A Knight's Tale
“The 19th Century was the century of the U.S.; the 20th Century will be the century of Canada.” -Wilfrid Laurier
We can learn a lot from Lords. As a mere Knight, a good deal down the peerage ladder, I am not often privy to their company, though I have had the privilege of being scrutinized by one particular Lord on two occasions.
The first time I had my wares inspected by Conrad Black was in 1997. He was dressed resplendently in a black tunic escorting Queen Elizabeth II on an inspection of our pressed red tunics, gleaming bayonets, shining shoes, and fluffed bearskin hats. I was a Guardsman; he was a Colonel. I had a gun; he had a sword. A decade later, he was an incarcerated Lord.
The second time was this past American Independence day, Lord Black of Crossharbour (currently Prisoner #18330-424) spent a couple of weeks of his National Post column dissecting the misguided ways of Corporate Knights. He dismissed our coverage of anthropogenic global warming as an “exotic notion,” citing such reputable sources as the Polish Academy of Sciences. He also ventured his own definition of “real” corporate knights, as “people who stand unapologetically for something useful.” Donald Trump, for example.
Lord Black also questioned the economics of our magazine, concluding that we were heavily subsidized. For someone whose idea of a business expense is a personal trip to Bora Bora with his wife on the company’s private jet, it must be hard to fully grasp the lean new media publishing ethos of a group like Corporate Knights.
At first, I wasn’t sure what to make of all this, beyond taking comfort that our distribution had expanded into the US prison population. But after looking over more of Lord Black’s recent writings, a funny thing happened. I found myself agreeing with him on his call to stop underestimating ourselves as Canadians, and to be bold and imaginative in the great tradition of Sir John. A Macdonald. Our late Prime Minister’s unswerving determination to connect Canada with its first transcontinental railway was a major reason for our fledgling nation’s survival.
I almost saw Sir John A’s dream die in 1995 as a freshman at McGill. I remember running home through east Montreal with “Oui” signs on what seemed like every spiral staircase. My roommate Stéphane, an ardent sovereigntist asked me "Pourquoi devrais-je voter non?" I didn’t have anything convincing enough to change his mind.
And that is the crux of today. Some lament the Bloc Quebecois —or for that matter Stephen Harper’s old cabal at the University of Calgary who called for a firewall around Alberta—as disloyal irredentists. But that’s not the whole story: the reason these movements exist is because Canada doesn’t give them a reason not to. We no longer have a good answer to the question “What is Canada for?”
Don’t get me wrong. I love Canada, but I don’t think the loose confederation that holds it together is strong enough to fight off the economic, climatic, and geopolitical forces lining up to pull it apart. We have a vacant sense of national purpose with almost no collective intentionality against the backdrop of an Arctic scramble, looming water scarcity, and a trading orientation that up until recently made it easier to import a bottle of Budweiser than a bottle of Moosehead.
Our country’s unmatched abundance is a gift and a curse. It’s a curse when we mistake the privilege of our vast natural wealth as a license to pillage. It could be a gift if we recognized the sacred nature of a special ratio: our natural capital/population. The immensity of our resource base gives us the opportunity to tap unimaginable prosperity without depleting the richness of the ecosystem that delivers this wealth. We could be the model for sustainable prosperity. It starts with a prudent approach to our coveted fossil fuel assets so that the value built up over hundreds of millions is not squandered in one generation. Why should Norway (with a similar population and hard-to-access oil) have a public oil fund plump with $433 billion, while Alberta’s Heritage Fund is a concave $14.5 billion?
We should also take a nod from China, where there are highspeed trains that travel 1,100 km in less than three hours, while our trains are running about the same speed as they did when the last spike was pounded in British Columbia on November 7, 1885.