Canada’s national story differs from those of most other countries.
Canada’s story over its 148-year history has largely been driven by persuasion. The American story has more often been shaped by war and violence: the Revolutionary War, Civil War, Indian wars, Mexican wars, lynching and 300 million guns in private hands.
These differences in how we go about things are monumental. They come from the fact that the histories of the two countries are so dissimilar, as are the choices each has made along the way. Over the years the differences have become the source of both strength and weakness.
The United States has been great when it comes to freedom and science – the most transformative forces for doing things in a better way since the Renaissance. There is still more to do because science and freedom alone face limits. Quite specifically, the U.S. lacks mutual accommodation, which is a very important element to continued success in the future.
Canada’s has a better track record in this area. Since its beginnings – first Quebec in 1608 and then Confederation in 1867 – Canada has had three very big achievements. First, it has survived – not just as a nation but as one that includes the distinctive province of Quebec. Second, it made itself coast-to-coast. Finally, despite its divisions of nationality, culture, language, religion and class, it has developed a political and socio-cultural outlook that works.
All these achievements can be explained in large part on mutual accommodation. Today’s Canada is the product of its capacity for mutual accommodation and a belief in an underlying shared order.
But how well is this historical fact understood as we prepare for the 150th anniversary of Confederation in 2017?
Seven key ideas
The Canadian Narrative Project is a collaboration with Bill Innes, who has spent his career in the global oil industry in Canada, Europe, Japan and the United States. The purpose of the project is very simple: to get Canadians talking about whether Canada has a shared story; whether that story is indeed mutual accommodation and whether understanding that story will strengthen us for the future.
At the heart of the project is the notion that, in many ways, Canada is still “the unknown country” that inspired the famous 1942 book with that title written by Bruce Hutchison, the late journalist and political commentator.
That idea is one of seven that shape the notion of Canada as the product of mutual accommodation. The second is the concept of “usable history,” which stems from a piece in The New Yorker by U.S. historian William Pfaff which he wrote soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Newly emerged Russia’s problem, he said, was that it had no usable history – which comes from what has worked to get a country through difficult challenges in its past. Interestingly, after the 9/11 terror attacks, Mayor Rudy Giuliani found New York’s usable history in what Londoners did during the Second World War to endure the Blitz.
Third, the central idea that shared stories are the stuff of usable history – a vital source of strength or of weakness – comes from many diverse places.
The four remaining ideas are more original and therefore may be less familiar:
- Mutual accommodation as a formal term. While Canadians instinctively understand it as a practical way to go about much of their business, it has not been expressed in simple words.
- The likelihood that Canada will have another “Sir John A. Macdonald moment” – which will demand achievements that seem completely improbable and require boldness and patience.
- Globally, we are at another very difficult moment of change in history when the momentum and direction of the dominant forces that have overcome everything standing in their way have started to weaken, the counterforces have become stronger, and the path forward is once again uncertain.
- Greatness is important for countries and for leaders. Sir Wilfrid Laurier and Canada became great by getting mutual accommodation right. Canada will always be Laurier’s country, unless it chooses to abandon its mutual accommodation ways or reaches an impasse where they no longer work.
Shared stories can strengthen the courage needed to support bold action and confront hard challenges. These two ideas – courage and shared stories – lie behind the Canadian Narrative Project.
Mutual accommodation is the opposite of what is happening in the United States. It is a nation that is currently being undermined by extreme emphasis on individual rights at the expense of society as a whole, on divisions among different groups, and on the never-ending struggle between good and evil. Mutual accommodation looks more and more to be the crucial ingredient that is needed for the survival of the best of our world as we know it.
There are three kinds of stories: the “how” (the manner of journey), the “where” (the journey’s destination), and the “what” (specific events that happen along the way). Mutual accommodation is a how story – a way of doing politics and social living. Freedom, human rights, the rule of law, and democracy have also changed the world.
Mutual accommodation is not itself a memorable event, although it can make possible uniquely remarkable events and has changed Canada. The next 100 years will likely be dominated by serious threats to the world’s economic and geopolitical order and stability – a world in which Canada’s rare combination of physical bounty, socio-political understanding, and living in a good neighborhood, could make a significant contribution.
Canada’s development has taken place largely separated from events outside North America. The focus in the future will be more external and Canada is moving from being a largely disconnected part of the world to being deeply interconnected.
Canada has the water, food, space, minerals, resources, and the political, economic, societal, and cultural ways that are in short supply for the rest of the world. If Canada is to seize the opportunities it needs to immediately engage in a national conversation about the shared and separate stories of its different peoples and regions – about how to envisage its future and how to seize its place in the world.
The goal is to look inward
Canada needs to hold national conversations about many important issues. This includes talking about whether its mutual-accommodation narrative captures how most Canadians feel about the country.
If it is to succeed, the Canadian Narrative Project must spur Canadians to think about when mutual accommodation has worked in the past and how in the future it may help us both at home and abroad. Values, stories, ideas, dreams, purposes and choices together shape individuals, societies and civilizations. Vision – the sense of what can be and what should be – lures and drives them all.
As the great Canadian critic and thinker Northrop Frye said, identities are always about who you aspire to be, not who you are now. Moving toward some vision of the future for Canada and the world – the two now go hand-in-hand – is what the Canadian Narrative Project is all about.
Central to all identities – as individuals, organizations, societies or countries – is how our particular culture shapes us to respond to what is put in front of us. We must understand both ourselves and others and the effect we have on each other. So it is with mutual accommodation. It works best when each side understands the other side very well. It’s essential to know what the opposing group wants before you can come to a deal that can last, and how best to respond if a deal does not initially prove possible.
The important questions for those who think a national conversation about Canada’s mutual accommodation story is worth pursuing, includes these points:
- Does the mutually accommodation Canada I have described feel like the Canada you live in?
- If it doesn’t, what does the Canada you live in feel like to you?
- Do you have an alternate shared story – in addition to or instead of mutual accommodation? What is it? What are your reasons?
- Do you agree with the thought that usable history comes from shared stories and separate stories, and how they may strengthen or weaken one another? If not, why not?