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Book Reviews

Could It Happen Here?: Canada in the Age of Trump and Brexit

by Michael Adams

Maximum Canada: Why 35 Million Canadians Are Not Enough

by Doug Saunders

You might expect the country’s 150th birthday to be an occasion for books celebrating Canada’s past, but a couple of new titles take the opportunity to consider the country’s future instead. This may be fortuitous from a marketing perspective, given how the sesquicentennial celebrations have largely fallen flat.

Michael Adams’s book, Could It Happen Here?, benefits from the fact that it favourably compares Canada to the U.S. In the Trump era, this stance promises, at least for an audience of Canadian readers, to be a surefire crowd-pleaser. Adams, the veteran author and pollster, takes a crack at his titular question and responds, unsurprisingly and somewhat unconvincingly: no – unless, of course, it does, which it probably won’t.

Adams arrives at his ultimate conclusion because of his conviction that Canadians will always “muddle our way back to the middle.” This raises the question of what constitutes “the middle,” and who gets to define it. Based on some of the paragons of conventional wisdom Adams cites – New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman and University of Toronto professor Richard Florida are described, without apparent irony, as “towering intellectuals” – the middle may be understood as the pro-business suite of policies peddled by most Canadian governments in recent decades.

While laden with data, Adams’s book is pretty thin, and seems to have been dashed off quickly. Indeed, Adams writes that the results of the U.S. election prompted him to go to his office and demand the results of a major poll of Canadians and Americans, in an effort to retroactively understand Trump’s triumph.

In the book, Adams highlights a number of factors that appear to have been related to Trump’s election victory – immigration, the treatment of Muslims, economics, inequality, and democratic institutions. In each case, the distinctions between the two countries are less clear than many Canadians might think. On Islamophobia, for example, Canadians tell pollsters they are less fearful of Muslims than is the case in the U.S., but the murder of six people at a mosque in Quebec City in January was a more violent attack on Muslims than anything that has happened to date south of the border.

Adams comes to the conclusion that our preference for compromise over conflict represents the major difference between Canadians and Americans, and this societal factor may make it difficult for right-wing populists to succeed as thoroughly here as they have down south. This point is difficult to refute.

In Maximum Canada, Doug Saunders looks even further into the future to make the case that Canada needs to significantly expand its population base – probably tripling it – in order to achieve its full potential. The first half of the book makes the case that Canada’s growth has been continually thwarted by policymakers who, for political or cultural reasons – or both – made choices that kept Canada small and insular. Saunders points to a variety of historical examples of Canadian leaders restricting immigration, usually for the purpose of achieving a particular ethnic mix, and instituting protectionist trade policies that have rendered the country little more than an extractor of natural resources for much of its existence.

Saunders argues that more immigration and open trade policies, particularly where the U.S. is concerned, would have made the country more dynamic and kept more smart, capable Canadians from fleeing to find wealth and opportunity south of the 49th parallel. In some ways, this argument seems of a piece with that of Saunders’s 2010 book, Arrival City, which posits that immigrants tend to constitute the most ambitious and innovative members of whatever society or community they come from.

The second half of Maximum Canada, which explains how tripling Canada’s current population through immigration would benefit the country, is often engaging but not always convincing. It’s not that the overall argument Saunders makes is fatally flawed. But it isn’t made as forcefully as it could be. And some of the author’s points seem a little too obvious, like when he notes that Canada would have more influence globally if it were more populous. He also seems to elide the political battles that will occur not just over growing the population, but how best to manage that growth.

If Canada grows as aggressively in the next century and a half as Saunders suggests, it is quite possible that the tendency to compromise that Adams identifies may dissipate as the debates over the direction of the country become more contentious – an eventuality that would result in the country’s next 150 years being very different from the first.