All happy countries are happy in similar ways. All unhappy countries are unhappy in different ways.
As Canada exits its great quarantine, we face six (6) unhappy crises of system: a public health crisis; an economic crisis; an educational crisis; an institutional crisis; a national unity crisis; and, to be sure, a wicked international crisis. (A social crisis – a seventh crisis, as it were – is also arguably in the works in Canada. As its dimensions come into sharper relief, I may write about that too in future interventions.)
Each of these crises taken on its own could have devastating consequences for our quality of life. Taken in any combination, however, these crises could easily tear our great country apart.
How to address these crises? Answer: strictly from a systems perspective, without kitsch, theatre or sentimentality, always in full appreciation of the complex links among the crises.
The public health crisis, driven by the Covid pandemic, is obviously the most top-of-mind today in Canada – just as in most (but certainly not all) countries around the world. But it is also, in my judgement, increasingly the least serious of our six major crises. Covid remains a serious dynamic in the national public health mix for the foreseeable future, and especially as we reopen our economy, schools and borders (interprovincial and international alike). And yet infection rates across the land remain very small and the death rate, at 0.02% on a national population of 38 million, is statistically zero.
Just as problematic in Canadian public health is the very real displacement of treatment for and attention to countless other diseases, maladies and afflictions – physical and mental alike – across our country as it emerges from a traumatic quarantine and into very stressful times.
Our second major – and ever-growing – crisis is the massive economic, fiscal and business crisis. From autumn onwards, up to a fifth of the Canadian work force will be unemployed, with considerable underemployment and precarious employment on top of that. Huge numbers of medium and small businesses will have been shuttered – a function of exhausted liquidity, loss of competitive position, diminished clienteles, broken national and international supply chains, a closed American border (and highly depressed American economy), bottlenecks in interprovincial mobility and, frankly, grave mistakes of policy – that is, businesses unwittingly regulated out of existence by federal, provincial and municipal reaction to the pandemic.
While the federal government’s borrowing ability remains strong, provincial and municipal borrowing and spending capacities will soon have become historically constrained, requiring federal guarantees and significant, creative restructuring and reallocation. If another lockdown in the fall or new year would almost certainly bankrupt multiple jurisdictions across the country, then the present path-dependent support payments and subsidies being paid out by Ottawa, while perfectly understandable in the realm of improvisation, come with negligible multiplier effects in the context of regulatory uncertainty and ever-degrading trust and confidence across the national economy (Will governments impose another lockdown? Will business or client A or B be around in half a year’s time? Will service or product X or Y be delivered on time and per the requisite quality and specs?).
Third, the country’s educational systems face crises of capacity, logistics and basic pedagogy that are nearly without precedent in the context of modern Canada. Parents and administrators are rightly worried about the safety of the fall return to school, and yet, as I have argued, it should be increasingly plain that Canada’s young people can ill afford not to return to school in a bona fide way in September. Not only does a proper economic reopening depend on a successful school year (in my humble submission, the weaker argument for a return to school), but we Canadians must realize that we are no longer preparing suburban kids for a comfortable, predictable future – nay, we must educate our population for a contested Canadian and global future (the stronger argument). Our young people will have to be prepared to think, compete and fight for their lives, for their country, and for the world they want (or others will do the thinking for them, on their own terms). Education is central to their prospects in this regard.
Fourth, Canada has a deep crisis of institutions. The democratic feedback loops to power from television, radio, print and, especially, websites and social media are increasingly dysfunctional in the context of a largely collapsed Canadian information space. Parliament, for its part, is not playing a regular and muscular role in correcting and shaping executive (emergency) responses to the pandemic and all related crises. The same is true for most provincial and territorial legislatures. Intra-pandemic politics in Canada has, with few exceptions, quickly degraded to emergency technocracy, but without the instruments and talents of the world’s better technocracies (although also without, granted, the pathologies of these same technocracies).
Fifth, national unity is again du jour. The West, led by Alberta, is simmering with economic and political discontent, with separatist energies (and physical-psychological alienation from Ottawa) intensified during the pandemic. The Bloc Québécois has a solid presence in Ottawa, and a burst of sovereigntist inspiration in Québec is not to be underestimated – consider a massive reaction, for instance, to the possible cancellation, due to pandemic-related budgetary pressures, of French-language study in the Toronto District School Board, the country’s largest. Centrifugal pulls from processes and forces related to Indigenous grievances and claims – all already growing before the pandemic – may well also intensify in the context of a weak post-pandemic Canadian state, chipping away at the legitimacy (and confidence) of our current constitutional order.
