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From the archives

The Path of Poetic Resistance

To disarm Canada and its canon

Are Interests Really Value-Free?

A salvo from the “realist” school of Canadian foreign relations

Going It Alone

The marvellous, single-minded, doggedly strange passion of citizen scientists

Period Piece

Forty-five years of change

Jeffrey Simpson

John Lawrence Manion joined the federal public service in 1953 and held numerous roles until his retirement as principal of the Canadian Centre for Management Development, in 1991. Since then, the annual Manion Lecture has addressed “pressing public policy and public management issues that affect the professional roles and responsibilities of public servants in a way that challenges orthodoxies, speaks to the future, and broadens horizons.” On December 10, 2020, the veteran political commentator Jeffrey Simpson delivered the Manion Lecture via webcast, from which the following is adapted.

It is an honour to deliver the annual Manion Lecture. The circumstances of its delivery are perforce unique — thank you, COVID‑19 — but the name attached to this speech remains the same. I did not know Jack Manion, but I’ve heard much about him. And it’s universally the description of someone who might be called the public servant’s public servant: straight, honest, smart, balanced, and devoted.

Public servants sometimes get a bad name, including from the media. But the pandemic has underscored the importance of a capable and dedicated public service — from health officials to policy analysts and administrators. You have been working under constant pressure, dealing with unprecedented, mutually reinforcing crises of public health and the economy. Mistakes have been made, of course, but, as a former senior cabinet minister once remarked to me, when the bucket brigade fights a fire, some water gets spilled along the way.

In fall 1972, fresh from graduate school overseas, I came to Ottawa as one of ten new parliamentary interns. Two weeks or so after we arrived, Pierre Trudeau, having been elected in 1968 with a majority, called an election. He barely won that vote, clinging to power with 109 seats, compared with 107 for the Progressive Conservatives. Our group therefore got a front-row seat for how minority governments operate. I was fortunate to work for three fine members of Parliament: Ed Broadbent of the NDP, who later became party leader; Barney Danson of the Liberals, who became minister of national defence and to whom we all owe a debt because without his tireless efforts we might not have the National War Museum; and André Fortin of the now long-defunct Créditiste party. From each I learned much about the demands on a parliamentarian.

A handful of major changes have occurred.

Bettmann, 1978; Getty Images

Having arrived as a stripling at the end of Trudeau’s first term and having retired from my columnist’s post at the Globe and Mail in 2016, ten months into his son Justin’s first government, I thought I might ruminate about a handful of the major changes that have occurred in Canadian public affairs over the past four and a half decades — the Trudeau-to-Trudeau Period, if you like.

Please bear in mind that a lecture can merely scratch the surface of only some of these changes. Many others will be missed: the increased concern about global warming, the rise and influence of women in politics and other spheres of Canadian society, the transformation of the media with the decline and in some instances the fall of newspapers, the end of the Cold War and its replacement by a multipolar world that has left Canada still feeling morally superior but increasingly marginal to others. And, of course, those changes that I will mention deserve much more intensive commentary than I can give here.

Pierre Trudeau entered public life mainly because of the debate roiling in the 1960s about Quebec’s place in or outside Canada. From the time he entered politics, in 1965, to when he left in 1984, and for two decades or so thereafter, Quebec’s restlessness within Canada preoccupied federal politics. Keeping the country together, then as now, is the most important obligation for any national government. Today the threat of dismemberment seems remote; it did not always seem that way. We know the Official Languages Act and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms were central to Trudeau’s ambition to frustrate Quebec secessionists. But there was much more from his governments that remains with us.

Think of what was called “French power” by its critics. Trudeau brought francophone Quebeckers to Ottawa and placed them in positions of prominence. In this, he followed Sir John A. Macdonald’s advice that all governments should be “Frenchified.” Since then, each has been led by someone fluently or functionally bilingual, and the winning national party has usually enjoyed at least some success in Quebec.

Think of supply management for dairy farmers, the largest number of whom live and work in Quebec. This cartel remains in place today, to the delight of producers and at cost to consumers. It was created by the Trudeau government to placate Quebec dairy farmers who, in protest against volatile prices, painted evocative slogans on the roofs of their barns, demonstrated on the lawns of Parliament (including by dumping milk on the head of Eugene Whelan, the agriculture minister), and declared support for secessionist politicians who promised them a better deal.

