Harold Innis on “continentalism”

“The jackals of communication systems are constantly on the alert to destroy every vestige of sentiment toward Great Britain holding it of no advantage if it threatens the omnipotence of American commercialism. This is to strike at the heart of cultural life in Canada. The pride taken in improving our status in the British Commonwealth of Nations has made it difficult for us to realize that our status on the North American continent is on the verge of disappearing. Continentalism assisted in the achievement of autonomy and has consequently become more dangerous. We can only survive by taking persistent action at strategic points against American imperialism in all its attractive guises.”

Canadian history and politics #6: Shopping for Votes: How Politicians Choose Us and We Choose Them by Susan Delacourt – 2013

Shopping for Votes traces the history that led to the current state of “political marketing”. “Floating”, uninformed and shallow voters without party loyalty are the election clinching prize for campaign strategists who endlessly segment the public at large.

It seems clear the 80’s and 90’s were the key decades in this process. Greater cynicism about politics and politicians, reduced belief in the efficacy of the public sector and a paradigm shift in marketing and branding combined with a right-turn in popular ideology to create a new atmosphere of futility.

In the 2000’s (says Delacourt) the logic of political marketing reached an unprecedented low: a brave new world where the Harper Conservatives began targeting just 100,000 people across the entire country during federal elections, shunning national polling.

This book combines pop-theory wokeness (Gramsci, Baudrillard and even Adam Curtis are cited) and well meaning small-d democratic idealism into a critique of the trends in question. The author seems to desire a categorical change in party politics, neglecting matters of degree and the brutal reality of quotidian incentives and pressures.

Canadian history and politics #5: The Big Shift: The Seismic Change In Canadian Politics, Business, And Culture And What It Means For Our Future by Darell Bricker and John Ibbitson – 2013

The Big Shift is both an excellent and OK book. As a branded product you would create to get lots of people reading about Canadian politics, its excellent. As a source of genuine insight, with the benefit of seven years hindsight, it’s just OK.

The authors say the “Laurentian Elite” of Ontario and Quebec (think professors and journalists) is being supplanted by striving immigrants in the suburbs of Toronto, the key swing seats in federal elections. These immigrants (most of them Asian) are portrayed as austere, rule abiding and culturally conservative.

That overwrought description certainly fits those New Canadians with heavy bias to the Conservatives. But as 2015 showed, Justin Trudeau’s message of economic redistribution was a tempting vehicle for those unafflicted with P.C. loyalty. It turns out when you’re striving and fear falling you’ll step out of line and take whatever you can get.

The authors largely elide the two most unforgiving divides in Canada and in particular the GTA; your place in the job market and whether or not you own prestige real estate. But then the book wouldn’t be so digestible, so I honestly understand.

Canadian history and politics #4: Slumming It at the Rodeo: The Cultural Roots of Canada’s Right-Wing Revolution by Gordon Laird – 1998

Slumming it at the Rodeo is a scathing work of social and cultural criticism. It portrays Canada’s 90’s wave of right-wing populists (Mike Harris, Preston Manning and Ralph Klein) as thriving in an era marked by insecurity, fear and even “revenge” and “retribution.”

Free market populism is set alongside 90’s cultural trends like New Country (remember Garth Brooks?) and the rise in fast food franchising opportunities as well as the whole canon of modern Western film. In common according to the author: ready made, homogenized, nostalgic and inauthentic consumer experiences.

This book clarifies Canadian politics. Populism is actually quite normal for Canada and it rose to a backwards peak in the 90’s, eventually culminating in Stephen Harper being prime minister. This seems to put Canada on a different timeline as compared to other more coherent (less regional and more solidly nationalistic) Western democracies.

If there’s a problem with the book, it’s the premising of idealism and liberal nicety as an adequate response to right-wing cowboys. Whatever else can be said about them, tax cuts and franchising opportunities are material responses to insecurity. An eloquent response would have to address the material as well.