Finally, international pressures may devastate our country if we are short on cunning and luck. The US, ever radicalized and capricious, will continue to be unstable well through the November presidential election. China is squeezing us to the west, just as Russia could squeeze us in the Arctic. European stability coming out of the pandemic is not assured. Bref, Canada will have to begin to strategize at the great-power level to restabilize its international position. I have written enough about this in GB and said enough in past public interventions. I shall not belabour the point here.
How to Exit Our Unhappy Crises (Happily)?
Answer: We must think big, act big and be a serious people for extremely serious times. If not, Canada may not survive. And even if we survive, the future will not be bright. Full stop.
All of this (“big thinking”, “big action”, und so weiter…), of course, will not be easy or obvious, as Canada manifestly has little experience of comparable-scale national public trauma in its modern history, and almost no instinct for national mobilization in its public and strategic classes.
Path-dependent proposals, however well-intentioned – a tax cut or hike here, expanded infrastructure or investment there – will get the country nowhere fast, from a systems perspective. And slowness of national response will only cause us to consolidate a depressed economic and strategic position.
Let us therefore confront these systems problems with a systems approach – systematically, at scale and with the requisite intensity of pivot to move the country forward along all the six vector paths suggested by the said crises.
The systems exit must be accompanied by a national intent, in political-psychological terms, to pivot out of the crisis kinetically, with great speed and, critically, with a sense of national mission. Any deepening of the current national passivity – paradoxically, a key condition for quarantine, but counterproductive to any survivalist pivot out of quarantine – or stickiness in the post-quarantine national stupor will make this impossible. It requires urgent political correction.
If systems thinking and a kinetic, mission-oriented pivot out of quarantine are essential to Canada’s post-pandemic success, then two great Canadian weaknesses of political and professional mentality must be conscientiously overcome. First, our machinery of state and government must become far more extroverted in posture. And second, both state and society will need to become far more exercised by choreography and detail. Details, details, details…
Extroversion. The quarantine period saw a massive breakdown in the ties that bind Canadian citizens with their government bureaucracies and political class. Feedback mechanisms from the ground to the centre disappeared, and each of the two solitudes – the citizens on the ground, and the decision-making classes of state in “the centre” – retreated to their own Zoom rooms. Money was distributed to the population and businesses, but communication from the state machinery was largely disseminated online through decree and regulation, supported by emergency pronouncements by the prime minister, premiers and mayors – almost entirely without proper checks, corrections and feedback from parliament and the legislatures.
In Canada, all of this was largely improvised and, to be sure, without conspiracy. Best efforts – even heroism, in some cases – were on display. Certainly, the entire pandemic effort, at all levels, was informed by good intentions.
And yet the emergency retreat (physical) of the public class from the very public it is intended to serve means that critical state functions like mass testing for covid-19 have been administered passively rather than through direct (extroverted) outreach to the entire population – that is, as an ideal-type, door-to-door testing (something largely contrary to Canadian public instinct and praxis) in order to refine national and local statistics and tracking on coronavirus infections and, crucially, to drive down infection probabilities while instituting more nuance into the algorithms for reopening schools, businesses and social life more generally. Door-to-door testing, in particular, ramped up to historical intensity as schools reopen this fall, would allow individual provinces and communities to drive down infection probabilities by better informing infected individuals of the need to seek treatment or otherwise quarantine, while protecting vulnerable populations and, of course, allowing uninfected, non-vulnerable and unaffected segments of the population (the vast majority of Canadians) to return to regular activities – education, commerce, personal affairs – without anxiety or theatre.
