University of Nebraska Press
  • 'The Wood Needs More Canada':A Brief Historical Geography of the Liberal Democracy We Think We Are

In December 2016, then-Vice President Joe Biden made his last official visit to Canada. He brought an unusual message. In the wake of the election of Donald Trump, Biden not only disagreed with the political positions of the Republican President-elect, but feared the deeper problem of Trump's popular support, the larger consequences for the country, and the likely ripple effects in international relations. According to press reports of Biden's visit:

"The world is going to spend a lot of time looking to you Mr. Prime Minister. Viva la Canada because we need you very, very badly," Biden said during a Canadian state dinner held in his honor.


He also said that there are more challenges to the international liberal order now than there have ever been since the Second World War.


Biden urged Trudeau, and leaders like Merkel, to step up to the world stage and lead in facing challenges. "The progress is going to be made but it's going to take men like you Mr. Prime Minister, who understand it has to fit within the context of a liberal economic order, a liberal international order, where there's basic rules of the road," he said.1

A couple of months earlier, Jennifer Welsh, a Canadian and Métis scholar, professor of international relations and the United Nations Secretary-General's Special Adviser on the Responsibility to Protect, gave the 2016 Massey lecture: "The Return of History: Conflict, Migration, and Geopolitics in the Twenty-First Century."2 As one might guess from the title, it was (in part) a challenge to Francis Fukuyama's theory. She begins her argument with the observation that [End Page 110] although there have been many significant improvements around the world in health, reductions in poverty, a rise in democracy and human rights, the portions of the world that continue to struggle are facing the very worst circumstances we've seen, in terms of conflict and violence, deprivation, exclusion, and environmental damage. Welsh's particular focus is recent refugee crises and our collective failure to address them adequately.

Welsh found, unexpectedly, that as she thought through these failures, she was left wondering if liberalism itself was failing. Liberal democracies, she observes, are becoming politically polarized and their economic inequality is deepening despite their prosperity. For Welsh, liberalism is fundamentally about "fairness," and we have apparently lost or abandoned our consensus around what that means, and our commitment to enacting it. She calls on us to not take liberal democracies for granted and renew our efforts to maintain them.

I have no idea if Biden is familiar with Welsh's lecture, which was published in book form, as the Massey lectures always are. But I think he would regard her analysis as resonant with his view of what is happening in and to the United States: the loss of the "basic rules of the road," as he put it; the loss of common purpose with its allies.

Just in case anyone was missing the message, Heather Reisman, CEO of Indigo Books, edited a collection of stories and inspirational quotes from 100 Canadians, The World Needs More Canada, which was published in the summer of 2017.3 (You can also get the phrase on a mug or a beach towel, but you cannot get the book in French.)

For both Biden and Welsh, the world needs more "Canada" – by which they mean the world needs more liberal democracy: strong democratic legislative institutions; greater tolerance of diversity and stronger civil rights; better redistribution of wealth directly tied to a stronger sense of common cause and common civic identity, at national and international scales. The unspoken assumption is that these liberal accomplishments are arrived at through our democratic institutions and practices.

It is said that if you want to understand political priorities, don't listen to what politicians say; look at their budget. It is another way of saying, it's not what you say; it's what you actually do. Similarly, I want to argue that Canada's values are not found in primarily in its constitutions or law, but in its historical geography. What Canada purports to stand for may be admirable, but what Canada actually is and does is much less so, and falls well short of the ideals of liberal democracy. An examination of its historical geography—that is, how Canada has made its sovereignty manifest in its territory and its political spaces (and/or spaces for politics)—demonstrates that not only was Canada built on dispossession of Indigenous peoples, but that it has always been aware of that fact. Manitoba in 1870 was a land claim settlement (or was supposed to be). Nunavut in 1999 was a land claim settlement (a process formally started in 1976). Given the absence of treaties for most of its claimed territory, the government of British Columbia lacks territorial sovereignty to this day. In the face of our history of land theft, Canadians take ethical refuge in the existence of treaties, past and future – but as Audra Simpson put it in a 2017 talk at York University, under what circumstances would Indigenous peoples ever give up their land? What are the ethics of those circumstances? Where is the "fairness"?

To this, we could add the seemingly endless list of states of exception in domestic policy and immigration law; the exclusion of women and racialized minorities from public space, political office and suffrage; and other carceral geographies of Indigenous peoples, black Canadians, disabled people, those specifically of German, Italian or Japanese ancestry, and so on. I hardly need to itemize further for readers of this journal the uneven, unequal, exploitative and oppressive geographies that constitute so much of Canada's history of "nation-building."

