinct entity, and as proof they can point to staying out of Iraq in 2003, getting same sex-marriage before the Americans and, likely, legalizing pot before they do, too (mostly). But by and large, the millennials—the children of free trade and the products of two generations of neoliberal thinking and policy—are regionally American and situationally Canadian, when it suits them.

Perhaps I am selling the millennials short. After all, one could make the case that North American conservatism is intellectually and politically bankrupt (see Donald Trump and Stephen Harper) and that on both sides of the border there seems to be something of a millennial-fuelled progressive revival going on. Bernie Sanders’s college-fuelled uprising and, more importantly for our purposes, the success of Justin Trudeau in connecting to a whole new generation of Canadian voters shows that there is a sizable portion of the populace who want to embrace progressive “national” solutions, “national” projects, or simply going our own way, as Kellogg’s “left-nationalists” long advocated.

Does Trudeau represent a generational “new” left nationalism in Canada, a renaissance of the nationalism of his father’s era, even the start of a new progressive era? Since free trade, there has not been a major politician or movement in Canada that has aspired to anything beyond the neoliberal status quo, and despite his embrace of Keynesian deficit spending and his celebrated status (even on the American stage) as a harbinger of Canada being “back,” it is not yet clear that Trudeau will move radically beyond his predecessors.

But there are some signs here that Kellogg may have been incorrect in expounding on Canadian Political Economy after Left Nationalism. It may not have the fire of an earlier, halcyon era, but the early 21st century may just be experiencing a return to left nationalism in Canada—one that might not be so obsessed with the United States and its role in Canadian society, but one that is finally willing to start challenging the deep-rooted tenets of -neoliberalism.