Or consider what we call regional development. The first major program — replete with its own department and presided over by one of Trudeau’s closest allies, Jean Marchand — was to provide federal financial assistance to economic projects in Atlantic Canada and Eastern Quebec. After a while, however, with the menace of secession growing, Quebec ministers began agitating for all of Quebec, including Montreal and environs, to be enveloped in the Department of Regional Economic Expansion’s territory. This eventually happened, and that had the effect over time of creating political pressure to spread various forms of regional development agencies over the entire country, except Greater Toronto and Vancouver.

The real and perceived favouritism shown to Quebec in the Trudeau and Mulroney years irritated other provinces and their populations, especially in Western Canada. Poll after poll showed that when asked which province gained most from Ottawa, people in the rest of Canada responded “Quebec,” whereas inside Quebec the answer was and is “Ontario.” What a friend once called a “malignant sense of regional envy” is seldom far from the surface in Canada and poses an ongoing challenge.

This sense of resentment and envy permeated the many constitutional negotiations of the 1970s and 1980s, as efforts to bend matters toward Quebec were met by different demands from other provinces and from Indigenous organizations. The details of these negotiations are of little interest today, though I covered them all as a charter member of the Constitution Club, from which I long ago resigned. Constitutional reform efforts, which consumed so much time and political capital, ended, with one exception, in failure. The lesson for today and tomorrow: Touch the Constitution at the country’s peril. Change the country but not the Constitution, because, as I will argue, this country does change, sometimes in the face of insistent social demands, sometimes by intergovernmental negotiations, sometimes by gradual shifts in public understanding.

As I mentioned above, the two most important initiatives of Pierre Trudeau’s time as prime minister vis-à-vis Quebec’s restlessness were the Official Languages Act and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It is hard today for younger Canadians to appreciate how controversial the languages act was when adopted and for many years thereafter. The vast majority of English-speaking Canadians did not know French. They resented or feared what they felt was the pressure to learn it or lose a chance to work in the public service. Boos resounded through Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto when a few lines of the national anthem were sung in French. Bilingual packaging — French on cereal boxes! — produced furious denunciations. Many were the reasons why Trudeau very nearly lost power in 1972, but bilingualism and French power were the most important ones.

Today — and this is a lesson in how a country can learn and mature — there remain pockets of grumbling toward the French fact and bilingualism outside Quebec, but they are a weak echo of what was heard in the ’70s. It is now acknowledged that the national party leaders must be bilingual, at least functionally, as with many of the positions at the top of the federal government. Thousands of English-speaking students are enrolled in French-immersion programs, to such an extent that in some places there are not enough teachers. What began in division morphed into one of the identifying, if not always unifying, features of the country.

Official language policy is still not popular everywhere, at least not in practice. The share of Canadians who are fluent in both official languages rose from 13 percent when Trudeau Sr. introduced the act to 17 percent by 1990, but the rate today is only 18 percent. Much of that growth has occurred in Quebec, where more anglophones have learned French and more francophones have learned English. Bilingualism, after initial gains, has made the federal public service less representative of the country, linguistically speaking, since the ever-higher language requirements and the decline of internal language training effectively disqualified or discouraged unilingual speakers — mostly, by definition, anglophones.

Trudeau’s other great reform came about through a moment of contingency unrecognized at the time and still underappreciated today. That fateful moment represents one of the great what‑ifs of the past half-century. Joe Clark won only 36 percent of the popular vote in the 1979 election, compared with 40 percent for Trudeau, but votes for the Progressive Conservatives were distributed in such a way that the party won more seats than the Liberals. Clark formed a minority government, which presented its first budget without consulting the smaller parties in the House of Commons. His government could have changed the budget to win support from one of those parties to survive a confidence motion. It could have delayed the budget, by which time Trudeau, who had announced his intention to give up the Liberal leadership and leave politics, would have departed. But the inexperienced PCs decided that, absent Trudeau, the Liberals would not bring down the government. Or if they did and Trudeau stayed as leader, the country would not suddenly change its mind and return the Liberals to office. The PCs were wrong: The budget was defeated. Trudeau stayed. And the Liberals won the election with a majority.

I dwell on this not just because I wrote my first book on these events, Discipline of Power: The Conservative Interlude and the Liberal Restoration, but because none of us who chronicled them understood their implications at the time. If Clark had remained in office, as was possible, Trudeau would have been gone from public life. Who would have replaced him? Neither the next Liberal leader nor Clark would have pursued a Charter of Rights and Freedoms or invented the National Energy Program that so enraged the energy-producing provinces. It would have been Joe Clark and not Pierre Trudeau directing Ottawa’s strategy during the Quebec referendum. Imagine no Charter. No NEP. No Trudeau at the helm during the run‑up to May 20, 1980. Historical contingency indeed.

