The Plague-Ground – The Cruelty of Strangers

Remember the final scene from A Streetcar Named Desire?  Blanche DuBbois (played by Vivien Leigh) famously says to the doctor leading her away to an asylum: “Whoever you are, I will always depend on the kindness of strangers.”

Canada is not an alcoholic nymphomanic. But it does share with Blanche the same trait that last weekend changed from a national virtue into a glaring flaw.

That, of course, is the belief that our allies will be there for us when the going gets tough. Especially our seemingly-strongest friend, the United States. All it took was a single decision by Donald Trump last Friday to halt the flow of masks from the 3M plant in Indianapolis, and suddenly one of our most cherished assumptions was gone.

I suspect most Americans view us as quasi-citizens anyway, so why not just sell us the masks? But those Americans aren’t making the decision. Their President is, and since he views all relationships as transactional, quick win and zero sum, of course he held most of the masks back.

Donald Trump isn’t the only one who operates by these rules. Big investors do as well, including the most successful one of all, Warren Buffett. In his 2008 annual report, he wrote: “I have always pledged to run Berkshire with more than ample cash. We never want to count on the kindness of strangers in order to meet tomorrow’s obligations.”

It’s clear that the global market for masks and respirators these days looks more like Mad Max than Wall Street. More cash buys less death.

It took only days for Ottawa and Queen’s Park to wake up to the reality that our special friendship with America was a lazy platitude. “We can’t count on other countries”, Ontario Premier Doug Ford intoned at a news conference yesterday. “We need to look after ourselves. We need to be self-sufficient.”

True, that.

It will take time as well as re-tooling, and lots of cash to wean us from our reliance on America and the world for so many of our essential goods and services. Today, we export about a third of everything we produce and import a bit less. America gobbles up 75% of our exports, and we consume 18% of their imports.

This is largely because we’re a big country with a small population. Our domestic market isn’t big enough to sustain industries that only sell within Canada.

At least we think we’re small.

But the reality is, Canada isn’t as small as we think we are. Our population of 38 million long ago blew by Australia’s 25 million, and we’re four times bigger than the largest Nordic country, Sweden. We’re within shouting distance of Spain at 45 million and nearly two-thirds the size of Italy’s 60 million people. Besides, our economic capital of Toronto is now bigger than Chicago.

Nearly all of our growth comes from immigration, and we’re already on the podium when it comes to attracting other nations’  best and brightest to our shores. In fact, we have a think tank, The Century Initiative, that calls for Canada to grow to 100 million people by the Year 2100. That doesn’t seem too hard. 60 million more Canadians in 80 more years?

I mention this size issue because it seems to be largely in our heads.

And as soon as we let it go, we’ll think of ourselves in a different way.

Not as beholden to imports as we’ve grown used to. Not as lazily turning to America for them either.

And certainly not as Justin Trudeau’s father defined it when he spoke to the Washington Press Club in 1969:  “Living next to you is in some ways like sleeping with an elephant. No matter how friendly and even-tempered is the beast, if I can call it that, one is affected by every twitch and grunt.”

The beast may live next door. But that doesn’t mean we can’t turn our attention inwards and elsewhere.

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28 thoughts on “The Plague-Ground – The Cruelty of Strangers”

  1. Louise Levitt

    No easy answers to the existential side of this dilemma. Fortunately our government has found its nimbleness and is getting on with MADE IN CANADA. We probably won’t advertise that as the US has done over the past 3 1/2 years but we are stepping up. On this night where many of us will be zooming our Passover Seder to remind us of hope, freedom, sharing our stories with family and friends, let us remember that we will prevail.

  2. Richard Hoffman

    Generally, to have a good friend requires actually “being” a good friend.

    The common penchant of Canada’s PMs and liiterati to self-righteously mock and be-little America and its President (like a tiny mouse tweeting an African bull elephant) is not particularly helpful for Canada.

    Brian Mulroney (as Canada’s PM) was wise enough to not fall into that trap with Ronald Reagan (America’s President)

    1. Ha! Brian Mulroney, when asked what phrase he would like to be remembered by, famously responded: “Don’t get mad, get even.” This reprehensible attitude is one of Trump’s mantras, we witness his revenge tactics every single day.

  3. Peter Raymont

    Well said, Bob, but perhaps not so much inward as outward to other peoples in Europe, Asia, Africa the Americas. And to other Americans who we CAN trust.
    Love your blogs my friend.
    This morning the loons returned to Stoney Lake to join the Geese, mergansers, buffleheads and all their friends. Life.

    1. Charmaine Jones

      Ditto here too, in Sharbot Lake. The ice went out yesterday and the loons returned to join the mergansers (common and hooded) and buffleheads that had found bits of open water prior. A wonderful sound, the loon call, in the midst of this horror.

    2. Thanks, Peter. I wrote too soon about things turning from brown to green in early spring. It seems that both Thunder Beach and Stoney Lake will be blanketed by snow tomorrow!

  4. Doug Thompson

    Remember, it was the Republicans who declared war on Britain’s colonies of Canada in 1812. That didn’t turn out too well for the Americans as they had to move their White House to Washington, after a little bon fire celebration. I love this spat as my American relatives keep forgetting (conveniently) the war that they lost. We should all be very wary about the occupant of the White House and not turn into a Chamberlain burying our heads in the sand. Neither should the world community.History really does repeat itself.