Theatre or ritual, on my definition, is that part of the coronavirus reaction (on an imaginary spectrum) that goes beyond, or exists in place of, that which is strictly considered and intended, through detailed planning and choreography. In short, theatre substitutes for real thinking (or in the absence of real thinking). Case-in-point: if the state, by dint of its introverted posture, has, for a school of, say, 500 people, not, in an activist (extroverted) way, conducted tests (indeed, rolling or ongoing tests!) on all students, teachers and administrators in that school, then mask-wearing, social distancing and obsessive cleaning of surfaces serve as effective (but otherwise inefficient and antisocial) theatre to minimize infection rates that are largely unknown. In other words, in the absence of state extroversion (bluntly, legwork by the government!) to reach out to the population, individually and on a regular basis, in order to drive down probabilities by refining numbers, tracing, treatment and quarantines, a largely antisocial, defensive, often totalitarian and economically impoverishing covid theatre takes hold, with the overwhelming burden placed on individual citizens and societal structures to attempt to drive down covid probabilities that may or may not be material. (Of course, this theatre, if not tamed or corrected before long through the said extroversion and attention to choreography and detail, could well becomes sticky or stable in the society over time – possibly even beyond the term of the pandemic. Circuit-breakers will therefore be key before very long…)
Let me also propose that, in strict terms of the pandemic, the telos or overall goal of Canada’s efforts ought not only not be to “wait for a vaccine” (a strange articulation, to begin with, about a society’s ability to bounce back from any pandemic or national emergency), but that it need also not be to “eliminate” covid incidences altogether (or to obsess over small rises or falls in cases here and there, given that reporting on individual covid death rates online and social media perversely overamplifies a pandemic crisis that, as mentioned, becomes the minor crisis in the land by this fall.) Why do I say that we need not obsess over total elimination of the virus in Canada or even about discreet cases? Answer: The death rate from covid in Canada is statistically zero, and the official recovery rate among those infected well over 90% (indeed, closer to 93%). If we presume – safely, I believe – that covid has been underdiagnosed in Canada because of the said absence of outward-oriented (“extroverted”) mass testing, then the recovery rate is likely closer to 95%, with covid deaths in Canada – all tragic! – occurring preponderantly in nursing homes, among the very aged and within presusceptible groups (all of whom definitively need to be protected far more efficaciously). Bref, let us protect the vulnerable, manage the otherwise healthy, and mobilize the society to recovery across the systems (discussed below).
Yet today the state still hides, stays passive, and the population (partly scared, partly in a stupor) engages in an other well-intentioned theatre that avoids the pith and substance of the matter – the need to find out exactly who and how many are infected…, and otherwise ramp up, all guns blazing, to save the country and society.
Choreography. Minimizing theatre – which could soon balloon into a said seventh national crisis, that of a proper social crisis, in which trust between and among Canadians, as well as agreed social norms, are eroded – requires choreography by both state and society. It requires that we be deep in the details, not just in the general or in the broad frameworks. Here we in Canada have the situational disadvantage (as in other situations it may be a distinct advantage) of not being a professionally technocratic society – one that thinks and operates in details as its daily bread.
Being in the details means that political leaders and, perhaps most importantly, bureaucrats and civil servants, at all levels, get out and meet the population on the ground. This is, as it were, a return to classical civil service – or at least to a “pioneering” or “building” civil service. The Prime Minister, federal cabinet ministers and premiers must all, evidently, leave their offices and capitals to get to the cities, regions, towns, reserves, villages and outskirts of the country in order to see and develop a felt appreciation of the damage of the pandemic (and its consequences) in the flesh. There is no substitute for the feedback to power of on-the-ground realities, conversations and views.
Beyond this, however, regular civil servants need to get out into the streets, malls, parks, community centres and schools of the country to explain the pandemic, in all its contours, to the regular population. Why? To convey official and objective information directly, without the filters of social networks and gossip, to Canadians – to correct mistaken notions, to reduce paranoia, and to reassert a Canadian information space and a common national mental picture of the crisis and what’s to be done. (In an emergency posture, Canadian civil servants, at all levels, are no longer “regular” employees or people. Nay, emergency measures, including quarantines and lockdowns, have legitimacy only if the state apparatus operates in total preoccupation of all realities of Canadian life that are otherwise paralyzed by emergency laws, strictures and protocols. But a lockdown is illegitimate if civil servants think or behave as ordinary citizens, similarly traumatised – freezing the population, businesses and social activities but not otherwise working round-the-clock, on the ground, to compensate, as much as humanly possible, for the economic and social deficits imposed on the population.)
Canadian businesses – small and large alike – coping with the pandemic require not just the imposition of strict regulations, loans or payroll subsidies. They do not need rhetorical sympathy. Instead, they need direct outreach by the state – by phone and in person – to find out exactly what they require to survive, having been closed, in nearly all cases, by force for months during the quarantine. That thousands of Canadian businesses were forcibly regulated out of business without having received a single phone call or visit from the regulatory authorities is perhaps the most odious instance of Canadian failure to be both extroverted in posture and to work in the details – an inability to think through the logic of decisions masking, at best, as government neutrality and fairness (or a force majeure besides that; that is, as nobody’s fault).
A 20-Year Canadian Plan – on the North and Everything in Between – Systems problems mean that path-dependent initiatives for national exit will be insufficient. Tweaks in the tax code, for instance, will not revive and give adequate energy to an economy that is consolidating into depression.