The biographers Christina McCall and Stephen Clarkson appositely described the Charter as Trudeau’s “magnificent obsession.” Whether it was and is “magnificent” can be debated; that it was Trudeau’s “obsession” cannot. Something that would go beyond John Diefenbaker’s Bill of Rights — which was a statute rather than a constitutional document — had been promoted by some legal scholars and law teachers. A handful of senior Liberals thought the idea had merit, but most in the party were not seized by the idea. The PCs and New Democrats were not interested. But Trudeau, having returned to office in 1980 for what he must have known would be his last kick at the can, was determined to pursue a Charter.

How the Charter emerged in its final form has been much written about, and I am not going to review the fierce debates with some provincial premiers or the pressure from interest groups and Indigenous leaders. I merely make the ­following broad generalizations.

The Charter has been the most consequential change to the governing of Canada since the Second World War, and arguably since Confederation. Most observers believed it would be many years before its impact would be felt and that judges would be wary about taking on too large a role too quickly. These assumptions were wrong. In a short period of time, judges, especially on the Supreme Court of Canada, began to flex their muscles, arguing they had been enjoined to do so by parliamentarians. The court embraced the “living tree” doctrine, whereby the words of the Charter could have a broader ambit than the designers intended. Over the years, courts, and again especially the Supreme Court, have injected themselves into, among other policy areas, issues of health care, immigration, education, Indigenous rights, social programs, prisoners’ right to vote, and criminal law.

In the country’s law schools, constitutional law used to be one of those boring, mandatory courses about the division of powers between levels of government. But with the Charter, it quickly became the hot subject. Here was a chance to inject social, linguistic, gender, Indigenous, and other broadly defined causes into the law. Fired by this enthusiasm, several generations of new lawyers and judges would use the Charter as the defining document for “rights talk,” which has become one of the most important strands of political discourse in what I call the Age of the Charter.

The Charter turned Canada, as the political scientist Peter Russell has written, from a parliamentary democracy to a constitutional one. Parliament is no longer supreme; in fact, it is not infrequently countermanded by the courts or ordered to do certain things, even if it had expressly refused to do so. Legal scholars call this relationship a “dialogue” between courts and legislatures, and sometimes it is. But there are also instances of courts’ diktat, such that legislatures must act, whatever the financial or administrative consequences.

The Charter has also given elected officials political cover to avoid some controversial decisions, believing or hoping that courts will make them instead. Abortion, gay rights, and assisted dying are among the subjects where the courts made the law, which apparently turned out to be fine with nervous MPs.

The Charter was made, in part, to protect and enhance the rights of minorities, and in this mission it has succeeded. It has reflected and contributed to the “identity politics” of groups based on gender, race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation, and much of this is now central to Canadian discourse.

The Charter has become immensely popular among lawyers since it frames so many issues in terms of legal “rights.” But the public, too, has warmed to the document, such that judges are more respected now than elected officials and courts are accorded more respect than legislatures. One survey among many illustrates the point: the 2013 General Social Survey of Canada, taken for Canadian Heritage, showed more than 90 percent of people considered the Charter equal to the flag as important to the country’s identity.

While Canadians do not think of the Charter in this way, the “rights talk” it has engendered and reflected — and the check on parliamentary sovereignty — are among the most “Americanizing” influences in Canada, with one large exception. The appointment of judges has become highly political for our neighbours — and highly polarizing as U.S. society has become so divided politically. That’s not the case here, but scarcely a month passes now without some group brandishing the Charter, or at least using Charter arguments in the context of their argument. As a matter of federal administration, the Charter is now so central that the Department of Justice has become a go‑to agency, required to advise governments in advance on whether whatever move they are contemplating will pass muster.

The restlessness of Quebec that led to the election of the Parti Québécois and to the first referendum made the 1970s a particularly turbulent time. But that decade also featured two other crucial developments. The first was the oil crisis of 1973; the second was the rise of Alberta. The two went hand in hand and led to a deteriorating fiscal situation that defined political discourse for a generation.

Here’s just one example. Medicare was designed in the mid- to late 1960s, when economic growth was strong and government revenues sturdy. OPEC’s oil embargo and subsequent deficits, however, destroyed those assumptions, leading to reductions in federal transfers, strains on provincial budgets, extra-billing by doctors, and endless complaints (still very much in evidence today) that not enough public money was being spent on health care.

As the price of oil soared, so did revenues for Alberta. Since natural resources belong to the provinces under the Constitution, so do the lion’s share of revenues from their exploitation. From the federal government’s perspective, surging energy revenues for Alberta and higher energy prices for consumers in oil-importing provinces produced an unacceptable imbalance. From Alberta’s perspective, the province owned the oil and the royalties that flowed from it. Having believed for decades that the province (and the West in general) had been shortchanged, and having seen the influence of French power, Edmonton was in no political mood to have Ottawa deny its bounty.

