My Modest Proposal: Dreaming about a Liberal Vision for Canada

I have been very lucky. Throughout my life, I have been able to meet many people from many different political stripes. Last night, I sat down with one of them. In many ways, we share the same story. Much of the reason for this is that we are descendants if immigrants. Even though she is Ismaili and I am of Caribbean descent, we shared similar stories about acceptance and trying to find one’s place in a world which is unfamiliar to our parents. Or put differently, while we don’t share a religion, a culture or a skin tone, we share a communal experience.

Given that we met in a political environment – on a failed campaign to nominate Rahim Sajan to be the Liberal Candidate in Calgary Centre – our conversation turned to politics. It was at that point that I was shocked; for this intelligent, articulate and professional Albertan told me that she was a New Democrat. Yup, that’s right, we did not share a party. Now this might have been unremarkable to me if we had significantly divergent views. However, we don’t.

Her father, like mine, is a Trudeau Liberal. She is a social liberal and fiscally conservative. She appreciates Alberta’s need to maintain a strong resource based economy and only wishes for a long term, prudent approach to environmental management. This would obviously include some form of plan to reduce CO2 emissions. To be fair, I didn’t ask if she had a preference, but I am sure that we would not disagree how we would get there. We probably could live with “cap-and-trade” or a carbon tax. We could live with a regulatory approach or some combination of the three. Either way, she and I could not find a policy disagreement.

So I had to ask her, why was she a New Democrat? Now, before I tell you what her answer was, you have to understand one thing. Most people are emotional about their politics. Most people don’t study political science and then spend their spare time blogging about their feelings. Most people – Liberal, Conservative, New Democratic, Green or Sovereigntist – have a life. So I was not surprised that she said her reasons were emotional and that they were complex. This was probably the first time in weeks or months that she had thought about politics.

However, she tried. She talked about how the NDP talked to her. It talked to her values, her needs and her desires. She talked about what the NDP stood for and about the narrative provided by Jack Layton. She noted that while she did not feel the same closeness to Mulcair, she felt that she would be a New Democrat for a while. The funny thing is that we even talked about the largest perceived failing of the NDP – economic practicality. We talked about why NDP Premiers – Ujjal Dosanjh and Bob Rae – ran as federal Liberals and the problems with a potential NDP government. Yet, she was still a New Democrat.
This was her party and she was not going to change immediately. However, while she recognized that the NDP was not perfect, she also knew that it was hers.

So I tried an experiment. I asked her if she wanted to hear my vision. At the time, it was a bit rough, so I have modified it because she liked it. My vision starts with a question: Do you know what links three planes: the British-French Concorde, the American F-14 and the Space Shuttle? If you don’t, please sit down. For one plane links them and that plane is a Canadian plane. It is called the Avro Arrow CF-105. The plane was a delta-winged interceptor aircraft that was designed in 1953 and completed in 1958. It held the promise of near Mach 3 speeds at altitudes likely exceeding 60,000 ft. (18,000 m), and was intended to serve as the Royal Canadian Air Force’s (RCAF) primary interceptor in the 1960s and beyond. Started under a Liberal Government, it was cancelled by John Diefenbaker – a Progressive Conservative. The decision meant that pink slips were sent to more than 12,000 employees and Canada lost aeronautical engineers to NASA as well as American and British Aircraft manufacturers.

In fact, the plane was so advanced that retired Major-General Lewis MacKenzie, among others, recently proposed that the Canadian Government reduce its participation in the F-35 project in favour of “rebooting” the Avro Arrow. (Avro Arrow redesign pitched as alternative to F-35 stealth fighter jets, by Canadian Press, as published on National, Last Updated: 12/09/10 1:40 PM ET) Plainly speaking, Canadians can do the impossible.

If Canadians could do that in the 1950’s, why can’t we do it again? Why can’t we build a nation together again? This was the simple question that I asked; for Canada has been built on National Projects. In 1534, Cartier received a royal commission to “discover certain islands and lands where it is said that a great quantity of gold and other precious things are to be found”. The King of France, in other words, did not know that Canada existed. He did not know that he would have to fight several wars to ensure that he would maintain these lands. Nor did he know that his descendants would lose them in the Treaty of Utrecht (1713) and the Treaty of Paris (1763). The King of France in 1534 tried to build an Empire and, in so doing, he shaped Canadian History.

In 1871, by allowing British Columbia to enter into the Canadian Federation, our young nation was equally bold. For the Government of Canada promised the new province that it would build a railway through some of the most difficult terrain on the planet. It was more difficult than the American Enterprise because our Mountain Range is more treacherous and the weather more extreme. Yet, Sir John A. MacDonald tried and succeeded.

