Canada’s third national policy — us

Canada’s Third National Policy is an essay every Canadian should read, and an idea that every Canadian should embrace.

In Canada’s Third National Policy, Rod Macdonald and Bob Wolfe argue that Canada has evolved through three national policies.

Canada’s first national policy (np1) was a response to the Great Depression of 1873 and consisted of tariffs to prop up Canadian manufacturers, immigration to the prairies and the construction of a transcontinental transportation infrastructure. Sir John A. Macdonald’s National Policy of 1879 was a superb — if cynical — campaign slogan, and it still fires the ambitions of his party today.

Canada’s second national policy (np2) was a response to the Great Depression of the 1930s and, later, the Second World War, and consisted of spending on social welfare and institutions of cultural and economic nationalism to redistribute the fruits of a transcontinental economy. As a national project, it peaked in the 1970s, and its core institutions have been under attack ever since.

Macdonald and Wolfe argue that Canadians are now in the process of elaborating a third national policy (np3), a policy meant to supplement rather than substitute for np1 and np2.

The objective of np3 is to press the transcontinental country (np1) and the administrative state (np2) into the service of the aspirations and dreams of all Canadians. The defining feature of np3 is enhanced citizen power.

But let’s pause for a moment to acknowledge the elephant in the room. At first blush, np3 might sound a bit naïve. Perhaps a tad romantic? Almost assuredly unrealistic in these tough times, right?

Wrong, for one simple reason: Canada is us. We — ordinary Canadians — constitute the state. The government is responsible to us. We forget this at our peril.

So what role should our government play in bringing about np3?

First, as citizens, we cannot hope to make every single choice that needs making, so we rely on public institutions to do so, so long as they do so responsibly.

Second, citizens’ aspirations can’t always be reconciled, so the government sometimes has to play the role of neutral referee.

Third, the government must facilitate many of our most important choices. But in the np3 state, the government ought to be committed “less to programs specifying the choices Canadians must make than to policies through which their capacities to exercise real choice may be enhanced.”

Which brings us back to our current government’s reckless obsession with its own national policy: the establishment of Canada as “an emerging energy superpower,” whether ordinary Canadians want it or not.

Based on Access to Information requests, it’s now public knowledge that from 2008 to 2012, oil and gas industry lobbyists registered 2,733 communications with government officials urging legislative amendments designed to facilitate tar sands expansion, pipeline development and environmental deregulation. Our government listened and did as it was told.

Meanwhile, our government has stopped listening to us, unless you count spying.

In a sprawling omnibus bill passed in 2012, the government made it next to impossible for ordinary Canadians to participate in the National Energy Board’s public hearings on proposed energy projects such as TransCanada’s proposed Energy East pipeline project.

And the National Energy Board, far from enhancing Canadians’ capacity to exercise real choice about the development of our economy and the protection of our environment, has decided that it “will not consider the environmental and socio-economic effects associated with upstream activities, the development of oil sands, or the downstream use of the oil” transported by pipelines.

Once again, the elephant in the room: isn’t this just the way it’s always been and always will be?

Yes and no. True, np1 was significantly influenced by the Montreal anglophone commercial bourgeoisie. Yet it strains the imagination to reduce the np2 welfare state to corporate elitism.

But there’s an even simpler way of looking at the prospect of np3.

Consider the (Un)Fair Elections Act being championed by our government. The government claims, without a shred of evidence, that the act’s purpose is to stamp out voter fraud. But on any fair reading of the act its purpose is to make voting more difficult. It’s about further reducing public participation in democratic decision-making.

That’s a critically important clue to the realistic prospect of a third national policy for Canadians aimed at enhancing citizen power. Our government fears the prospect of truly being held to account by us.

That’s why it’s abusing its power to audit perfectly legitimate charities. That’s why it’s violating the Constitution by spying on law-abiding Canadians who are concerned about the environment. And that’s why np3 is an idea whose time has come.

Jason MacLean

Published in the bi-weekly column, Sustainability Matters, The Chronicle-Journal, Thunder Bay, Monday, April 14, 2014

A copy of Canada’s Third National Policy is available here.