The echoes of those angry debates are still heard, even as the price of oil has plummeted. Alberta was once flush with cash; today its deficit exceeds $24 billion. But then, as now, a deep-seated belief existed in Alberta (and Saskatchewan) that the province was either ignored by Ottawa or victimized by policies that responded to political pressures elsewhere in Canada, whether for low oil and natural gas prices or for discriminatory “green” energy. Even after the Mulroney government abolished or gutted most of Trudeau’s National Energy Program, the memory of it became part of Alberta’s folk legend of discrimination and neglect, a memory now rekindled by Justin Trudeau’s government, with no seat in the province.

Today’s policy makers are confronted with the unprecedented twin challenges of a health crisis and an economic downturn. Governments of the 1970s confronted something unknown in the economic textbooks of the day: so‑called stagflation sprang from the OPEC boycott of Western countries following the Arab-Israeli War. The price of oil skyrocketed and supplies dwindled. The effects were felt here: double-digit inflation, high unemployment and interest rates, soaring deficits and slow growth. To cap things off, a recession unfolded in the early 1980s that sent deficits even higher. Those deficits, small by today’s gargantuan levels, persisted until the mid-1990s. It took two decades to balance the federal budget after the arrival of stagflation. How long will it take starting today? The length will be measured not in years but in decades.

In the forty-five years of the Trudeau-to-Trudeau Period, the federal budget was in surplus ten times, balanced once, and in deficit thirty-four times. And many of those deficit years showed more red ink than the surplus years did black ink. The struggle against the deficit produced surpluses from 1997 to 2007. There have been no surpluses since. From this hist­ory can be drawn at least three lessons. First, governments do not habitually build surpluses in good times for use in bad. Second, the pressure on governments to spend is relentless, both for political reasons to secure votes and because every quarter of society makes demands with little concern about where the money is coming from. Third, governments are quite creative in designing and presenting new spending programs or tax expenditures, but they are rarely able to end programs, because once groups, regions, or individuals receive benefits, they assume them to be akin to rights of citizenship. All the institutions and programs to attenuate these tendencies on an ongoing basis have largely failed. The only approach that has worked is a short, sharp decision to cut, usually because of adverse reviews of Canada’s fiscal situation from the International Monetary Fund or the global financial media, as with Jean Chrétien’s “program review,” which did reduce operational spending in all departments except Justice and Indian Affairs (as it was then called).

Through those decades of stagflation, but especially in the early years, governments looked in the textbooks for remedies and found none. The Pierre Trudeau government, then the short-lived Joe Clark one, then another Trudeau government, and finally that of Brian Mulroney all zigzagged their way through policies, looking for economic growth, low inflation and unemployment, and modest interest rates. The Trudeau team tried economic stimulus — especially bearing in mind the secessionist threat in Quebec. It tried a sudden budget cut in 1978. It implemented wage and price controls, in defiance of previous attacks against the idea when the Progressive Conservatives proposed it in 1974. “Zap, you’re frozen,” Pierre Trudeau had responded mockingly to the proposal in that campaign. Then zap — he introduced them. The Liberals even began to dally with free trade in certain economic sectors with the U.S.

The Mulroney government sold Crown corporations created by the Liberals. It cut spending. It replaced a counterproductive manufacturers’ sales tax with the goods and services tax, which immediately became the subject of furious opposition. The tax was widely hated by consumers, business owners who had to calculate it, and providers of services not previously subject to tax. Everybody seemed to be against it, except for economists. Yet it has endured as a ballast for federal revenues.

People hated the GST, but they eventually got used to it. Which leads me to observe that some of the most contentious decisions of the Trudeau-to-Trudeau Period — ones that cost political support — are those that are now taken for granted. These policies have stood the test of time, which leads to the evident conclusion that political courage is the hallmark of leadership.

During the Trump-inspired renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement, hardly any Canadian voices of consequence advocated ending NAFTA. Canada had become a nation of free traders, even with the United States, thereby giving the lie to the traditional view that free trade with the U.S. would not just overwhelm our economy but weaken or even eviscerate programs and symbols that defined our distinct-from-American identity.