It was the Second World War, of all things, that lifted much of the developed world out of the Great Depression period. It provided a systems shift – a vector shift, as it were – raising aggregate demand and transforming industry and innovation.
Clearly, in the Canadian case, we wish to avoid war at all costs. But the logic of our exit must be pan-systemic. To this end, I have been arguing for a 20-year or 30-year national plan – yes, plan! – to build up our entire North, 40% of our territory, for a Canadian-led Arctic century, on Canadian terms. This would set all systems blazing – economics, transportation, science, culture, infrastructure and, among others, institutions. It would mobilize all our national energies. And it would get us and future generations dreaming about a great Canadian future once again.
Let us make Whitehorse (or Inuvik or Yellowknife) the major hub city of the Arctic in the coming two decades – by the year 2040. Just as the city today celebrates the launch of the Canadian Arctic’s first university, Yukon University, let us envision the capital of Yukon becoming a Singapore-like economic, transportation and scientific hub connecting Canada, through the superior geographic proximities of our north and northwest, to East Asia, Russia and Eurasia, northern Europe and continental North America – all told, markets of two billion people, or six times as much as the American market alone (but still very much including the American market). Intense transpolar air transport – passenger and cargo alike – between Whitehorse and Shanghai, Dawson and St. Petersburg, Inuvik and Seoul, Yellowknife and Copenhagen, and Iqaluit and Chicago, would build on new-century road, rail, sea, energy, communications and housing infrastructure to connect all of our Artic territories horizontally as well as vertically to southern Canada. This would unleash colossal economic and creative activities across the country – starting in Western Canada, which is geographically and psychologically connected to the North and Arctic far more than Ottawa and central Canada realize. Indeed, paradoxical though it may sound, the “fix” to Wexit runs through the Arctic.
Just as little Singapore was famously able to mould itself – largely through intellectual construction – from a swamp-laden reject of the Malaysian Federation into one of the major hubs of Asia, the exercise of Whitehorse becoming the central hub of the 21st century Arctic theatre consists in embedding the great powers surrounding Canada in a regulatory logic of our own making – without war, for our own benefit, and for the benefit of an international order that will be looking for peaceable touchpoints in the Arctic, just as international institutions and trust are fast eroding in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic.
The plan might involve an immediate national declaration to the effect that the three Northern territories, in all their vastness, constitute a “Special Economic and Environmental Zone” for Canada. This would provide a powerful legal and political aegis for the country to deploy a vast economic, infrastructural, environmental, scientific, demographic, cultural, educational and diplomatic agenda.
The plan would have to be led by the Prime Minister (indeed, successive Prime Ministers) and a crack multidisciplinary team inside the Privy Council Office, with ongoing consultation and iteration, through a now-Ottawa-chaired Council of the Federation, with the territorial and provincial governments and, to be sure, Northern aboriginal governments as full partners.
A fairly large web of advisory boards populated by the country’s leading specialists in infrastructure, engineering, business strategy, Aboriginal governance, Northern science, the environment, oceanography, fishing, defence, cybersecurity, transportation, aeronautics, immigration and demographics, trade and health sciences, among other areas, should act in regular support of this evergreen national plan – one that will help our country navigate the biggest ever mobilization of national energies since the opening of the West in the earliest decades of Confederation.
(21CQ has also proposed a new Canadian-led Arctic League, building from this 30-year vision for the Canadian Arctic and North, to bind the great powers, local populations and leading trading nations in peace and prosperity in the world’s biggest new geopolitical theatre.)
Schools. The reopening of schools this fall is the most immediate challenge facing the country. Most elementary schools will, before long, return to full-time, five-days-a-week schooling, with masks, social distancing and cleaning key parts of the return algorithm. (I have mentioned the absence of rolling, head-to-head, mass testing as a huge gap in the back-to-school plan.) High schools will likely have hybrid regimes, blending online with in-person learning, in the fall, with a wait-and-see approach, in terms of full-time in-school-learning for the new year. Most universities, too, will return this fall with a hybrid regime.
For elementary and high schools, what is critical is to avoid panic (or hysteria) and overreaction when there is an inevitable outbreak of covid-19 cases in various schools. As I stress above, the focus must be on refinement of the numbers, suppression of probabilities over time, and protection of the vulnerable – not the elimination of all cases! As such, it is imperative to stress that another full quarantine will devastate the school systems and Canadian society more generally. Canada’s education systems would then surely splinter into dozens of parallel systems, with massive flight to private schools and pod learning – an entropy from which a proper educational system, the maintenance of standards and cohesion in future generations of Canadian citizens will be extremely difficult to reconstitute. (Some of this entropy is already underway – perhaps in anticipation of system-wide difficulties this fall…)
Bref, another closure of the school systems must be avoided unless absolutely necessary – that is, should there be an overwhelming resurgence of covid in specific communities. Partial quarantine is better than total quarantine, evidently, for the survival of the school system. And yet it must be realized that any school closure under panic will severely compromise the credibility and sustainability of future school reopenings.
