A political society is always a work in progress susceptible to failure and instability. But Canada has a legacy that provides it with a compass, a story that should allow it to navigate its future course with confidence and grace. If we become gripped with amnesia and pretend we don’t have that narrative, we will lurch about creating only the illusion of national progress. There is a danger today that Canadian nationalism—the sense that we have achieved something valuable and unique by building a good state out of a vast geography and great diversity—is being replaced by the conventional wisdom of transnationalism, whose first tenet is that nothing really matters. Not differences, not culture, not simple humanity…not the specific narrative that has defined Canada.
Where does this danger come from It may come from a strongly held belief in personal liberty. However, when we observe what completely open markets and convenient politics actually bring to society—namely poverty, exploitation, instability, dislocation, and loss of identity—it must be acknowledged that this conventional wisdom presents itself as a nightmare. In truth, while it masquerades otherwise, its actual purpose is simply to reduce the transaction costs of the global marketplace.
In Canada, this new nationalism leads us to believe that the highest goal of the state is not to ensure that basic needs are met, but rather to firmly establish the ethic of unfettered competition throughout society. It tells us that the real purpose of political activity is not to create the national good; that the idea of public good must concede to the empty shibboleth of insatiable profitability, and the blind and unsubstantiated belief that unregulated private ownership alone is always more efficient and more effective than any mixed economy could possibly be.
It is further argued that collateral damage to society is an unavoidable cost. The new nationalism tells us that we can’t hope to preserve our grand compromises, which respect differences and develop national purpose; that identity has no boundaries, and that the social capacity of minority groups is of little importance. It is this thoughtlessness about the true relationship between state and identity that made that referendum evening in 1995 so bleak, so devoid of historical appreciation.
The new nationalism accepts that social divisions are inescapable and a tolerable result of our quest for efficiency, even though through such divisions we lay the groundwork for even greater inefficiencies due to unrest, instability, and exclusion. In other words, the new nationalism is a trap that carries only the veneer of worldliness.
At the very core of Canada’s challenge today is the rediscovery of our shared legacy as a political society that dares to include and to promote equality. Meeting this challenge requires supplanting the new nationalism that stands in stark contrast to the values and vision that created Canada’s strong communities and gave us international standing as a good nation.
I was a premier once. I know the pressures that militate against taking the longer view of things and of reaching beyond one’s particular place. It’s not easy and it requires, among other things, a commitment to a progressive society. Though it can be difficult to find, more than ever we need leadership that is informed by shared destiny. Sometimes, too many of us fail to grasp the fragility of our hard-earned success, our basic goodness. Now is the time to recapture the moral and political strength to see ourselves in our own place, in our own time, informed by our own values, and within our own actual narrative, as an independent nation, worthy of the respect of a world that needs an even better Canada.