Before Mulroney took the “leap of faith,” a phrase from the royal commission that recommended Canada-U.S. free trade, the antipathy was widespread. Among conservatives, George Grant’s book Lament for a Nation, although not about free trade, offered an old Tory’s complaint about the Americanization of Canada. The political left was also solidly and vociferously opposed, as seen in Kari Levitt’s Silent Surrender. Disciples of Walter Gordon, a business icon and a Lester Pearson cabinet minister, warned against American ownership of the Canadian economy. Those who shared Gordon’s fears produced the Watkins Report of 1968, which prompted the Trudeau government to later introduce the Foreign Investment Review Agency and the Canada Development Corporation. Remember, too, that the Toronto Star, the bible of Canadian Liberalism, always denounced the very idea of Canada-U.S. free trade.

That said, the Liberals contained within their ranks some who were less fearful. As the Trudeau government floundered to find a response to stagflation, they began to promote sectoral free trade with the Americans. Then came the endorsement of free trade by the Royal Commission on the Economic Union and Development Prospects for Canada, led by Donald S. Macdonald, previously a prominent cabinet minister under Trudeau.

Opposition was fierce before and during the Mulroney government’s free trade negotiations and then during the 1988 election. An Alberta family court judge, Marjorie Bowker, penned a pamphlet that rocketed off bookstore shelves, warning that Canada would be forced to sell fresh water to the United States, end medicare, and weaken pensions and other social programs, among other disastrous consequences. The Liberals, having decided to stand against free trade, ran a television advertisement showing an eraser eliminating the international border, reinforcing the party leader John Turner’s message that the country’s very sovereignty was at stake.

The Mulroney Conservatives won that election handily. Free trade became a reality. None of the strident critics’ calamitous predictions happened. Canadian health care remains; indeed, many Americans on the political left want a “single-payer” system like ours. The Canada and Quebec Pension Plans are intact and fully funded. Social programs have been expanded. No water has been exported. Canadians have evolved from being knotted up about Canada-U.S. free trade to being ardent protectors of continental free trade. And that provides another example of how over time a country can evolve and accept as normal, even indispensable, what had been considered impossible not too many decades before.

If free trade did not produce the calamity that critics had predicted, neither did it achieve an important stated goal: to improve the productivity of the Canadian economy. NAFTA did increase employment, but it did not spur, as advocates had promised, enhanced productivity. That weakness remains an economic bone spur. In fact, “productivity” scares Canadians. Jean Chrétien banned use of the word by ministers and in government documents, correctly feeling that it connoted working harder for less. His government euphemistically used “education” and “research and development” instead. One reason for inadequate productivity that’s not unique to Canada is the shift over time from private-­sector jobs, fewer of which are unionized, to public-sector ones that are; and the broader shift from manufacturing to services, where productivity gains are harder to achieve.

Team Canada trade missions, government investments strewn across the country and industries, the aforementioned regional development agencies, research and development tax credits, research chairs in universities, and a myriad of other institutions and programs — collectively these have not substantially increased Canada’s exports, other than those of natural resources. Even the development and export of some of these natural resources, such as oil and natural gas, are now clogged by regulatory complexities, Indigenous claims, and objections among activists and interest groups.

Moreover, the world economy is a much different place than when Pierre Trudeau governed. He was the first Western leader to direct his country to recognize what was sometimes called Red China. For a while, that gave Canada some currency with Beijing. China was big in geography and population but an economic Lilliputian when Canada opened diplomatic relations. Today it is an economic powerhouse, becoming a military one, with a government determined to match and surpass the United States in every sphere of activity. Canada’s sway in the world is increasingly marginal when one considers the rise of China, with which we now have a troubled relationship, and, to a lesser extent, the rise of India. One might even add the United Kingdom’s decoupling from the European Union, which has only weakened our old ally and therefore us.

In 1970, Canada’s population was about 21 million people. It is 37.7 million today. That represents a roughly 43 percent increase over five decades. In that same time span, the world’s population has risen to 7.7 billion, more than double the 1970 figure. As a share of the world’s population, Canada has shrunk.

Nonetheless, we have enjoyed the fastest population growth in the G7, despite a declining birth rate. The reason: immigration. When Pierre Trudeau became prime minister, Canada was accepting 122,000 immigrants a year. During the 1970s, immigration levels ranged from 84,000 to 171,000. During the Mulroney years, annual immigration ranged from 152,000 to 246,000. By 2010, Canada was admitting 280,000 immigrants, and we are now in a three-year period when the annual immigration targets are averaging 400,000 to 430,000.

There’s no doubt that many newcomers struggle to get settled. There are legitimate concerns that immigrants in recent years have taken longer to find work and reach average incomes. More are falling into poverty and remaining there. But despite these challenges, and at a time when many Canadians are hearing their country described as a place of systemic racism and oppression, a recent survey by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada found that 90 percent of immigrants and refugees had a “strong sense of belonging” to their new country; 71 percent had found employment; and 85 percent of those who had been permanent residents became citizens.