Chantal Mouffe has argued for "radical liberal democracy," where difference and disagreement are understood as inevitable and thus explicitly accommodated, with no desire to resolve or unify them.4 She describes this as placing more emphasis on the democratic side of [End Page 111] liberal democracy. The liberal side, on the other hand, emphasizes order and stability – which she does not dismiss. She argues for what we might call a moderated democracy, recognizing and incorporating diversity but maintaining "peace" and "good government," as Canadians like to say. In its recognition of order and stability, Mouffe's observation resonates with James Scott's argument that the more a state seeks to act like a state (even with the best of intentions), the more it tends towards authoritarianism or fascism, where order is prized and privileged even at the expense of liberty, equality and democracy.5

Order remains at the heart of Canada's formal democratic institutions and their understanding of what constitutes appropriate, acceptable politics: passionate but respectful debate, an exchange of ideas leading towards compromise and, ideally, mutual understanding and enlightenment. However, if we turn our focus on the experience of those who have been excluded from or exploited by Canada's actual geographic and discursive nation-building practices, we begin to see that their resistance is not solely reactive, but productive. Many of their political practices and modes of engagement (and disengagement) stand outside of formal political institutions and acceptable practices.

The political scientist Cathy Cohen has worked towards a political theory "that is centred around the experiences of those who stand on the (out)side of state-sanctioned, normalized White, middle- and upper-class, male heterosexuality."6 She frames her quest in terms of black feminist and queer theory and argues that "individuals with little power in society" and who "are reminded daily of their distance from the promise of full citizenship" consequently "engage in counter normative behaviors."7 Theirs is a politics of deviance and disruption, rather than a civil debate within formal political institutions. It's a fundamentally divergent understanding of politics and of justice, as ideas and in practice, as well as a refusal of the legitimacy Canada and other liberal democracies claim. Yet these individuals and communities have made a progressive impact which we need to integrate fully into our understanding of liberalism in practice.

Canada's claims of territorial sovereignty reflect nothing of even liberalism's better angels. But the legitimacy of its government is predicated on the maintenance of that territorial order and its moderated political spaces. One might argue that neither Biden nor Welsh would endorse the exclusions, the violence, or the theft of land, that that's not what they mean by "more Canada." However, that argument only works if we believe that all of the exclusions and violence were and are accidental, rather than integral to liberalism in practice. We must further hold that Canada actually intended to, for example, give the vote to women as well as men, or to Indigenous peoples without making them give up their "Indian" status. But that is not the case. We have to confront the reality of the intentionality of the political order and its institutionalization in specific geographies.

If we look at the means by which liberal democracies have come close to being actually existing, practicing liberal democracies, we will notice that it looks more like Cohen's politics, that it is through two institutions – broadly speaking – that are neither liberal nor democratic (in terms of representational or even deliberative democracy). The politics of "everybody else" are achieved (a) through public protest of all kinds, much of it randomly and spontaneously disruptive, and (b) through the courts. The first is often considered the actions of a "mob" – that is to say, senseless and irrational action (it is certainly not grounded in the idea of the individual as "the organizing social role" in Siedentop's formulation8); and the second is the least democratic institution we have. Courts have "fair practices" embedded in their deliberations but they are not representative nor participatory political institutions. Their democratic basis is their obligation to adhere to the law and the constitution, which are established by democratic legislatures. But the more important part of this argument is that in the history of expanding civil rights, legislatures have followed the pressure of protest and the courts, not the other way round. [End Page 112]

To understand what the liberal democracy of Canada actually has been, in practice, we continue to need critical historical geographies of both its territorial claims and political spaces. Canada as a liberal democracy is as politically precarious as any other nation, its sovereignty every bit as tenuous (if not more so) as every other nation-state born directly of imperialism, with its violent conquest of land and its colonizing and divisive hierarchies of "citizens." Liberal democracy, in its commitment to order, stands in tension with its alleged commitment to equality and rights; this is no less true in Canada as elsewhere. To address the injustice of its history is to undo the geographical and political order it rests upon. The paradox is that, even if it were truly a liberal democracy, it is not clear that it can remain one and simultaneously achieve what it claims to stand for. It may be that Canada can remain a "liberal democracy" only insofar as it practices no such thing; at both national and international scales, it can only appease, compromise, and confess its sincerest intentions, rather than enact justice and "fairness."

Patricia Burke Wood
Department of Geography York University


1. Yousef Saba, "Biden: The World Needs Canada 'very, very badly' Right Now.", December 9, 2016 (Accessed October 27, 2017)

2. Jennifer Welsh, The Return of History: Conflict, Migration, and Geopolitics in the Twenty-First Century (Toronto: Anansi, 2016).

3. Heather Reisman, ed., The World Needs More Canada (Toronto: Indigo, 2017).

4. Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics (London and New York: Verso, 1985); Chantal Mouffe, The Return of the Political (London: Verso, 1993).

5. James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1998).

6. Cathy Cohen, "Deviance as Resistance: A New Research Agenda for the Study of Black Politics," Du Bois Review 1 (2004): 29.

7. Cohen, "Deviance as Resistance," 30, 29, 30.

8. Larry Siedentop, Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism. (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2014).