Register Monday | June 17 | 2019

Interview with Les Horswill

Should we give up on Canada and merge with the United States? Chris Emmerling speaks to the author of our provocative Winter 2009 cover story, "A More Perfect Union."

Les Horswill lives in Toronto, where he comments and consults on politics and government. He returns to writing after a wide-ranging career in public service. As an Assistant Deputy Minister, he advised various Ontario governments on issues including national unity, energy, training and trade. He worked for Robert Stanfield and wrote for William Davis during the constitution and energy debates of the eighties. Recently, he contributed to the Literary Review of Canada and is currently completing a book on Canadian nationalism and the promise of North America.

Chris Emmerling is a graduate of the political science master's program at the University of Alberta. He currently resides in Edmonton. 
He recently spoke to Horswill by e-mail.

Chris Emmerling: Your cover story urges us to consider the political integration of Canada and the United States. Is there is something particular to our generation’s circumstances that should make North America focus seriously on integration?

Les Horswill: The incantation that political integration would betray the Canadian “narrative” was something embedded in my youth by my family and political heroes. But as Bob Dylan put it “I used to care but things have changed.”  I’ve discovered that I’m not simply bored with Canadian politics but care more for what’s going on in Washington because it is, in fact, more important. I have some of the patriot’s love of country. But do I cherish Canada, the nation-state, and think it’s better than the US and all the others? Of course not. That kind of nationalism is as uncalled for and repellent, here, as it is and was everywhere else. It’s also not necessary to keep our history and regional and ethnic identities.

I don’t think I’m alone in this. Our loyalties and our vision of Canada have, in fact, changed enough to allow us to take the question of integration seriously. The test for us is whether we have shared interests and can respect each other politically. Against that test, I believe that Canada and the United States can prosper together within one federation. It’s true that we’re not exactly the same. We agree on Afghanistan but not on Iraqi; we can agree on tariffs, but not on subsidies; we can agree on good health but not on drug and food regulations. Clearly, people with different points of view work better together with equal political rights and shared institutions than by relying on discrete deal-making.

On climate change, security, prosperity and democracy Canada tries to be an influence on its own. But why not work as democrats to make a strategic difference rather than polish Canada as a mere role model? As a democrat, I want my state to answer to me and not assign matters of principle, like security and privacy, to another government outside the reach of my ballot. Borders are not only where we are at our weakest, borders set limits and insist we not see each other as the same regardless of geography or common sense. There is something compelling about looking out at the start of another century and asking: what can Canada do to assert itself more effectively? I believe Canadians, especially those waiting their turn to be in charge, are open to the challenge of finding a new way for North America to better govern itself: to resolve its differences and protect its shared material and moral assets.

CE: Early in the article, you suggest that the union of Canada and the United States would be “more democratic”. What do you mean by democracy in this context and how would integration improve it?

LH: I mean “more democratic” in the baldest sense of the word – government of the people and accountable to the people it governs. No unelected legislative bodies or tribunals. It is in this context that I compare a new Canada-U.S. federation against recently proposed Canada-U.S. partnership arrangements and other federal models.

The continental partnerships – e.g. security, environment, energy – are either too limited to solve big and changing problems or they are unacceptably undemocratic. Taking security as an example, Canadians would not accept the unaccountable involvement of U.S. security services in the administration of basic Canadian laws. And, looking elsewhere for inspiration, Europe, for example, is not committed to and is still a long way from creating one citizenship with one federal government.

We need a new starting point for discussion. In the simplest terms, one federal government would answer directly to one electorate for all its actions, and the states and provinces would continue to answer to their electorates for theirs. Federation would not send powers to Washington without the Canadian ballot going with them. Only elections keep government responsive and the exercise of power legitimate. And only elections would give individual Canadians an equal voice.

CE: When discussing Quebec, you say that America would have to respect the French language and the Code Civil. Short of changing their justice systems or publishing government documents in French, how could America fully respect Quebec as the Canadian government does now?

LH: It would be our responsibility as federalists to avoid creating a new Quebec-only border while taking down the 49th parallel. The security of French Quebec, its legal protections, and generally its importance to the quality of the federation would have to be made clear before entering into any negotiation.

Continental bilingualism would not be feasible; Americans use other languages and none are constitutionally official. However, with the Charter for residents in Canada or, by appropriate enabling amendments, integrated into one United States Bill of Rights, existing French language and English language rights would remain intact across the provinces.