The largest number of arrivals settle in Ontario, with Quebec far behind, which means, of course, that Quebec’s share of the national population will continue to decline. What has really changed in recent years is the desire of small provinces to attract immigrants. The Atlantic provinces, where citizens had often been lukewarm to people from “away,” now understand they need people because long-time residents are shifting to other parts of the country. Manitoba has its own immigration process, which has proven to be quite successful.

To repeat: Many immigrants struggle to find their feet in Canada, and some Black and Muslim immigrants feel they have experienced discrimination. There have been anti-immigrant and nativist incidents, the most pathetic example being the little francophone town in Quebec that had no Muslim residents but that nonetheless passed a resolution against sharia law.

According to Statistics Canada, Black Canad­ians, who have been much in the news following the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States, represented 3.5 percent of the population in 2016; the figure had doubled in two decades. In obvious contrast to the multi-generational experience of African Americans, 56 percent of Black Canadians were not born in this country. And whereas Black immigration from the English-speaking Caribbean dominated until the later 1990s, with the largest source country by far being Jamaica, the Caribbean accounts now for only a quarter of Black immigrants. The latest list shows the largest number are coming from Haiti, Nigeria, Somalia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. They are arriving from two continents, from countries of many languages.

Surveys seldom break down attitudes by racial or ethnic group, so we do not know how particular immigrant groups feel overall. Public spokespersons do not always speak for all, but the Canadian Heritage survey that I mentioned earlier found that immigrants view Canada’s national symbols as more important than do non-immigrants, and visible minorities view them as more important than do other Canadians. That so many people want to come to Canada each year — and word does travel back to other countries — suggests Canada is not the racist hellhole that some critics describe.

In and of itself, and relative to other countries, the integration of immigrants (and refugees) has been among Canada’s singular accomplishments during the Trudeau-to-Trudeau Period. No political party has campaigned against immigration, which keeps rising without any political backlash. No politician of any reputation has played a nativist card. There is no Trump-like campaign against immigrants, no Front National as in France, no Liga Norte as in Italy, no Alternative für Deutschland, no nativist or anti-immigrant parties as in Finland and Scandinavia. The non-reaction here has occurred during the Trudeau-to-Trudeau decades while immigration source countries shifted from European to the current top ten sources: India, China, Philippines, the United States, Nigeria, Pakistan, Syria, France, Iran, and Brazil. From five continents, immigrants come and come, making improved lives for themselves and Canada a better country.

Why has this happened? Here are a few reasons. The immigration policy is sound, based on a points system that measures skills and language, family reunification, and, for a small group, financial investments in Canada. Our entire non-Indigenous population is descended from immigrants. No single group is large enough to demand special status or rights. And the sometimes lamented lack of a singular identity provides a more malleable standard of mores and assumptions, so that immigrants are not judged harshly by whether they enter the “melting pot” or adhere, as in France, to what are called national “values.” Multiculturalism is in the Constitution, although more as an adornment than as a muscular clause. And every political party works hard to recruit immigrant ­voters — and candidates.

I began by observing how, for roughly the first two-thirds of the Trudeau-to-Trudeau Period, Quebec’s place in or out of Canada dominated federal government preoccupations. There were two referendums in the province and a national referendum on the Charlottetown Accord. A series of constitutional packages were negotiated, most of which fell apart, including the Meech Lake Accord. Since the defeat of the last Quebec referendum, enthusiasm for secession has gone off the boil. It could come back, but the largest number of Quebeckers seem to think that the secession game is not worth the candle. Quebec nationalism? Quebec pride? Yes and always. Breaking from Canada? Non merci.

The preoccupation with Quebec has given way to concerns and complaints from another ­segment, or should I say segments, of Canada’s population: Indigenous people. Today, Trudeau the Younger declares that dealing a better hand to Indigenous peoples is his highest priority: recognizing their right to self-government, negotiating treaties, spending more money, apologizing for past policies. Trudeau the Elder also wanted to improve the lot of Indigenous people, but in his way, not theirs. He never wanted special status for Quebec. He believed everyone was equal in Canada, without particular arrangements, and that included Indigenous people. In a notorious White Paper, his government proposed scrapping the Indian Act and other special arrangements. The reaction from Indigenous leaders was so hostile that Trudeau backtracked, something he seldom did. When he began negotiating constitutional changes with the provinces, Indigenous leaders demanded seats at the table, which they were granted as spokespeople but not as voting members.

