Who talks of my nation?
Does anyone still care about what it means to be Canadian? The matter of national identity has preoccupied us since before Confederation, but, to judge by the recent national conversation, we are increasingly at ease with our collective ambiguity. That’s because more than ever we inhabit a postmodern state in which the prevailing identity is a sort of non-identity, one that is capacious and democratic in the most inclusive sense.
Our 154-year-old country has a past scarred by collective shame, which we endeavour to recognize and redress, and a future characterized by the pluralism and diversity that sprang from earlier compromises. Our once mighty national identities survive mainly as the set of ideas and institutions that got things started, along with some vestigial eccentricities like Victoria Day and the governor general. And few are left to mourn this cultural shift.
Our neutral notion of belonging doesn’t arouse the same passions and hatreds as sectarian identities, which have inflamed ugly nationalisms in many parts of the world. But who we are still matters to what we want and how to get it: our national identity sets the course for our collective interests, even if there is no nation to speak of in the traditional sense. And inhabiting a postmodern state doesn’t preclude us from having certain broadly recognizable qualities of character that shape us and shape how others perceive us. In fact, the friendly, culturally fluid Canadian might be the person best suited to succeed in our hyper-globalized world. This is what John Stackhouse asserts in Planet Canada, which argues our “eleventh province”— all those Canadians living abroad — should be a centrepiece of the national interest.
“In this more complex world,” Stackhouse writes of the most recent stage of globalization, “there was a growing imperative for diverse worldviews that could pull together competing, and at times conflicting, perspectives and integrative minds that could stitch them together.” Stackhouse contends that this “opposable mind,” a term he borrows from the business thinker Roger Martin, is one of Canada’s strongest comparative advantages. He is a touch reductive when attributing certain qualities of the expats he meets throughout the book to their being Canadian — the notoriously prickly film director James Cameron is described as having a “Canadian imagination”— but his observations about a general political-cultural world view resonate convincingly. (Stackhouse, the former editor-in-chief of the Globe and Mail, is also a member of this magazine’s board, although this review was assigned before he joined it.)
To sketch his portrait of us, Stackhouse draws from various luminaries working around the world. “Canadians have a tenor of mutual accommodation, of making conflicts or differences work. We’re comfortable with a devolved structure of authority” (the University of Cambridge’s Stephen Toope). Canadians know a thing or two about “uneasy compromises” and “the constant search for temporary nonviolent solutions to intractable divides” (The New Yorker ’s Adam Gopnik). As a result, we have the emotional and cultural intelligence that the world demands of the next generation of leaders in society and business: we’re open, curious, and inclusive (the entrepreneur Tookie Graham).
Stackhouse argues passionately for tapping into those of us who are abroad. As our traditional industries decline, “more Canadians than ever will need to be out there, physically and virtually, ensuring we’re part of it.” The “it” is the “new stage” of globalization, in which the raw materials are “intellectual property, brands, databases and customer lists.” The new economy’s main players will be the “entrepreneurs and researchers who have their own networks rooted in individual knowledge and relationships rather than institutional might.” In a world of “brain circulation” and brain trusts — the flows and stocks of individual and networked talent that are now transforming things — Canada must tap into more Canadians, wherever they are.
And as we become more diverse, Stackhouse observes, our potential will only grow: foreign-born Canadians have a much greater inclination to move abroad than native-born Canadians, yet emigrating does not necessarily dim their attachments to the Maple Leaf. In an interview with some young hyphenated Canadians in London, Stackhouse finds they reject compounds; they self-identify as Canadian without hyphens wherever they are. And the greater Canada’s diversity, the greater our cultural interoperability. “The share of children with immigrant backgrounds will grow by close to 50 percent through the 2020s,” Stackhouse writes. “That means in the decade ahead, there will be no country in the world quite like Canada, because no country will reflect the world quite as well.”
There are plenty of challenges to harnessing expats, who may have other affiliations and institutional loyalties that command their attention. Some challenges are unique to Canada, like the high concentration of us in a small handful of countries, especially the United States, which is a reality that Stackhouse barely even considers. And the overall portrayal of expat influence in Planet Canada can feel inflated, as if we’ve contributed to everything, everywhere. There’s no reason to think Planet France or Planet Ireland wouldn’t offer equally impressive stories of expat achievements. As for the argument that Canadian citizens can drive reform abroad, the evidence is mixed. And when our eleventh province does succeed, it’s often unclear how that redounds to us as a country.
All that said, Planet Canada makes a refreshing case that Ottawa has an interest in embracing the world as an intentional strategy and should avoid the trap of framing the national interest strictly in terms of benefits at home. Another recent book, by two establishment stalwarts, serves as a sharp contrast.
