Forty years ago, scholar George Grant predicted economics would cause Canada to merge culturally with the U.S. Does Stephen Harper's pro-American regime prove he was right? MICHAEL BYERS says no.
It was a defining moment for Stephen Harper: Asked whether he loved Canada, he hesitated, pursed his lips and replied, "Canada is a great country." Political philosopher George Grant would not have been surprised. He wrote about people like Mr. Harper four decades ago in his influential Lament for a Nation: "In its simplest form, continentalism is the view of those who do not see what all the fuss is about. The purpose of life is consumption, and therefore the border is an anachronism." Those words come to mind as Mr. Harper meets with George W. Bush in Washington this week, for the second time since his election. In his 1965 book, Mr. Grant pronounced that Canada effectively had ceased to exist, since the distinctive aspects of Canadian society and politics could not withstand the integrating forces of continental capitalism and universal modernism radiating from the United States. Was he right? Mr. Grant said foreign policy would be first to succumb: "A branch-plant society could not possibly show independence over an issue on which the American government was seriously determined." He thought that the defence crisis of 1963 proved his point: When the U.S. State Department publicly rebuked John Diefenbaker for refusing to allow nuclear-armed missiles on Canadian soil, Canadians did not rally around their embattled prime minister, but voted him out of office. I was born in 1966, one year after Lament for a Nation was published. I have lived with Mr. Grant's thesis ever since. As a student at McGill University, I remember one of my professors arguing that the 1988 "free-trade election" confirmed Mr. Grant's prediction. Canadians had given Brian Mulroney a clear mandate to eliminate tariffs on U.S. exports, and thus the need for U.S. corporations to maintain subsidiaries here. Mr. Mulroney also accepted that U.S. domestic law would apply to trade disputes. Around the same time, another young man was falling under the influence of a group of neo-conservative professors at the University of Calgary, whose policy prescriptions would have made Canada almost indistinguishable from the United States. Although Stephen Harper ran against the Mulroney government in 1988 under the Reform Party banner, he supported the free trade agreement unequivocally. Four years later, I left Canada, convinced that the country was finished. My conviction deepened in 1994 when Jean Chrétien broke an election promise and ratified the North American free trade agreement. The expanded pact shielded U.S. investors from Canadian regulations while mandating U.S. access to our energy supplies. We'll never know whether the Canadian standard of living improved under the FTA and NAFTA more or less than it would have otherwise. But successive Canadian governments have surrendered a great deal of control over our economy to improve access to U.S. consumers and capital. And they did so not by delegating control to a collectively accountable international body, but by submitting to the regulatory institutions, prerogatives and prejudices of a single, immensely powerful state. However, I was brought back to Canada by Mr. Chrétien's decision to stay out of the 2003 Iraq war. Forty years after Mr. Diefenbaker's downfall, a Canadian prime minister had declined to participate in a major U.S. military action. It seemed economic sovereignty was not a prerequisite for independence in the foreign-policy domain. Mr. Harper had wanted Canada to join the Iraq war. As he explained to the House of Commons: "In an increasingly globalized and borderless world, the relationship between Canada and the United States is essential to our prosperity, to our democracy and to our future." Mr. Grant's thesis was tested again in 2005. Mr. Bush had deemed missile defence essential to U.S. national security and requested Canadian participation. But with polls indicating that most Canadians were opposed, Paul Martin swallowed hard and said no. Again, Mr. Harper thought Canada should join the United States. As early as May, 2002, he had criticized opponents of missile defence for offering "knee-jerk resistance . . . despite the fact that Canada is confronted by the same threats from rogue nations equipped with ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction as is the United States." Around the same time, pollsters discovered that the values of Canadians and Americans were diverging. Canadians had become more secular, tolerant of diversity, and questioning of authority, while Americans were moving in the opposite direction. In Canada, these changes manifested themselves in the legalization of same-sex marriage and near-decriminalization of marijuana. In September, 2003, The Economist declared that Canada was "cool." Political scientists question whether individuals -- as opposed to economic and political structures -- have much influence on history. Yet