Wed, Mar
12
2008

And the Walls Came Tumbling Down

Wed, Mar 12, 2008

border-crossing.jpg

Item: perfectly decent Alberta bloggers suggest that support for Albertan separatism will dramatically increase if Stephen Harper is defeated in the next election due to high Liberal turnout in Ontario.

Item: Jordon Cooper links to an article noting that California governor Arnold Schwartzenegger is using California-first rhetoric in his speeches. This combined with a California-Britian accord to curb greenhouse gases and talks about universal health care lead some to suggest that California might be considering a future outside of the United States, a move they suggest would result in a break-up of the union into eight or so loosely-aligned republics.

Item: Former NDPer Mike Park of the blog Rational Reasons quits his party. He hasn’t changed his democratic socialist ambitions, but he no longer believes that Canada’s government can achieve them. He vows to focus his efforts on non governmental organizations and on working locally while thinking globally.

A couple of years ago, a friend of mine asked me point blank whether I thought Canada would still be around in twenty-five years time, or whether we would be a part of the United States. After thinking about it a moment, I said that I thought that Canadian integration into the United States was inevitable, though it wouldn’t be quite in the manner that most people think, and it wouldn’t be the end of the world.

In Canada, separatist fervour comes and goes. If it isn’t the Bloc Quebecois coyly trying to get the Canadian government to call Quebec a nation, or Albertans being extra protective of their natural resources, it’s Toronto complaining about the billions of tax dollars that leave the GTA which do not come back from Ontario in services (heck, I’ve spoken in favour of creating the new province of Toronto here). We seem increasingly dissatisfied with the services our central government provides, and in our darker moments, we are pointing fingers, accusing each other of benefiting from the federation at others’ expense.

Trudeau lampooned this sentiment in Quebec. It was insular and backward. “Pull back behind your borders, put up walls, keep the outsiders out.” It’s the sort of rhetoric we’ve heard too often in nationalistic dictatorships destined not to end well. And that sort of insular thinking — that we’re better than anyone else, that we support everyone else, and we can get by without everyone else, is worth lampooning wherever it manifests itself, be it Ontario or Alberta.

But here’s the catch: if we laugh at the silliness of demarcating a border, establishing patrols and customs offices along the 110th meridian (and up the main street of Lloydminster), what the heck are we doing maintaining an equally silly border along the 49th parallel?

Now, I’ve heard all the arguments: Canada and the United States have different histories. They have different attitudes towards government. Americans are more individualistic and Canadians are more collectivist. We have different political cultures. Different cultures full stop. Canada is multi-cultural and America… not. “You can’t be an American and a Canadian, Erin, they’re opposites.”

Some of these statements are truer than others, certainly, but as a collective statement affirming the irreconcilable differences of all Americans and all Canadians, I have one word: Bullshit.

Compare Miami to Minneapolis, and Minneapolis to Winnipeg. Now compare Winnipeg to Moncton. The middle two jurisdictions have more in common with each other than the jurisdictions on either side. The United States is far more diverse than we give it credit for, and there are places where Americans themselves are forced to wonder: just what the heck is that bit of my country doing in my country? We can say the same here in Canada: Quebec has a distinct language, history and culture — even a distinct legal system. What the heck keeps us together? Believe me, the separatists would give good money to learn the answer to that question. And, by the same token, what keeps Canada and the United States apart?

Between the various parts of this country, we have come through a lot together: two world wars, economic depression and resurgence, deficit and surplus. We are united by a history that has seen people uproot themselves from all across the world and make a new life here. We’ve represented hope and prosperity to millions of immigrants and we can all look back at what we have achieved and be proud.

But a functioning country does not just look backward. Time itself does not allow that. Looking forward, we face a number of challenges; some are common throughout the country, some are not. The nation is polarizing, between urban and rural, between rich and poor, between individual and state. New lines are being drawn, and these lines puncture, if not obliterate, provincial and national borders. Canadian municipalities face a $123 Billion deficit in the form of aging bridges, roads and public transit infrastructure, and our provincial and federal governments drag their feet. Our federal government is awash in money while several provinces struggle to make ends meet. We face questions regarding our aging population and rising health care costs, and we have a government and opposition in Ottawa that’s more interested in playing mean-spirited political games than actually facing the challenges of the future.

And I can’t help but think: we used to do so much better. Toronto built new subways every year from 1959 to 1980. Our government-run postal service used to give us delivery on Saturdays. The waiting lists for medical care used to be a lot shorter, and the TTC used to run on time. We used to be well served by our governments, but quality control has slipped. What has changed?