Nor should it be a surprise that ambitious Sir Wilfred Laurier predicted that the twentieth century would belong to Canada. He built the Canadian Navy and proposed free trade with the Americans. He opposed World War I, when it was unpopular to do so, and is Canada’s Fourth Longest Serving Prime Minister. Canada is a country of big national projects and to be afraid of them is childish. Trudeau was not afraid to argue for the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. William Lyon Mackenzie King was not afraid of taking on World War II, nor was he afraid of building the blocks for the Canadian Welfare State. Chrétien was not terrified of slaying the Budgetary Deficit, nor was he afraid to take on the Separatists in proposing the Clarity Act. In fact, Louis St. Laurent was not afraid of developing the Avro Arrow CF-105. For over 125 years, Canadians built a country. We dreamed impossible dreams and then we made them happen. While President Kennedy called on the US to go to the Moon, Canadians built the most sophisticated communications system in the world. This included building the worlds’ first domestic communication satellites. Canadians dream big and then accomplish those dreams.

After telling this narrative, I found that my NDP colleague was both excited and amazed. She may not have understood that the ideal of liberalism was to make liberty the highest political good. She might have not understood that liberalism holds that the first duty of government is to seek the greatest liberty for the individual while providing liberty for all citizens. But through the narrative I provided, she understood that we can act together to benefit the whole. Through my narrative, we agreed that every right has to be balanced by a corresponding responsibility. While her own story, told her that elected office is not a licence to rule, but a contract to serve. This why we agreed so much previously; for she believed in Liberal values.

However, my narrative did not end there because I threw my 2121 vision at her. It is a vision of a country that has a low carbon or no carbon economy. It is a vision where we could have half of our population on Mars. This might sound like a crazy dream, but I assure you it is not. Let us just expand on the “dream”.

For this vision to come to fruition, Canada would have to make huge leaps forward in the areas of environmental engineering and reclamation, computer engineering, aeronautical engineering and civil engineering. Canadian manufacturing would have to create new materials and more efficient methods. Canadian infrastructure would have to be rebuilt and Canadian workers would have to be retrained. We know that this would happen because this is the type of economic and social change that happened in the US, when President Kennedy committed them to go to the Moon. We know this because Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson has told us. In promoting his book, Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier, the astrophysicist argued that NASA’s triumphs in the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s created more than technology. Dr. Tyson argued that NASA’s triumphs also created generations of scientists, engineers and inventors. It created a vision for the US that moved it for fifty years. A 2121 vision could do the same thing for Canada.

Or look at it differently; the Imperial Powers that created Canada had to make technological leaps to maintain their empire. This included improvements in communications, agricultural and industrial policy to be able to sustain its new far flung colonies. From the 1560’s to the 1960’s, the British homeland derived growth from the need to sustain its Empire. Imagine if Canada had an economic policy that looked forward for fifty, sixty or a hundred years. So the more that one talks about this vision, the less crazy it sounds.

For my guest and I, this was the point. Liberals have often talked about the need to move forward, but they have not said which way forward is. We need a narrative and we need to talk about it. The Conservatives and New Democrats have said what progress, what forward, is to them; but I disagree with their destination. For their terminus would not include all stakeholders. Their endpoint would exclude either labour interests or corporate interests; the environment, rural Canada or cities. Canadian Liberalism has always been different because it has been able to include competing interests. Our solutions have not always been perfect, but they have provided the “best benefit, to the most people”.

Recreating our economy and infrastructure can do that. When the English speaking world banned slavery, it led to years of growth for Britain, Canada and the US. This was not an easy job. It took more than a hundred and twenty five years. From the 1701 decision of the Lord Chief Justice – noting that it was illegal to own a slave in England – to the Somerset Case (1772) which ended slavery in England, the English speaking world took a slow approach. It had many fits and starts. In 1775, the Pennsylvania Abolition Society was founded; while in 1793 Slavery was banned in Upper Canada. Yet by 1834, the British Empire was able to ban the practice in most of the Empire; and by 1843, it was over. What is most impressive is that those changes had no effect on the British Empire. It grew and continued to impose power around the World until the 1940’s.

This idea of national narratives is important. For example, just look at Zionism. As a concept, it was first talked about at the First Zionist Congress in1897. Those great thinkers had to wait and work for fifty years to get their wish: a declaration of two states – Israel and Palestine.

So I hope I have shown a couple of things. Big Ideas are not impossible to accomplish but they are vital to our country. Big dreams define Canada and allow us as Liberals to tell our narrative. Big Visions allow Liberals to describe our hopes, our values and the destination we would like to reach. It is how Liberals have always attained our goals. George Brown was a dreamer when he first talked about Canada as a country in 1864. He crossed the floor because Sir John A. MacDonald wanted to remain first minister. George Brown’s concession was simple: the Government of the Province of Canada has to enter into negotiations with the existing colonies of British North America to form a new political arrangement; the Government of the Province of Canada has to participate in the Charlottetown Convention. Imagine if we did not go. Imagine if the four Atlantic Provinces had formed their own union. Imagine what might have been. My dream for 2121 was just a sketch of an idea but it got me excited. It got a New Democrat excited. It was those big dreams that gave us CBC, Nortel, Bell Canada and the Government of Canada. It was big dreams that stitched this country together. 2121 is a long way off and leaving the planet is a big dream. It is my dream, but it is a dream that is worth fighting for. Any big dream which demonstrates our values is worth the battle. The question is will our leader dream the big dream and fight for it. I am waiting to see that dream; I waiting to fight for their dream.

A PDF version of this piece is available here:

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