by Paul Wells
Edmonton publisher Mel Hurtig, one of the lions of Canadian nationalism and a true gentleman, died on Wednesday at 84. It is awful news, but it is conspicuous in its timing. As the lurid pageant of the U.S. presidential election plays out, I don’t recall it ever being clearer than it has been this summer that whatever Canada is, it ain’t the United States.
Hurtig would not have been reassured. Maintaining a clear line between the two countries was the work of his life, but he was not often reassured about Canada’s continued status as an independent country. His periodic warnings were often couched in urgent tones.
“Not only are we selling our country,” he wrote in this 2002 book The Vanishing Country: Is It Too Late to Save Canada?, “but much of the money foreigners use to buy up our industry, our resources, our wholesale and retail companies, our high-tech corporations – much of it is our own money. No other country, anywhere, would dream of allowing this to happen.”
The Vanishing Country was a kind of sequel to Hurtig’s 1991 book, The Betrayal of Canada, and a
precursor to his 2008 book, The Truth About Canada. Its chapter titles include “What’s the Use of Even Having a Separate Country?” and “Turning the House of Commons Into a Mausoleum.”
In those days, the Liberal government of Jean ChrÈtien was often accused, including in my old paper the National Post, of wild antipathy toward Americans. Hurtig could not have disagreed more completely. By the measure that mattered to him, U.S. investment in Canada, the Liberals were selling our national sovereignty as briskly as their Progressive Conservative predecessors. He called ChrÈtien, Paul Martin and John Manley the nation’s “pallbearers.” The word “traitors” appears often in his writing.
Of course, by the turn of the century, Hurtig’s final falling-out with the Liberal party was complete. He ran for the Liberals in Edmonton West in 1972, a year that perhaps marked the high-water point of economic nationalism in Canada.
The postwar boom in natural resource exports had led to unprecedented prosperity. But the client base was hardly diversified: Europe was shattered after the war, the United States dominant and hungry. U.S. investment in Canada grew steadily and fast. The Liberals, under Lester Pearson and then Pierre Trudeau, were divided between a continentalist old guard that saw U.S. investment as the key to prosperity, and a
new faction that saw the Americans as a threat.
“Nationalism has developed from a fringe cause espoused by a few dedicated eccentrics into a popular movement that’s drawn to its banner Canadians of diverse backgrounds and disparate sensibilities,” Christina McCall wrote in Maclean’s magazine in 1972.
McCall assayed the government of Pierre Trudeau by that standard and found it wanting. Stuck in the old colonized mindset. “To ask such people to defend Canada is to ask them to defend a country they’ve struggled for years to transcend.”
Peter C. Newman, a former editor of Maclean’s and of this newspaper, had formed the Committee for an Independent Canada in 1970, with Pearson’s former finance minister Walter Gordon and others, including Hurtig. They got Trudeau to set up the Foreign Investment Review Agency, but it barely even slowed the tide of U.S. money into Canada.
When the Mulroney Conservatives succeeded the Trudeau Liberals, Hurtig and others formed a new
group, the Council of Canadians.
The biggest confrontation between continental and nationalist visions was the 1988 free-trade election, with John Turner the unlikely standard-bearer for nationalism. But for Hurtig the worst still lay ahead: Chretien replaced Turner as Liberal leader, and, with Martin and Manley, he transformed the Liberals into an unabashed party of free traders.
Hurtig formed a party of his own, the National Party, backed by serious private money, to contest the 1993 election. He got nowhere. The party didn’t last. Since then, a generation has risen in Canada believing – Hurtig would have said naively – that Canada can be open to the world and keep its independence.
Justin Trudeau belongs to that generation. He has spent part of the summer courting Blackrock, the world’s largest investment manager, a $5-trillion juggernaut with its headquarters in New York City.
Trudeau hopes some of that worldwide torrent of money can be diverted toward infrastructure projects in Canada.
Mel Hurtig would have warned him there’s always a cost. Hurtig has successors – Maude Barlow, David Orchard – but like him, they remain outsiders. History has chosen a different path for the country Hurtig so loved.
Copyright 2016 – Torstar Syndication Services