Of course, it is already a fact that many parents (although certainly not the majority) will have decided not to send their children to school immediately at the fall reopening of elementary and high schools. They will instead be opting for online education or some species of bespoke or pod learning. (In the worst cases, some kids will not be going to school but will also not have proper access to online or bespoke learning.) In principle, if schools are not closed down and the line on continuity is held, then it is reasonable to anticipate that a meaningful proportion of those students not in schools in early September will return over the course of the fall. In my submission, such a return should be actively encouraged and incentivized by provincial governments and school boards, and the percentage of non-reintegrated students aggressively minimized by the end of the first term of the new academic year. Indeed, the official line from authorities and officials – leaders – should be that kids are expected back in school from day one.
Bref, a universal educational system cannot work on any other basis – and certainly not on one in which parents and other parties can exercise an absolute veto on participation and, in future, on such logic (a logic already well-ingrained in the modern pedagogical culture), even basic curricular matters… “Do you plan to send your kids to school” will doubtless lead, before long, to “Do you want your child to take exams?” and “Do you want your child to study science?”… Und so weiter… Moreover, as I note above, all of this would be contrary to the strongest argument for a proper, bona fide return to school for Canada’s students – to wit, that we must prepare them properly for a more difficult Canada and more difficult world.
(In closing this subsection, let me propose that Canada needs a national/federal Minister of Education in order to drive a country-wide recovery from this very modern educational crisis, in its multiple, very modern dimensions. Canada is – perhaps to the surprise of most Canadians, and certainly all non-Canadians – the only advanced federation in the world without a proper minister of education, and the position as such, created by royal prerogative, in no way contravenes provincial legislative responsibility for education – a responsibility that is similarly a provincial or state level in other federations that, too, have an education minister.)
Institutions. The pandemic is, in Canada, a national crisis driven by a factual pandemic and the collapse of two key sets of national institutions – one, Parliament and the legislatures; and two, Canadian media structures. The sequestering of Parliamentarians and provincial members over the several months of national quarantine meant that emergency tactics and decrees by executives went largely unchallenged and, crucially, uncorrected by essential feedback from opposition parties and legislators channelling information from the ground and regions to the centre. In such an event, Canadian public administration can quickly devolve into absurdity – with a governing class behaving as if algorithmic administrators but without the instincts and technical credentials of the better algorithmic classes and, critically, without the central legitimating characteristic of democratic (algorithmic) systems of governance – to wit, strong feedback mechanisms from the population to the governing class.
If the executive sat in literal physical isolation of Parliament and legislatures for several months, then both executive and the legislative branches sat in isolation of the citizens over and for which they govern for the same period. Citizen preferences and realities were, during this period, not properly communicated to the centre except through the internet and, far more idiosyncratically, social media.
How to repair the feedback loops from Parliament and legislatures to the executive branches, federal and provincial alike? Answer: Politicians and civil servants alike must get out and meet the population. Do not self-isolate. Do not hide. Do not engage in the “theatre” of pandemic where real thinking, energy and method are critical to the proper functioning of national institutions. Rich feedback happens not through social media or zoom sessions – although these may help. At core, the Prime Minister, premiers and all MPs, MNAs, MPPs and MLAs must all physically get out and see the country and meet the people, in the flesh, in order to be properly seized of what is happening on the ground, and indeed to psychically assimilate the scope and scale of the country’s present crisis.
The weakness of the political feedback mechanisms to power is amplified by the general collapse of Canadian media and the Canadian information space – something already in effect well before the onset of the pandemic, but fully consolidated intra-pandemic.
Ours is, today, a country that has no coherent information space in which to properly understand and analyze our own (strategic) circumstances, to debate and formulate policy positions and proposals without interruption, displacement or complete cannibalization by topics, interests and algorithms run by far larger outside players.