    1. Doug — I have a great book for you, The Splendid and the Vile, by Erik Larsen, about Churchill and the Blitz. Very Unchamberlain!

  5. Not to depend on the U S means being willing to triple (or more) our defence budget. There are more cops in Toronto than there is infantry in the 3 regular infantry regiments. Our fighter aircraft were top of the line– but that was in 1977. For a country bordering 3 oceans we have a tiny navy. Years ago at a Ramsey dinner an OC recipient chided me saying that Canada did not need a military. If worse came to worst the US would defend us. Trump has woken us up to the need to be strategically self-sufficient. Car parts can come from wherever but not foundational medical kit, pharma, food systems & distribution. And we need to able to defend ourselves. There is no international cop and plenty of bullies.

    1. Stan — Very interesting stats about cops and infantry……I guess the biggest shock is to understand first-hand that there is no international cop. thanks for connecting. Cheers. Bob

  6. BC medical grade pulp is one of our exports . . . Not sure how this will play out .
    Harmac ramped up production in the last few months in response to this pandemic ; apparently they export to US but another company .
    Harmac Pulp and Paper was owned by Americans until 2008 , when they declared bankruptcy .
    Management and workers united with investor Levi Sampson to turn the mill into a co-operative , and despite initial scepticism in the industry , they’re still going strong today, with all who work there being shareholders .
    We can also be proud of Zita Cobb in reference to this social business model … loved your article about her .
    Yes to re-tooling factories to manufacture medical supplies , and yes to sharing them .

    1. Thanks for following these blogs, Gwen……my sense is Canada will start becoming a lot more self-sufficient once the fog lifts.
      Cheers. Bob

  7. Madeline Thompson

    Oh, I love this post Bob!! it is a galvanizing one, and I do believe that we,
    Canada, can manufacture what we need, and a lot of what the rest of the world
    needs, and we can kiss the US goodbye in terms of being our ‘beneficial’
    manufacturing giant on the other side of the border. Love your Pierre Trudeau
    quote, I remember hearing that one and gulping a little – yes, it is a huge freaking
    elephant on our southern border. But Canadians are wonderfully resourceful,
    immensely creative people, and how many brilliant creative people of all stripes have
    we sent out into the rest of the world, many of whom bounce back to us. We can
    create within our own borders as well, we’ve seen this in the response for essential
    medical materials needed for this specific time, and in the many innovative ways
    people find to help others, which mushroom and spread everywhere. Bob, just love
    this post, thank you so much. Keep them coming! The need for us – and every other
    nation in the world – to detach ourselves from the perceived power of the United States
    over all of us, must end. It absolutely must end.

    1. Thanks so much, Madeline……….I sense our relationship with the US will cgange dramatically once this is all over.
      for better or for worse, I”m not sure.

  8. A great posting! A nail hit squarely on the head. The Vivien Leigh hook is delightful, and the lesson is essential. We can no longer depend on the United States. Nor can anybody else, actually. And certainly, we have to strengthen our military, our ability to survey and control our own territory, and we have to strengthen certain vital supply chains inside the country. We have to become more “dirigiste” as the French used to say – using the power of government in a more active way to structure certain key parts of our economy. The joyride and the piggybacking are over. That said, I’d like to add two points: as you point out, the US is, inevitably, going to remain our biggest economic partner, and for a very long time. The second point is that Canada, as a middling power (we don’t have nukes, which are the ultimate guarantor, alas, of sovereignty). has always insisted upon the importance of a rules-based system, and on the importance of international cooperation and international institutions. This surpasses our bilateral relationship with the United States and it is one of the most destructive aspects of Trump’s regime. The US, which was, ultimately, for better or for worse, the main architect and the guarantor of the post-WW-2 international system, which for 75 years prevented world war and lifted billions out of abject poverty, is now kicking that system down.
    This problem is more important than the United States itself. The US attack on the WHO (however flawed the WHO might be) is a symptom of a brutally short-term and ultimately catastrophically self-centered foreign policy.
    The consequences of the Trump wrecking-ball will be incalculable.
    The coronavirus proves, more than anything, the need for increased international cooperation, not a retreat into autarchy.
    So among other things, Canada should band together will all nations that want to ensure a peaceful and orderly world to make sure we do not repeat the mistakes of 1914 or of the 1930s and 1940s. A functioning, mature,non-hysterical, non-demagogic, progressive – and reformed – international order is a necessary precondition of our survival – as Canadians and as a species.

    1. Gilbert — you said it all (again!).
      “The consequences of the Trump wrecking-ball will be incalculable.”

  9. That’s a great post, Bob, thought-provoking, and the Virginia Leigh hook is great. Canada does need to strengthen its industrial self-reliance in certain sectors and does need to strengthen its military and its ability to patrol and survey its territory – the oceans, for one thing, particularly the Arctic It’s not only bilateral; the US is taking a wrecking ball to the international system it created, and which it stood behind as guarantor (military, financial, economic guarantor), and which avoided world war for 75 years and which lifted billions of people out of poverty. Destroying this system will have incalculable consequences. Canada, as a middling power, needs a solid rules-based international system, with solid – reformed – international institutions. The coronavirus crisis has shown I think the need for more not less international cooperation. Canada needs to join other nations to try to rebuild international dialogue, institutions, rules, and structures. International cooperation is essential for Canada’s survival and, I think, for the survival of the human species.

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