Canadian history and politics #3: The Trudeau Formula: Seduction and Betrayal in an Age of Discontent by Martin Lukacs – 2020

The Trudeau Formula kicks off with a striking insight: the Trudeau Liberals are much cozier with corporate Canada than were the Harper Conservatives. The Business Council always gets its way in the end (so the author convincingly demonstrates) but while Harper personally kept the economic elite at a cold remove, lobbying has skyrocketed under the Liberals and Justin schmoozes with the super-rich.

Another savvy consideration this book provokes is that Trudeau’s symbolic progressivism has had Stephen Harper, Donald Trump, Jason Kenney and Doug Ford as convenient points of comparison. With political foils like that, progressive expectations can be very low.

The most comprehensive chapter deals with Trudeau’s finessing of indigenous affairs. The Liberals (Trudeau, his cabinet, and communications/campaign Svengali Gerald Butts) are shown to have perfectly situated themselves as disingenuous managers of First Nations for the benefit of business, brilliantly and cynically turning the page from the exhausted Harper approach.

The most disturbing chapter recounts the Liberals shameless machinations behind the controversial sale of Light Armoured Vehicles (deviously called “Jeeps”) to Saudi Arabia. Canadian made equipment has been used in horrible atrocities, there’s little doubt. How could it be? We’re talking “the largest arms deal in Canadian history” – a lot of money and jobs.

The author concludes the book optimistically, alluding to “social movements” and noting his own involvement in drafting the “Leap Manifesto” – a leftwing policy plan that was cause for great controversy in the NDP. I’m inclined to dismiss this “conclusion” as lefty-book boilerplate but not without regret. The author has dissected “The Trudeau Formula” in a way that may not be surpassed. That he can muster optimism in the face of it is inspiring.

Canadian history and politics #2: The Sport and Prey of Capitalists: How the Rich Are Stealing Canada’s Public Wealth by Linda McQuaig – 2019

Sport and Prey is first a history book that trades in case studies of public works and state entrepreneurship past, and second a plea for more of the same in the present. A historian isn’t supposed to be such an activist but McQuaig can’t be contained.

The stories of Connaught Labs, Canadian National Railway, public banking, Ontario Hydro and the twin histories of the oil and gas sector in Alberta and Norway are illuminated with entertaining anecdotes. Closer to the present day, the privatization of the 407 (by the Harris government) is made to rankle.

The top historical highlight: McQuaig’s recounting of the CNR’s pioneering use of onboard radio outright seduces and puts the reader at a past cutting edge breakthrough in time and space.

But perhaps the most pressing and contemporary insight in the book is that Canadian banks got a huge bailout during the Global Financial Crisis, but that crucially (and quite unlike the USA) it was managed outside of politics, avoiding public scrutiny.

The author seems nostalgic for past eras of enlightened noblesse oblige (Adam Beck, Peter Lougheed, oh my!). Who wouldn’t be at least sympathetic in the current era of vapid Justins.

Canadian history and politics #1: Promised Land: Inside the Mike Harris Revolution by John Ibbitson – 1997

Promised Land, written while Mike Harris was still premier of Ontario, is not a simple book to review now. Yes, the analysis is slanted in support of the Harris government, but this friendliness furnishes insight into the ideological and social justification for the government’s actions.

Within and between sometimes belaboured descriptions of day to day events, the author cuts the the heart of the matter and exposes the sublime nature of the Harris phenomenon: an incredibly coherent movement derived from a serendipitous combination of social forces.

A middle class backlash against leftwing governance, a youthful, aggressive, true believing and party building tendency, a caucus of small business owners and a brooding, experienced and resentful leader created a perfect storm of right-wing governance. This “self made” coalition of “affluence” took the fight to their opposition with little reservation.

The 90’s were the key decade in recent Canadian political history. A wave of cultural despair in provincial English Canada combined with a suburban tax revolt to yank politics rightward. Really, it’s all still shaking out in increasingly tortured iterations.