The twisting and long road to the Charter enshrined “existing aboriginal and treaty rights,” from which courts then constructed, and are still constructing, an elaborate body of law that applies to Indigenous peoples, recognizing their special standing in Canada. For some years now, and for many decades ahead, Canada will be attempting a unique experiment: designing a sovereign, federal country with more than 600 “self-governing” units within it. “Self-government” must mean — if it is to mean anything in practice, not rhetoric — full political responsibility for many public functions, accountability of those chosen to lead, and own-source revenues to deliver those functions. Nowhere else in the world has this been tried, except perhaps in the United States, where tribal governments have considerable sovereignty over their own affairs (though their territories are limited, and, in legal terms, they are “domestic dependent nations”).

According to the 2016 census, there are 1.6 million Indigenous people in Canada, or 4.9 percent of the overall population, more than twice the share than when Pierre Trudeau was prime minister. The Indigenous population is growing rapidly, and the greatest challenge for progress lies among the young, too many of whom die by suicide or fail to secure an adequate education. There are 977,000 First Nations people, up 39 percent from 2006 to 2016; 587,000 Métis, up 51 percent; and 65,000 Inuit, up 29 percent. The population of First Nations people with status grew by 13 percent on reserves during the same period, but by 49 percent off reserves.

In this country, there are seventy Indigenous languages within twelve broad linguistic groupings; within those groupings, 30 percent have fewer than 500 speakers. About one in five Indigenous people can converse fluently or haltingly in a traditional language, the total being about 260,000 people. That compares with 510,000 Canadians who speak Tagalog. A similar number are conversant in Arabic. Even with the best of intentions and with consistent government funding, it may be difficult to preserve many Indigenous languages, apart from Cree, Dene, Mohawk, and Ojibwe.

The rise in Indigenous populations, a greatly enhanced political awareness, improved education levels, and an entire court-developed superstructure of rights have thrust Indigenous issues into the Canadian political mainstream. How scattered populations, often very small, can develop the capacity to fund and deliver services effectively — which is the definition of “self-government”— is a hard question for which there is no easy answer, so hard that it is not considered polite in certain quarters to even ask it.

How small are some First Nations communities? Let me draw an example from British Columbia. There, according to the treaty commission’s latest annual report, the fourteen groups currently finalizing negotiations range in population from 235 (Yekooche) to 6,580 (Hul’qumi’num). The eighteen groups actively negotiating have populations that are as small as 420 (Klahoose) and as large as 7,855 (Gitxsan). Across the country, Statistics Canada reports that one in six First Nations have more than 2,500 people, whereas more than half have fewer than 1,000. To state these numbers is to underscore the challenge of genuine “self-government,” with capacity and own-source revenue to make the ideal a reality.

Not everywhere, but in enough places for optimism to prevail, there is a growing awareness among some First Nations leaders that, provided they are seriously consulted and their rights are recognized, their communities will support resource projects that bring the jobs and training and money. This change became evident in two high-profile instances in British Columbia: the Trans Mountain pipeline and LNG Canada. In the Trans Mountain case, five nations vigorously opposed the oil pipeline but dozens approved it, including some who want a financial stake in it. In the LNG case, every elected council along the gas pipeline approved the project, but a handful of hereditary chiefs in one nation opposed it. In both cases, the Indigenous opponents were in the minority but were supported by environmental activists, received an inordinate amount of media attention, and formed an alliance acidly called by some the “enviro-colonialists.”

Throughout the entire Trudeau-to-Trudeau Period, the lingering realities and historical memories of the country’s treatment of Indigenous people have hung heavy in the air. William Faulkner’s observation about the American South might apply to the treatment of Indigenous people here: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” The clearest example is the reality and memory of residential schools, the legacy of which has prompted many books; the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, established by the Mulroney government; formal apologies by the Chrétien and Harper governments; billions of dollars in payments as part of a settlement agreement in 2007, which also established a payment mechanism for victims of sexual abuse; and further examination by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women and Girls. And now the current Trudeau government proposes to recognize September 30 as a National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. The relationship between Indigenous peoples and the Canadian governments remains the abiding subject of plays, poems, books, songs, and political discourse. The willingness of non-Indigenous Canadians to continue expiation for this part of the nation’s past is an open question, with opinion polls showing a division between those who want to keep apologizing and those who say enough is enough. For example, a recent Angus Reid Institute survey showed that 53 percent of Canadians felt the country was “too focused on apologies” for residential schools. The same percentage of people felt no group should have special status in this country.