With Braver Canada, Derek Burney and Fen Osler Hampson describe a blustery, unpredictable world that we as a country are hardly in a position to influence and should approach with circumspection. This thesis rests on their assumption, shared by many, that the liberal international order is teetering. We are in “a more turbulent world where benign US leadership is no longer a given and where protectionism, populism, and authoritarianism are on the rise,” they write. “Canada is going to have to look out for its own interests and vigorously promote them bilaterally and globally but with the knowledge and public awareness that the road will be rocky.”
In the absence of a “special or privileged” relationship with the United States, it’s best that we adopt a strategy of “selective internationalism.” Burney, a former ambassador to Washington, and Hampson, a distinguished professor at Carleton, contrast their preferred approach with alternatives that read like straw men: Consider an isolationist retreat into “fortress North America,” wherein Canada depends on a negligent, diminishing power. Or a “dewy-eyed, indiscriminate” multilateralism, which assumes any multilateral institution or action is to Canada’s advantage. If those are the alternatives, who wouldn’t favour selective internationalism?
While Burney and Hampson are firm in their pessimism, it remains unclear whether any cracks in the global order are structural or superficial. Some recent trade data shows signs of rising protectionism, but such efforts haven’t really been sustained. U.S.-China trade surged after a tariff war caused primarily by leadership personalities, demonstrating that integrated markets still want to exchange goods. Canada is showing modest but promising signs of attaining the elusive goal of trade diversification. And while Burney and Hampson repeat the decades-old charge of NATO “rigor mortis,” the alliance’s adversaries in the Kremlin would beg to differ. For all its flaws, the WHO has vaulted to grim relevance since early 2020, and it remained relevant even during America’s brief absence. Interdependence is not an immutable feature of the global system, but neither is it easily cast aside.
More importantly, it isn’t clear that we can’t or shouldn’t bring what influence we have to bear in support of a liberal order that is more liberal and orderly than it was in a unipolar American world. At times, it sounds as if Burney and Hampson agree. Consider what reforms they think are needed to fix the global refugee system: “new funding mechanisms that are not dependent on voluntary contributions; each country paying its fair share; and a level of resources for both refugees and host countries that is stable and predictable.” They add that the system “needs new oversight and accountability mechanisms that strengthen state obligations and ensure better state compliance with 1951 convention commitments.” Is that dewy-eyed multilateralism or their nebulous selective internationalism?
Braver Canada is hampered by vague definitions and the inconsistent application of terms, not to mention the repeated political shot-taking over “virtue signalling” that will strike most non-partisan readers as petty. Burney and Hampson strain to persuade readers about the follies of carbon pricing; their arguments from beyond the mainstream policy consensus are unpersuasive and perplexing. They more wisely defer to experts on complex subjects with fewer political implications — think Taylor Owen and Jim Balsillie on artificial intelligence. But even if selective internationalism is both ill defined and misguided for a country as globally minded as Canada, the thrust of Braver Canada can’t be dismissed as easily. National interests still matter in a globalized world, including those interests that are tilted toward globalism. And that’s a point worth remembering.
With that reality in mind, some elements of Stackhouse’s work don’t necessarily hold up as well. For one thing, he overstates the role of global connectivity and decentralization. While power is now more dynamic and complex than any crusty state-centric view of the world would have it, Stackhouse is a little too rah‑rah about tech disrupters and the irrelevance of borders. (He eagerly points to Estonia as “Nation State 2.0,” with “a new form of global citizenship that allows anyone, anywhere, to sign up electronically to be Estonian.” The reality, though, is an e‑residency that primarily lets anyone run an online EU business.) For another, minerals and natural resources that power the new economy are more strategically valuable than ever, especially in our climate-disrupted age. Ultimately, as various global mechanisms emerge or fade, it is not clear that institutions writ large are losing power; today’s tech disrupters are tomorrow’s unaccountable tech giants, with massive concentrations of wealth and other advantages that make them increasingly indisruptable. And when push comes to shove, even the most powerful among them will bend to the demands of autocratic states.
It’s also unclear whether a strategy that unreservedly embraces brain circulation and brain trusts will always favour Canada. Stackhouse cites research from the C. D. Howe Institute that found this country receives twice as many educated immigrants as it loses to emigration, yet he expresses consternation about Canada’s loss of talent, especially in sectors where it has a skills shortage or a strategic interest. We are presently short 200,000-plus workers in the tech sector, for example. But remember that tech-savvy Canadians working stateside are lured by the pull of financial gain more than they are pushed by factors like Canadian tax policy, which suggests Ottawa cannot simply pull a lever that would reverse the drain, even if it wanted to.