If the population difference between the United States and Canada is roughly of a 10:1 ratio, then the ratio of American to Canadian books in Canada’s English-language bookstores is of a 50:1 order. Online, the ratio of American to Canadian websites is likely of a 1,000:1 order. And on social media, where much of the political and policy debates happen increasingly, the ratio of American active Twitter users (more than 60 million) is 7:1 that of active Canadian users (more than 8 million). The combination of American invention, control and moderation of the Twitter algorithm (and most other leading social media algorithms); the fact that nearly all of the world’s leading Twitter users (by followership) are American; and that there is no language barrier, in English, between American and Canadian Twitter users, means that the retweet (or repost) rate of American tweets (and posts) versus Canadian tweets (and posts) is at least in the order of a million to one.
If most Canadian decision-makers – political and policy alike – are on Twitter actively, their Twitter feed is, by definition, entirely colonized by American information, analytics, framing and discourses. Any Canadian thesis, counterthesis or bit of news risks being overwhelmed, distorted, confused, vitiated or, if there is intent, undermined by American control and dominance of the very platform where Canada does, with ever-growing preponderance, much of its public policy thinking.
Yet this reality flies in the face of the basic strategic requirement that Canada, should it wish to devassalize, be able to “think for itself,” about itself. This means at least the following: first, deep (aggressive) regulation of American and all foreign social media platforms – not just on privacy grounds but, more importantly, to ensure that Canadian users and stories receive privilege in Canada; and, second, creation of world-class Canadian (led and controlled) social media and news platforms (in English, French and Indigenous languages, in the online, television, radio and print idioms), and the subsidization of leading Canadian journalism, analysts and bureaus on a significant scale across all of these platforms.
In the past, 21CQ and I have made the case for a national languages strategy – in part, to be sure, as an essential element in Canada being able to “think for itself” (looking 360 degrees around the world for sources and lessons – in English, French and countless other tongues), and also in the context of a far larger population over time (also an essential element of strategic devassalization).
Economy. Canada’s economic outlook coming out of the pandemic is quasi-catastrophic. As described above, it will involve historically large levels of Canadian unemployment (de facto, not formal) and precarious employment, diminishing (although far from exhausted) fiscal instruments at all levels of government, business structure and strategy dimensions (with thousands of small and medium-sized business – the bread and butter of the national economy – extinguished during the lockout period), and will, of course, be predictive of the nature of Canada’s production, consumption and material-psychological lifestyle for the coming decade-plus.
I have suggested above that non-path-dependence will be critical to rectifying Canada’s deep economic crisis – a crisis that risks consolidating into deep depression absent such non-path dependence or if the corrective moves are not made with great speed and on a massive scale (all things very foreign to the present Canadian political and administrative instinct and posture).
The economic crisis is also impossible to solve by economists thinking along 20th century lines. As I noted in my last blog, 21st century economics – and its constituent (or competing) ideologies – has yet to be invented and, as with last-century economics, it will be formed by the problems of the day. In the event, “economics” will need to be conscientiously combined with strategic considerations and indeed elements of solutions to all the other crises. But again, the idea that schools ought to be open because the economy cannot otherwise function – while perfectly true – betrays a path-dependent national imagination that will only succeed in grinding our country into deep poverty in the context of the exceedingly unusual complex of crises we are now facing. So too is the banal but still very popular notion – a “waiting for Godot” strategy, if ever one there was – that Canada will be “saved”, economically, once the border with the US opens. (Quaere: Will the border open soon or not soon? And what if it is closed again? And what economic and strategic rents will be extracted from Canada in order to keep it open?)
The massive Northern and Arctic plan I describe above is a national economic strategy of exit – or, put differently, a massive economic strategy of national exit from crisis. It has world-historical dimensions in all areas of Canadian life – starting with the economy but intimately connected to the transformation of the national psychology. It should include a first-ever Northern Immigration Strategy for Canada. But now let me add three key, non-path-dependent moves that Canada must make with speed on the economic front.
First, Canada should be aggressively picking off talent from around the world in the middle of the present pandemic. This is counterintuitive to the present defensive, quasi-autarkic economic and strategic mentality of our governing classes, but it is consistent with seizing time-limited historical opportunities and openings for national advantage. In the event, Canada should be looking to pick off the very best economic and business-oriented talent from such “unhappy” countries (“unhappy” especially because of pandemic-related domestic dynamics) as the US (first and foremost, and en masse, as I note below), the UK, Mexico, Brazil.
