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Nov 25, 2017

Talking is the Canadian way of life – we should export it

November 25, 2017

Has everyone suddenly forgotten how to negotiate?

Glance at the news headlines, and you’ll find a series of high-stakes talks that are either deadlocked or derailed.

Talks to re-negotiate NAFTA have barely begun and already there are fears that the largest player is about to walk away from the table (or never really wanted to reach a deal in the first place).

In Europe, the target date for putting Brexit into effect is being pushed back in the absence of any progress at the negotiating table. Attention is turning to the question of how much chaos will reign if no deal between the European Union and the United Kingdom can be reached.

The mayhem that followed the independence referendum in Catalonia is as stark an example as any of what happens when governments (on both sides) feel that issuing ultimatums is a better way to reach their goals than patiently feeling their way towards some common ground.

Then there’s the autumn rutting between the U.S. and North Korea – a situation that is terrifying not only because of the locking of antlers between the leaders of two nuclear-armed countries, but also for the apparent absence of any behind-the-scenes diplomacy conducted by cooler-headed allies. And the recent repudiation by the U.S. of the nuclear agreement with Iran risks making the West’s adversaries question whether there is any point in coming to the bargaining table at all.

It would be nice to think that this aversion to sitting down to talk was another international trend that Canada was bucking. But are we?

The recent cancellation of the Energy East pipeline, for example, was met with a rancorous combination of self-congratulation and accusatory finger-pointing from Canada’s political leaders. While the cancellation was a business and not a political decision, the short-sightedness of these reactions will make it less likely that the country’s political leaders will be able to find common ground in a forward-looking national energy strategy.

True, the current federal government has sought to differentiate itself from the previous one by at least agreeing to hold first ministers’ meetings. But the provinces again were asked to swallow a take-it-or-leave-it offer on their No. 1 policy priority, namely health-care funding. Meeting together is better than not meeting at all, but we are still a long way from the collaborative decision-making that Canadians want to see from political leaders.

Perhaps the biggest test of the commitment to negotiate rather than dictate policy will come in the relationship with First Nation, Métis and Inuit peoples. Reconciliation can take on many forms – but one of them surely is the willingness of federal and provincial governments to sit at a negotiating table that is no longer rigged in their favour and commit to talks that will lead to outcomes in which they are not the only winners. It is not clear yet that this moment has arrived.

It’s not all bad news, of course. The Canada-European Union Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, which took years to reach, shows what can happen when negotiating partners treat patience is a virtue and not a weakness. The Paris agreement binds almost every country in the world in a collective effort to forestall the extreme consequences of climate change.

The challenge that faces us is to make sure these examples don’t stand as lonely exceptions to a new 21st-century rule, namely that complex, multi-party talks are doomed to fail. Canada should be at the forefront of efforts to demonstrate that this is not the case.

Why us? Not because we purport to be more virtuous than other countries. Rather, our diversity, history and geography give us no choice.

The key principles that underpin our future – federalism, reconciliation, bilingualism and multiculturalism – are not just ones that emerged from negotiations. They are ones that by their very nature commit Canadians to embrace a way of life based on talking. This is a future in which no one walks away from the table, and in which the winners never take all.

It is not arrogance that should lead Canadians to model good behaviour to the rest of the world. It is the humble recognition that our own country’s future depends on it.

View published article  

Release Date

November 25, 2017


The Ottawa Citizen


Andrew Parkin

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