One area where Stackhouse thinks Ottawa can make a difference is research, and indeed in 2018 the Liberal government made one of the most significant federal budget commitments to basic research in decades. But boosting funding surely speaks to an interest in national gains — in creating more scientific and technological discoveries, intellectual property, corporate headquarters, and jobs here. Advancing technologies like artificial intelligence in Canada will afford us more opportunity to own and shape those technologies, as well as the rules and norms that regulate them. That in turn will strengthen our influence, power, and sovereignty — concepts that remain valid and vital.
An implicit message of Planet Canada is that no matter how well Ottawa harnesses expats, we as a country will gain less if they’re building businesses and making discoveries in other countries than if they are doing all those things at home. Stackhouse’s point about circulation and trusts is well taken, but his hedging is sensible, too: if more talent is circulating out than in, particularly in sectors that matter most, we can’t claim this tally as a clear victory, even if Canada indirectly helps itself by benefiting the world.
One way to write about who we are, which Planet Canada exemplifies, is to tell us about ourselves through theories and stories of character. Another way is to sift through the data. Darrell Bricker does that in Next, where he holds the mirror up to our face by telling us what we tend to say about ourselves. While Planet Canada makes an important contribution by drawing our attention to emigration and expats, Next makes the point that demographics and immigration hold the key to understanding our future.
Next takes readers on a breezy whirlwind tour of a wide range of trends. The country’s population shift from east to west is unwelcome news for Quebec and signals dire consequences for the Atlantic provinces. Bricker, who heads up Ipsos Public Affairs, laments the cultural loss that accompanies the decline in regions that generated much of what was once the fabric of our identity — as well as the paltry national discussion about it — and he presents reams of data about the chimera of a bilingual English-French country. More urgently, he suggests that the imperilled sustainability of Atlantic Canada may lead to our “next big national unity confrontation,” animated by “the economic and political grievances of relatively young and rapidly growing Alberta.” He also touches upon the gender pay gap, which remains “strong and persistent, particularly in the top jobs,” while noting some bright spots. At the same time, he urges a rethink of masculinity in the home, while prodding us all to consider the largely unaddressed health and economic issues facing men.
But there is one thread in Next that connects its many insights, from Canada’s dimming prospects as a bilingual nation to our aging population and the trials of masculinity: the spectre of populism. Bricker envisions “aggrieved men clustering behind conservative, even populist, political options”; as the moderating influence of the Laurentian consensus is supplanted by the rise of identity politics, “we could see gender emerge as a more decisive factor in our elections.” Canada faces a dilemma: it needs more immigrants (as births remain below replacement level), but the potential blowback against bringing in newcomers could reverberate for years to come. Bricker delves into this thorny and unappreciated issue with his most crucial, if occasionally most frustrating, chapter.
For the past decade, we’ve had the highest immigration rate of any G7 country, and nearly 22 percent of Canadians are now immigrants, matching the record for foreign-born residents in 1921. Bricker sees the implications. “Consider this,” he writes, “only 38% of Canadians are prepared to say immigration ‘has had a positive impact on Canada.’ Almost the same number (40%) believe it is causing Canada to change in ways they don’t like.” Under its forty-fifth president, the U.S. scored “46% on the same question. So we are only marginally more tolerant than Trump’s America.” And we can’t blame those responses on the economy. “There’s only a weak correlation between personal economic situations and populism,” Bricker argues, pointing to support for populism among people who are “satisfactorily employed” and who live in “Western countries where populism has taken root” that nonetheless “continue to perform relatively well economically.” Populists, he concludes, are motivated by a belief that “governments and other institutions should honour and protect the interests of their native-born citizens against the cultural changes being brought about by immigration.” So much for our warm and fuzzy openness.
There is, however, counter-evidence that Bricker doesn’t discuss. Even where people are doing well, there are often elites who are faring much better, and backlash against that growing inequality may fuel populism. One index of economic democracy that includes such factors as workplace and employment rights shows a correlation between a rise in populism and declining economic participation. And populism is often an expression of concern for fairness. A recent study from Harvard finds that people care deeply whether economic outcomes occur for fair reasons. Its author, the research fellow Eric Protzer, observes that populism is strongly correlated with low social mobility and less correlated with income, wealth inequality, and the presence of immigrants. (But if low social mobility motivates populism, why are the minority groups that experience it not driven to populism? The prima facie answer is that only a majority group can resort to majoritarian arguments.)
Bricker is strongest when he castigates elites for sidestepping the third rail of populism and immigration. That’s a problem because “if one of the most effective claims populists can make is that they are the only ones who are prepared to listen to and respond to the interests of ‘real Canadians,’ the elites aren’t helping their cause by seeming so out of touch with everyday reality.” It’s incumbent upon political leaders, then, “to acknowledge and deal with concerns about immigration’s impact on cultural integration, job competition, security, and social services. These concerns shouldn’t be swept aside by those in power as racist projections. Public opinion evidence shows that these are all strong mainstream worries in Canada today.”
