Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The way back is the way forward

The saying goes that those who forget history are doomed to repeat it. To that I would add: or to forget how to. History can be a liberation.

I read a column today in The Globe and Mail... I forget who it was by, but the gist of it was a maudlin retreading of that tired old saw that it really didn’t matter how right we might be doing things in Canada, we’re joined at the hip by Fate to the United States and we’ll only be as well as it is sick.

Is that what we fought for as separate colonies in two continental wars? Is this why we finally came together to forge a new nation and common nationality a hundred and forty years ago? To imagine we have no future, no destiny, but that of the nation we’ve had to work so hard to remain distinct from?

A couple of weeks ago, I was in a used bookstore in rural Ontario. I came across a nice softcover book of Ontario’s history from 1610 to 1985. For the past week or so I’ve been reading it about half an hour in the mornings. And I came across some figures that were truly eye-opening.

In the middle of the 19th Century, before Confederation, the United Province of Canada (what had been Upper Canada and Lower Canada, and would become Ontario and Quebec respectively in Confederation) had a reciprocity agreement with the United States. Partly because they were sore at Britain for its conduct during the Civil War, and partly because they believed Canada’s separation from the US and adherence to the British Empire “unnatural” and only encouraged by reciprocity, the US unilaterally terminated the arrangement in 1866. And do you know what happened?

Canada promptly and obligingly curled up and died. Right?


Canada found other markets. And prospered.

In an age before the first prop-engine freighter ever took the skies, before refrigeration and air conditioning, when rail and sail were still the only ways to get it from here to there, this country (or what was to become this country) turned away from the easy, lazy continental trade we’ve decided is the centre of the universe, and actually hustled and found markets elsewhere.

In 1870, 51% of all Canadian exports were going to the US, and only 38% was going to the United Kingdom (the balance going pretty much to the rest of the Empire). But by 1916, 61% of our export trade was going to the UK and only 27% to the US. Even by 1937, the figures were about even: 41% to the US and 38% to the UK.

Now I’m not suggesting we can simply fall back on Mother England as our alternate to trade with the United States. But let’s remember... there’s a whole lot more to the world than just the United States, and if they’ve been rich and they’ve been close-by, that’s been convenient. But times change, and as they did before, so we must adapt. Our own history shows us what’s possible. If they could do it back then, with the incredible obstacles that time and distance represented for them, what right have we to fall back whining that the end of all good things is upon us? The EU is well-heeled, has nearly twice the number of consumers as the US, and looks upon us favourably (seal-clubbing notwithstanding; and we'll reserve comment here on fox hunting and bullfighting). China, India, and even much of South America are on the rise. These are places that will need our resources and can easily absorb the excess manufacturing output of a relatively smaller nation like ours. What I mean is, it really wouldn’t take that much of the world to pick up the slack the US is leaving behind for a country the size of Canada – if we’ll just get up off our asses and get in the game instead of moaning on the sidelines.

We did it before, and we can do it again. By all means, let’s wish the US well, but let’s not consign ourselves to the role of some Roman slave obliged to open his veins to share the fate of a humbled master. We have our own national life to lead, and our own stars to follow.

After all, wasn’t that the point in 1776, 1812, and 1867?

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