it is difficult to explain Canada's continued independence without referring to Tommy Douglas, Lester Pearson and Pierre Trudeau. Mr. Douglas held the balance of power in the two minority parliaments that followed Mr. Diefenbaker's defeat. Together with Mr. Pearson, he introduced universal public heath care and the Canada Pension Plan, and kept Canada out of Vietnam. Mr. Trudeau then introduced the Official Languages Act, the Foreign Investment Review Agency, wage and price controls, and the national energy program. None of these leaders exhibited the all-encompassing, small-l liberalism and subservience to Washington that Mr. Grant had predicted. Mr. Diefenbaker was gone, but remnants of a socially conscious, pro-government Canadian nationalism remained. During the 1990s, Canada drifted toward the United States under the influence of free trade, a burgeoning U.S. economy and the charismatic moderation of Bill Clinton. So did many other countries. The relative peace and prosperity of the post-Cold War period -- and the apparent victory of the liberal democratic capitalist model -- prompted Francis Fukuyama to pronounce that the "end of history" had arrived. Were it not for George W. Bush, Canada might be on its way to becoming the 51st state. But the U.S. President's bellicose rhetoric and overt religiosity made many Canadians nervous, while his administration's regressive cuts to taxes and social programs and massive increases in defence spending transformed the U.S. into a more unequal, fearful and militaristic place. Canada might still be moving in the direction of the United States, but the United States has -- in recent years -- been moving away more quickly. Mr. Grant's thesis extended beyond the absorption of Canada into the United States. He believed that all countries would eventually unite into a "universal and homogeneous state" founded on a U.S.-centred modernism. Again, this prediction looks less likely today that it did even five years ago, when the U.S. still seemed in ascendancy. Mr. Bush's advisers have squandered "soft power" through their evident contempt for international law and the opinions of other countries, while running up a national debt that gives foreign creditors -- most notably the Chinese government -- a stranglehold over the U.S. economy. At the same time, they have become locked in a nihilistic struggle with radical Islam, creating chasms in international society that are more reminiscent of Samuel Huntington's "clash of civilizations" than they are of Prof. Fukuyama's -- or Mr. Grant's -- transnational blending of differences into a worldwide version of the United States. Today, China isn't the only country that is gaining power and influence relative to the United States. India, with a population of 1.1 billion and an economic growth rate of 8 per cent, is poised to become a great power. The European Union constitutes a single centrally regulated economy that is larger than the U.S. economy. Russia, which last week made the ruble a fully convertible currency, is returning to geopolitical relevance on the back of high prices for oil and gas. Instead of hegemony or homogeneity, we seem to be witnessing the emergence of a multipolar world made up of interdependent -- though still fiercely independent -- nation-states. Canada's influence should be growing too. Our abundant resources are becoming more valuable. Our location, halfway between Asia and Europe and contiguous with the United States, places us close to the world's largest markets. Our population is healthy, well-educated and globally connected. And we have firm fiscal foundations, good public services and a strong infrastructure. Moreover, Canada has demonstrated the ability to achieve great things. We've done so internationally, for example, with the 1997 Landmines Convention. We've done so domestically, with universal public health care and our diverse, harmonious and livable cities. If Canadians have an inferiority complex, it is only because we became accustomed to living in the shadow of the world's most powerful state. All of which makes Stephen Harper a strange choice for prime minister. For it is not as if Mr. Harper has changed his views, even if he has -- at least temporarily -- modulated his domestic policies. In foreign affairs, his continentalism remains starkly evident. In just six months, the Harper government has extended our involvement in a U.S.-led counterinsurgency mission, given the Pentagon access to maritime surveillance over our coastal waters, followed the Bush administration's lead on climate change and the Middle East and Iran, and quietly taken steps toward participating in missile defence. Mr. Harper believes that Canadians would just as happily be Americans, and he'll do his best to make us so. Fortunately, George Grant was wrong. Our distinctiveness -- our love of country -- is rooted in the non-economic compartments of our national psyche. Michael Byers holds the Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at the University of British Columbia.