How Canada's origins illuminate the present crisis.
Canada occupies a strange place in the consciousness of Americans — if they think of Canada at all, which the overwhelming majority do not. But they should, because the two great democracies of North America (leaving out Mexico, not out of uncharity but out of realism) mirror and inform one another in revelatory ways. The mutual influence is not equitable: the Canadian population equates roughly to a single large American state, and of course, the economic imbalance is considerable. Nevertheless we can peer into past and present, and understand that we ought to pay more attention. This is especially true now, as a populist revolt overtakes not any of the places you might have expected before thirty days back — a Midwestern state capitol, perhaps, or a Rust Belt city, or somewhere in Appalachia — but staid Ottawa. A place with a parliament and a Governor-General endure the rebellion, and it signifies something important.
It is too much to ascribe a singular national character to heterogenous polities like Canada (or for that matter, the United States), but we can ascribe a political character to the intent undergirding the creation of Canada in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The politics of early Canada were fairly straightforward: it was not the United States, which is to say not a republican experiment. To that end, the politics were much less the expression of the Canadian masses of the time, and much more conceived and imposed from above. The motive force behind this concept of a conservative, aristocratic, anti-republican Canada was the dashing Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada, John Graves Simcoe. The English-born Simcoe amassed a record of great bravery and daring in the King’s service during the American Revolution, and upon being entrusted with the governance of Upper Canada — modern Ontario — for what turned out to be a half-decade in the 1790s, he set himself to the grand-strategic task of simultaneously undermining the young United States, and rendering Canada the desirable alternative. He could not conquer independent America — that had been tried — but he could push it toward ruin, and an eventual organic reunion under the Crown.
Simcoe’s record will not be done justice here, but suffice it to say that in the ranks of existential threats to the United States, he deserves Americans’ memory, and also our respect — because he arguably came closer to grasping the fundamental weaknesses of the United States, and exploiting them, than any adversary save the Confederacy. Simcoe grasped that the defeat of the Americans was a matter, first and foremost, of setting up a desirable alternative. The American example was its fundamental strength — it’s hard to counter the appeal of ruling yourself, especially when you’re offering the alternative of rule by a lord of dubious quality — and so Simcoe smartly avoided contesting its premise. His approach was to argue, by counterexample, that the outcome of the premise was inferior to the alternative’s. He would do this through superior material outcomes that would, hopefully, supersede the inferior political appeal of reduced self-rule.
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