Translating legislative debates and official documents in Washington and providing French language federal services in Quebec and designated areas would be consistent with America’s diverse state-based federalism and the costs would be significantly outweighed by the benefits of a united Canadian offer of union. We provide these services now and, conceivably through the (existing) Council of the Provinces, could continue to fund them in the future.

The Quebecois nation, centred in Quebec, would benefit immensely in a continental federation. Its rights would be secure. The enhanced appeal of Quebec to people and investment would only strengthen its French characteristics. We all have learned since the Quiet Revolution that a strong, financially viable Quebec government, within a prosperous, mobile North America, can handily protect its language and social values.

CE: You mention that “North Americans” would have an equal say in major issues such as environmentalism, energy, and security policy. By this, do you mean that an ideal “North American” culture will rely more on a federation of empowered individual citizens, rather than competing “interest” groups like provinces or states?

LH: I only feel certain that North Americans share those federal and democratic skills—and common practical and moral interests—necessary for a very big democracy to work, to make decisions on security and the environment, for instance, while maintaining national unity. I believe, however, that there could be a true renaissance of politics and creativity amongst Canadian Americans.

For the first time, Canadians would be in the campaign over who leads the most important and high-spirited democracy in the world. We would be free to advance ideas without being accused of compromising our “national identity”. And the social insurance mechanisms we’ve implemented in Canada to address market failures and improve the lot of the less powerful could be seen in the eyes of other Americans as North American innovations, not things “those Canadians copied from Europe” to be different.

North Americans, however, would continue to be complacent and, on occasion, raise hell. The ebb and flow between popular democracy and insider politics would continue to give the future much of its drama. Citizen involvement is stimulated by great issues and, yes, great mistakes by those we elect to govern. So, activists, out mobilizing citizens, should continue to play a powerful role, alongside the special interests that make up both complicated federations now.

CE: In the recent recession, many commentators noted that Canada’s recent history of surpluses, government regulations, strong mortgages, and our separate banking systems are reasons why we fared better than the US. Is this a warning against further economic integration?

LH: I think it’s more realistic to see it the other way. Americans made mistakes and will continue to make choices that will significantly benefit or hurt us and the rest of the world. Even if we were innocents on the sidelines—which we aren’t—our economy and the West’s good name will continue to be deeply influenced by the quality of U.S. public decision-making. The Canadian border and our reputation in the world cannot shelter us from the fate of the U.S.

If Wall St. was taken over by Toronto bankers, America still would face strategic challenges that will require wise, forceful American leadership. The IMF can’t bail the U.S. out. So, the events of the past year – the collapse of global trade  and financing, the impasse on climate change and slow progress on energy independence – all argue to me that the sooner we’re in the game—influencing decisions and taking a share of responsibility—the better.

CE: Throughout the article, you mention the benefits that major urban areas would receive through political integration. However, wouldn’t Northern and rural Canada lose out in an enlarged political union?

LH:  In surveying the benefits that could be secured from political integration, cities come first to mind for several reasons. Most of our population lives in them. They are situated within the bifurcated regional economies that run across the middle of the continent and that would benefit most immediately from taking down the border. Their future prosperity will continue to be critical to generating the wealth necessary to pursue balanced growth in the country. And their vitality as centres of commercial and intellectual power would help anchor our political effectiveness in the new federation.

Rural Canada and rural U.S. will continue to be challenged by energy costs, international competition and the amazing pull of cosmopolitan centres. These realities won’t change. However, there are several features of integration that should benefit these parts of Canada.

First, overwhelmingly their viability depends on the health of resource industries and the resource sector generally requires stable markets, political allies and sensible public regulation. Union would create new allies on both sides of the border—allies who once competed and lobbied against each other for the respective favour of their separate national governments.

Second, unified regulation of resources and clarity on Arctic sovereignty would improve investor confidence and pave the way for a true North American vision of the north.

CE: Is it possible that your article doesn’t think big enough in itself? What about the possibility of integrating with Mexico, or even central/south American states?

LH: Well, yes, the proposed Canada-U.S. union is essentially conservative. It is the merger of two practiced democracies, both of which once claimed merely to be exercising their rights as free Englishmen. It would not be something completely new and wouldn’t need an elaborate new operating manual to make it work. Metrification is much harder!

As for Mexico, the third member of NAFTA?  The question is not yet relevant politically. Someday Mexico’s economy and democratic institutions will be strong enough and its per capita standard of living high enough to take down the Mexican border and, conceivably, deepen economic and political integration with the rest of North America. However, for the foreseeable future that is not feasible. Furthermore, Mexicans do not see themselves wholly as North Americans and have no reliable history of working with the give and take of our two democratic federal systems.

