- Doing the Continental: A New Canadian-American Relationship
Books written to warn Canadians about the dangers of continental integration are a staple of non-fiction in English-speaking Canada. These works have historically come in a variety of forms, running from the subtle (Donald Creighton’s 1937 Commercial Empire of the St. Lawrence) to the strident (Maude Barlow’s 2005 Too Close for Comfort). In the present volume, David Dyment seeks to offer a fresh perspective on continental integration and, more generally, on the Canadian-American relationship, based on what he perceives as Canada’s “national interests.”
The author’s basic contention, which he repeats ad nauseum, is that the debate surrounding Canadian-American relations is polarized between two extremes: right-wing continentalism and leftwing nationalism. Continentalism is described as a headless doctrine whose practical application would endanger Canada’s existence as a separate political entity, while “lefty” nationalists are presented as incapable of grasping the basic realities of the nation’s economy and geography because their ideas are informed by a reflexive anti-Americanism. Dyment argues, however, that a third way, a non-ideological way, is possible. “We need to pursue our interests not our ideologies,” he writes, “and be aware that the U.S. is a force of nature to be cautiously tamed for our benefit” (p. 12).
Dyment’s perspective is perhaps more ideological than he would be willing to admit. Like many liberals, he believes that the approaches taken on key issues by his political adversaries are informed by ideology, while his own ideas are based instead on common sense. As we will see, however, Dyment embraces many of the nationalist precepts put forward by the “lefties” that he repeatedly scorns. Nevertheless, to his credit, his nationalism is not strongly rooted in anti-Americanism. He does take the occasional pot shot at the American political system and at George W. Bush, but his readers will not be treated to any lengthy diatribes against American society.
What Dyment views as a polarized debate in fact reflects a basic historical reality. No matter how you dress it up, there are two basic perspectives on Canadian-American relations: a continentalist ethos that views America in an essentially positive [End Page 581] light and seeks to foster close ties between Canada and the United States, and an anti-American or nationalist perspective that projects a more or less negative vision of American society and regards continental integration as a threat to Canadian values and nationhood. The basic dichotomy between these perspectives can certainly be nuanced, but it has yet to be surpassed.
Dyment, indeed, does not really transcend the debate surrounding Canada’s relationship with the United States. His perspective is often nuanced but, at the end of the day, it is also basically nationalist. His penchant for the status quo, which he argues is “largely the only option” (p. 33) when it comes to managing our relationship with the United States, expresses itself through a left-liberal suspicion of continental integration and a belief that the process likely threatens Canada’s existence as a separate political entity. Moreover, in his search for a “third way” between nationalism and continentalism, Dyment sometimes confuses originality with incoherence and he does not always appear to grasp issues in their totality.
The author worries that Canadians are prone to seeking risky “big solutions” when it comes to managing their relationship with the United States. The best example of this would be free trade, which he believes was not necessary, since the vast majority of Canadian-American trade was not subject to tariffs by the mid-1980s. Moreover, he insists that the ultimate resolution of the softwood lumber dispute proves that NAFTA’s dispute settlement mechanism does not effectively shield Canadians from American protectionism and unilateralism.
Dyment does not seem to understand that the Mulroney government negotiated free trade not so much to eliminate tariffs on the small range of Canadian exports that were still subject to American customs duties, but rather to ensure...