Register Saturday | October 16 | 2021

A More Perfect Union

The border between Canada and the United States pits two great countries against each other. Les Horswill makes the case for a greater North American federation.

Illustration by Pat Hamou

ON FEBRUARY 19, 2009, Barack Obama touched down in Ottawa for his first international visit as president. “All eyes are on Ottawa right now—you don’t hear that every day,” a CNN anchor quipped. Discussions concentrated on trying to better manage the status quo between the two countries, including co-operation on clean energy, economic recovery and cross-border trade. The agenda reflected what experts agreed was possible, but by skirting the extraordinary public force of the president’s appeal, it was less ambitious than what Obama’s celebrity might have allowed.

During his campaign, Obama’s insistence on citizen participation was intended to empower Americans. His call to action—to renew American democracy—electrified Canadians as well. Today, during a vicious health care battle and a resurgent culture war, American politics look rougher and less attractive than they did last fall. But on election night last year we cried for Obama. Was it simply a TV moment, or does the charge we felt reveal something serious, disruptive and American in public-spirited Canadians? Do we wait for our own Obama, or can we act on his example and be more active participants in North American democracy?

In 1965, George Grant’s book Lament for a Nation made it respectable to look down on America. He mourned the slow and inevitable death of Canadian nationalism (what he called “the memory of that tenuous hope that was the principle of my ancestors”) and caricatured as treasonous sell-outs those who sought a larger arrangement with the United States. So here we are: a country that pays polite attention to regional separatists but hasn’t, for over forty years, had even a whispered conversation about the merits of continental union. What would happen if—without waiting for our leaders to find the political will—we started thinking about how to create a union that would be more democratic, less complicated and more open than anywhere else on earth?

“There is always one moment in childhood,” Graham Greene observed, “when the door opens and lets the future in.” We do all the things adults do; we are free. Let’s take a breath and consider being North Americans. Grant believed the end of Canada was only a matter of time. The end of the Canada that appealed to Grant, however, could birth a federation that appeals to us all.

IN MANY PLACES, national borders are necessary to repel aggressors and recognize deep, if not permanent, differences. Yet, as screenwriter John Sayles warns, a border is “where you end and somebody else begins.” At its most basic, it’s where you draw a line. In politics, in the reach of emotions, in recognizing opportunities, borders authorize us to set limits.

The Canada-US border blinkers our thinking, even when we believe we’re thinking big. Which is more ambitious: a Canada-wide electricity grid, or one that seamlessly integrates adjoining regions of the entire continent? Wouldn’t linking Vancouver and Seattle and connecting the Great Lakes cities be more transformative than a high-speed rail line between Windsor and Quebec? If the Arctic were American, would managing the longest northern coastline in the world be a test of sovereignty? Even as a platitude, our border causes harm.

Freedom to move—to change our dreams, where we work and where we live—has been the singular advantage of living in North America, while the border slows us down and clouds our prospects. The paperwork alone for maintaining today’s border costs consumers and businesses over $10 billion annually. Twenty years of tariff-free trade have not radically deepened economic integration. Significant gaps in investment per worker and wealth per capita persist between our countries; one study reported last year that Canada’s per capita Gross National Product was $8,800—or 17 percent—lower than America’s. Canadians lose out, and the whole continent falls short of its intellectual and economic potential.

There are proposals to improve this: shortening border line-ups, say, by creating a security system to pre-screen goods in Canada and co-ordinate the processing of overseas visitors, refugees and landed immigrants. The twenty-first century question, however, shouldn’t be how to make our border smarter but whether the border is necessary at all. Failing the test of necessity, it has no merit: it doesn’t protect the environment, our economy or our security. It is artificial, without architectural worth. It was drawn by a harried, retreating empire. And it perseveres on behalf of an unconscious, sugary sense of superiority: the more we think of ourselves as strictly Canadian, the better off everyone will be. Indigo, for instance, markets books with the assertion “the world needs more of Canada.” More seriously, our foreign policy is preoccupied with being at “the table” whether we have a unique point of view or not. The border, in other words, becomes our consolation prize for not being influential in Washington.  

Liberal nationalism—basing the state and its future on the will of the people—was liberal Europe’s reply to imperialism and, earlier, America’s answer to George III. It allows for divided loyalties and the give-and-take of federalism. It is the heart of Canada’s case to Quebec. We believe a national border between Quebec and Ontario would not serve either province, nor bring to life more freely our individual personalities. We believe federalism respects Quebec’s determination to express itself in French, to act collectively, and to celebrate what makes the Québécois different. We believe federal states are building blocks for a more peaceful, prosperous world. These principles run through America’s long history as surely as ours.