I am proposing a union in which we practice together what we already practice well apart. It is not about trying something new together.

CE: When do you think this political union could reasonably come into being?

LH: Constructive change is often sideswiped by reactionaries. So, I don’t see exploiting a “crisis” as the best route to broaden support for political integration. Trouble with, and in, America has lead invariably to anti-Americanism in Canada and empty diplomatic gestures.

The idea of union could take off in response to a real threat to interests we indisputably share with the United States—a trade war, for instance, or something on the scale of 9/11. The surest way, however, to pave the way for a new positive response to trouble is on-going public discussion, challenging complacency about the border and Canadian nationalism. And looking beyond the discouraging influence of daily news and recalling the ability we still have to prepare, to affect the future through co-operation and federation.

How would union unfold?  When might the campaign in Canada get started?  I can see the idea develop polite currency pretty quickly and be worthy of detailed research and debate now. However, personal leadership will determine when the idea will take hold in the political arena. That could emerge in a region or conceivably on the floor of the House of Commons—although that place doesn’t seem to be a hot bed of skepticism about the status quo.

The emergence of the Party Quebecois or the Reform Party in Alberta might provide hints at how it might first emerge. Nevertheless, this idea is explicitly not born of, or out to serve, a regional grievance. It ultimately requires a national government prepared to put the question to the people and negotiate the wider federation.

Who might lead the idea first?  Likely it would not be someone who is busy running things now. But not a typical malcontent either. This isn’t for the crowd that draws lines on maps and calls it progress!  It would not necessarily benefit either the left or the right in partisan terms. So a self-identified neo-con or neo-liberal would not automatically be on side. However, I’d expect people who believe that federal institutions and free markets best assure sustainable progress would get it easily. Maybe a younger David Suzuki or Frank Stronach or a combination of the two with a sense of humour!

CE: In George Grant's "Lament for a Nation", he ends the book by suggesting that it is becoming impossible for cohesive national character to exist in a homogenizing, liberal, and economic conception of the world. If this is true, what are the hopes for building a cohesive, and sustainable, "North American" culture?

LH: I think Grant still deserves respect. The theatrical aspects of contemporary Canadian nationalism do not undermine his honest assessment: Canada’s unique mission on this continent is exhausted. However, his pessimism, shared so enthusiastically on the left, that American capitalism would eventually destroy “national” characteristics and local cultures has proven to be wrong.

The existence of a distinct set of “national” characteristics for either the Canadian or American federation was always, in large part, a wishful invention. Most important, capitalist forces have neither destroyed local cultures nor led to the decline of ethnic, religious and language nationalisms. Indeed we still live in a menacingly jealous and prideful world.

Grant’s old order of Tory England, pious Quebec and loyal Ontario hasn’t withstood the energy of North American liberalism. And trying now to build an extensive set of agreed “national” qualities and myths in this freewheeling society is probably impossible. The times and history suggest positive things, however, at least about our North American political consciousness.

We want to create similar conditions for people across both federations, but we are willing to let minorities and neighbours carry on in ways we may think are either dated or self defeating. We want strong leaders balanced by strong representative bodies. We do not tolerate abuse for long by either an arrogant executive or an obstructionist legislature. We believe in merit over family trees, but we compromise and will split the difference to make progress.

Above all, we are recognizably North American in persisting to improve on the past. And we are united behind our liberal values at home because we believe they are universal. They are not the invention of Harvard, College Jean de Brébeuf or Haight Ashbury; are ideals that we have done a better job of upholding than other place on earth.

CE: Many Canadians would say that we shouldn’t integrate because the United States makes poor decisions on foreign involvement, such as the Iraq war. How would you explain to these individuals the necessity of integration?

LH: Sure, if America was a disappointing minor power vying for our affections, the question would be exhilarating: let’s drop them and quarantine the border!

America, however, is a living part of our cultural and economic foundation; its misjudgments and misfortunes also shake the ground beneath us. More or less integration by degrees—for instance, selling five percent more to others countries and seeing more European movies—is a distinction without a difference.

Some muse that we are part of a “north Atlantic culture” or should switch our dreams to the Pacific Rim. These are marginal concepts that belie our strategic, existential reality. With Americans we get up in the morning, reset our watches and rest at night; with Americans, we play sports, write music, collaborate in laboratories and boardrooms, adopt celebrities and pray the right guy wins the Presidency. We don’t accept arbitrary limits to our growth, we don’t believe we’re cynical toward other civilizations, and we both underestimate our sophistication and success against the boasts of older civilizations.