What if it’s that we have become too big? This man argues that the United States has grown so much in size and in population that it is simply unmanageable from Washington DC. As rich as Albertans get, their political aspirations will be overshadowed by the simple fact that for every Albertan in this nation, there are four Ontarians. Is it reasonable to expect that in lands so diverse with voices so numerous, that a consensus can be reached in a central government on anything more than the barest number of issues?

The Greater Toronto Area contributes $23 Billion to the rest of the nation in the form of taxes that it does not get back in the form of services. North-south trade routes have rendered much of our east-west infrastructure obsolete. Maybe it’s time to declare an end to this bold experiment called Canada and break ourselves apart into more manageable portions, granting each segment enough power for the citizens within to look after their own affairs.

This is not an insular thought. The lines of communication and, more importantly, trade, would remain open. There would be a free movement of labour and capital, gently regulated by a limited central authority with teeth enough to prevent a great race to the lowest common denominator. Balkanization doesn’t mean having to behave like the Balkans. Drawing up borders doesn’t mean drawing back within them. Just look at the United States. California is not drawing borders around itself — as you can see by the fact that it is making economic and political accords with other world powers — but it is starting to follow an agenda that isn’t matched by Washington DC.

If Alberta were to leave Canada to look after its own affairs, I’m sure many people would be upset for the loss of the Canada they grew up in, but how much would actually change? Canadians are already paying the world price for oil. Atlantic Canadians get most of their oil from New England refineries. Alberta would likely remain within NAFTA, meaning that capital and labour would still be free to move across its borders. And it too is a lot more diverse than people give it credit for. Perhaps it might break apart, with city states of Edmonton and Calgary trading on an even keel with the rural remainder of the Albertan nation. If the parting between Canada and Alberta were amicable, Canadians and Albertans wouldn’t notice the difference in terms of the quality of their lives.

This is something I’ve been seeing across the world. Over the past few decades, the powers of our national governments are heading up and down. They’re being handed up to trans-national organizations which are lowering trade barriers, coordinating security arrangements, and even foreign affairs. We have a real prospect for a United States of Europe in my lifetime, and here at home we’re talking about a North American trading and security bloc that will make crossing from Ontario to Michigan as easy as crossing from New York to Pennsylvania.

At the same time, power is being transferred down. You see it in the devolution of powers to new legislative assemblies in Scotland and Wales. You see it in the rise of autonomous regions in Catalonia, in debates over the Tenth Amendment in the United States, and even in proposals to turn the Greater Toronto Area into Canada’s eleventh province. The barriers are coming down between nations and between individuals. The powers of government are realigning to a new reality: where individuals have a better understanding of the world, and a better ability to look after their own affairs. National sovereignty may not be the way of the future in the way that personal sovereignty is.

NAFTA and the WTO are already overruling national sovereignty. The Northern Ireland situation has been solved largely because England and Ireland belong to the same Europe. And as much as the anti-globalization forces would like to reverse this trend, the genie will not be put back in the bottle. Better to make organizations like the WTO as accountable as the nation states beneath them. Ensuring that the rights and freedoms of individuals aren’t trampled by multi-national corporations may be the big challenge of the first quarter of the twenty-first century.

And better, perhaps, to shrink down the remaining national government powers to local authorities that are close enough to the people to be responsive to their needs. The technology is already in place for cities to be as influential as the nations before them. Individuals have been granted far more power to control their own affairs than their grandparents could ever have dreamt of. As long as I’m allowed the freedom to travel where I want within the economic union, locate myself where I want and negotiate how I want for the job I want, I don’t see as that’s much of a problem.

Frankly, I do not picture a Canada existing fifty years in the future, because I do not see nations existing in their current form at that time. And, frankly, I do not care. Because while I don’t see a Canada in my future, I do see Canadians. They will be defined not by the geographical location of their birth, but by their life experiences. They should be assessed not by their citizenship, but by their character.

I have set up a good life here in Kitchener, but that does not mean that I couldn’t set up a life that is just as good in Des Moines, Chicago, Omaha or Edmonton. There are differences in who we are and where we live, but they do not define us. They are not so strenuous that they cannot be overcome.

My name is James Bow, and I am Canadian. It is my desire that, someday, my daughter will look at herself and say, my name is Vivian, and I am a citizen of the world.


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