If Canada is American, only slightly less so, why can’t America be Canadian, only a little more so? Rather than being the steady friend for another century, rather than negotiating partnerships that are lopsided or incomplete, let’s address Canadian sovereignty head on. 

A union of the people of Canada with the people of the United States could solve problems that two unequal powers cannot settle as partners. North Americans would be better equipped to fulfill their responsibilities by having an equal say within one federal union on issues such as the environment, energy, security, market economies and democracy’s future. Instead of demanding more of our diplomats, we should extend our reach as federalists. Democratic problem-solving involves compromise. However, deals struck within one federation can produce more for us, can ask more of us and last longer than any top-down contract between two separate countries.

The future will test the details, of course. But first, let’s step outside the old framework of nation-to-nation bargaining and winners and losers. Let’s envision a citizen-with-citizen, ballot-for-ballot union. Washington would be the federation’s capital. Canadians could run, and would vote as equals, for president, and they would enjoy proportionate representation in the House of Representatives and the Senate.

Success would require rare political nerve and new alliances. Our pragmatic and experimental traditions would have to prevail. For example, Americans would have to respect Quebec’s official language and Civil Code, and understand that provinces exercise great tax and program responsibilities; American federalists shouldn’t object if our provinces continue to collaborate, share revenues, preserve same-sex marriage and support artistic excellence and bilingual services. They would need to agree that altering the Charter of Rights and Freedoms would be up to us.

Why would they do this? Because they’ve done it before. Several times, when America was threatened and divided, its leaders convinced the states and Congress to extend statehood across the west and more recently, thanks to Eisenhower, to Alaska and Hawaii. Today’s leadership could as effectively assert: “A vibrant North America is more critical than ever to America’s well-being and national security; by inviting Canadians to become full-fledged Americans, Canada’s  fabulous potential can be assured and we can properly enjoy the benefits of its success.” Americans would have to see that extending the federal ballot serves their interests better than bullying diplomacy.  

The idea would, of course, need to earn support in Canada. Books could be written debating its worth and predicting the reactions of Quebec sovereigntists and aboriginals. Before determining what’s politically feasible, however, we should recall that most of Canada’s history happened only recently. Our federal constitutions are difficult to change, but they have been changed, and profoundly. With the Charter, for instance, the rights of individual Canadians now supersede the supremacy of Parliament. The option of a North American federal republic could likely trigger another referendum on separation, and sovereigntists would have every right to put forward the stark alternative of a separate Quebec. But federalism with Canada has already won twice. Logically, then, federalism with America—with an equal say in the most important, profoundly federalist, legislatures in the world—might be as inviting and even more inspiring.

FOR LIBERAL DEMOCRATS, a bigger federation ought to provide greater leverage in Washington without betraying promises made to fellow Canadians. Federation need not include a special signing bonus for Canada. The Republic of Texas was annexed in 1845, and Newfoundland entered Confederation in 1949; both joined larger body politics because they could not see how they could survive independently; and memories and resentments linger. But Canada is a highly valued military ally, can carry its public debt and already has an enviable social safety net. Using federal principles to assign responsibilities and the ballot to ensure they’re exercised fairly, the terms of union could clarify what actually unites Canadians—for instance, portable universal health insurance. Moreover, by saving the billions we spend on a border we needn’t maintain, we could better afford to meet our resource management and environmental responsibilities in the north.

After nearly ten years of free trade (before the border thickened after 9/11), the intensity of Canadian trade was still more than ten times greater between provinces than with American states—whatever the distance. Firms with over five hundred employees still account for two-thirds of our exports to the United States. Obviously, they cope with currency fluctuations and other non-tariff barriers to cross-border trade. However, entirely eliminating all the legal, regulatory, hidden and trivial costs that come from not being American would improve opportunities for individuals and smaller Canadian enterprises.

Traders that pay high wages and want to grow need a sophisticated home base and a relatively stable currency. On both counts we could do better with the American dollar and the international and American talent—and investment—that would follow. Within an economic union, guaranteed by political union, the global appeal of both markets would reinforce each other.

Abroad, Canadian traders don’t enjoy any strategic advantage by not being American. Despite the rudeness of the Bush years and China’s appetite for our resources, Americans exported nearly ten times more to China than we did in 2007. The highs and lows of the Canadian dollar haven’t given us an advantage in creating new value-added industries. The strength of the American economy and the global trading system it supports, not the Loonie, have been central to the growth of our resource exports.   