Still, as the righteous Dutch who refused to co-operate with the Nazis, I too might argue for passive resistance, for diminishing the wealth of both countries if necessary to keep our hands clean of their crimes. However, I believe the ethical and realistic response to American blunders of the last decade is to see them as warnings and to react as activists are reacting across America. They are getting back into politics by the tens of thousands. Foolish foreign wars and incompetent financial regulation hurt everyone but can be corrected so long as North Americans continue to insist on building a better safer place for the future.

CE: Do you believe that there is a legitimate chance that Canadian values would actually influence dominant American values?

LH: I can’t say, without betraying the Canadian value of humility that the differences we would make would always be differences for the better! However, whether we’re naturally more diffident or cautious or just less bruised by the tragedies Americans have felt since the Second World War, it is safe to say we will have lots of influence. As one example, we would probably be among the moderates on issues of foreign involvement and the use of government to solve problems in the labour market. However, being raised on the same diet of daily news and politicized talk, I doubt that much of what we would say would sound that foreign.

The one thing anchoring our influence would not be the way our brains are wired but our votes. In each region across the heart of America we would have political power. Nationally, neither national party would risk not finding ways to appeal to the significant regions of votes in Canada.

There are Canadian institutions that would instantly become American institutions too and, thereby, probably get closer attention and possibly modify American attitudes. As well, French Canada’s vibrancy and the spectacular success of new communities from Asia should be a re-assurance to the majority of Americans and a sign of what’s still possible in preserving various languages and culture in a dynamic liberal culture. And of course, the popularity of our public healthcare system might strengthen the prospect for expanding such a ‘public option’ to other American states.

Finally, the size, scope and competence of our provinces could generate a healthy new interest in the role of American states in providing social and cultural services. This should be welcome amongst both American liberals and conservatives, who worry about America’s reflexive reliance on Washington.

CE: There seems to be a tension in this article between how similar North American culture really is, and at the same time, how Canadian culture and values could contribute to a more positive United States. Do you think there are marked differences between our cultures, or if so, is integration worth the possibility of losing what makes Canadians distinct?

LH: Those distinct elements of our culture truly reliant on formal public policies should be clearly honoured in the federation arrangements. This isn’t a matter of marked differences but simply keeping a few big promises: for instance, the French language, the treaty claims of aboriginals, the resource rights of the provinces and those minority rights defined by the Charter and judicial interpretation.

I don’t really believe there is a marked divergence of values between our cultures that would put our values at risk in the larger federation. Certainly, taking down a political border doesn’t entail any of the cultural risks of moving from Cornerbrook, Newfoundland to Toronto or from Fargo, North Dakota, to San Francisco. However, I believe our presence within the union, simply as we are, would be of positive immediate benefit. Maintaining all our separate and similar experiences, and similar virtues and vices, within a strong federation without a 5,000 kilometer border would be genuine progress.

CE: How do you envision bringing together two quite different electoral systems in a manner that makes sense both for Canada and the United States?

LH: This is the first order of business. Once a democratic political structure was in place, normal electoral checks and balances would ensure further adjustments are fair to us and viable for the overall functioning of the union.

The electoral structure should be quite straightforward and would have several over-riding objectives: do no further harm to the principle of representation by population; don’t create new barriers across Canada that don’t exist now; and make sure the national and executive functions are not only responsive to the complexity of the union but can offer the union more effective defence and decision-making than the other great federations in the world.

Logically, the cornerstone would be the present U.S. executive and legislative structures. They have worked the longest for ten times as many people and are charged to manage global and domestic responsibilities beyond our immediate experience. We would effectively make them our institutions by electing representatives to them according to the application of representation by population.

Consequently, the next order of business – which might daunt some Canadians but strategically shouldn’t get in the way – is: how we choose senators and congressmen and what happens to Canada’s existing political leadership. These issues would rest with us.

Surely, most of us are practical republicans who would happily surrender our currently un-elected senators in order to elect senators across our five distinct, significant regions to serve in the most important deliberative forum in the world.

And surely, our best leaders would again welcome the challenge of being more influential in North America. Baldwin, Lafontaine, Macdonald, De Cosmos of B.C., Smallwood in Newfoundland Trudeau all succeeded in convincing calculating as well as idealistic followers to go for a wider union rather that local power.