Canada has only ever been an extra on the global stage

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Most Canadians are blissfully unaware of how poorly Canada really performs as a serious global contender

Bill-WhitelawIn 2023, Vaclav Smil, Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of Manitoba, quietly assembled a 33-page PowerPoint deck entitled “Oh, Canada … Facts (and Only Facts) Every Canadian Should Know.”

One such fact: Canada has plunged from being number one in 1985 to number 16 on the global Human Development Index ranking.

That’s the present. And it is one fact among many Smil presents to weave a depressing tapestry of a country chronically suffering from narcissistic delusions of grandeur. Smil works at the intersection of many facets of life, in particular at the nexus of politics, energy and the economy, and so he connects dots that need to be connected but are rarely linked.

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Also, in the present, the current G20 meetings just wrapped up in India, where Canada was once more an underwhelming presence. Indeed, in his slide deck, Smil predicts Canada will fall, without grace, from the G20 at the current pace and direction of political incompetence.

But for Canadians of a certain age, Smil’s contentions are not new. Indeed, they are merely the latest salvo in a decades-old dirge of despair by some pretty important Canadian thinkers.

In 1930, Harold Innis penned The Fur Trade in Canada. It was seminal work.

In 1965, George Grant released Lament for a Nation: The Defeat of Canadian Nationalism. It, too, was seminal work – even at just 97 pages.

In 2023, Smil authored How the World Works: The Science Behind How We Got Here and Where We’re Going.

It is on its way to being seminal – and there is an intriguing relationship between the latest book and the PowerPoint package, almost as if the slides were prepared as Canadian context for the broader global themes addressed in the main text.

In 1930, Innis advanced his version of the “staples thesis,” which posited that countries with rich resources economies like Canada’s needed to evolve beyond merely being content to be “drawers of water … and hewers of wood.” His point: Canada’s resource economy had been responsible for the country’s building but could also prove its eventual undoing.

In 1965, Grant lamented what he saw as a nation destined to tread water in perpetual obscurity (my words, not his) as the result of failing to build the right governance structures in an age of prosperity – and, in particular, being similarly content to live, work and play in the shadow cast by the United States. A failure of nationalism, he argued, would ultimately result in a shift to continentalism as Canada suffered American hegemonic absorption.

In 2023, Smil produced another in a long line of scholarly works, into which the Canadian experience can be fully read in what amounts to some very non-subtle subtext. Smil’s forte is a nuanced grasp of the often-invisible forces of globalization – nuances most often powerfully expressed through very astutely woven “fact tapestries”.

What links the Innis-Grant-Smil thinking is the same fundamental worry: the timelessness of Canada’s inability to stand up and be counted as a serious global player – a country for which nationalism is a fuzzy, obscure notion.

Nearly a century divides Innis from Smil: in the decades between, Canadian political scientists, political economists, philosophers and other social scientists have debated and discussed the same paradox: how can a country with so much promise and potential deliver so pitifully on the world stage?

Much reflection is spent on Canada’s geography: its enormity compared to a relatively small population. Others reflect on Canada as a mere branch plant of the U.S. Still others ponder stultified innovation thinking over decades that has produced some success stories but nothing foundational. Many also posit a failure of policy and politics.

As one pundit has noted, with irony fully intended, Canada is the “most advanced underdeveloped country in the world.”

Now, most Canadians are blissfully unaware of how poorly Canada really performs as a serious global contender. Mainstream media reinforces the narrative that somehow, a la actress Sally Field and her Oscar acceptance in 1985 for Places in the Heart, “You like me, you really, really, like me …” when occasionally, more by good luck than management, Canada manages to take the world by surprise with something innovative. They also get confused by the effusive headlines of “Canada again voted one of the best places in the world to live” – without understanding the context and source of such feeble indexes.

And for all the great research and reflection done by that diverse range of academic thinkers, not much of it has achieved escape velocity from its self-created echo chamber of public policy considerations. Rather than talk usefully to Canadians, academia, for the most part, prefers to talk to itself. Thus, little that can catalyze rank-and-file action at the voting booth is launched from the cloisters. This is even true of the many think tanks that have similarly tackled the issue’s complexity. Even access to social media platforms has failed to sufficiently move the needle on public literacy to change our entrenched political leadership.

Canadians, in their complacency, are also to blame for not being more curious and boning up on the subject.

But some thoughts are clear enough to access, and Canadians growing increasingly concerned about the state of play for Canada globally ought to show some initiative and start ferreting out the works of thinkers like Innis, Smil, Grant, Mel Watkins, W.A. Mackintosh, Kari Levitt, and others to understand the deep, and abiding, historical roots of the deep hole from out of which the country seems unable to hoist itself.

There are also plenty of great contemporary thinkers to consider, like Bruce Smardon of York University and Dimitry Anastakis of the University of Toronto.

Ordinary Canadians who want to take Canada’s current state of being more seriously might want to engage with some of the more readily accessible thinking. Academic book reviews are a good place to start because it’s something of a two-for-one thinkers’ deal.

Take this opening passage from Anastakis’s review from a few years ago of Smardon’s (2015) Asleep at the Switch: The Political Economy of Federal Research and Development Policy since 1960.

“Why does Canada stink so much at innovation? Outside of a few noteworthy exceptions, Canadians seem to lack the killer instinct to play in the big leagues, especially when it comes to technological innovation. As the adage goes, because of our lack of innovation and our dependence on resource exploitation, Canada is the world’s most advanced underdeveloped country. Hewers of wood and drawers of water forever, it seems.”

This state of affairs is a recurring concern, voiced by government officials in innumerable reports, blared by international innovation rankings and alarmist think tank studies, and decried by academics and leading business people such as BlackBerry founder Mike Lazaridis. Canada faces a seemingly intractable “innovation gap,” despite the best efforts of the “entrepreneurs” on Dragons’ Den to pitch the latest board game, underwear line or specialized foodstuff that is sure to cement Canada’s reputation as an incubator of great new ideas.

Why can’t Canadians do innovation? A cultural thing? Is it the bloody climate?”

The review is lengthy, well-written, and, as is typical of such reviews, argues for the review author’s own views on the subject at hand as much as it reviews the book itself. And, as is often the case, it provokes a response from the original author, attempting to correct or ameliorate some of the assertions advanced by the reviewer.

But that’s the beauty of stumbling across such obscure reviews via which academics talk to each other. It creates a rabbit hole of sorts that, for the curious reader, leads to all manner of other perspectives and threads on which to tug. Follow the citations, people.

So, that’s the point. Canadians need to start more assertively and aggressively tugging those threads and unravel for themselves the century-old political and historical contexts and conditions that have led to Canada’s lamentable state in a world order that is both new and old simultaneously.

Where to start? Review the global – not domestic – headlines from the recent G20 meeting in India and count the number of times Canada is mentioned as a country wielding some form of influence.

Then read this quote from Smil’s deck:

“Nations deserve governments they get. Canadians keep re-electing profoundly misinformed, grossly ineffectual, yet supremely arrogant power seekers.”

Bill Whitelaw is the Managing Director of Strategy & Sustainability with Geologic Systems.

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The opinions expressed by our columnists and contributors are theirs alone and do not inherently or expressly reflect the views of our publication.

© Troy Media
Troy Media is an editorial content provider to media outlets and its own hosted community news outlets across Canada.

By Bill Whitelaw

Bill Whitelaw is a director and advisor to many industry boards, including the Canadian Society for Evolving Energy, which he chairs. He speaks and comments frequently on the subjects of social licence, innovation and technology, and energy supply networks.

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