That insight — and its acknowledgement — is valuable, perhaps especially if some Canadians are wrong on immigration’s facts and broad merits. Defanging populism matters even if it’s a political non-starter (notwithstanding exceptions like Quebec’s Bill 21). That’s because the cultural nativism on which it feeds can inspire terrifying acts of violence, such as the recent murder of a Muslim family in London, Ontario.
At times, Bricker’s message can sound mixed. On one hand, he writes, “Telling Canadians who are concerned about the cultural impact of immigration that they don’t understand how this helps our country, that they lack heart, or that they are simply bigots is just asking for trouble.” On the other hand, he scolds readers: “Get your head out of the snow and cast off the old stereotypes of who Canadians are and what Canada is. Tune out the antiquated cultural message curated by the Laurentian elite; instead, take a drive through the suburbs and open your eyes.” He is right on both counts, of course; Canadians should prepare for more diversity, and elites should be careful not to provoke feelings of loss of control over one’s community or life circumstances.
Why has there been relatively little Canadian populism up to now? Bricker credits careful immigration management that selects for integration and economic success, and the promotion of multiculturalism as a national value. One could add the success of suburbs as sites of relatively high opportunity and integration; chance geography; a first-past-the-post electoral system that tends to sideline fringe parties; the active courting of new citizens by political parties; and the sheer diversity of newcomers, which minimizes ghettoization effects and makes it difficult for nativists to pin their blame and fears on a single identifiable group.
In other countries, populism might be partly explained by real and perceived relative decline, but average Canadians do not seem to worry much about that, perhaps because we were never a great power. We took our plodding path to sovereignty in a decolonizing, diversifying world, and our politicians and media regularly trip over themselves to remind us all that we must be steadfast against any whiff of populism. That stance is both a necessary bulwark and evidence of the movement’s taboo status.
If we’re at risk of drinking populism’s poison, the research suggests the antidote is economic mobility, not hand-wringing about cultural change. Focusing on prosperity can sound like a self-serving argument when pressed by elites, Bricker notes, but it might not if average Canadians had more opportunity to climb the ladder. Another promising balm is class solidarity. Consider that new Canadians have exactly the same priorities as native-born Canadians; Bricker’s own surveys show that both groups want a more or less middle-class lifestyle. So much for his descriptions of “cultures distant from the Canadian majority.”
Indeed, most populism is hardly about real friction at all; it is about imagined friction. How many nativists and populists live in diverse suburbs, and how many live in rural and majority-white communities, with little lived experience of the diversity of immigration? Their concerns are real because they feel them, but that does not make them true or grounded in objective measures of immigration’s effects on their lives. If people feel anxious, the message to offer is not one that might validate some of their concerns but rather one that acknowledges them and steers the conversation toward economic mobility, opportunity, and security.
The noblest aspiration of those featured in Planet Canada is to serve the world. Some of Stackhouse’s best stories are of expats who have served their local and global communities abroad, like Joanne Liu, who led Médecins Sans Frontières International. When Liu was marshalling the world to respond to an Ebola outbreak in Liberia, in 2014, she gained the support of the UN missions of Russia, China, and Cuba. That’s because, she explains, she did not speak for a superpower. The name Canada is a shibboleth that can still open doors: “Our passport gets us into places like Syria and Yemen. Our approach to public health and experience in remote medicine are well suited to crisis zones, too. And Canadians generally are appreciated for our signature to most UN efforts, as well as our appreciation for community, understanding of minority and indigenous rights, and fluency in the two leading languages of international assistance. ‘Send us a Canadian,’ Liu was once told. ‘ You don’t have a colonizer’s attitude.’ “
Our potential to exert influence abroad has the greatest reach in humanitarianism and the drive for sustainability, where leading by example and suasion, rather than power, can yield change. Service can also give our expats a unifying cause. And there is a long-term national interest at stake: serving the world can make it safer for Canada and countries like it, contra Burney and Hampson’s point that we can hardly influence anything on the global stage.
As successive losing bids for a non-permanent United Nations Security Council seat illustrate, however, we risk squandering our status; groups like MSF know that “on the international stage, governments still matter, and Canada’s is not what it used to be.” We must recognize our interest in serving and advancing global openness, to steadfastly promote a better liberal international order. It is a matter of national interest expressed best in Planet Canada ’s concluding sentence: “Our place in the world will depend on it.”
But as in any community, our interest in openness is not infinite. It is important to consider outflows, as we see in Planet Canada, when it comes to our loss of talent in strategic sectors. Inflows also matter, as we see in Next, when it comes to immigration, demographics, and populism. If our overarching national interest is in openness, then, paradoxically, we might need to accept something less than full openness to get there in the end. We should be at ease with that complexity; after all, you could say that accepting complexity is part of what it means to celebrate Canada.