“Diversity” and “inclusion” are now ubiquitous words in Canada. The groups who have recently demanded, quite rightly, a more prominent place are new; the accommodation of diversity and the struggle of recent arrivals is not.

This country, from its beginning, was an attempt to accommodate two religions, Catholic and Protestant, and two language groups, French and English, that had been at murderous odds in Europe and around the world. That French-speaking Catholics and English-speaking Protestants, each with their own internal divisions, would move from what Lord Durham described as “two nations warring within the bosom of a single state” after the Rebellions of 1837–38 to a federal arrangement three decades later defied historical experience. Then came the out-migrations — hundreds of thousands of French-speakers from Quebec to New England, and tens of thousands of English-speakers to the richer, more vibrant United States, where, in the late nineteenth century, Buffalo and Detroit had huge Canadian populations. In-migration came back but not without travails and discrimination against the Irish, the Jews, the eastern Europeans, the southern Europeans, and the Asians. And then, in the Trudeau-to-Trudeau Period, people were arriving from every continent, facing their own challenges but not burdened by guilt for the country’s past transgressions. All the while, the Indigenous populations were marginalized or ignored. It is now the great but difficult task for current and future generations to make good the debt.

Since I have been speaking of the past, let me end by noting a profound difference between the two Trudeaus. In 1984, his last year as prime minister, Pierre Trudeau was asked by the opposition leader, Brian Mulroney, if the government would apologize and pay restitution to those Japanese Canadians who were interned during the Second World War. Mulroney urged this course on Trudeau, saying it was a unique case and, as such, needed redress.

To this, Trudeau replied in the House of Commons:

I do not see how I can apologize for some historic event to which we or these people in this House were not a party. We can regret that it happened. But why mount to great heights of rhetoric in order to say that an apology is much better than an expression of regret? This I cannot too well understand. . . . I do not think it is the purpose of the Government to right the past. It cannot re-write hist­ory. It is our purpose to be just in our time.

Once apologies began, he wondered, where would they end?

Trudeau Sr. had spent his life in politics trying to build national pride, and especially to make French-speaking Canadians share in that pride. He was right in asking where apologies would end, because subsequent developments showed that they do not. Mulroney, in power, proceeded with payments and apologies to interned Japanese Canadians. Paul Martin opened a government office with a budget of $25 million, asking groups that felt historically hurt to apply for money. Jean Chrétien apologized for the execution of twenty-three Canadian soldiers during the First World War. Stephen Harper apologized for the imposition of a head tax on Chinese immigrants. But none of them compared to Justin Trudeau, who has scoured Canada’s hist­ory to find groups to which he can apologize. He even took Hector-Louis Langevin’s name off the Office of the Prime Minister and Privy Council building, despite the historical record showing that Langevin had uttered only two derogatory paragraphs about Indigenous people in his long and stormy career, which included participation as a Father of Confederation at the Charlottetown Conference.

Unlike his father, whose view was that we can only “be just in our time,” Trudeau Jr. believes retroactive, if rhetorical, justice is desirable. Through these many apologies, we can abet the idea that Canada’s past has been a sad saga of widespread oppression, racism, and other forms of discrimination with few redeeming virtues to celebrate. This is the prevailing discourse in university hist­ory departments toward Canada’s past, and a strong narrative of the Canadian Museum of Hist­ory, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, and most contemporary authors about Canada’s past. Publishers these days are not remotely interested in sagas of success in Canadian hist­ory; they want personal stories of struggle in a society founded on, and still based upon, oppression, racism, and discrimination. High school textbooks, too, play up this narrative.

Despite a drumbeat from the intelligentsia and even the prime minister, the majority of Canadians do not buy this narrative. A June 2019 survey for the Association of Canadian Studies, for example, found that 75 percent of respondents were very proud of health care, the passport, the flag, and the Charter. A survey by Ipsos for Historica Canada revealed that 86 percent of Canadians were proud of diversity, 92 percent believed Canadians to be “polite,” and 86 percent thought there was a distinct “Canadian identity.” A recent Angus Reid Institute survey showed 75 percent of Canadians were very proud or proud of being Canadian, a figured dragged down by a 63 percent score in Quebec. The highest levels of pride were on the prairies.

The survey data is clear: Canadians, by a large majority, are proud of their country. The hundreds of thousands of people who immigrate here every year become, in time, proud of Canada too. The intelligentsia notwithstanding, this sense of national pride, at least in English-speaking Canada, is another noteworthy way the country has evolved from Trudeau to Trudeau.

Jeffrey Simpson was the Globe and Mail’s national affairs columnist for thirty-two years.

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