Second, Canada should begin to deliberately seek not just to have “companies”, but indeed to have “term-setting” companies, at significant scale, in at least a half dozen key industries of this early new century. A term-setting company is one that is a global industry leader and, critically, aims to be such – that is, it intends to drive the terms of engagement in particular sectors, rather than simply satisfying a local customer base while term-setting happens in foreign headquarters, supported by foreign governments. (Let us pick off top executive talent from abroad, where necessary, to lead some of these large-scale Canadian term-setting companies – in biotech, in high-tech, in nanotech, in green-tech, in manufacturing, in engineering, in infrastructure, in logistics, in aerospace, etc…)
Why a term-setting Canadian company and not just “any” company? Answer: In the context of international emergency, tension or intense competition, the term-setting company does not wait for markets, borders or tastes to shift in its favour. Nay, it moulds all of these through its behaviour, products, energy and ambition. And if we have difficulty projecting future product sectors, we can with relative ease project growing global emergency, tension and competition. Canada will need multiple major term-setting companies – again, at scale – to navigate this marketplace.
Finally, and very much within the logic of a “term-setting” posture, Canada should aim to have economic, strategic and psychic self-sufficiency in a host of critical areas of national life – including national emergency reserves over and above sufficiency, but evidently with plenty of marge de manoeuvre for healthy and active trade and exchange with countries around the world. Here we might list – non-exhaustively, of course – agriculture and food supply, pharmaceuticals, energy and even transportation assets and capabilities (across the modes, including high-speed rail across the country, and highly affordable air travel to all points of Canada). But let us go further to ensure that Canada can fully supply and protect its electronic and information space (at present, fully beholden to American companies, algorithms, servers and therefore strategic caprice, in the direst of cases), builds up far larger contingency (financial) reserves at the centre of government to prepare for future emergencies, pioneers a proper national cultural and sporting architecture that will connect east to west and north to south through bona fide Canadian sporting leagues from hockey to baseball and soccer, and solders the cultural markets of Quebec and French Canada together with those of English and Indigenous Canada into a single Canada-wide cultural theatre – essential to the construction of a proper Canadian imagination.
International. Just as I did not wish to belabour international analysis of Canada’s straits above, given that I have intervened enough on this dimension in the past, I will not say too much herein on what Canada must do on the international front. Needless to say, I have argued stridently over the last couple of years that Canada committed a capital mistake of national strategy in signing and ratifying USMCA. The mistake had three dimensions – vassalization in law and reputation, forced signing under pressure (without the removal of the original sources of pressure, as evidenced by the fresh imposition of US aluminum tariffs but a month after USMCA became law of the land), and the fact of contracting with an untrustworthy American president.
Canada is now stuck, strategically, economically and psychologically, in a vassal relationship in the context of a global pandemic, with a closed US border, an international enemy-to-ally ratio of 2:1 (in demographic terms), and an effective (and notorious) American strategic veto on most of our meaningful marge de manoeuvre in all matters external. Bref, except for the most marginal transactions, Canada really has no foreign policy of which to speak today. My verdict is that blunt. We have ceded all effective prerogatives of strategy and economics to Washington, and are seen as having done so by all serious capitals around the world, friendly and unfriendly alike. (Quaere: What is a “friendly” capital if it does not believe that our own capital has anything of substance to offer, or that it can move independently, without checking with Washington, on any matter of international consequence? Answer: It is a capital that essentially ignores us or gives us only ritual attention.)
How to exit our vassalized condition as our borders with America-China-Russia-Europe (ACRE) become more contested, yielding what I count as 15 possible combinations of pressures and pulls across our country’s massive geography? Answer: Patiently, but with purpose. Begin to lay the “means-oriented” groundwork for a great-power Canada – as that is the only type of Canada that can properly devassalize and reckon with our emerging strategic circumstances. (To be clear – there is no “middle power” Canada this century: we survive either as a deep vassal or as a great power in our own right – in part in virtue of having survived our 15-combination game.) Means-oriented signifies that we ought to focus not on the “ends” of Canadian strategy and power – a conventional preoccupation of most Canadian and Western strategists – but instead on the largely uncontroversial means or “factors” of Canadian power (or strategic power for any country): the economy, the educational system(s), the potency of the executive branch, the quality of Canadian diplomacy and defence, and, among a few other factors, the size, distribution and talent of the national population.
21CQ has made the case for 100 million Canadians by century’s end. The quantum is admittedly metaphorical, but the intent is serene – to wit, to allow Canada to be strategically capable of “thinking for itself” (including through control of its own information space), defending its own interests, and being a leading player (a term-setting country, as it were) in the world in advancing the human condition. (Of course, this assumes that Canada “wishes” to become a great power, rather than consolidating its current vassalized posture…)
At some point in this process of becoming a great power, Canada will need to correct its mistake in the USMCA. This may or may not be easy in the context of the inevitable political and strategic destabilization that will hit the US going into and coming out of this November’s presidential election – a destabilization that will put fierce pressure on Canada regardless of who emerges as the electoral victor. (Scenarios of partial American state collapse, although extreme and less probable, are not to be discounted outright. Canada must prepare for all eventualities – again, if we are to survive.)