Intensifying regional enterprise, over time, would be of Canadian and continental significance (this is the basic principle behind Cascadia—the integration of the British Columbia and Washington State economies—proposed by business spokesmen every decade or so). Vancouver-Seattle would be the hub of the North Pacific, and Montreal-Boston would give the Northeast a better chance to compete in new sectors, such as culture, tourism and business services. The Greater Toronto Area would complete the integration of the southern Great Lakes.

Coordinating infrastructure on a borderless regional basis would stimulate business reorganization, internal competition, energy efficiency and partnerships, for instance, in research and development. (A promising amount of exchange is already taking place between the giant medical centers in the US and research facilities here.) Calgary and Edmonton’s place in energy investment and innovation would improve within a continental framework. In boom times, western resource exports wouldn’t disrupt the currency; risky long-term projects would only face one set of national policies and regulations, their success contributing directly to America’s prosperity.

The recession has led to a renaissance in government intervention. However, this will not be enough to reverse the decades-old movement away from state-directed investment and toward free trade. But those making the case for positive, activist government would have greater leverage in one set of federal democratic institutions; North America, as one mixed economy, is big enough to influence progressive economic change in areas like financial regulation, worker rights and skills training, and the environment.

Environmentalists insist that reducing greenhouse gas emissions will require significant government intervention and North American leadership. Continent-wide strategies like cap-and-trade regimes are gaining appeal. But without political representation in Washington, the more complex an agreement’s features, the more discretion assigned to officials, the greater the vulnerability of legitimate Canadian interests. A green strategy that answers to one electorate could be demanding and politically acceptable and, so, could impress the world.

It is reasonable to expect some move northward in the politics of the new federation. It doesn’t follow, however, that advantage would shift permanently from right to left—or favour New England, for instance, over Alberta. America’s political parties aren’t very sentimental; they care more about votes and centres of power than about who got to America first. Our representatives would probably take some time to build their reputations before running for national office. However, their advisors would pick up the game in a matter of weeks. Certainly, the next class of mainstream presidential candidates would have to make it their business to be credible in Canada.

WOULDN’T CONTINENTAL UNION wed us to the world’s next great loser?

In statecraft and in business, America’s freewheeling era is over: it can no longer afford any margin of error. War, recession and huge deficits have hurt its credibility. Despite all this, the US is still the wealthiest and most productive economy in the world. It enjoys about one-fourth the population density of both the European Union and China. Culturally, it is still a noisy, growth-oriented problem-solver. It has the capacity to keep growing, while its principal competitors are contending with rapidly aging work forces and the perils of long-term absolute population decline.

By managing our human and strategic assets in a larger federation—uniting two of the world’s top economies—North America’s global influence could be extended for generations. Everyone wants America to be a better team player. We know that decisive progress by the G8, the G20 or the UN Security Council will require leadership from the United States. But America can’t be a problem-solver if it turns inward. America’s failure to support global prosperity and Western values would do us great harm, and the rest of the world little good. Canadians should therefore want to do everything they can to strengthen North America—not only Canada’s place within it.  

Many will ask: what’s in it for America? Can’t they just insist on whatever they need from us? Democratic union certainly wouldn’t appeal to bred-in-the-bone Yankee imperialists, but it should enjoy support of Eisenhower Republicans and Schwarzenegger Republicans, as well Roosevelt Democrats and Obama Democrats; all of whom respect the diversity that comes from big federations. (It’s also worth recalling that throughout the nineteenth century Americans argued about the risks as well as the benefits of adding one state after another. Except for the South, on the matter of slavery, each time they chose to water down their influence in order to expand the union.)

Thoughtful conservatives and liberals also know that no alliance between two proud nations is as certain or as comprehensive as common citizenship; both look for ways to renew America’s promise. The dynamic potential—and strategic security—of our two countries can best be realized through political integration. Trigger-happy analysts may laugh, but we needn’t be quiet and wait to hear what they think. We are no one’s colony anymore.

DOES THE CASE for political merger shortchange less radical options?

Officials in both countries will say they have continental ideas to ease us along, when the political climate is right. Indeed, most every quarter, a think tank, retired negotiator, or chief executive forwards elegant partnership proposals on everything from climate change to monetary union to border security. However, since free trade—indeed, since the whole world was freed up at the end of the Cold War—nothing of great significance has been negotiated to further integrate our two economies. Why can’t our leaders match—and trump—Western Europe’s vision of mutual prosperity?

