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.”
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.