Like any good self-righteous Canadian, I’ve been consuming too much popcorn while watching our southern neighbours in live-action play-by-play of an empire in decline. Of late, this exploration has taken me a few steps back … actually way back… to include a reading of The Federalist Papers (1787-88). This peeling of the onion prompts me to cautiously apply the lessons of these Papers more universally. The American and Canadian experience, alike, are histories of tension between the center and the states or the centre and the provinces. And thus it has been in all matters in all places and in all times.
While the authors of these Papers lean heavily for their case on the natural state of man as “ambitious, vindictive, and rapacious”, I cannot bring myself to agree, at least not entirely. A few drops of ink will, indeed, darken a glass of water, but these drops do not define the glass as a whole. As I see it, the key founding (and current) challenge in the United States was the creation of government out of fear and loathing of government. I could never understand why the founding fathers did not foresee Obi-Wan Kenobi’s admonishment: “You have become the very thing you swore to destroy!”
As wealth and power zig and zag, cries for secession in Canada migrate from one region to the next. Recipients of equalization payments in times of poverty become providers in times of plenty. What will oil-rich Alberta say when fossil fuels are no longer in vogue? Like a family, we come together, drift apart, and reunite once again. What this reunion looks like is up for grabs, but in the end, it remains our common need. While strategies may vary, I can only applaud the efforts of those focused on this reunion on our behalf. In times of conflict, we should be reminded, as by Young Sheldon that, “I’m genetically obligated to love you.”
The Washington lobby comprises, in my view, those few drops of ink that most visibly place the whole at risk. What surprises me most is that, this being a rather simple structural risk, the political will has not been strong enough, or alarmed enough, to make the adjustments necessary to shut it down. Perhaps this lack of corrective action reflects and supports the notional premise of Madison, Hamilton, and Jay. Perhaps the tipping point of corruption has already been surpassed and there’s no turning back.
More than enough has been written on the threat of this Washington lobby, though, and it is not my intent to say again what has been said more than adequately by many others. That’s a story for another day.
I would, instead, peel back another layer of the onion, and focus on what I see as our social nature to pursue common ground. There is a natural tension between this pursuit and the declaration of individual supremacy. While the component colonies were understandably suspicious of the center, and careful to secure and retain their own independence, they were ultimately brought around to re-focus and re-unite on points in common critical to collective survival. It’s time now for another reunion.
Survival tends to bring diverse forces together, if only for a time. History repeats this vacillation over and over. The flaw in human behaviour that leads to vacillation is in our tendency to take our eyes off the ball, to take things for granted, and to manage by exception. Taking our successes for granted, we end up responding to crisis rather than preventing crisis. Even when we see the risks on the horizon, it’s just one more year, one more quarter, one more day. We deny and dismiss risk until it’s too late. This crisis has a way of sneaking up on us right before our eyes. Unlike the Washington lobby, this is an invisible threat, but posing no less risk.
As founding members of any society or community, we bring and we take. When our urges to take overwhelm our urges to bring, we swing dangerously toward collapse. If we can catch this imbalance in time, and take corrective action, we may be able to protect and salvage the whole. It is our forgetting… or neglecting… the goodwill and common interest that brought us together that we find ourselves confronted by the “insufficiency of the present confederation to preserve the union”. This is so for the United States. It is so for Canada. It is so for Canada and the United States, sharing the longest undefended border in the world. It is so for the United Nations, and for all communities large and small… and it is so for our families and our extended families just the same.
This is dedicated to my little sister, Kim, an unwavering force that strives constantly to bring together and hold together our extended family.