I’ve come to spend the spring in Canada, where I will be teaching in Carleton University’s summer school in political economy. This is a bit of a trip down memory lane for me, since I grew up in Ottawa and did my undergraduate studies in these walls. But I left to see the world a long time ago, and return to these hallways for the first time in thirty years. It’s just that this time around, I’m the one sitting close to the window with the view of this quiet capital city.
Folks from Ottawa hate hearing that theirs is a quiet city. But it is. Indeed, relatively speaking, the whole country is about as exciting as BBC 2. When you land in Canada, you’re about as far the frontier as it’s possible to get. Bounded by oceans on three sides, and on the fourth by the US behemoth –a buffer between the inner-periphery of the Caribbean and Central America – the country has the unusual (today) luxury of getting to choose its immigrants. With such complete control of its population, and sitting as it is atop an immense endowment of natural resources, Canadians have enjoyed the rare privilege of being able to grow rich simply by selling their minerals to the rest of the world, then using the revenues to import manufactured goods and travel the globe (something they’re eager to do every winter when the north wind blows and the sunnier climes of Florida or, for the more comfortable, Tuscany beckon).
So ironically, even though it is far from the emerging world and its new currents, in its actual production-profile, Canada resembles its Third-World peers more than it does the developed countries to whose ranks its per capita income suggests it belongs. Its primary sector is, proportionately, five times larger than that of its US neighbour. Canadians will sometimes talk of the prosperity they have built, the truth is that the only real battles they had to fight to coax wealth from these lands were the long-ago imperial campaigns to seize them they from their indigenous occupants. Since, Canadians have been able to more or less live off the rents the land generates.
I don’t want to downplay the famous decency of Canadians Let’s give them their due, starting with what Canada does right. That ability to determine for itself who gets to come here, rather than have the issue forced by boatloads of migrants who turn up on the shore, has meant that the country has been able to manage its immigration in such a way as to bring those most likely to fit in. Immigrants to Canada have consequently tended to be an unusually well-educated bunch, and thus those most open to the liberal values necessary to sustain such a pluralistic society. Today’s Canada is a remarkably diverse country composed of immigrants from every corner of the globe. When you look at the violent divisions which repeatedly tear the fabric of its southern neighbour, Canada has achieved no small feat in getting these people to live together with a degree of harmony that would be the envy of many less-complex societies. In the lecture-halls I have visited here, I have encountered students from all cultural backgrounds, from young gay activists to veiled women, and yet the barriers among them seem non-existent. They take coffee together and swap notes on their favourite films as if they were mates at a local watering-hole.
How has a country with such modest political ambitions pulled this off? Canada has produced no Abe Lincolns or Franklin Delano Roosevelts, leaders who channelled the noblest ideals of their time and gave their peoples a unifying vision of a new and improved future. But perhaps this is the point. What Canada has given itself have been a string of leaders who were best at smoothing over differences in smoky back-rooms – hardly inspirational, but surprisingly effective. The country probably would not have survived without such ‘brokerage’ politics. An early nineteenth-century sage, told that a major civil war would divide a North American country and told to guess which, would have probably put her money on Canada. After all, this experiment in nation-building brought together two peoples, French and English, who were historical enemies and found themselves living cheek-by-jowl as a result of a truce in the fighting (the 1763 Treaty of Paris, which ended the Seven Years’ War between France and Britain, having ceded France’s Canadian colonies to the British).
Early on, Canada’s rulers recognised that with two peoples warring in one state, the only solution was to require expressions of culture to retreat to the hearths. The public square would be the place for market transactions and debate of airy political principles; but such things as religion and cultural expressions were over time banished from the public square. So today, Canadians may follow the religion of their choice at home, but refrain from praising Jesus or Allah in the public square.
Of course, the drawback of this separation of culture from politics is that in such a multi-cultural country, there aren’t a lot of cultural practices or symbols that unify all Canadians. Americans will socialise new immigrants into the America way, but Canadians ask them only to respect the law, and then find their own way forward in their private spaces. Ice-hockey, for those who love it, gives the people a common narrative. But what strikes the first-timer about Canada is how much of an effort everyone makes not to offend or impose. The butt of jokes for instinctively apologising if they bump into a lamp-post — yes, Canadians actually do that) – Canadians tend to aim for the median in all they do so as to preclude too many people feeling left out. In its sporting history, Canada has punched below its weight, government policy and general practice both tending to encourage participation rather than excellence. In education, the country yields generalised competence rather than individual excellence. Its public-education system is among the best in the world when it comes to giving broad access to a high-quality basic education; but the country has produced far fewer Nobel Laureates per capita than Britain or the US. Its patent –output reflects the fact that while Canadians make excellent skilled workers, they produce relatively little in the way of new products or patents. Canadians who aim to excel, as many do, have a strong incentive to migrate to fields where their ideas can be developed. Many end up going south of the border.
The price one pays for this is that oft-derided trait attributed to Canada by most of the rest of the world: that it is boring and culturally vapid. Canadians retort that, on the contrary, they have been great cultural innovators, using a sort of infant-industry protection model to promote Canadian artists, writers and film-makers. After decades in which Canadian content was the cultural equivalent of cod liver oil – bad-tasting, but good for your health – Canada in recent years has witnessed an efflorescence in literature, music and theatre. But the defenders of Canadian content miss the point made by those who criticise the country’s lack of culture. This is not so much public culture one encounters freely in the streets and public spaces, as a set of cultural commodities which one buys in the concert halls, cinemas and concert venues of the country. Lack money in Canada, and you lack access to culture. Imagine saying that of Naples, where the greatest cultural stimulation and an endless set of stories and folk wisdom comes from just wandering the back-streets of the Spanish Quarter.
The upside is that this may be the most genuinely egalitarian society in the world. Not in economic terms: it is, after all, a capitalist country like any other. But culturally, conceptions of breeding or accent which remain strong in Europe, and are becoming more important in America, count for little. In Canada, you are who you are, and there’s no point putting on airs. The novelist John Buchan, who spent time as Canada’s Governor-General (the Queen’s representative in what is, after all, a monarchy) once remarked that you have to know a Canadian a long time before you find out his last name.
Canadians complain nobody notices them. They shouldn’t. In truth, boredom is what Canadians aspire to produce. I left Europe, where the talk was of a possible crisis due to a Grexit, a political revolution in Spain as a radical party came to power, and German fears of Russian advances in Ukraine. I arrived in Canada to find the news consumed with talk of… income-splitting and new rules on pension withdrawals. When this is the most exciting news you can give the world, be happy that live amid such peace and prosperity. My message to Canadians who feel under-appreciated: This is why you love Canada, get over it!