The Unfinished Canadian

February 19th, 2009 at 11:21 pm David Frum | No Comments |

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In 2004, Canadian journalist Andrew Cohen published While Canada Slept, a study (and indictment) of Canada’s dwindling influence in world affairs. Cohen, till then known as a liberal-minded admirer of the late Pierre Trudeau, attributed the decline to many specific factors – but to the surprise of some, his accusing finger also pointed to the pervasive unrealism and ideological anti-Americanism introduced into Canadian politics by his one-time hero.

Now Cohen has returned to this theme in a new book, The Unfinished Canadian, which asks (among other questions) why Canadians have allowed their country to be led astray in the way that it was.

Twenty years ago, Peter Brimelow addressed this question in a book that in my opinion remains to this day the single best study of modern Canadian politics, The Patriot Game (out of print, alas). Brimelow argued very convincingly that much of the leftism and statism of Canadian politics is an artefact caused by shackling an inappropriate Westminster parliamentary system onto a huge, diverse, and federal country. As he noted, if the US chose its leader in the same way that Canada does, it would have been governed through the 1980s not by President Ronald Reagan but by Prime Minister Tip O’Neill.

Cohen focuses less on institutions and more on culture. He argues (against nostalgics) that Canada has always been a blurry place. It was as evident in the 1940s, the years when Canadians mobilized to fight World War II) as it is today.

Canada played a large and heroic role in the war. Between the fall of France and the German invasion of the Soviet Union, Canada was the second most powerful belligerent on the Allied side. Canadian merchantmen suffered horrific casualties to keep Britain fueled and fed; Canadian troops fought in Italy and Normandy. But even at this juncture, Canadian internal politics crippled Canada’s effectiveness. Canada had imposed conscription in 1942. But to placate Quebec, Prime Minister Mackenzie King conceded that only volunteers would be sent abroad to fight. The all-volunteer composition of Canadian fighting units helps account for the amazing elan and heroism of Canadian units in the battles of Italy and Normandy. At battles like Dieppe and Monte Cassino, Canadians earned a reputation for self-disregarding heroism exceeded only by that of the Poles. But brave men die early in combat. By the end of the Normandy campaign, the all-volunteer Canadian expeditionary force had been sadly weakened.

King reluctantly began sending conscripts overseas in November 1944. But very few arrived in time to make any difference: under 3,000 in fact. Almost uniquely among the victorious powers, Canada was militarily weaker in 1945 than in 1944. Who cares? Among others: the people of the Netherlands. The Netherlands were assigned to the Canadian line of advance. A stronger Canada – plus better leadership in the Allied high command – could well have reached the Rhine by September 1944. Instead, the Normandy offensive sputtered out, and the Dutch were left behind German lines for a winter they still remember as “the hunger winter”: a famine unlike anything experienced by any of the nations of western Europe in modern times. Canada’s depleted forces did not arrive to liberate the country until April-May 1945. King, on the other hand, lasted until 1948, the longest serving prime minister in Canadian history.

But I digress…

Cohen seeks to understand why it is that Canada has proven so unable to inculcate a sense of national belonging in its people.

He laments the neglect of Canadian history, the failure to build a worthy capital city, and the habit of regarding elected leaders like criminal suspects – a habit that has deterred many capable people from careers in politics and government. He even allows himself to worry that a rate of immigration almost twice as high as that of the United States might corrode national cohesion.

Cohen offers many suggestions, and tentatively acknowledges some others, including the choking grip of the Trudeauvian ideology in which he himself until recently believed.

In the end, he comes to a paradoxical conclusion. After offering no grounds for optimism at all, he still insists that Canada can do better in the future. I hope he is right. In fact, I think he is right. But I am left unsure why he thinks so.

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