Canada has no serious alternative—we export ten times more to the United States than to Great Britain and the entire Euro currency union. And if America turns protectionist, familiar alternative markets likely will as well. Tariff-free trade has not fully integrated the continent’s economic resources, and our biggest economic challenges and moral obligations have no borders. However, there is something more formidable than nationalist anti-Americanism in the way: without political integration, deep integration—envisioned in agreements like the Security and Prosperity Partnership—would effectively transfer Canadian decisions to Washington while leaving us behind.

Other alternatives to continental union also fall short. Adopting one currency, the American dollar, would improve investor confidence and the consumer’s ability to compare prices—facilitating the more productive use of capital, labour and management. It would be easier to absorb volatile oil and commodity prices. However, the American dollar could not maintain its credibility under joint Ottawa-Washington management. Monetary policy would have to be set by one independent authority: realistically, an expanded US Federal Reserve.

Preventing Congress from favouring American industries would strengthen markets, but has proven to be impossible. Further, a European-style, bi-national power-sharing mechanism wouldn’t work. It would be answering to two federations, one with a tenth the responsibilities of the other. And it isn’t necessary. The cleanest, surest way to be treated fairly by American legislators—and officials, for that matter—is by having a vote in American elections.

FINALLY, WOULD UNION betray who we are?  

John A. Macdonald’s mission statement (“Peace, order and good government”) and his railway didn’t subdue the American or liberal spirit in Canada. New Canadians and old stock now overwhelmingly favour the core values of a pluralist republic. Along with Americans, we prize social mobility and equal treatment over tradition. Historians can say our first prime minister made us. But it would be trespass for loyalists to claim that we’re still his, or that a century-old vision defines our future.

Giving up the British Crown would hardly hurt. According to a 2007 Dominion Institute survey, only 8 percent of Canadians now accurately identify Queen Elizabeth II as our head of state. Big federations work by trying to right the present, relying on reason-based dialogue. It is vital to know who is in charge. Canadians require a voice-over to explain why the prime minister is fiddling with his hands while someone else is reading his speech to Parliament; this supports neither accountability nor voter participation. Effectively, we already live in a presidential democracy. Canadians think they elect their leaders and have no desire to be re-educated on the matter.

In politics, in neighbourhoods and in the workplace, change makes enemies. However, if happiness were the overriding motive of public policy, our forefathers might have settled for a string of semi-autonomous states instead of a confederation. If communities and businesses were discouraged from using new technologies and uninterested in abandoning less productive activities, Cape Breton would still be home to thousands of coal miners and IKEA wouldn’t be furnishing millions of young families on four continents. If homogeneous community were the end point, both Canada and the United States would be less urban and less wealthy—there would be more of us in the countryside generating less wealth than we do in cities and in industrial centers. Canada would certainly be less like its neighbour, and its presence in the world would be that much smaller as well.

Maybe Canadians do compromise a lot and more readily turn to government for help. Certainly Americans are often ruthless in pursuing what they want, and cut bait when something isn’t working. But, above all, it is circumstance, not personality traits, that makes us different. They have more to be immodest about—and more to fear. American optimism, isolationism, arrogance and generosity reflect American circumstances. When the country honours Lincoln, America is very attractive.

It’s true that in America, “idealism is easier waved as a flag than practiced.” Can idealists be at ease anywhere? American miners, peace activists, civil rights workers, and feminists believed they had to raise hell. They knew of no place where real change was easy. We know it’s not easy today. Union wouldn’t make dangerous opinions less dangerous or Canadian idealists less unhappy. But within the world’s only democratic superpower, their victories would make a greater difference.

MACDONALD HAD TO REMIND his Protestant supporters: You can be just and generous because you are strong. Canadians, like Americans, are capable of excess. We arrived with baggage from every corner of the world; we hold grudges. We stereotype, distrust and often dislike fellow Canadians, whom we know only slightly better than Americans. But within both federations, borne along by the same stream of Western values, Canadians and Americans can make political decisions and respect one other as political equals. If federalism can work across our own disputatious continent, it can also work from our north to their south.

The case for continental union does not begin and end with Obama. The project will not likely have time to prove its value while he is president. But he reminds us of our duties.  He sees that government must be up for big ideas and he fears the politics of identity that would close us in. If renewing America’s promise is necessary and the Canadian border isn’t, then, for us, a world of possibilities and responsibility opens accordingly.

Older generations urge young people to get involved in politics and dream big; at the same time, we act as if Canada is big enough. But the best of young Canada knows that public life next door is desperately more important. In democratic politics, it is vital to keep looking for ways to assert oneself. To be effective citizens today, surely, each of us must also be effective North Americans.

(Read an interview with Les Horswill.)