THE FIRST Canadian federal-election campaign of the 21st century hung Parliament, focused on the near past, and was devoid of big ideas. There was no grand design on offer: free trade to secure our future, say, or a just society to better our souls, or peacekeeping for a fracturing world, or universal healthcare, or some other inspired mission. Instead, still Prime Minister Paul Martin pleaded with voters to remember Stephen Harper as the champion of “Alberta firewalls” and two-tier medicine. Regarding the sponsorship scandal, Harper bludgeoned Martin with, “What did you know and when did you know it?” Jack Layton launched invective at the records of both aspirants, and Gilles Duceppe sat smugly in Quebec’s catbird seat.

For the policy wonks it wasn’t a bad passion play, and for citizens primed by reality television it offered pure mudslinging: Martin was accused of being soft on child pornography and a killer of homeless people; homeless advocate Layton had supposedly shacked up in a subsidized co-operative; Harper was holding back on the separation between church and state; Gilles Duceppe was the feudal chief of provincialism; and the Greens were denigrated as not ripe enough to warrant participation in the grand debates. Over the din, real issues were actually raised, a significant improvement on Campaign 2000. Notwithstanding this, grand statements about big future plans were strangely absent.

Too bad. As the United States has proved, a great nation can survive without undue dependence on an elevated credo or the strength of its economy. It can exist, even thrive, on wilful blindness. Obvious example: It took the U.S. twelve years to settle on its own constitution, and it’s certainly not been afraid to ignore it in the aftermath of 9/11 – or maybe even since long before that. Nonetheless, the Great Power is insisting that the new governing council of Iraq write, implement, and secure the measures to guarantee the observance of its own new constitution within one year of “Operation Iraqi Freedom.” Now that’s chutzpah – chutzpah, not tight debate within polling-induced boundaries, that was blatantly missing from the Canadian political quadrangle.

Perhaps June’s election campaign was not backward-looking enough. In January, 1904, then Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier announced, “The 19th century was the century of the United States. I think we can claim that it is Canada that shall fill the 20th century.” One might quibble with his historical analysis – the sun hadn’t yet set on the British Empire – but, by 1899, the U.S. was certainly in the ascendancy. As it turned out, the 20th century clearly went to the Yanks, but you have to admire Laurier’s panache. He won by standing up, overstating, and ignoring all empirical evidence. This forward thrust brought Saskatchewan and Alberta into Confederation and out of the clutches of manifest destiny. He lost, in 1911, by promoting trade reciprocity with the growing Empire.

What can be learned from this brief history? We know the U.S. is making a play for the 21st century as the “New American Century.” And it’s clear the U.S. view of three-strikes-and-you’re-out extends beyond crime laws to foreign relations. We have a choice: to stand up and be counted, or to pack our bags and accept our status as the perennial farm team, a meek provider of talent (writers, comics, physicians) and resources for the big engine that can. The real lesson, maybe, is that Laurier had the right idea in the wrong century.

We have everything the Americans want and need: oil, water, diamonds, and wood; an international reputation for diplomacy and an appetite for nation-building in faraway places; a respect for constitutional law and, still, a separation between church and state; and a populace less hostile toward the U.S. than that of Latin Americans. Altogether, this gives Canada leverage.

The U.S. is about to enter the final phase of its election. As November looms, expect President George Bush and Massachusetts Senator John Kerry to wrap themselves in the flag, and ask America’s crucial political question, “What would Jesus do?”, then boldly announce the way forward. With the Canadian Parliament hanging in an untenable minority situation, our own next kick at the electoral can might follow shortly thereafter. In June, political pragmatism begat strategic voting. The next time around, we must demand more.

With signs of a downturn in the American economy on the horizon, Canada needn’t catch a cold when the U.S. markets sneeze. Laurier knew this well: to remain healthy Canada needs a robust internal market, an ability to buy and sell and stay at home. It needs mass immigration (arguably, the best contribution to be made in a troubled world) and a plan to grow to a hundred million. For the next election, we should demand that someone exhibit a little Wilfrid blindness.

Ken Alexander