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Feb 22, 2010

Goodbye to “National Unity”–It’s Time for a New National Policy

February 22, 2010

Robert Wolfe and Roderick Macdonald examine political paths for Canada in their editorial featured by the Mowat Centre.

When the global economic crisis hit last fall, Canadian politicians were consumed with debates about separatists under the bed. Now when the world is tottering towards the edge of the climate change cliff, the Canadian response is to worry about the costs to Alberta of shifts in policy, or about how Hydro Québec might get too big for its britches.

These political and media narratives are so 1960s.

Tensions between west and east are so irrelevant to our real national challenges. We should not let the turmoil of a minority Parliament get in the way of using current crises as an opportunity to advance the goals of Canada’s third National Policy.

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A “National Policy” is not a partisan platform. Macdonald appropriated the term in 1879, but Laurier also built a nation with railroads, although differently. Diefenbaker and Pearson pursued a second National Policy in building the welfare state, each in their own way. And a third National Policy could be seen emerging when both Trudeau and Mulroney risked their governments to give Canadians more scope for individual action.

Canada’s first National Policy was based on transportation infrastructure, tariffs and immigration. It’s second was based on universal education, social services and health care. The third National Policy puts the transcontinental economy and the welfare state in the service of the dreams and aspirations of every Canadian.

The phrase “national unity” is old-fashioned. Nobody will vote to break up the country if this emerging National Policy enables citizens to live rich and fulfilling lives of their own choosing. The more important questions in this time of crisis, therefore, are how can we build a sense of social solidarity, and concern for fellow citizens, while continuing to respect different attitudes towards religion, culture and the legitimacy of a secular state?

These questions do not respect the traditional lines of federal-provincial debate in Canada. Many Canadians today care more about personal identities and the relationships they imply: employment, familial, religious, cultural, gender, linguistic.

The challenge for governments is to facilitate people’s capacities to express and reconcile their multiple, frequently overlapping and sometimes conflicting identity claims. That is why a nationalist but not sovereignist party has won three straight elections in Quebec and why the focus of policy today is less on the bureaucratic state agency than on collaborative relationships between citizens, governments and other actors,

Although Canadians are no longer the “hewers of wood and drawers of water” imagined under our nineteenth century National Policy, we still we do not have the single market from coast to coast that Macdonald envisaged.

Nor are Canadians the entitlement-driven consumers of bureaucratic social welfare programmes imagined under its twentieth century successor; yet Canadians still worry about universal access to health care, and getting a timely H1N1 vaccination.

Canadians have work to do to fully realize the longstanding goals of the first two National Policies, but in the present economic crisis we should remain focused on the objective of the twenty-first century National Policy: giving people the capacity to exercise real choice as citizens and economic actors.

Governments at all levels are experimenting with new policy instruments, new forms of civic engagement, and new processes and channels through which needed programmes may be negotiated and refashioned. In this new world, sometimes banks, auto and oil companies will seem like direct agents of policy in helping to stimulate the economy, respond to climate change or plan for demographic shifts.

What does this mean in practice? It means a move from place-prosperity to people-prosperity.

This policy orientation implies replacing province-to-province equalization leading to duplicate bureaucracies with “a negative income tax” that puts money where it is needed; replacing seasonal Employment Insurance with mobility subsidies that support people moving from declining industries and regions in search of new opportunities elsewhere; and replacing detailed smokestack regulations with putting a price on carbon.

Where past National Policies assumed that because Canadians were all different, policy should aim at making them all the same, the new one assumes the political equality of all citizens and aims to enable them to flourish in their differences even as we pool our economic resources to address common economic challenges.

Canadians should hope that if we ever have a majority government again, it will go to the party that can best articulate and advance this third National Policy, without finding old-fashioned ways to divide Canadians from each other. Canada is, as it always has been, defined by public policy, not by founding myths, flags, national anthems, constitutional artefacts and other symbols. Our politicians should be promoting our common projects, even as they argue passionately about the best means for doing so.

This piece is based on “Canada’s Third National Policy: The Epiphenomenal or the Real Constitution?,” University of Toronto Law Journal 49:4 (October 2009), 469-523.


Robert Wolfe & Roderick Macdonald

Release Date

February 22, 2010


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