For now – indeed, over the next decade – we would be well advised to gather our strength and build our assets (and fortify the national mentality), quietly, in preparation for the battles ahead. To this end, the North and Arctic, per the plan outlined above, would be a safe and sweet theatre in which to build up capabilities – that is, all the factors of Canadian power. After all, if Canada will build toward 100 million by century’s end, then up to 10 million of that population may inhabit the Northern third of the country. And if we are deliberate in choreographing that population growth – in partnership with the territorial government and self-governing Indigenous populations – then we might, in my humble submission, start by immediately picking off American talent, one by one, in the context of the present American political malaise. That’s how smart countries behave.
National Unity. I have written a great deal about our national unity challenges, led by Quebec (always potent and active), asymmetric Indigenous pulls (of growing moment) and, most urgently in light of the economic misery caused by the pandemic and the crash in global economic demand and oil prices consolidated by quarantines and shutdowns, the rise of Wexit and distinct Western separatist processes.
As with Quebec – although less obviously so – the separation of Alberta or a Western provincial bloc from Confederation would not, as is naively presumed in some public commentaries, result in some species of Alberta-ROC (Rest of Canada) negotiations on the nature of post-referendum federalism, intergovernmental or international relations. Nay, the Canadian federation would quickly collapse into multiple units of varying sizes, border configurations and economic and demographic makeup. And any disintegration of the vast modern Canadian federation would be impossible to reverse – that is, the status quo ante impossible to reconstitute. There would be no “Canada”, except in name, with which to negotiate.
Let me stress that, in respect of Western Canada, three ideological, strategic and policy-administrative moves are critical in Canada’s post-pandemic national unity: first, as noted above, the “fix to Wexit”, as it were, runs not pedantically through the West, but indeed through the North and the Northwest, further to 20-year plan for the North, and given the deep sociopsychological links (well misunderstood in the centre of Canada) between the North and the West in Canada; second, whatever today’s Canadian public and political-class opinion on China (and regardless of its complex genesis – see my past analysis on this matter), Canada’s West cannot become prosperous, and our North functional and sovereign, without a meaningful and peaceful economic opening to China (full stop); and third, several prominent institutions of the federal state and government must be moved to the West in order to minimize the physical and psychic distance between Ottawa and Western Canadians, and to improve the feedback mechanisms from the peripheries to the centre – as discussed, a key dynamic in effective democratic governance, and a major challenge in all geographically large democracies. To this end, I have argued in the past that the Supreme Court of Canada, Federal Court of Appeal and Federal Court of Canada should be moved to a Western city – perhaps Winnipeg or Regina. (This is permissible, in my judgement, by section 16 of the Constitution Act, 1867.) It may also be appropriate to move the Bank of Canada to a city like Edmonton or Calgary.
There should also be little doubt that the interprovincial barriers and borders erected by the country’s provinces and territories – and even, as in the case of the “Atlantic Bubble”, individual regions – must be removed with some haste by the end of summer. These borders must absolutely not be permitted to become sticky or otherwise perceived as precedent-setting in the administrative mentalities of the provinces and territories if Canada is to function as a psychological-political-economic unity. And the responsibility for ensuring that such a mentality of precedent does not take hold in the country falls clearly to the national leadership…
A Final Word…
None of these crises will fix themselves. The very Canadian instinct that holds that Canadian stability has been so longstanding that things will simply “take time” to get better, but that they inevitably will, must be checked with the greatest seriousness. The ship of state and society will not simply “right” itself… Nay, all of the fixing and righting will require huge national thinking, will, work and leadership…
Canada’s performance in this fight for survival and success will not only determine the nature of Canadian life over the coming decades, but will be carefully observed by most other countries round the world – friendly and unfriendly alike. If we fail to reckon with these crises – the multiple crises brought about by the original single crisis of the pandemic – then we can be sure that such countries will conclude that future Canadian destabilization necessitates neither war nor conflict, but merely a small pandemic, real or feigned… And we can be sure that there will be more pandemics that await in our future…
But if we succeed – that is, if we are à la hauteur, as it were – then the century is still long, and it may still be ours, or ours to shape, for ourselves and for our fellow woman and man the world over.